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Title: Maid No More Author: Helen Simpson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0801101h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2015 Most recent update: March 2015 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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E. K.: Here is Madimi.
DEE: Blessed be the God of Heaven and Earth, who regardeth the sincere intent of his silly ones.
A True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many years between Dr. John Dee and some Spirits.
The young gentlemen of Magdalen College, going about their lawful occasions, halted to observe a sensible-looking woman talking to herself below their outdoor pulpit. The academic life offered many opportunities for baiting, none of which they were apt to neglect; poor scholars, professors, and nonconformists of various kinds were mischief's daily bread. But women, apart from complaisant persons in taverns, did not often offer. The undergraduates therefore gave some attention to this creature's words, as they were wont to give attention to the mannerisms of those who instructed them, with a view to reproducing in caricature what was meant to edify. To their displeasure, the woman was sermonizing.
She was saying that each man and woman must be visited personally by God. Each must know God in his heart of hearts and acknowledge him there in the spirit; without this, no ceremony under vaulted stone could avail. The young gentlemen found it dry stuff, and were drifting away after a few conventional catcalls, when they heard words which swung them like weathercocks. The woman, when naming them Antichrists, a statement received with ironical cheers and some yelping in Latin from the elders, went on to assail them as a corporate body and more particularly to blacken by comparison the College of which they were members.
They had no objection to being told that they were sinners; indeed, the complaint had a flattering ring to those who were hardly old or rich enough to be able to do much sinning save in a general unspecialized way. They had no quarrel with anyone who told them that they were wasting their time at the University learning things that were not of God. They were amused to hear their chapel called a steeple-house when it had in fact no steeple. But that the College to which they owed loyalty should be denominated a cage of unclean birds and the synagogue of Satan was a prick beyond ordinary symptoms of impatience. They began throwing whatever came first to hand, apples, books; those who were near enough launched spittle; all were certain of righteousness.
The women—there were two of them, but one had done all the talking—did not budge, or avoid what was flung at them. Thus the affair went on longer than it ought to have done, long enough to attract the attention of a young Master of Arts who found his translation of Horace's Art of Poetry difficult to pursue owing to the din. He had written:—
"Wise sober folk a frantic poet fear
And shun to touch him, as a man that were
Infected with the leprosy, or had
The yellow jaundice, or were furious mad
According to the moon—"
His nodding head approved the version thus far, and the pen began once more to skirmish:—
"But then the boys
They vex and follow him with shouts and noise,
The while he—"
It was perhaps the coincidence of his matter with the evidence of his senses that made him aware at last of the riot and brought him to his window. Indulgently, for he was young, he called down to the youths to cease their riot. They replied, with the identical din observed by Horace centuries before, that it was the women who were causing disturbance. The Master of Arts, on the tip of whose tongue an airy grammatical construction complete with needed rhymes was trembling, answered briefly that women were not matters to which even the junior members of any university should devote attention, and recommended the constable and the bride-well. A spokesman, above the laughter of the rest, cleared away this misapprehension. The women had no notion of leading into temptation (yells of mock disappointment) but rather sought to deliver from evil; were, in fact, trying to convert their hearers.
"Convert the Grand Turk!" replied the Master of Arts in a phrase which combined mistrust of female powers with recognition of the futility of the task, and withdrew his head. Banging his window and snibbing it, he paused an instant to hear if the noise would ebb, though it was none of his affair to check it if it should continue. It seemed, however, to dwindle satisfactorily in the course of the next couple of minutes, leaving him to measures more polished, and the proper allocation of stresses. He was a young man not unusual in that University at that time, one who had fought for his King, and lost his patrimony, but in so doing had discovered how to command both words and men. No man was better fitted than he to bring order out of confusion of sense, to discipline rebel meanings. In the peace which ensued he worked well. And in the benevolence which flows from knowledge of labour well accomplished, he had nothing but disgust for the news which later in the day a servant brought him.
"Strip Christian women and whip them through the streets! Why, the Jews, the Turks are less barbarous than that."
"It's preachers, master. They don't deserve no better. The Mayor, he's very strong on the subject."
"Is toleration, then, also a lost cause? What women are these?
"Why, you saw them, they were here breaking the peace. You gave the order to commit; so the gentlemen say."
"I did?" The voice of the Master of Arts, which had lifted indignantly, sank. "I do now recollect something. I told them to let the constable deal with the matter. Whips! Yet the Mayor goes to sermon, I suppose."
With his eye upon the fair copy of his verses, he began to argue the immediate issue into a larger one. If, in the peaceful hours brought at the price of these strangers' pain, he had caught up for a moment the torch of the centuries, was not that, considered sub specie aeternitatis, a fair exchange? And if, through what he had that day written, some English boy yet unborn were brought to the knowledge and love of the Roman poets, was not this in effect to make pain bear good fruit? That pain could be fruitful in men he, a soldier, had not often observed. It seemed, indeed, to tumble them down from man's estate and make children or madmen of them. But that pain might be fruitful in women he need not deny, God having declared this penalty upon them for Eve's fault, besides making them tender, weakly, and obstinate, snares set to catch pain. The spell of the place being upon him he stood thus splitting hairs awhile, finding a sort of pleasure in detachment from that world into which he was soon once more to venture. To consider pain in the abstract; to consider women in the abstract; to be free of the senses for a week or two, and to view action as an aspect of thought was delightful. He stretched his arms wide.
But an image of the whipped women intruded; he was obliged, this being one of the penalties of imagination, the other side of being half a poet, to see their poor bodies striped with blows, to hear them cry out. He shook the vision away impatiently, and took up his soldier-scholar argument once more. The women must sooner or later, if they persisted in their preaching, come to be whipped. This was the law; only thus, in a time of religious uneasiness, could that peace be preserved which enabled true preachers of the word, poets and Masters of Arts, to continue their labours. Was it not better, then, that these torn bodies should serve a holier purpose than such bodies were wont to do, bringing to birth spirit rather than flesh?
He took his pen and, standing, scrawled above the first lines of his version of the Art of Poetry a Latin dedication: To one unknown who has trodden the press, this draught of Falernian wine.
E. K.: She falleth down on her face prostrate: Now she riseth again. The fire entreth into her mouth, she is Waxen of higher stature than she was, she hath now three faces.
DEE: Now it is the virtue of the Trinity in her so represented.
MADIMI: And I have a few things to say, and I say.
E. K.: I hear a marvellous noise, as of many Mountains falling.
MADIMI: Arise and believe. The time is come, that of the foolish I will make the wise. And of such as are sinfull men many anointed: if they encline their ear unto my voice.
E. K.: The noyse is marvellous: And which of the mouths doth speak, I cannot discern.
A True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many Years between Dr. John Dee and some Spirits.
The Nonsuch struck south into seas opaque, so thickly and darkly blue that it seemed as though the buckets slung overboard must rise filled and dripping with colour. Winds which had pursued the ship, thrusting her at a good pace towards these seas, now accosted her more languidly, and occasionally slept altogether, so that there was some concern on the part of the master for his water holding out, it having been his intention to take in fresh at St. Jago in the Cape Verdes.
His passengers hitherto had been reasonable. They appeared to have forgotten, very conveniently, all the promises he had made them at the docks of excellent victual, and were content, after the first distaste for food of any kind had passed, to take their chance of the ship's stores—butter from Holland that had already made a voyage or two, flour from which the worms had daily to be sifted. To fast for a few weeks from food did nobody any harm, but stinking water was another matter. The Master, his mate, and his male passenger dosed the stuff with strong liquor, and so got enough moisture, as he put it, to sweat by. But the crew were permitted no such resource, and the women rejected it. Women were nothing. Thirsty men were liable to make trouble. The Master, lifting his eye to where the topsail hung lank, instead of rounded like a dragoon's breastplate, addressed a joke concerning the wind to his boatswain, a Swedish man. He had some notion of touching up the pious ladies, and thus delivered himself in the hearing of the three passengers, sitting on deck where the sails would shade them.
"Gunnar," began the Master. And this very calling of the boatswain by name was, had the passengers but known it, a sign that something unusual was toward. "Gunnar, we've had too long a calm."
The boatswain nodded, looking up at the sky with a roll of his small grey eyes.
"D'ye think sixpence would do it?" the Master asked. The boatswain looked at the steady horizon, and shook his head once, from right to left. "Or a shilling?"
The boatswain appeared to be calculating; and after some forty seconds, during which the shadow of a rope swung slowly across him and back, gave it as his opinion that a crown would do. The Master, feigning annoyance, repeated the words, asking if he supposed such a sum could be got together among the seamen and passengers.
"For I don't make complaint of the water," said the Master, his eye on a sailor who came near, "my old mother brought me up not to pick my food and drink ('pingle' was the word she had for it) and I've been thankful to her these forty years. But there's others not so easy satisfied."
The male passenger stirred. Lifting his head from the saltire of his folded arms, he regarded the Master with impudent intentness for some seconds.
"That's the way of these people," said the male passenger aloud but to the air, "these psalm-singers disguised as honest men. Cheat you with pig-swill, and then tell you it's a moral matter, the stomach should not be pandered to. The stomach should be pandered to, by your leave. From it all action flows. Even your psalms—if we trace the muddy distillation to its alembic—are only plum duff and biscuit emerging in nasty vapour through the nose. If you lack water, let us all drink wine while it lasts; then, if no wind comes before the barrels are empty, we can jump overboard drunk and wake up with sore heads in glory."
So saying, the male passenger allowed his head to drop on his arms again and forsook the discussion. The master stepped into the shadow of the sail.
"I'm no psalm-singer," said he. "I think for our safety. These are what my old captain used to call the horse latitudes, between the westerlies and the trades. They threw the horses over hereabouts, to lighten ship and because they drank too much. That's how the name comes."
"Throw Mrs. Sawyer over," the male passenger suggested, "if you want to lighten ship. As for Mrs. Askill, the next whale we see, feed her to him. She is a Jonah if ever I saw one."
Ann Sawyer, a fat woman, looked to her companion for help. It came, in a strong countrified voice.
"You that are used to courts, you don't know how a right woman should be shaped, or how a right prophet should look. Jonah, indeed! It was, how d'ye call her, Cleopatra you named me yesterday."
"Cleopatra was a serpent, and you are a serpent," answered the male passenger. "A kind of holy Satan. Here we all are in our earthly paradise, swilling away at our sins quite content, when in you come with your temptations to be holy, and upset the whole apple-cart."
"It was an apple-tree," said Mary Askill, "and it would take more than me to tempt you out of damnation. Master, are we soon to have wind?"
"Oh yes, we are," the male passenger answered, suddenly, with an easy spring, lifting himself on to his hands and approaching the Master thus, both feet in air. "We are soon to have a wind. We'll buy one—throw a shilling to the sea gods and look what they send you. Just the kind of thing," went on the male passenger, clapping his feet for emphasis, "that the Old Testament men strove against with fire and sword. Just the kind of thing Oliver would cut off your head for doing if he caught you at it." A silver coin ran out of his pocket and rolled to the master's feet. "Take that and let us have a little witchcraft."
The Master put his foot on the coin to stop it rolling. He kicked it, with a sideways scrape of his shoe, towards the boatswain, who gathered it with his toes. The male passenger, after a final flourish with his feet, lowered them one after the other with great gravity and stood right way up.
"We could do with a wind, though," said the Master more seriously. "The water in store is uncommon low."
"Uncommon high," the male passenger answered. "It stinks to heaven. Well, I don't think less of a man for being a hypocrite. You, Master Bryant, are a man; I don't think less of you. Ergo—"
"You know how to make yourself civil, Mr. Conisby," said the Master, losing patience. What had begun as a joke had now lost that colour, and become a resolve. "We are not to rot in a calm for you. As for witchcraft, I have seen things happen at sea that it would not do to talk about on land. That's all I say."
He walked off towards the bows, where sailors were slashing sea-water over the deck.
"What's this he's to do?" Mary Askill asked.
"Oh, a piece of charming," Conisby answered, "nothing to what you could compass if you tried."
"I know a plenty charms," said Mary Askill composedly. "We was great for them when I was a girl. Cure toothache, and find husbands, and all. To think you could get into God's mind and know the future with any old piece of apple-peel or spitting over your shoulder."
The male passenger laughed. Ann Sawyer looked at them both and drew down her upper lip. She had her own notions of how a chosen vessel should behave, which did not include these freedoms of speech. She knew Mary's steadfastness, had seen her moved by the spirit to signs and wonders, but this other side of her was a thing not acceptable. She felt called upon to make protest.
"Are you going to set there and let such a thing come to pass? When even this man, this mocker, condemns it?"
"I do not condemn, Mrs. Ann. Nor should you. If this fellow can buy us wind (from whom, we need not ask) he saves you and your companion for a larger mission than that of converting me. Thanks to him, if he succeeds, the blackamoors of Barbados will be washed whiter than snow, and the fear of the Lord stalk through American forests like the pillar of cloud before Israel. All by reason of one piece of silver thrown into the sea which otherwise might have been changed for stronger waters. How do you answer that, Mrs. Ann?"
"I can't answer you. I only know what you have said is not truth, and you're mocking me."
"I have more faith than you, let me tell you," said the male passenger, "for I am willing to risk a shilling on the gods of the sea, while you won't throw the Almighty so much as a penn'orth of prayer. The truth, now. Have you prayed for wind?"
"We may not petition," said Ann Sawyer angrily; "save as we are moved. It is not for sinners to be reminding their Creator."
"Well," Conisby said, "let us make a match of it." He spoke ambiguously, watched the flush come, then amended: "A wager would be nearer my meaning, but I supposed that ungodly term might not please you. If I ask Mr. Bosun not to toss his shilling to-day, will you use the time to pray for wind? That is, if you should be moved, as you call it."
"Sit down, Ann," said Mary Askill. "He's tempting you to tempt God. No good comes of that. Swallow it; you've held worse."
"Admit," said Conisby reasonably, "that God has not so far had fair trial. For my own part, prayer is not my trade, I do it awkwardly. If a man could worship by eating beefsteaks I might be a saint. But since it is a matter not of beefsteaks but of marrowbones—" He broke off with a laugh and stood defying the two women, head on one side, the sun catching and burnishing a lock of hair by his ear. "Well, will you put up a prayer? Will you give God first chance?"
"Be quiet," said Mary Askill, her hand on the other's sleeve. Under that sleeve she could feel a trembling. She tightened her grasp, shook the arm. "No, Ann, no!"
"The spirit!" answered the other, harshly. "The spirit moved once upon the face of the waters. Shall we not require that it may move again to confound unbelievers?"
She stood, petitioning. It was the first time, though the ship's company knew the women religious, that either had prayed publicly. Now the Master drew near, the boatswain, and two or three sailors with buckets. They did not laugh, they were grateful for the unusual spectacle, and stared as at a play. The male passenger looked from Ann Sawyer to her companion, who to the astonishment of all sat attentive to the book in which she was teaching herself to read.
"Don't you join her?" he asked suddenly.
"It is not me that is moved," Mary Askill answered. The prayer went on. It came in rushes; it was a fierce challenging prayer. From the stout woman's mouth the poetry of the Bible spurted, then for a while was lost; she was like a murky night on whose horizons lightning played. Loudly she recalled the mighty wind that came upon the apostles, and David's praise of the Lord who bringeth the wind out of his treasuries. There was a kind of refrain, that the unbelievers should be confounded and the safety of the chosen regarded. She spoke for three minutes, then, very white in the face, sat down upon the deck where she had sat before, and wiped her mouth. A scar on her forehead showed red.
"The wager's on, then," said Conisby, clapping his hands. "You have the courage of your belief, Mrs. Ann."
He sauntered off to confer with the boatswain. The Master, becoming aware of sailors gaping beside him, scattered them with an oath or two, and casting his eyes at the sky, to whose pale dome the masts steadily pointed, observed that it must be about midday.
"We'll give it twice round the clock," said he to Ann Sawyer. "That was a fine prayer, and should do the trick."
He tapped his forelock, grinning, and departed to take the sun. Mary Askill spoke at last.
"Here's a nice thing," said she.
"I was moved," said the other sullenly.
"By anger. Because that young cavee made you hot with his nonsense. Now you have put our God in a cleft stick. Either he is to heed a prayer offered for spite, or be deaf, and let us all become laughing-stocks."
"They were about to perform enchantments."
"Well, well, I dare say you have turned the money in your own pocket before now when the moon was new."
"Not since I saw the light."
"When they see it, they will be as wise as you. Ann Sawyer, Ann Sawyer, is grapes to be looked for from thorns, or figs from thistles?"
She laughed as she said it, but glancing at the stout woman's forehead she became grave.
"Does that place hurt you?"
She went to Ann, and kneeling, began to rub the damp forehead lightly but strongly.
"We did wrong to come on this ungodly ship."
"There was no other. They are all cavaliers that deal with Barbados. I wish, though, there was some useful thing that you and me could do, instead of sitting all day on our bums."
"You won't find that word in Scripture."
"Nor no need for it. They was all up and doing in Israel. Will you go to sleep?"
Mary Askill took the stout woman's head on her knees, and continued the quiet motion of her hand. She gazed at the sea, whose polished surface only the stuttering flying fish broke. She looked aloft at the sails, that swung instead of straining; she became aware that her mouth was dry, and remembered the foulness of the only water they had. The day was very hot. She sighed briefly, once.
Wind came up before midnight. Mary Askill, lying awake, heard waves begin to slap at the sides of the vessel, and a thumping of feet on the deck as the seamen were whistled up to set sail. The ship, which had lain like a dead thing, now stirred; she had been breathed upon, she lived. All her own sounds that had been quiet awoke with this wakening of the air. Timber groaned, cordage cried, up aloft there came a snapping from some rope's end loosened.
Ann Sawyer, who slept heavily all night, came to her senses as the ship rolled her against a bulwark; stared, took in the meaning of the noises and stated the obvious.
"The ship moves!"
"She does," said Mary Askill, dressing as she swayed.
"Have you given praise?"
"I've blessed God. But pat the Almighty on the head because his will runs for once with ours, like a schoolmistress praising a boy that gets his lesson—that I haven't done, and won't do. Dress quick, Ann. Oh, the pleasure to see whitecaps again!"
The sea indeed was covered with breaking waves. As the ship bowed to this side and that, Mary Askill observed a curiosity; that though these waves advanced towards the Nonsuch, their crests of spray, which should have broken forward, blew back over their shoulders. The Master, when she spoke of this, told her that they had run into a cross sea, and might look for a rough time of it before they came into St. Jago.
"And I wish," said he, "Mrs. Ann had been more particular to ask only for a breeze. We have enough wind now; but so far as I can tell, this will not be the end of it."
The two women, encountering Mr. Conisby at dinner, had a few compliments from him, with a more complete appraisement of their situation than the Master had thought fit to give.
"New wine in old bottles is no good thing, we know," said he. "But a worse is new wind in old sails. This set that we have—I have been in talk with the sailmaker—is rotten from long trading on the Guinea coast. Our Master, a saving man rather than saved, has diddled the owner in some way, got money for new ones but never bought them; in short, we are remarkably ill-found. That your own noses may have told you. (This butter, pah!) But your noses would not guess that there is not a yard of thread in the vessel to mend our canvas with if it should crack. Your noses, pretty organs, built to turn up at lovers, did not warn you that if there should be a hurricane we have no way to deal with it. This is all very well for you that are godly, you have no preference, you had as lief be drowned now as eaten by Indians six months hence. But those of us who feel our blood run warm—"
He leered at Ann Sawyer, and gave attention to the biscuit which he had dipped in wine. It showed a certain liveliness; he shrugged, and addressed the weevils:
"You, too, that pay no passage-money, and take a voyage for pleasure; salt water or stomachs are the same to you. But I have a notion to live as long as I can, not being a saint or a stowaway worm." Seeing Mary Askill laugh he leant across the narrow table. "And what say you?"
"I say, we're all in good hands," she answered.
"Amen," said Conisby, for once not laughing. "They take good note of you in heaven, Mrs. Ann. I wish Mr. Bryant would shorten sail before it is shortened for him. This wind's rising."
Certainly the movement of the ship was becoming more violent. The pewter plates upon their table slid this way and that; the water-bottle cast a little jet at them. Ann Sawyer, not to see these things, shut her eyes fast. But this would not do, the closing out of the cabin made her own sensations her world; an uneasy world it was, filled with questionings, the forerunners of dread certainty.
"Best come on deck before you're sick," said Mary Askill shoving her companion up the ladder towards air.
On deck the wind was busy; they had to stoop going into it as into a tunnel, and turn out of it to catch their breath. The ship wore all her canvas, taking risks to make speed. But caution was beginning to commend itself to the Master. An order had just been shouted, and the sailors were going aloft, spray soaking them each time the Nonsuch plunged. The Master, visible on his quarter-deck wearing an old painted leather hat with a neck-piece as long as a shovel, kept his eye upon the men as they climbed, and seemed to be arguing with his mate. By comparison with the waves, leaping up at the ship and falling back like dogs, and with the hastening clouds, the deck was tranquil. All movable matters were lashed tight; the struggling men seemed to be climbing out of their timber coffin, a projection from the element of earth, to tackle in their own territory the powers of air.
As the women stood there came a frantic gust. The bowsprit, with a crack heard above the wind, jerked up in an unnatural manner, then fell sideways under the lee bow. The man at the helm, not skilled to read the compass before him, and dependent upon the Quartermaster who shouted his order too late, brought the ship too near into the wind. She trembled throughout her length, the sails beat against the masts; and in a single minute, while the inevitable pressure of that gust was maintained, every sail she carried split into ribbons, whose ends stood out at right angles from the masts.
"Ha!" said the Master, coming in to the cabin with his hat on. "What's this, fattening yourselves for the fishes?"
Mr. Conisby poured him some wine, and held the cup a moment in mid air. The liquor tilted, reached one side, fled to the other and lipped over.
"Playing cup and ball," said he. "What news?"
"We have cut away the bowsprit. She was dunting at our bow like a ram, there was no saving her or the sheet. I have timber in the hold, we could rig another to-night."
"Comfortable hearing," said Mr. Conisby.
"Comfortable," the Master answered, pausing with the cup at his chin. "You are easy comforted. I could rig the stick, but I have no rag of canvas left. That is to say, they are all rags. You might as well try to hold wind in a beggar's breeches."
"Ask the ladies to lend us their petticoats. They seem, from what little I see of them, to be of stout stuff."
The Master muttered something about, No more prayers, for the Lord's sake.
"Mrs. Askill is very calmly learning to spell, and holding her companion's head whenever she needs it. Her prayers won't hinder us. How do we stand?"
"This wind, if we could use it, might bring us to St. Jago in four days. But we are a hulk. I cannot get steering-way on her with a yard and a half of canvas. We must drift, and take our chance. No need to tell it to the women."
Conisby looked into his half-empty wine-cup, and poured its contents back into the jug.
"This stuff is too fiery. I take it you have still a hogshead left—well is it so called!—of that other sewage."
"And," said the Master, answered after a moment, "I had something to say about that. We have shipped a sea or two; you saw for yourself how she necked into it. With one thing and another, there is not so much fresh water as there was. We have enough for three days, if there is no hanky-panky with the men. And a gallon or so of spirits."
Conisby looked at him steadily, nodding from time to time as to a known tune. He got up when the other had done.
"Well, Mr. Bryant, this is no more than I expected, to tell the truth. It gives me pleasure to think you already know my opinion of you, which these events have hardly changed. You set out with a little stinking food and water, in the hope to buy cheaper from the benighted negroes of St. Jago. You trundle into a storm with all sail set, and come out of it—if we do come out—with not enough canvas to blow a Jew's nose for him. You are a pretty sailor and a prudent man. And we must all go to hell for your economies."
"I can't be talked to that way, I warn ye, Mr. Conisby," said the Master, taking off his sea-hat, as though suddenly remembering he had it on his head. "I risk my own life too."
"More fool you," said Conisby briefly, "to go to hell with a bag of saved halfpence round your neck."
He moved towards the ladder. The Master, standing at its foot, did not budge. When they stood face to face, a foot from each other, each straddling to keep his balance on the tossing floor, the Master said:
"It will do no good for us to have a rix now. If we come to shore, though, I'll request your company."
"Why not now?" said Conisby, not moving.
"Why, you fool, who is there to see to the ship?" the Master added, exasperated yet reasonable.
A woman's foot showed at the top of the ladder, a foot with no nonsense about it.
"Let the captain come up," Conisby called, "it's bad luck to cross on the stairs."
"He that is down fears no fall," Mary Askill answered, and descended the ladder. She moved neatly aboard ship, neither knocking her head nor being knocked, coming by none of the pretty feminine mischances. "They told me you were here, Mr. Bryant. I'd be thankful to know the truth of our situation."
"What good will it do you? Put your head under the blankets. I've been too long talking." Still he had more to say and said it, advancing his face to hers, spitting out his anger. "Our situation! Well, the Nonsuch has taken a knock from the wind, she is making water forrard where the sprit banged her, her sails is fit to trawl for mackerel, and what good does it do you to know it? You pair of holy Jennies."
"I once heard a man talk this way when his wife was dying in child-bed. It was his own fault, and he knew it, so he took out his woe on other people."
The Master, without answering, shoved her aside and went up the ladder. She said, looking after him:
"He loves his ship."
"Well, damn him," Conisby answered, "he's lost her." Then, putting on deliberately an air of false comfort:
"That is, we have a good chance of finding help, we should be on a trade-route here—" She shook her head. At once he changed his tone. "You must excuse me. There are times when I mistake you for just another female. In fact, we have no great chance. We cannot either use the wind or defend ourselves from it."
"I suppose," said she shrewdly, "the true danger is, we cannot hold out for water."
"Three days, he says. The wine-bibbers like me will come off best."
"There was a good man once got a name for that, who no more deserved it than you do."
"What man was that?" Conisby asked idly.
"Christ Jesus," Mary Askill answered.
There was a little silence.
"Another danger," said Conisby, "Mr. Bryant has a mixed crew. It will take a day for the apprehension of death to work in them. Then they may be troublesome. I will give you such warning as I can. Should I teach you to handle a weapon?"
She laughed, showing healthy teeth.
"My good soul, isn't that a man all over. Weapons!" She considered, frowning. "Now, what's the peaceable way out?"
"You must take men as you find them. It goes against my grain to have a gaggle of Portugals and Dutchmen yelling over my carcase. I was brought up to the sword, and with your permission or without, I'll use it."
"I don't doubt that," she said. "What is there for me and Ann Sawyer?"
"Patience to wait. Courage to suffer. What else, for women?"
"How about wits?"
"Not against the elements," Conisby answered. Then, slowly:
"And yet—somebody, somewhere, once thought of catching the wind in a sheet. A woman, like as not. Yes, since we don't know the name, and nobody has the credit, it may have been a woman."
"Men are the lazybones. It was a man, to my way of thinking, hoisted his shirt one day to save his muscles."
"Does it occur to you," said he with honest curiosity, "that inside of a week we shall all be more or less painfully dying or dead? Yet we sit here speculating on the origin of sails. You a farm-worker—is that right? I the son of scholar; myself a scholar once. Is death, then, a mere importunate fly, that he can so easily be brushed away?"
"The first look frightens," she said with unconscious authority. "The next is not so bad; so it goes. There would be nothing in it if we could die every day." Another silence.
"I will tell you something," said Conisby abruptly. "I am not a brave man. Sword in hand I can pretend pretty well. But this waiting and helplessness—Do you know what I hope? I hope the men will rise, and that the Master and I may be alone against them. They will finish us off in hot blood, and die themselves in cold. It must be so, if I am to make a good showing. The other prospect—I won't answer for myself." She did not look at him. He went on:
"You see that I don't care what you think. Other men take courage from drinking; I, from quarrelling. I have tried in vain already to make our captain bite me. What's left?" He paused and said in a half-voice:
"I would not have told you, but that you knew it already." Mary Askill said nothing. He asked in alarm:
"Not going to pray, are you? Isn't it a bad sign when psalm-singers are quiet?"
"All right, easy now," said she as once on the farm she had gentled her cows to the bail. "Take it easy, and listen. Don't you go provoking the crew. They're as frightened as you are, and with better cause, for most of them's papists. There's still something can be done."
"Nothing," said he. "Nothing. We'll swing in this wind for a week, then run mad and die slow." He pulled down his sword from where it lay with other blades in a rack, and said, posturing with it:
"Who's to blame me if I choose to die this way?"
"Put that down," she commanded; the voice was so sure of itself that he dropped his point to the floor. "Go on deck. Find the carpenter and bring him to me."
"Do you think because I have confessed myself a coward—no witnesses, either—you can hector me?"
"No more talk. Go!" said Mary Askill. She took the rapier from him, and tossed it again on the rack. He gave a laugh, then made for the ladder. She called him back.
"What else, most high and puissant dame?"
"This," said she, and pulled off her knitted shawl. "Come here." He came. She tied the shawl under his chin, and stood back from him. "No need to take your death of cold with this wind."
He gazed at her; scratched his ear through the folds, and went.
On deck there was now some confusion. Conisby could feel under his feet the helpless distress of the ship, as at table he had seen it shown forth in his cup of wine. The smoothly sloping deck of a vessel running with wind upon her quarter now had given way to a tilt never constant; the water lifted, the wind swung her; she threshed and wallowed like a sea-creature dying. Birds circled above; their sureness, the strength which sent them sailing up the unseen hills of the wind to drift down unerringly on motionless wings, made a mock of the Nonsuch, which, lacking power and so direction, was now neither fish nor fowl. She was no more than a log with a name upon it such as is driven by the current to a far country's shore, there to tell its story of disaster and burn blue upon some indifferent fisherman's fire.
But neither captain nor crew had yet accepted this fate. There was a bustle where men were carrying forward a rope they called the horse for a stay to the foremast. The slashed sails had been taken down; the spars were bare; past them and the ropes the wind ran, giving out sounds that wavered in the manner of plain-song, but atonal; the phrases respected no tonic. These sounds; light withdrawing from the sky; the silly strife of manikins at their rope, careless seas knocking them off their feet as they strained on it; the smell of spray, a sweetish saltness—Conisby, who had seen war, never before knew desolation press so heavily upon his senses as it did now.
He went forward and lent himself to the manoeuvre at the bow. The mysteries being achieved, the boatswain's whistles translated into action and the rope at last pulling strongly upon the mast as a stay—what reason, since the masts now were functionless?—the men slithered and dragged themselves, by means of other ropes stretched lengthwise down the deck, to the shelter of the cuddy. There Conisby demanded the carpenter, and when he could make himself understood got a laugh for answer. The carpenter, it seemed, had enough to keep him busy. He was looking for strained timbers in the hull of the ship, caulking leaks; who wanted him, and for what? Conisby did not say. He looked the men over—Portugals mostly, with a smattering of Dutch and Swedish, reckoning them up as meat for trouble. They seemed calm enough, preoccupied with their own small damages, a crushed hand here, a broken shin there, and he was, unreasonably, reassured. Surely such a riff-raff, with no common pride of nationality to hold them together, would they not have broken if there were in fact danger? He recollected that they still had hope, they were unaware of the loss of drinking water; there was a goad to strike them to action, if one were needed. He considered if he should tell them of it, and so bring about soon the riot in which he might die. But their unexpressed faith that they would continue to exist weighed in him against his knowledge. His mind shifted from courageous despair to demoralizing hope; he remembered that he was for the moment a woman's errand-boy, and, like the sailors ignoring their extremity in trifles, he set off to find and bring the carpenter to the woman. "For God knows," thought Conisby, mocking himself, "it may be urgent. She may want a knitting-pin mended."
The carpenter, traced at last by the stench of melting pitch to a hole between decks where he had barely room to lift his mallet, proved to be English and in spasms voluble. He did not answer Conisby's greeting, except by a jerk of his head towards the lantern by which he worked, and which hung awkwardly about his neck, throwing shadows on his hands. Conisby understood by this jerk a request to hold it more conveniently and did so, while the carpenter drove oakum into a gap whose edges shone wetly even by those dull rays; expertly dressed it with pitch and finished off the seams. The task done and examined, he crept along, spying for leaks, his nose almost upon the planks, till they came by the shelf-pieces on which rested the midship beam. There he stood upright, and taking the lantern, which he surveyed suspiciously and carefully, hung it again round his own neck and was ready for speech.
"Does she—how do you call it—make much water?" Conisby asked.
The carpenter said bluntly that the gentleman himself would make water if he had taken such a beating; but added that there was nothing as yet that he, and the pumps, and the Lord Almighty couldn't deal with.
"She's sound enough, then?" Conisby went on, dallying with his errand.
The carpenter spat, and volunteered to kick a hole in any plank the gentleman might point out. This, he explained, was a very desirable state of affairs. "If a ship is half sound, half rotten, the sound planks are too much for the rotten ones, they will not give, and so the others gape; but where the timber is everywhere as soft as a banana, one is not too much for another, they are all punk together, and so they make out."
"Are you done now? Can you come to the cabin?"
"What's to do there?"
Because he had given his word, Conisby delivered the message; because he had faith that Mary Askill might in fact discover some way to lengthen out their torment, he gave it in such a manner that it would be unacceptable.
"One of our she-preachers has taken a notion to see you. She has a plan of salvation to expound."
"Salvation!" repeated the carpenter harshly. "There's a thing to expound, as you call it, when we may all be at the bottom of the sea next. Salvation! Let her wait till we make port. Was that all you came for?" Conisby signified that it was; but volunteered, as he was by, to carry the lantern again and make himself of use. He felt more at ease down in that darkness, out of the way of contrasts: little men, huge seas; restless ship, unchanging horizon. He loosened Mary Askill's shawl about his head and began again to creep after the carpenter through the ship's belly. They worked together, travailing in half-darkness, lending life to the ship with their hands. Once they seemed to hear shouting; but the sea-sounds more urgently compelled their attention.
"Did you speak to him?"
"I did. He said to tell Mrs. Askill this was a time to leave men to their work."
"Their work," she repeated, shaking her head as at a child. "John Conisby, your fear of drowning will land us all on the sea's bottom yet. Does the ship go forward at all?"
"How can the ship go forward?" the second woman's voice asked. "She is not sanctified, the crew are atheists, how can she go forward?"
"But still a good wind blows. Can't they mend the sails enough to hold it?"
"No. When she was riding low—I don't know these sailors' terms—when she was filling with water, there was a heap of stuff thrown over to lighten her, our two cannons, some barrels of beef; and two Portugal sailors had the notion of dropping overboard a heavy locker that held shot. In this the sailmaker had stowed, among other things, God knows why, his store of thread for sewing—in among the small shot! If we die, we deserve it."
"We are not going to die," said Mary Askill, explaining as though nobody could wish for better assurance:
"It is not God's will. Well, I'll go on deck myself and find this captain, or whosoever. There has been a great coming and going this last hour. A sailor came in to know had we any ink. I told him I had no use for it, being no scholar."
"Ink?" Conisby repeated, astonished. "For a love-letter, I suppose. Well."
"Have you been at your mischief?" she asked. "Stirring up of the men?"
He showed his hands, sticky and black here and there with pitch.
"I've been stowed safe as Jonah. What others of the men have you seen?"
"None. Ann was sick. It's all been quiet."
He looked at the weapons in the rack; none was missing.
"Come on deck, then, if you will."
"I won't stay here," Ann Sawyer shouted, seeing them stand together, the woman holding for balance to the man's arm. "Why should I wait here below to hearken to the waves? Our business is with the Lord, in season and out of season. Oh, if there was only half a dozen aboard like us we might hope in his mercy—"
"Well, come," Mary Askill said quietly. "And if so be you should be moved, Ann, speak to them as will hear."
Instinctively, silent protest against saintly talk, Conisby stretched his arm to take up a sword. The women watched while he slid it between the double strips of leather hanging from his belt.
"If you can't fight weather with wits, no more can you with steel," Mary Askill told him.
But he settled the steel on his hip with a swagger, offered his hand to Ann Sawyer who rejected it, and bowed them before him up the ladder with a comment upon their ankles as they climbed.
They went up. The ship tossed sluggishly, broadside on to a wind. She had become heavy, as a sick body does; her movements were awkward, she could not avoid the sudden stresses that assailed her; the waves as they struck and raced away left her groaning behind them.
No men were to be seen about. The look-out from his nest half-way up the foremast spied down at them, seeing the women put up his hands in a mock prayer, then took up his task again of scanning emptiness. The wind was strong, but had no freshness in it. They stood uncertainly, holding to stays, watching the marbling of water broken by the ship's side.
Without any warning men were all about them on the deck, moving purposefully and like so many ants, each carrying a burden. Some brought bundles of rope; others with crowbars levered at the hatch which, secured by battens and wooden blocks, covered the entrance to the hold. They seemed to be working to orders, but neither mate nor captain was visible, and the activity had a look which Conisby did not like. He put his foot in front of a man who was passing; the man kicked at him, cursing.
"Now what would you be at, I wonder? And where is Captain Bryant?"
Conisby spoke, holding the man's arm as if confidentially, pressing it close to his side, the wrist twisted. The sailor spoke furiously a few words in some language not intelligible to the women. Conisby, asking in the same tongue, got no answer. On that he let the man go, and made for the ladder that led to the quarter-deck. Instantly a seaman pulled him back. Conisby struck out, but they pressed upon him, he could not gain room. An English-speaking sailor told him that he need no longer look to the captain, but might take his chance, if he would, with the rest of them.
"Our boats are stove in," said the sailor, "but there's timber in the hold for a raft. We are to set about it now, and make oars, and rig up what canvas we have. A sail that will not budge a ship this size will send a raft along pretty well—"
He stopped there, and looked up, warned by a cry from the mast. Captain Bryant's face showed above the rail of the quarter-deck, and by its cheek lay the barrel of a firearm. His forehead had blood on it; the weapon shone clean. He called in a thick uncertain voice to the men at the hatch that they should let it alone.
"Let be," said Captain Bryant, "I command in this ship. She's sound, she'll float. I'm sound, too, I'm afloat too, for all your round robins. Lay off."
The men heard him, enquiring of each other with their eyes. The boatswain answered for them, shouting with a gap between each word, seeking his way in the unfamiliar English tongue:
"We go. Make boat. Make land."
"So you're leader," Captain Bryant observed, and his was no longer the jocular voice which had offered sixpence for a capful of wind. "Then I'd best deal with you."
He steadied his pistol on the rail, squinting along its barrel at the boatswain. Conisby perceived Mary Askill walking forward from the rail where he had left her safe directly into the line of fire. He shouted. The shot sounded almost in the same instant. But whether the Master's aim was disturbed or he deliberately at last tipped his barrel down, the slug went into the deck at her feet. The men all about her stood in that instant perfectly still. Then, seeing that the shot was spent, two or three of them made for the ladder. Conisby, forgotten, wrested himself away from the man who held him, and was first up in a couple of leaps. His sword came out. He shouted. He sprang from foot to foot, dancing for rage as a monkey dances, and in English and bad Dutch yelled to the sailors to come on, blackening their characters and assailing the honour of their parentage by way of inducement to do so. The Master, after that one gesture of authority, had fallen, pistol and all, turning up his eyes and grunting. There was but the one ladder to the quarterdeck, at whose head yelled and leaped the madman with the sword. The crew held back.
"Kill your navigator. Set out on a raft for God knows where. The water's gone, did you know that? Only water for two more days. Well, take the remedy. What's the remedy? Fewer mouths. You've stopped one of them, now let us stop some more. Come, I'm waiting, and there's your problem solved. Two days' water among twenty men. That's four days' water for ten. Eight days' for five. Who'll be the benefactors? I'm waiting. I've time for all."
He grinned at them, and swung his sword round his head; tossed it in the air and caught it neatly by the point; offered the pommel to them like a civil duellist and began loudly to sing:
"There were two crows sat on a tree.
Came one more, and that made three,
Spoke the birds together:
Clip your doxy, clip your hairs,
Noll's the boy will clip your ears
So all's clipt together—"
Against this singing, and the sound of the sailors murmuring, came Ann Sawyer's voice in prayer for men of bloody minds, for men unwise and in peril. There was a movement among the sailors, coming together to confer; they talked, a man or two slipped away on some errand. The man with the sword, seeing them so quiet, came at them again with his tongue.
"Well, you had rather cloy of thirst, had you? You had rather run mad like dogs in summer, on a raft going nowhere. You are a brave company, but not learned. Come, we'll have a lesson in arithmetic. If water last twenty men two days, how many days will it last ten men? Five men? One man? one man, and twenty against him. One man, only one, one little man—"
He was making them angry. They shouted up at him adjurations to wait, to look out for himself. He thumbed his nose at them, and all the louder resumed his singing. A seaman creeping below him skilfully tossed up a weighted rope so that it swung over the quarterdeck rail on the starboard side, the ladder Conisby guarded being to port. A rope was as good as a ladder to the men any day. They made it fast, mocking him; for if he quitted his post to slash at it the other way was left open. He saw how he was caught. Over his face came a look exalted yet wary, the look of a madman that knows himself to be Alexander but must take care lest his buttons give way.
A woman's voice came at him. So strong was the thrust of the wind that the voice sounded almost in his ear, no scream calling for help or pity, but a powerful shout demanding attention.
"Hark to me, men!" Mary Askill was calling, "I took the bullet meant for one of ye, will you hear me speak?"
There was a change in the groups of men. They drew back from her a little, and Conisby from above could see that by her foot showed a dark trickle of blood running from the shoe.
"Don't heed that fellow there," she went on, driving her voice into their astonished quiet. "He thinks of himself. I know a trick that may save us—"
Conisby from the quarter-deck cried to them not to listen to the woman, she was daft and ranting; and the English-speaking sailor, with a cunning look, gave it out that they were playing into each other's hands.
"She say not hark to him, he say not hark to her, and here's us stuck between like the ass with two bundles of hay—"
But Mary Askill bore all noises down.
"You have the wind, and no sails. You have the sails, and no thread. But you've got oakum; you've got rags and tags of rope. Feaze the lot and give 'em to me. Let the carpenter make me a distaff and spindle out of those planks you have lying there; and I'll spin you thread that shall hold the sails and let you be on your way, no bloodshed neither. Do you hear me?"
They gathered and talked. One or two looked at the rope, and were all for hanging the cavee before setting the woman to work. "For," said these, "we have killed the captain, we shall be shot ourselves if ever we come into English waters. So let us kill them that might swear against us."
This point the said cavalier took up, and urged them to just such a course; asserting that they should stand up for the dishonour of their mothers and not miss the chance of a fight with the odds at twenty-to-one; reminding them again, the fewer mouths the more water. But they did not pay him the attention he had at first commanded. It was settled that the carpenter, being the man most concerned, should give judgment. He had just appeared on deck, his lantern looking silly in the daylight; and as they put the case to him, three or four speaking at once, he seemed as deeply bewildered as a mole coming up into air.
"Make a spindle," said he, "what d'ye take me for? First, when I've my hands full with caulking you talk about rafts, and I told you straight that was a silly notion as ever I heard. Now it's a spindle. It'll be a mousetrap next. And by that token, the rats in this ship's hold aren't making ready to drown yet awhile." They persisted. He scratched his head with one of the irons from his basket, and admitted that he could make a spindle if put to it, and if someone could draw him out a pattern to build by.
"Who's to work it?" said the carpenter. "Her, with a hole in her foot?"
"I've been worse," said Mary Askill, "and worked after. Ann here's a good spinster."
The leaks had been looked to. The pumps could do the rest. He might botch it. He could but try. It was decided.
He had made the wheel by sundown; a rough affair, but the treadle worked. While the carpenter laboured with that appearance of deliberation by which the good workman masks adroitness, the sailors sat in groups amid a tangle of hemp, cursing roundly and combing oakum. The strands so loosened were put into a great bag made of a fishing-net, where they showed like coils of hair—grey from the weather-worn ropes, golden from the ends of new ones. It was astonishing to see how much bulk the ropes had held prisoner in their close twist. Soon the bag bulged, and the sailors stretched, confident that no one woman could ever spin so much. It was like that old tale in which the princess is shown a room full of flax which she must turn into thread before daylight, or lose her life. But Ann Sawyer, sane now that her hands might be busy, urged them on with their picking, and sniffed at the soft hill of hemp. The sailors cursed in their various tongues, and took up the weary feminine task again, comforted by the sound of the wheel spinning their chance of unhoped-for salvation.
When they had done what seemed even to Ann Sawyer enough, they were turned loose to suck their sore fingers, and get themselves food as they could. It was night by then, the astonishing soft night of those latitudes. The mast-tops swept across stars with the very movement of scythes; the field of heavenly gold stood constant. However, no person aboard the Nonsuch, save the man on look-out, at all regarded the sky. The men, having eaten what the boatswain gave out in the way of rations, slept. A sailor, condemned to the pumps for some breach of seaman's etiquette, sweated with his eyes on the pump brake. Captain Bryant, lying flat in his bunk, contemplated a timber roof which pulsed with the throbbing of his head. The women took turns at the spinning-wheel; who did not work slept. John Conisby, his restlessness stilled by contemplation of movement, came in from watching the sea to stand by the spinster.
Mary Askill was at it. Her left foot, big with a bandage, rested unshod on the floor; the right pressed the treadle lightly, giving the wheel so exact a tilt as just to make it ready to receive impetus again. He had seen church-ringers deal thus with bells, using their weight sparingly once the metal was rung up, balanced to strike. She looked white by the lantern's poor beam. Conisby said:
"Well, we have lived through a calm, and a drought, and a mutiny. And now we tall fellows, that would knock you on the head any night for twopence, must take our lives from a woman."
"Ye all do that willy-nilly, as tall as you are," she answered absently, wetting a broken thread to join it. "What of Captain Bryant?"
"He need not die. And the Mate is competent to navigate, once we have our canvas. He performs all the mysteries of the backstaff, and says he can tell to a mile the latitude we are in; the longitude is another matter. He signed the round robin, I believe. Certainly he was of the men's councils, or we should have had confusion worse confounded than it was."
She nodded. The wheel, which for a minute had paused, resumed its clack.
"To-night he rationed out the water. We shall do, if the wind does not drop; it has been blowing off the coast, we are in no danger of running our noses into Africa." A brief pause. "Did I seem very like a play-actor, up there on the quarter-deck?"
"I've seen ne'er a one," said Mary Askill. "You spoke ugly to the men. If they had all been English there might have been mischief."
"I wish there had been mischief," Conisby said. "Then I might have fought, and forgot myself, and not felt a fool—as now I feel."
Her eyes were needed for the thread, to see that it did not dwindle or swell. But she smiled. He observed the smile and banged his hand on the plank that served for table.
"What is to become of mankind if they can't see themselves as little gods? There was I, with my sword, and my muscles, and my loud voice; I had all the right to be chief player, save the situation, take the plaudits. Well? All this came, most publicly, to nothing. Here am I, for all my noise, not a hero. Will you not say, from the topless tower of your confidence, that you are sorry?"
She still smiled, still ran the thread smoothly, aware that he needed no answer, letting him talk on. The squealing of wind in the ropes was no longer shrill; the Nonsuch took the buffeting of waves good-humouredly, the swell which had so tormented her was dying. The cabin held the man and woman secure in its darkness; their ears, for days accustomed to the din of weather without the ship and within, accepted the lessened noises as silence.
"Does your wound trouble you?"
She shook her head, and moved the bandaged foot a little to show that she was not at its mercy.
"Here am I, whole and sound, yet helpless. Every moment I am with you I feel myself shrink; in another hour, when you have worked and I have idled, there will be nothing of me left. A nothing named John Conisby, walking, eating. They use such creatures where we are going, I have heard. Dead men who labour." He paused; in his mind the next question was linked with that image. "Do you know that at St. Jago we are to take on slaves?"
At that she did look up, with the quick gaze of an animal who hears some dangerous sound. He persisted:
"You saved this ship's crew from death. Now the first thing they will do is pull down death upon others. They bring them out of their own country, and set them to work with no hope of deliverance save by death. There are persons yet unborn who will curse you, Mrs. Askill, for this day's work."
She tended her thread with steady hands. He watched them for a sign as he talked on.
"Ah, you say, but to how many will I bring light! How many Christians will I not make! These negroes go from darkness to darkness; wretched in one land or another, what matter? Their souls are their riches, their souls I will save, say you, I will make Christians of them. Why, their betrayers are Christians. The men that trap, the men that ship and sell them are Christians. And, in your own country, the men who beat you for being a Christian called themselves Christians, too."
She spoke then, dropping her hands to her knee; the right one stretched itself to ease the cramped muscles:
"Must you make others angry before yourself can have peace?"
"I say what comes to my mind," he answered, watching her ugly skilful hand that rolled and stretched like an animal loosed from harness.
"God knows then, your mind's not easy."
"No," said he, and with a quick movement of his head shook from him some troublesome thought. "It is not easy. I have been brought up, d'ye see, to fear God. I am hat off to him as to the King. I would kill an infidel or a Turk in his name, had I the chance. But I cannot be at ease with God. I am afraid of dying. And so if I die I must go drunk with strong waters, whether it be anger or wine. That is not an easy truth to contemplate; but you have rubbed my nose in it, you that compel the elements with your distaff. I am not easy with you. I have a mind to challenge the love of God in you."
"How will you do that, John Conisby?"
"How else but by the love of man?"
She took up her labour again, giving the wheel a spin, guiding the hemp till it ran to a fine twist. He stood, and said, looking down on her:
"A man must silence somehow the woman who knows him for a coward."
She said, eyeing the thread, her voice level as the sound of the wheel:
"I dare not say I am chosen. But I feel the working of the Lord in me, his foot is upon me like mine on this treadle. He drives me; peace of body is not for me."
"Love," said Conisby, "that's not peace of body."
"I haven't the words. You that is a scholar, do you find them for me."
He set his hand lightly against her cheek.
"Does no spark light now?"
She stopped her work; took his hand in hers, pointed it down at the bandaged foot clumsily obvious under her skirt, and said in a great farm-girl's voice, not the low voice of the wheel:
"Sweetheart's talk to a woman with her foot in pain, and her hands near to bleeding! I doubt you haven't had much practice in love-making, Mr. Cavee, for all your court ladies. Maybe there's men can kiss when they're hurt and dropping for sleep, but not women; not where I come from. Take yourself off now. There'd ought to be some useful thing you could do. You are a man, for all you act like a child."
He pulled his hand away with a touch of anger; the anger was aimed at himself, and found expression:
"We can't always be calculating; must take our hearts as we find them. The child is sorry to have importuned you."
She said heartily:
"No offence taken."
He waited, for what he could not tell; but as she gathered herself to her work again, he saw her hands in the lantern's glow. The light, itself unsteady, shone upon firm reddish fingers which gave no hint of disturbance; they moved orderly, they neither hastened nor stumbled in the manoeuvres of the spinster.
They came into St. Jago early one morning four days later. It was an island very steep and rocky, the soil showing so little green that the thirsty men took no great comfort from sight of it. They had spent a whole twenty-four hours without water of any kind, working in powerful sun, and their minds had been busy (even those that knew the place before) with visions of fountains. But the lower slopes of these hills were covered with a grey sandy earth; their tops wore a suit of cloud; only here and there in the clefts between them palms sprouted.
The anchor rattled down, and the Nonsuch rested in a bay whose water showed glassy; no wind could come at it; land curled about it, an island lay in the mouth like a stopper. All motion of air thus ceasing, the heat became deathly heavy. Mary Askill, going with the last of her own water-bottle to tend him, found Captain Bryant fainted in his berth, sweat gushing from him, trickling and shining under the hairs of his beard.
Even the absence of sun could not make this stillness endurable, the oven was no good exchange for the burning glass; water to drink, only water, could relieve it; and this was not immediately to be come by. Imprimis, having anchored, they had no boat to land with. It was a torment none of the men had envisaged; that they must wait, and signal, and by signs beg a boat to come out; wait to explain their need; wait again to be ferried ashore.
"I'd swim for it myself," said the English sailor, summing up the sentiments of all, "if 'tweren't for the sharks."
There were sharks. One had followed the ship for days, disdaining the hook baited with a scrap of canvas that an idler had thrown to him. This was the very water for sharks, deep that they might hide, clear that they might see. The sailors looked at it dubiously and muttered; the signalman still jerked his flag. Ashore, nothing stirred. Fishermen's boats slept at the jetty, or butted gently the pointed rocks to which they were tethered like horses, by means of a noose of rope. No smoke lifted.
Mr. Conisby, waking early to have sight of this promised land, dressed himself particularly fine, put on his sword, and went up to the quarterdeck. There he stood while the sailors disputed and the Mate, scratching his chin, lamented that they had not a cannon left to fire. He cursed all Portugals for lie-a-beds—"though," said the Mate, "I can't tell what should tempt 'em up early in this dog-kennel of a town."
Conisby, not heeding him, measured with his eye the distance to the shore; at the same time becoming aware that Mary Askill had come on deck and was limping to the ship's side.
"We are no more than half a mile off," said he. "I have swum further than that with my boots on. Child's play—"
"Not in these waters," the Mate said sourly. "We must wait their leisure."
"I'll wait for no Portugal," Conisby took him up. "Did Drake wait? He sacked this town, did Drake. By God, I'll wake it, that am no drake, but a duck for water. The child must have its game. Watch me, says the child."
The Mate, taking this for exuberance, the kind of masculine chest-drumming of which he had already seen something, gave a laugh and walked off. But he turned when a splash sounded, and ran to the rail, where he saw emerging from the water a dark head, arms dripping but clad in velvet; and perceived a kind of thin third leg trailing stiffly, which was Mr. Conisby's sword. His boots he had retained, out of disdain for the distance; dressed in his best, he was making good speed. The sailors, understanding his purpose at once, let out a cheer which of itself should have been enough to rouse the drowsy town. He turned as he swam, and saluted them, deliberately making a great thrashing with his legs as though to terrify any sea-creature that might pursue. They watched him, forgetting for a while their extreme thirst and the weight of the air, in that frame of mind which, while it enjoys successful dare-devilry, is prepared to find stimulus as moving in a fatal accident. They talked of him as they watched; how such a man was better to fight with than fight under, how the devil was more constant than the Almighty to look after his own. When he was half-way to shore a figure or two began to appear, slowly moving from the houses, ruinous-looking in clearer light, towards the jetty and the tethered dinghies. They had heard the noise of the anchor, they were already perfectly aware of the Nonsuch, the swim in fine clothing was nothing, therefore, but a useless display. The sailors hovering between two minds, whether to think Conisby a fool for spoiling good velvet, or to envy him the drink of fresh water that soon would be his, broke out into non-committal oaths and made mouths as though they might, given spittle, have spat.
By noon time the Nonsuch rode among bumboats, which clustered about her like lice on a salmon's sides. These vendors sold fruit—shapes unpictured, names unknown, but all magical to quench thirst. The Mate, espying Mary Askill with some kind of a pink and green pumpkin, warned her that such provender was loosening, and had gone through dirty hands. She answered with a country saw—"An egg, an orange, or a nut, you may take from any slut—" and told him that looseness was healthy every now and again. She sat with her bandaged foot up on a kind of stool the carpenter had made, and ate, as Ann Sawyer put it, with almost irreligious pleasure. Said Ann, tendentiously:
"That young mad fellow, John Conisby; he didn't drown, more's the pity. The sailors that have come back from shore say that he is gone straight to the Governor's house." Mary Askill nodded, sucking at her melon and sighing for delight of its freshness on her mouth. "A papist, this Governor is."
"It's how these foreign folks is born. Same as being black, they have no way to help it."
But Ann Sawyer was not to be put off. She had been brewing storm; now came a gust.
"It's three weeks since we set foot on this ship. In all that time, Mary Askill, I haven't known you once moved to testify. Not even when it seemed we was lost. Not even when it was revealed that the Lord had saved us."
"What would you be at, Ann?"
The answer came obliquely, following a glance at the shore.
"The sailors say, he is gone to make first choice among the black women that will come aboard."
"You are back at John Conisby, are you?"
"If I am—"
Ann Sawyer stopped the quick answer; but she could not hold back the resentment, the angry enquiry from her eyes.
"If it is true, and if he should unfold his wickedness before our eyes here on this ship, would you rebuke him?" Then, before answer could come:
"You are not the woman that set her foot upon the Serpent at Oxford. There is no light left in you, you that were to be our beacon and our lantern set in a dark place—"
She broke off on a caught breath, turned aside. Mary Askill knew that she did so to hide tears, and that the tears were not for an example lost, but had obscurer origin.
Soon men came about them, busily trundling bales, calling, bickering, getting the cargo—shoes, black ribbon, and broad-brimmed hats—cleared from the forward hold. The English sailor, lingering near them to tie up his head in a handkerchief with some great cool leaf inside it, told the women that they would not be breathing so sweet a week thence.
"There's neat room below for thirty," said the sailor. "Their stink would turn a cat's stomach. They say there's always some taste of it left, pitch how you will and paint how you may. Same with dead bones, that they use for lime. A nigger ship or a bone ship; any man that's been at sea can nose either one a mile off."
He dropped down into the quarters furbished to receive these herded wretches. Ann Sawyer looked in at the dark opening, saw rings upon the walls, rings upon the transverse beams, and shivered. She had known the weight of chains. But Mary Askill, looking towards the shore, was following with her eyes the progress of a small boat. A black man rowed it, standing and facing forward. A hairy-faced man in a great hat sat in the stern by the side of a man shaved and hatless. There was something like a bright-coloured bundle at their feet. She made certain; then a voice deliberate and jocose as a nudge with the elbow said:
"Here comes your John Conisby with his woman. She has a beard, like the one I saw at a fair."
"A beard?" Ann Sawyer whipped round, quick on her feet as is the way of fat people. "That's a Don, sure. What for did you say it was a woman?"
"What for did you say John Conisby was gone to seek one?"
Ann Sawyer could find no direct answer. She fell back upon her fixed notion of Dons, and muttered that she did not promise what she should do if he wore a cross on his hat, or started any mummery.
The boats drew close, edging through the hanger-on, which with shoutings and brandishings of oars made respectful way. And soon upon the deck of the Nonsuch stood an authentic Don, dressed plain as a puritan only for the linen at his neck that was a little dirty; having a greenish face, a sparse beard, a bilious eye, but a manner as of Solomon in his glory. This, said Conisby, was the Governor, called in his own tongue the Padre Valgado; he was come to dine and pay his duty to the ladies, and had brought with him one that would keep them company.
On this, over the ship's side with perfect majesty and grace came a black woman, and stood looking about her. Round her head was wrapped a length of green taffeta. Her petticoat was of two colours, sky blue and purple, ranged not in straight stripes but jagged, after the manner that heralds call dancette. Her breast was bare; she wore on her shoulders a cloak of some purple stuff, with a clasp made of cut ivory; there were ivory rings in her ears. This creature advanced gravely towards the group upon the deck, and offered no greeting until the Padre Valgado spoke to her, when she bowed with a kind of noble humility, hands crossed from shoulder to shoulder, then stood erect at her ease. Ann Sawyer, after the first glance, stood up and flickered her eyes as a snake darts its tongue, from Conisby to the Don. She said:
"What's this woman?"
Conisby very civilly told her that here was meat for conversion, if she were so minded; and as for the lady's name, it was Maria. Ann Sawyer, very white in the face, spoke briefly:
"She's not decent."
Conisby answered that one must allow for the custom of the country:
"If you, Mrs. Sawyer, had been born in the fifteenth degree of latitude, we might have seen you thus arrayed, and been better men for it."
The Don meanwhile, looking about him, had gone forward to examine and tap with his nails the ship's great bell on which the hours were called. The negress stood still, obedient to a little motion of his finger that bade her wait. She understood nothing of the debate, was not incommoded by the stares of the sailors who began to come round her, any more than the trampling of a troop of sheep disturbs a brilliantly coloured parrot safe in its tree. But she did gaze at Mary Askill and more particularly at the bandaged foot, while the dispute continued, now become three-cornered by inclusion of the Mate.
"What do you do, Mr. Conisby, fetching these people aboard?"
"I have asked 'em to dine, so make your bow and bring out your compliments. It is the Governor and his lady."
"I won't scrape to a blackamoor."
"Why not? He rules the island, she rules him."
"You're mad. And there's no dinner."
"John Conisby brings the woman here for an affront to Christians."
"She is as much of a Christian as you. The Portugals allow no infidels."
"A papist then; that's worse."
"A beauty, and that makes up."
"You are Belial's own son. Mary, will you come below?"
But the black woman, advancing and sinking to one knee with a movement like the stoop of a gull, had taken Mary Askill's foot and was untying the bandage, first asking permission with a lift of the eyes and her first smile. The wound was bared; it showed angry, and puffed at the edges. She spoke; a question it seemed, by the inclination of the voice. Mary Askill answered in English:
"It'll mend. Mine's good healing flesh."
The black woman considered, and rose. An interested circle watched her as she stood, half a head taller than most of the sailors, seeking with her eyes among the fruits and vegetables, bumboat's spoils, that lay on deck. She found among them a leaf broad and large, in shape not unlike the sole of the foot, and returning laid this on. It was cool, though it had lain in the sun; the black woman's hands, too, were cool as she laid their light-coloured palms beside the wound to hold the leaf in place.
"Good," said Mary Askill, speaking loud and unnaturally as is the way of the English with foreigners. "Better. God bless you."
The woman, still holding the leaf about the foot, began to mutter some words, again and again the same words; and with her thumb in the air above the wound described a curious sign.
"Witchcraft," Ann Sawyer said, but nobody heeded her. She called out:
"Mary, she has done a charm upon you."
The sailors with one accord understood and turned upon her, standing up for charms, declaring their faith in mumbo jumbo in two or three languages and their sentiments for the negress by means of broad gestures. None dared, however, to do other than keep his distance. They gazed, as at a pretty play acted before them, on the two women; finding their attention sharpened for small things by the steady deck, the leave to be idle, and the sense that for a time they were, without effort, secure.
"How's this?" Conisby's voice asked the negress. He spoke in Portuguese, but was looking at the pale woman with her foot between the other's hands. "Will you doctor me, Maria?"
She answered readily with a question. Where was his hurt? He told her: In his heart. Gravely she said: No leaf for that, and began to bind up the foot again, twisting the linen very lightly, and smiling timidly up with a sideways deprecating motion of her head, as though she knew she must hurt and was sorry for it.
The Don had been left alone by the bell amid hats escaped from their bales, which he amused himself by twirling on his finger. They were exactly similar to the hat he wore, to the hats which every man upon the island wore, save those negroes who plaited themselves something more suitable and cooler, and to the hats worn by his ancestors to the fourth generation. This keeping to pattern pleased him. His religious thought believed that man could save himself time and trouble by a uniformity of inessentials; that if clothing, food and housing were kept to a pattern, if no ingenuity were wasted in devising change, then the soul might be more at liberty to regard and question itself. This to him and many of his countrymen was the implication of those words in the Gospel which insist that a man shall take no thought for what he is to eat or wherewith he shall be clothed. He twirled the hats therefore almost devoutly, as though they had been prayer-wheels whose movement in space and time might stand for an equivalent movement of the spirit in eternity.
Nevertheless, thus twirling, he became aware that he was not a cynosure. The man who had power to deny water to these thirsty voyagers, or who might, with a word to his six cannoneers at the fort, sink this Nonsuch as she squatted helpless at anchor, was not used to be left alone thus casually among bales and plantains, while she drew all eyes, the black woman to whom only his protection lent consequence. He advanced therefore with a gait which commanded attention and flicked her arm two or three times with a pointed middle finger. She turned, surprised, read his face, and with a gesture of submission in which no dignity was lost withdrew from the circle. The Padre Valgado addressed the Mate.
"If it is your good pleasure, senhor, I am ready to breakfast."
The Mate, who understood well enough, looked at him and made motions with his hands of not comprehending. He said low to Conisby:
"Say we've nothing worth offering—nothing good enough for such a fine gentleman. Lay it on thick."
Conisby did so. The Padre Valgado, used to the forms of his own national politeness, accepted these protestations as conventions much as he was himself accustomed to say, My poor house, this indifferent wine which you do me the honour to taste. He smiled narrowly, civilly. Conisby took the Mate aside.
"Set out what we have."
"Why the devil did you bring him? There's nothing aboard."
"Some biscuit, and a few of his own bananas. They are not used to much."
"I've a mind to serve him a cut of your liver."
"Set out. I'll look to him."
The feast which at last was laid on the long plank table of the cabin consisted of just this: biscuit, and a few of the Padre Valgado's own fruits. The cloth was clean, somebody had scoured the pewter, there was salt in plenty, vinegar, and black Malagueta pepper in a small wooden quern. This, with water to drink, was the whole of the entertainment.
The women did not attend it; only the Governor, the Mate, and Mr. Conisby sat down. The Governor's teeth were faulty, and even his knife, painfully carving at the biscuit as though it had been wooden, broke away lumps too hard to chew, too angular to swallow. He eyed, without seeming to watch, the procedure of Mr. Conisby, who filled his tankard with water, put vinegar into it, added pepper, and in this steeped his biscuit, afterwards taking hearty draughts of the liquid with no alteration of countenance. The Mate kept to fruit. There was little talk, but much polite bowing and handing to and fro of condiments. After half an hour of this Mr. Conisby rose to speak.
He said (stooping under the low beams of the cabin), that the honour of entertaining the Padre Valgado, father and leader of an island renowned in story, was almost more than simple men could contemplate without abashment. He said that the sharing of their humble table was a condescension not to be forgotten. He apologized for the weevils in the biscuit, hoping that the Governor would by no means take their presence on a Friday as an insult offered to his religion, pointing out that being begotten at sea they might be allowed to take brevet rank as fish. He hoped the Governor would recognize, even from this poor showing, how great a reverence the ship's company in general and John Conisby in particular felt for his person; and ventured to conclude with a toast which, he was assured, was associated in England only with kings. Taking up his pewter mug, not yet emptied of its nauseous brew, he declared loudly, in his own tongue:
"May heaven forget the prayers, and the foul fiend remember the iniquities of the very distasteful, cowardly, yellow-jowled, black-avised whoremonger who sits now at this our table."
With that, giving a loud whoop such as he had heard from the Scots in Flanders, Mr. Conisby feigned to drain his tankard, dashed it to the ground, and sat down. The Mate could not emulate this self-possession, but he had presence of mind to let out his tormented breath in a similar whoop, and to put on a fit of coughing which the first sip from his tankard excused. The small yellow man observed them both, made a graceful acknowledging gesture with his ringed hand, and stood up in his turn to say that he trusted such good will as they had shown might some day be within his power to repay and—if business dared intrude upon hospitality—might he be so happy as to know how much of the cargo the senhor was prepared to negotiate? Conisby on this withdrew as an active agent, brought none of his own whimsies into the matter, and interpreted faithfully, without garbling, the bargain proposed. It was fair enough. So many cattle, so much water; so many hundred yards of black ribbon, so many pairs of shoes. The Mate, mistrustful of Dons, demanded security; was inclined to ask that the cattle and water be first brought aboard before the shoes and silk were parted with. The Don, with a brief blank stare, contemptuously pulled the ring from his finger and told Conisby that one must make allowance for persons who were unaccustomed (not their fault, but owing to their way of life) to dealing with gentlemen. Conisby did not translate this to the Mate. He looked a little dashed, and offered back the ring, which the Governor waved away as a trifle. They went on deck.
The three women during this time had drawn into the shadow of a drying sail. Ann Sawyer sat a little aloof; yet it must have been she who had brought out the spinning-wheel and distaff which Mary Askill was explaining by example to the negress kneeling before her. Over Maria's firm bosom an English kerchief was draped; its whiteness and crispness looked astray among her coloured silks, the ivory brooch that held the ends together seemed to turn yellow as it lay. She bent her fingers from time to time to feel the thread as a child might. When, by Mary Askill's eyes looking over her shoulder, she became aware that the Padre Valgado was emerging upon desk, she rose and went to him, saying nothing, standing with hanging hands before him. Ann Sawyer asked:
"Did ever you see anything more like a dog?"
It was in fact an unthinking motion of obedience and deference. They saw the Governor speak and frown at the kerchief, and did not know that he was asking the splendid creature how she dared set herself up so; explaining that such a dress, covering charms, was the prerogative of married white ladies, and not of slaves. The tall woman lowered her head—she stood six inches higher than he—and received the lecture silently. Not till he plucked roughly at the kerchief, tearing it, did she speak; and then it was only a few words, spoken while she gently withheld the yellow fingers from further mischief. The Governor pronounced a short order, turning away. She made her obedient bow, unfixed the brooch and returned to the two women, folding the kerchief as she came. The tear by the pin she pointed to, shaking her head regretfully.
"She is very sorry," said Mary Askill.
"She is whorish to the view," said Ann Sawyer, and stepped towards the Governor, whom she harangued. The kerchief which she had snatched was in her hand, and she used it as a banner behind which marched her eloquence. The Padre Valgado, mystified, spoke to Conisby.
"He says that he has already rebuked her for wearing it. She will not so offend again."
"She offends still—" and Ann Sawyer was off again, with texts, upon the iniquity of women going about uncovered to the eyes of men. Conisby, pleased with the misunderstanding, made no attempt to unravel it. He stood laughing between the indignant woman and the bewildered man, not answering the "What does she say? What will she have?" of the Don, until the latter, with a shrug, asked if it would quiet the talkative lady to see Maria beaten. Then he put the issue clearly. "The Governor thinks it not respectful that a black woman should dress like a white. If you persist she will be beaten. Does that satisfy you?"
Ann Sawyer paused, put her hand to her throat, and went away. She went out of the sunshine altogether, down to the hot sleeping cabin, where she lay with her face towards the wall. Terrible pictures tormented her; worse questionings. She had gone stripped through the streets of Oxford, glad when the constable's whip drew blood that, after its ugly fashion, veiled her. But that was for the love of God. Here a woman was to be beaten for an attempt to cover herself and be decent. She wrung the pillow with her hand, asking how human creatures could be so perverse, and marvelling at the ways of God. She assured herself that she was chosen, having seen a true light; she set up her sufferings and their righteous cause like a candle for contemplation. But she turned on her blanket, and turned again, whenever her thoughts strayed to the beauty of the bedizened negress, and the men's eyes.
The days passed. A new suit of sails was to be made from canvas bought in the little town; till this should be fitted (and a wind arise to honour it) the Nonsuch lingered, her sailors daily wandering off in the heat to stray among ruins and the spare shade of palms; the more idle among them accosting all the women they met, the more active learning to milk goats. Their cargo, save the human one, was stowed. They had water in plenty. Now that it had fulfilled their immediate wants, the island from paradise had turned prison, and they made in it such trouble as discontented prisoners make; they were noisy and picked quarrels. Though few were English they boasted of the exploits of the Englishman Drake in burning the place when it defied him, and upon the handsome ruins of colonial palaces drew clumsy scriptures implying that the Portuguese of St. Jago were deceived as husbands and inadequate as men.
Thus when a letter was brought aboard, tied with some of their own black ribbon but sealed splendidly with yellow wax, the Mate eyed it without appetite, and offered to lay a bet with Mr. Conisby on the news it contained, which would be, he declared, a reproof, with an invitation to the sailors of the Nonsuch to behave themselves. "What does he expect of men ashore?" enquired the Mate. "And who's to say their goings on don't make things more lively for the natives?"
But the letter, beautifully written in the clear Iberian script with symbols of a cross top and bottom, only demanded the privilege of company to dine.
"I knew it," the Mate stated, "and I don't dine with him, not if he was to serve his mustachios up on gold plate. He wants to poison us. These Spaniards and the like are all poisoners, they carry it with them in buttons and rings."
"We haven't got our slave cargo yet," Conisby reminded him, folding again the paper which he had read.
"Nor we won't ever get it, if we dine with him. Give a Don a dinner of ship's biscuit! Do you suppose he'll forget it? I'm not saying anything against yourself, Mr. Conisby. You've been of good service to me. But I must have been light-headed to let you play that trick with the water and all. Where did it take us, what was your notion?"
"Childish matters," Conisby answered, admiring the seal on the ribbon. "I have put them away now. Say what you will, I go."
"You'll go alone, then. I have this ship, these fools of men to think for. Are the women bidden?"
"They won't go."
"They won't go because the man's naughty and keeps a black lady by him. Did ever you read an old poet called Shakespeare? He had a black love:
'Then will I swear beauty herself is black, And all they foul that thy complexion lack.'
"There's no denying," the Mate agreed, "they have something that fetches a man. Who's to answer this letter?"
"I will. And I'll visit him. Someone must speak this Don civil."
"Well," replied the Mate, after meditation, "it's your guts."
With which brief yet capacious phrase, in which was implied respect for free will with contempt for the individual who thus suicidally exercised it, the Mate went to wait upon his Master, daily growing more impatient of fever.
Mr. Conisby sat down to write the acceptance, in black and white deploring the activities or infirmities which retained on board the Nonsuch all save himself, and remaining at the revered feet of the Governor his most loving servant. When it was done he went with the paper in his hand to the place where the women were sitting.
"Speak me farewell," said he. "I go to dine with the Governor in his citadel ashore. He will poison me, likely."
Mary Askill said:
"We heard of that prank you played him. He'll make you pay, I don't doubt."
"And I don't doubt. I am too young, don't you think, to die?"
She said composedly:
"It may come to that. But you won't be said by me."
He caught at this.
"I will, though, be said by you. Do you forbid me to go? If you forbid, I stay."
She looked, and shook her head, as though to say: John Conisby, can you never take the straight road? He went on:
"I say, I will obey you. Your word is law. If you put that law into force by so much as a motion of your head or of your finger, I will not dine with the Padre Valgado and his familiar, the girl Maria."
She sat with her hands in her lap. Tormenting himself and her, he began to trace out her thoughts in words:
"You think: John Conisby is trying to make me prove that I care whether he lives or dies. He is trying to make me confess that I had rather he did not go into danger. But such a confession is no part of my plan of salvation for mankind. You don't answer me. I have hit the truth, have I?"
Ann Sawyer looked at Mary Askill who sat quite still. Conisby challenged her repose again.
"Well? Do I go? I have told you that I will obey you. I have told you that I believe the Don means mischief. If you say nothing, and if I go, and if I die, on whose head the blood?"
Mary Askill lifted her head and turned it to watch a little worry of wind on the bay's waters; a ruffle that came from nowhere and troubled a surface the size of a sail, as though some passing invisible creature had sighed. The air was silent, except for a tink of hammers coming from the shore. It was a day to be quiet in, but the young man standing under the sun did not seem to be aware of that. He repeated his challenge. Mary Askill then, with a deep breath slowly drawn, took it up.
"I see what you are at. Let me tell you, John Conisby, it is a coward's dodge."
"Ha!" said he, and shut his mouth tightly for a second. "So much for confidences."
"I haven't the words. I speak rough, but my thinkings are clear. It's always your way to let others order your life; but not openly. They must first he stirred and troubled by you, to provoke you to act; so as you can say to yourself, They compelled me, there was no other thing I could have done. Now because I would not put away my purpose to please you, you say, I'll compel her. She shall take this much care for me, that at her bidding I live or die. I've not asked for that burden, you put it on me, and against my will as you well know. So I say you're a coward. Search yourself, see clear what it is you do, and say if I've wronged you."
He answered with too late a laugh that she was oversubtle for him, and that she took what was only a game too much in earnest. He played with the paper he held, made a quick movement as though to crumple and toss it over the side, watching her the while. She no longer regarded him, beginning composedly to turn on her hand the stocking she was mending. He said, in a voice as offensive as thumb to nose, that it could be seen she had well studied her Bible.
"Christ spoke in parables. No questioner could get from him a plain yes or no. You are his faithful follower."
He thanked her for her sermon, declared himself edified, promised a large congregation for her in Barbados—"if they do not hang or burn you—" and went away with an affectedly firm tread. The women heard him call the Governor's boatman from where he stood among stitching sailors, and saw the folded paper given into the man's hand.
Hours later, velvet suit shabby but linen clean, his wide hat carrying a white scarf round it and the silver of his sword-hilt bright as a new shilling, Conisby dropped into a casual dinghy and was rowed ashore. It was late afternoon, and the town took on dignity with lengthening shadows. Its square houses and small spires, built from the ruins of that larger town which Drake had plundered, recovered in shadow their height and former splendour; thus at sunset and sunrise the ghost of old St. Jago stood by the living body of the new.
The Padre Valgado's house stood high on a steep precipice of rock to which led a road cut by Spaniards who in earlier days had owned the island; narrow, and with no sort of verge or rail. Persons climbing or descending by this road had, from the deck of the Nonsuch, the look of flies on a wall. It was the custom of the sailors to speak of the place as Hell's Height. Most of the traffic that used it passed in the morning, when the rock's shade was a shield against sun. To-night there appeared upon it an unusual going and coming, and—when the sun had dropped with the rush proper to those latitudes—clusters of lights appeared, which assembled and drove apart, or stood steadily like so many fireflies; betraying, whether they stood or shifted, some matter of importance in train. The Mate, surveying all this through his glass, said to the boatswain at his side:
"They will cook and eat him. They have a great liking for fire, the Portugals. I saw them burn some heretics once; it smelled like Bartholomew Fair in the old days when they used to roast pigs in the open."
The lights ceased their peregrinations. They gathered, fixed as planets, at regular intervals along the road. But one great bunch of torches, starting at the bottom of the bridge out of the town, began slowly to climb upwards. It was pretty to see how, as this moving constellation met the first of the fixed groups, it absorbed them, itself becoming larger; as it moved, the road behind darkened and the advancing glow increased, until arriving before the castle all the lights were gathered into one mighty fire. As gates opened and walls hid them, the torches cast only a kind of upward glow which lit the walls for a while, then dropped, suddenly as the sun.
The watchers on the ship saw then, coming from above the wall, a strong forward flash of flame; half a second later the sound of cannon reached them. This was repeated six times.
"That's a signal," was the Mate's opinion. "Who to, and what for?" They waited, straining through the thick twilight to see and hear. There was no answering signal; the castle was quiet, and by degrees, as the torches flickered out, it faded away into the uneven darkness of the hill. The Mate took off his hat, held it above his head and replaced it carefully, as a man may do when a funeral passes.
The night for once was overcast. It might rain before morning, the Mate considered, looking up and round him with a seaman's customary swing of the head before going below. He wondered whether to order the hatch to be covered, the hold destined for his black cargo being open to the sky so that air might get at it, and it might at least start the voyage sweet. (The slaves were due early next morning if the Padre Valgado chose to be honest.) There was a heavy smell of rain in the air. He gave the order and went below.
Mary Askill, standing in the doorway of the cabin the women shared, caught him as he went by her to ask news. He understood her to mean news from the castle, and told her there was none; all the lights were out, the cannoneers had gone to bed; he should not wonder if their first salvo, or salute, were fired to conceal other noise. He spoke with subdued gusto; John Conisby was not at all his kind of man. Mary Askill nodded. The Mate said jocularly:
"If you and me were papishers, we'd be praying now for his soul."
"Well," said she; no more; and went in behind the curtain.
The men at the hatch had rigged lanterns to work by, a couple slung to stays, one standing on deck. The night was so still that the candles would have burned steadily even without their protection of horn. Only a faint chuckling at the bows and round the anchor cable showed that there was life in what seemed dead water, the tide was running out. The sailors went slowly about their work, any least movement brought sweat. There was little talk, no rhythmic procedure employed such as might call forth a song. One or two looked towards the shore, in the direction of the invisible castle on the hill. The only sentences exchanged had to do with what might have happened to the Governor's guest, and the point of view taken was that whatever this might have been, it now was over. Thus the putting on of the hatch's white cap of canvas assumed a solemn and symbolic purport, like the donning of the black cap by a judge.
Into this silence came singing from the shore. It marched out of the dark, mournful but not weak, forty voices carrying the tune. It was not a hymn, though it had something of that quality, nor wholly a lament, since some of the soaring phrases carried hope. So the Israelites might have sung before they hung up their harps on the willows, because those people that bore them away captive required of them a song, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. The boatswain recognized it, peering over the water as though eyes could help ears, and said with a beck of his head:
Men halted work to listen. The harbour carried the sound high, as though this psalm were a boat held by water and borne towards them by tide; so perfectly did the quiet bay conduct it that the chant seemed to be all about them, and their stays and rigging the strings of an instrument. The song was altogether foreign, it had none of the rhythms to which their ears had from childhood been accustomed; yet each sailor—Portuguese, Dutch, English, and the men from Stavanger—suddenly was aware of his childhood and home. They stood listening, hands hanging, thoughts travelling. A woman's loud voice behind them came on the air like a blow.
Mary Askill, Ann Sawyer at her side, stood by the lantern set on the deck. The light striking upwards at her face seemed to cut away all flesh, leaving only the strong bones standing; square chin, square hollows that held the eyes, square of brow above. Her eyes were fixed. When she spoke her voice wavered; it was not the everyday voice they knew, it drifted like a candle in wind against the steady voices from the shore. She said:
"I am to speak of the blessing of grace. It is God's gift, it cannot be deserved, but once it is bestowed, man hath assurance. I have God's assurance that I am loved. To question it, or the witness of the spirit, though I fall into murder or adultery, proves only that I never had it. I will not question. I will not despair. You that hear me, do you not despair. God loves a man never the better for any holiness in him, and never the less, be he never so unholy. This we may take to our comfort. All graces are in God, in us are none. We strive with the wind if we strive to increase grace in ourselves. We steal from God's purse. He alone gives, but never takes away, never, never! Though we do ill, though we covet and yield in the works of the body, sin in a child of God must not trouble him, for he has assurance. He has assurance. Do not pray, except the spirit, which is God, moves you; for then it is God speaking through you, which alone is prayer. Oh, the grace of the assurance of God! When a man or a woman hath once this witness, he never doubts more, he is eternally safe. Works are vanity, continence vanity, there is no thing acceptable in heaven or earth but only this, the witness of the spirit and the assurance of God."
She was quiet for a moment. Ann Sawyer seemed rapt. The sailors, of whom many could not understand her language, looked at each other, and the boatswain took her arm rather timorously to lead her away. The men, embarrassed both by the change in her and by their own inability to comprehend, began to laugh uneasily, and to make a bustle with their work. The boatswain could feel a tremor in the arm he held; it was rigid, and he could not turn the woman. Ann Sawyer pulled at him, nodding vigorously and angrily her injunction not to interfere. The other had more to say and said it, looking past him:
"The spirit gives such clear evidence of my estate that I've no need to be tried by works. This I'm sure, he that elected me must save me. If God will let me sin, let him look to it, upon his honour be it. I may know I am God's, not because I do right, but because being his what I do is his doing. The devil and nature may be cause of a gracious work. A gracious soul is God's. There's no peace by striving, only by election. Which gift once made is never taken away, never, never! Though we eat of the husks, and drink of the wine the woman holds in her cup, there upon the seven hills."
The words were too wild for the boatswain and, spoken as they were with an intensifying of her countrified speech, not comprehensible. Ann Sawyer's moaning:
"Oh, hear ye! Hear ye!" went past his ears unheeded. He was a practical man, and now, failing to turn Mary Askill's body or stop her tongue, he sought to distract her mind from the path on which it blindly journeyed. He looked over to the town, where for a time the singing had died; his quick exclamation pulled the men's heads round.
"Light!" said the boatswain.
As he said it, and the men turned their eyes shorewards, the castle on the hill swam out of the dark, its roof and turrets sharp to their sight. A flash from the wall, like a burning arrow shot forward, came as before six times to herald the thump and rolling echoes of cannon. Lights were suddenly revealed in a great coruscation, a single group, and this group began to move down the hill; slowly it seemed, because the distance was great and the scale small, but by calculation at a good four-mile-an-hour pace. The men peered, offered guesses, began to talk with animation; one or two ran up the shrouds with some notion of getting a better view, but the castle lying higher than the ship their only benefit came by clearing the heads of their fellows. Ann Sawyer, perceiving the frenzy of her companion to be over, gently took her hand and chafed it. She herself had not been moved to utter. The boatswain left them standing by the lantern, and went to call the Mate.
That officer, roused from sleep and impatient with all the happenings of the day, which embarrassed him by departing from good sea-custom, drew no hope from the moving lights, perhaps because he wished to draw none. He was of opinion that the townsmen were now returning to their houses—"about time, seeing it's after midnight"—and that the junketings at the castle, whatever they might have been, were over. The moving lights had, he thought, no cheerful significance. But he agreed that so far as the cargo was concerned it was a good omen to hear singing from the wharf; it showed that the blacks were gathered ready, and would be shipped, according to promise, by daylight next morning. He recommended that the men should get to sleep, and not waste time—"owner's time, master's time"—by standing about and troubling themselves at something that was out of their hands by now. He said to Mary Askill standing rigid by the lantern, no longer trembling:
"Set them an example, you that knows good sense when you hears it." The boatswain touched his sleeve and said something which appeared to astonish him. He went forward, picked up the lantern and holding it directly in front of her eyes, said:
She moved, then. It was as if the lantern's light had held her rigid, and when it was shifted the charm ceased to bind. She put her fingers up to her head uncertainly; vigorously rubbed her nose, as though glad to find an errand for them to do; and said in her normal voice:
"What, have I testified?"
The Mate told her he could not say for that, but would she look at the hill? And say what she thought of it.
She obeyed him, putting away the lantern which he still held high, and rounding hands over eyes to bring her sight into tune with the darkness over the town. The group of torches had progressed a little way. There was no distinguishing of figures; but the torches seemed sometimes to toss joyfully, and they kept in a clump as though surrounding, honouring, some central figure.
"It's the same lights as went up, or looks so."
"Ah! But what's bringing down?"
"There's no guessing," said she, hands still about her eyes. "She may save him."
The Mate, astonished, lifted his lantern to see her face the better.
"That black woman?"
Mary Askill did not trouble to answer; it could be no other than she. Ann Sawyer said:
"More like they're both gone down into the pit together."
Nobody heeded her enough to contradict. They stood to watch the progress of lights, each watcher with a different hope.
The ship's bell struck one, the half-hour after midnight. It struck two; and still the men stood about the deck, not talking, only using their eyes, clenching their sight to hold it steady, until the clump of lights entered the town, and there for a while, save for the radiance cast like a nimbus over low roofs, was lost. Minutes went by. Even Ann Sawyer did not suggest that the vigil should end in retreat to their cabin. Of the two women she was the more restless. The words of Mary Askill's testimony had had time to work in her mind and disquiet her. She heard in them a confirming of her own thoughts. Petition was disallowed by her creed, yet she found herself praying that her wish might be fulfilled, and that the young man might indeed be gone down alive or dead into the pit. Mary Askill sat quietly. If she recollected the words of her testimony they did not trouble her.
The lights, heralded by an increasing glow, now burst upon their sight accompanied with noise. It was not an angry clamour, but the cheerful yelling of persons whose stomachs are full and who are on the right side of the law. The negroes pent in their sheds by the wharf, who had begun to settle down, now lifted their voices again; against the steady beat of their song yells flickered aimlessly; all this din fled along the water to the Nonsuch, and found its answer in the hills around the bay.
Arriving at the harbour's edge, the lights scattered awhile in what appeared to be aimless confusion. Then it could be seen that the barrier of the beach was not to check them; they were on the water, flaring above the dozens of boats that were pulling out and advancing upon the silent Nonsuch. At this the Mate, incredulously gazing, turned with a sharp order. Soon the deck was confused, alive with running men and lively with the bosun's pipe, the signal which called all hands to such arms as the ship possessed; marlin-spikes, an old cutlass or two, and a single pistol whose powder was not perhaps to be relied upon. The speculations of the sailors all centred upon one fact, that no friendly visit took place in civilized harbours at one in the morning, together with a certain wonder as to why the assault should not have been more secretly made. Some said: Those who have been aboard us know we have no cannon. Others thought that these Portugals, being a mixed kind of people with plenty of black blood in them, liked to keep up their courage by light and song, could not fight without, and would be easy to beat off, the ship's sides being high now that she was part unloaded. Ladders were pulled up. The cook lit his galley fire and set to work to boil water which he proposed, if the engagement lasted long enough, to ladle over the invaders' heads. The boats advanced.
First came one with six oars and as many torches. This, strongly rowed, shot out from the rest and seemed to make straight for the Nonsuch, taking no precautions at all. A ruse, the Mate opined. "We are meant to keep our eyes on this fellow and the other boats that are lit; but I shall be surprised if there are not twice the number that carry no lights coming about to net us." He levelled his pistol at the impulsive boat, calculating its distance; a hundred yards, fifty; even fifty was too long a carry, and still he waited. At last, just as he cocked the hammer, a figure rose from the boat's stern and waved a hat; not a Don's, but a hat less severe, the kind of hat in which, that afternoon, John Conisby had set out to dine with the Padre Valgado. The Mate lifted his head and looked earnestly. At that moment came a loud unmistakable hail, and torches held low allowed the face and figure of the standing man to be seen. It was Conisby. By his side, her shoulder offering support to his hand, the negress Maria regally sat.
The Mate, for all he had not been troubled by the thought of Conisby's death, now at the sight of him living was seized with a strong sensation of triumph. It seemed that an Englishman had gone alone into that high sinister castle and prevailed there, bearing away the rich trophy of the Governor's mistress. Pride came rushing up in the Mate's mind; he turned, waving his pistol by its barrel and calling for cheers. They came, full measure. The lighted boats re-echoed the sound, with screeching voices such as hot latitudes nurture; torches whirled, leaving a dust of sparks in the air; and amid the din of voices, oars, splashing water, John Conisby swung up the rope ladder to the Nonesuch's deck, the black woman following after.
He told his story while boats circled the ship, enlivening the night with laughter.
"I went because I would not have it said that in a town Drake sacked an Englishman was afraid to take a Portugal's challenge. And then, too, I had done my best to insult him; you have a duty to the man you have insulted. When I saw the servants waiting with torches, and the lights all up the road, I was put in mind of an auto-da-fé. They will set alight to me at the end of all this, I thought. But at the castle there were flags out, and green boughs. Confound, utterly and for ever, that man without bowels, the Padre Valgado!"
His audience, not following this, showed eagerness to have the rest of the story.
"You shall hear. There was I at the gates. More lights, flags, boughs. A fellow in a silver chain met me to do the honours. I marched in; the gates closed." The chorus informed him that this manoeuvre had been seen and wondered at by all on board the Nonsuch. "Nor more than I wondered myself. The trap was sprung. I could do no more than put on my best face. I went in to the house. Oh, condemn, eternally spurn and burn him!"
The audience displayed bewilderment.
"Well, but wait. There was a table with all his silver and gold plate set out; and food steaming; and wine cold. He welcomed me. We sat down. I kept an eye open, ate what he ate, drank what he drank. It was a good dinner as ever I ate, and the wine—none better. He saw my caution, and yielded to it; giving me food from his own plate in the end, and the half of a peach he had peeled. He was at his ease, a gentleman; and there was I like a booby, watching every mouthful and spying in every gulp of wine for poison. Ha!"
He gave a short laugh of anger.
"At the end he rose for a toast. It was: To better understanding between nations. I drank it. And when the wine was down he read me a lecture. He said—" Mr. Conisby choked as at recollection of a bitter morsel—"he said that understanding came by example; men should show good will by such means as they had. And, said he, here is the reason I welcome you with my poor best, because I would have you suppose that a great people has pleasure in welcoming guests, and takes to itself honour in honouring them. (Not a word of that vinegar and water.) Ah, the devil, he stood there bowing and watched me endure it! At last I could not be silent. I said, thinking to anger him, that this was perhaps the convenient way a Portugal received insults. He nodded Yes to that. We suppose ourselves injured, says he, only when circumstances are equal. You are my guest in this island; in this house, one man against a hundred. I am bound for the first reason to love you, for the second to protect you. And so, a little more wine, senhor? says he. Nor would he let me give him back his ring."
This explanation, copious though it was, did not cover one circumstance, the presence of Maria. Eyes were upon her, and the Mate worded their mute question.
"There," Conisby answered, "you have the last cowardly stroke of this infernal Governor. When we had eaten and drunk, and I had taken my lesson in manners; when we had listened to a fellow play on a ten-stringed lute some dance that was the mode in King David's day, I made shift to go. He did not hinder me, beyond their politenesses—the night young, so short a visit, and the rest. But as I looked for my hat he clapped his hands and in came"—he swept a hand towards the negress—"madam here in her best clothes. And the little yellow devil, he says it is the Portugals' practice to give gifts to strangers; the more honoured the stranger the dearer the gift; and he begs my acceptance of madam, with her ivory harness and silk petticoat complete."
There was nothing said. It was clear that this part of the story went almost beyond general belief, yet Conisby's indignation seemed to witness the truth of it. He snapped his fingers once or twice involuntarily, furiously remembering the Governor's magnanimity, the poor figure he himself had cut with his suspicious glances, the sheepish exit loaded with benefits. He broke out, shaking his fist at the hill:
"Cheat me, would you?"
An exclamation which only Mary Askill understood of all that heard it, and which being interpreted meant that John Conisby had been diddled out of a chance to play the fine fellow, and could not pretend, even to himself, that he had come off best.
The torches in the boats were dying, the noise was half what it had been, oars dipped towards shore. An hour or two of night still was left which townsmen and sailors alike had a mind to spend in sleep before the heat of day came again, heat which, promoting desire for sleep, took away performance. The deck cleared itself, until only Conisby, Mary Askill, and the woman Maria stood together. Mary Askill said:
"The boats all are gone. She'd best have my bed for the night—"
"Why not mine?"
"Why should you suppose so?" And he took up his old tactic once again. "Do you bid me send her ashore?"
"No need," Mary Askill answered composedly. "You know well what is right to be done."
"I know nothing. I am your creature. What you bid I will do."
The black woman, to whom these words brought no meaning but who could hear some stringency in Conisby's voice, turned her eyes from one to the other, questioning both shadowed faces. The man's was held forward, demanding; the woman's inscrutable.
"Again?" said Mary Askill. "Why do you torment me?"
He left that question alone and pursued his intent.
"You have your chance. Maria has been kind to you, she is a good animal, she has her friends and her life here in St. Jago. All this she may keep, if you say but the word. What holds you back?" Trying to force entry into her mind, he repeated:
"What holds you? I do not say you should do it for love of me, or care for my immortal soul. But here is a sister woman. You have command over her fate if you will but take up that command. Are you not your sister's keeper?"
She perceived his object clearly. It was directed at the doctrine she held and practised, that a man is not to be saved at another's bidding, or by another's intercession, but must make his own compact with his soul and with God. He had attempted before to put upon her the burden of a decision in which life and death were, for all he knew, involved. This attempt was more subtle; here an innocent third person was the stake, whom a word might save from unknown degradations and misery all too easily foreseen. Mary Askill spoke angrily, her thoughts stumbling along in brief sentences.
"You'll be saved, or you'll be damned. But not by me or any other created thing. Salvation isn't tossed from one to another like tennis balls. I see what you are at. I say what I said before, it's a base silly schoolboy's trick. I leave the upshot to God. He moves wonderfully, uses all men. Who's to say you are not now, with all your folly, part of his purpose? And this bargain of yours a trap to catch souls. Let be. Do as you're a mind to."
Conisby beckoned to the negress, holding out his hand and speaking her name; she moved to him obediently. He said, taking her narrow fingers in his, stroking them, looking all the time at the other woman:
"You must learn to argue with your actions; they do not follow your tongue. You set out to a far island, you have already come within an ace of death, all to bring such women as this to your God. Here is a slave; a word from you will free her. A man's bedfellow out of marriage; but not if you forbid. One word delivers her from bondage, and me from the sin of this especial flesh. You will not find men so easy everywhere you go. Well?"
He waited; repeated "Well?" and for a second or two the movement of his hand ceased, stroking the negress's fingers. He put the question not mockingly, all challenge gone from his voice, and it was almost with tenderness that he went on:
"I do not willingly torment you, as you call it. In this matter I am not serving any malice. I am trying to offer a kind of gift, if you will only accept of it; this poor creature's gratitude and—for what it is worth—my continence. There is a third gift better still, but it is hard to receive. When I seem to question and provoke you, I try to lead you towards that knowledge which alone is peace. Know thyself, Mary. And so judge Maria."
The sound of that name softly pronounced, the pleading in the man's voice, a tone not to be mistaken, made the negress aware that a petition was on foot. She had means to guess that it concerned her, for the name was that of the Queen of Heaven, which in St. Jago adorned the most inappropriate petitions—for the love of Mary peel this onion, for the love of Mary beat that child. She knew only that the man to whom she belonged was denied something, and conceived it her duty, so simple were the workings of her mind, to supplement his plea as best she could. She therefore stooped, kneeled as she had been taught to do in church, and gently laid her cheek to the foot of the obdurate woman as she might have saluted a virgin statue's blessed toe.
Mary Askill made a little stifled sound, the sob of one who has controlled herself too long, and snatched at the negress to bring her upright. She put an arm about Maria's waist, gently urging her towards the ladder which led below. Conisby looked after them in two minds whether to triumph or lament; he had the sense, however, to say nothing, and let his victory, if such it should turn out, pass silently into the region of accomplished fact. He had bought spiritual ascendency at the cost of physical abnegation, a bargain by no means unusual but to him surprising. He could not yet see how it might be turned to any account.
He lay down on the deck, hands under head, looking upwards at unfamiliar stars. They blinked at him. He slept.
At six of a light and pearly morning the slave negroes came aboard. They had not the depressed uneasy mien, nor the death's-head jauntiness of white men going to the galleys. They were grave; silently and with a self-command which reproached their noisy Portuguese overseers they climbed the ship's side, wondered a second or two, looking about her deck, then dropped below into the hold. Some thirty men and women they were, a few children, a couple of babies at the breast; they had a family look, as though the raiders who seized them from the banks of stinking undefended African rivers had made a clean sweep of one tribe. They had not Maria's height nor her appearance of health, but it could be seen that they were of the same race and that race not ignoble.
They came aboard. The hatch, that had been open while nobody breathed the air it admitted, was covered again. It was only then that a spasm of song broke from the captive people, a noise so ordered and powerful that it trembled through the very timbers of the ship. The sailors attempted to cover it with yells and snatches of their own ditties; these sounded thin and trivial, and were blown away east and west by every shifting gust. Mary Askill, hearing the two songs, had a kind of wordless vision in which she saw men weakened by freedom opposed to men by bondage made strong.
The Nonsuch wore her new sails; such flags as she still owned capered in a light breeze. Among the Padre Valgado's gifts was a tiny light cannon, relic of the days of Drake, and from this a salute went out, bidding farewell to the town. The six cannon on the hill responded, echoes magnified and prolonged the puny sounds until they rumbled away like authentic thunder. Captain Bryant, recovered enough to take upon him a semblance of authority, gave the order to up anchor. His sailors, chanting, marched about the capstan and raised the anchor, no longer a dirty cross-bow of iron, but rich from the bay's floor; weed dropped from its flukes rusted red as ochre, to which shells still clung. It lifted, dripping wonders, until the cat-tackle could secure it; then the instrument which for weeks had withheld the Nonsuch from those destructions which lie in the paths of ships in harbour, collision, the teeth of rocks, was dispossessed and forgotten.
The ship crept cautiously out of the bay, for all her banging of cannon hesitant as a prisoner released, until the breeze no longer blanketed by St. Jago's hill came at her full, sails went up to catch it, she lowered her head to take the buffets her own speed was creating, and drove west.
"How long from here, Mr. Bryant?"
"For distance, six hundred leagues. For time—this is August, tornado weather, when the winds chop about into the south; say twenty days. With the sky as it will be, there'll be no taking any observations; so towards the end of the voyage we hang back, fear of overshooting Barbados, and falling upon some other coast in the night. Say twenty days if we don't get stopped by Prince Rupert. He's hereabouts; so the Mate says."
Conisby laid a finger upon the compass card, and wetting it held it up to be cooled by the wind, which sure enough blew from the south. The Nonsuch leaned with her masts at a slant, swayed, and seemed to be at her ease upon the waters; no trace was left of the crippled thing that had floundered in the sea's troughs with canvas ribbons thrashing her yards and a wake crooked as a ram's horn. She sprang forward, she gained upon space, she was a thing of hope. The Master addressed Conisby:
"I have a word to say to you. It's regarding this black woman you shipped."
Conisby looked at him sharply. The Master went on:
"She'll eat and drink, I suppose. I am not here to give away food. So as she's your property, I'll ask you to pay over the passage-money. That is, if you want the convenience of her aft."
"Convenience!" Conisby repeated. "Well, I am not a higgler, I'll pay you at Barbados."
"That won't do," the Master said bluntly.
"I am not in a mind to be patient with you, Mr. Bryant. We did very well without you when you were sick; we should do none the worse without you now that you are better."
"Words break no bones," the Master answered. "Pay, or she goes in the hold with the rest." And with a sneer he went on:
"But you'd best save your money. You get no good of her in there with the holy Jennies."
"No," said Conisby, eyeing him. "For a man who dislikes to share out his property, she's best where she is. I am not such a saving man as you, Mr. Bryant."
He quitted the quarter-deck and came down to where the women sat together on coils of rope in the lee of the mainmast. Mary Askill was learning to read. She had by way of hornbook a few pages of an ancient Bible, whose print was planted close as a coppice, with signs to show a word shortened, and tall capitals mysteriously wrought, like lords of letters, so as not to resemble at all the humble forms from which they had ascended. She read word by word, aloud, hesitating, while Ann Sawyer hemmed linen and the negress sat idle, looking seawards.
"Go and shewe Johan what ye have harde and sene. The blynde se, the hake go, the lepers are clensed, the deaf heare, the deade aryse agayne—" She broke off, hearing Conisby's tread, and looked up. "This is Bible, but not how I've heard it read; more the way country folk speak, old-fangled."
"The way you speak," said he, cocking an eye at her. "It is pretty, it would sound well in a love-song." She neither changed colour nor expression. He took the old printed sheets from her gently, and laid his hand where hers had been, on the same page. "Well, then, spurn me if you must. What does Maria say to it?"
He translated the verse, stumblingly, into Portuguese. Maria's response was astonishing. She got up, gazed wildly at him and the two women and began to tremble. She crossed herself again and again, a gesture which brought Ann Sawyer to her feet, slashing with the flat of her hand to cut and stop the negress's gesture.
"Papistry under my eyes," she shouted.
"Leave her be," Mary Askill advised, astonished, but perceiving a roll of genuine fear in the black woman's look.
"She's got a devil," Ann Sawyer persisted. "Look how she go, with only one verse said over her, and in a heathen language too."
As suddenly as the storm had lifted it was over. Ann Sawyer, rising, had spilled from her lap a spool of thread and the small pair of scissors with which she trimmed her linen; these fell with their blades apart cross-shaped, and so lay. Maria's eyes lost their rage the moment they dwelt upon the scissors. She put on her dignity like a cloak that has been dropped for running, smiled humbly, and stood at Conisby's orders, ready to stay or go. He pointed; she took her seat again upon the rope. He observed that she contrived to scuffle the scissors under her skirt.
Thus the three women once more were seated. Into Conisby's mind, limned there perhaps by their attitudes, the scissors, and the thread which Mary Askill was rolling back upon its spool, came a vision of the Fates, and of himself as the being whose life they took in their hands. Aware of his attention but not of its cause Ann Sawyer asked, with a motion of her needle, for more thread. Mary Askill unrolled a length from the spool; it was too long, Ann said; no more than a few inches would be needed. This measured out, they looked for the scissors. Maria, seeing that her treasure must be discovered, displayed it, and keeping the blades as wide as she could, snipped the thread. Conisby had a brief moment of discomfort. How short the length of his days if this thin cord might stand for them! An echo assailed him, the Master's voice reckoning the days of their journey; say twenty; say twenty.
He said it, therefore, aloud and suddenly, as a charm to break his own uneasiness.
"Twenty days! In twenty days we shall come into Carlisle Bay. And Mrs. Askill will go preaching. I shall labour in another vineyard. And Maria"—she looked up; he soothed her with a hand—"shall be sold for a queen."
"What of me?" Ann Sawyer asked in a low voice. Mary Askill overbore that with another question. "Queens are not sold. What's to become of this poor thing?"
He answered quietly as the drumming thoughts beat more softly in his mind:
"I give her to you."
She smiled at that as at a piece of nonsense, and made enquiries for the slaves in the fore-hatch.
"It hasn't been opened these two days. I heard them sing last night, couldn't sleep for it."
"I dare say Mr. Bryant would let you preach to them without charge. Shall I ask him?"
"We do not preach," Ann Sawyer interposed, malignantly accenting the word. "We testify."
"You preach by example," said he, too politely, "as in that passage of Scripture Mrs. Askill read, which struck such alarm to the bosom of your dark neighbour. The halt see, the blind go—or however it runs."
"Nor are we saved by works," said Ann Sawyer.
"No?" said Conisby. "Yet if you were in fact like the lilies of the field, if you could not spin, we should all have foundered, and be coral bones by now."
"Don't, Ann," said Mary Askill. "We can't match them in talk." She put a hand on the fat woman's knee to restrain her, and went back to the slaves. "Mr. Bryant has paid out money for them, as he paid for the flour we took aboard. He would never let the flour spoil, why does he not look to the people?"
"You are wise," said Conisby. "You have got round me. It was my intention to make you take these people upon you as lost souls. But if you come at them as spoiled merchandise, my cake's dough. You have not said if you accept the gift I made you a while back."
The black woman smiled, secure in the protection of the crossed scissors. Hearing her name and seeing the glance that went with it she said something in Portuguese, which Conisby translated.
"She says, shall she tell you a story?"
They all looked at the negress in surprise. She, pleased to be able at last to talk, with all the naïve enjoyment of a child in being listened to, began at once, taking consent for granted. Conisby sometimes had to check her to make sure of the meaning, sometimes enjoyed a private laugh before he could communicate it; the story flowed in paragraphs, broken now and then with scraps of song, which he did not imitate; they needed no interpretation, being the sounds of animals and birds in terms of the human voice.
"A girl that was a witch lived in a house by a tree. And she had three that loved her. One was a frog, and one was a pea-fowl and one was a snake. And they all did her services, to gain her love. The frog sang her to sleep with a tune. (Sing again, Maria.) Listen, this is the frog."
Maria, chuckling, sang again a little phrase which made them laugh:
"That was the frog. And the pea-fowl waked her in the morning with his screech, that went as you heard. (Again, Maria.)"
And she repeated the pea-fowl's cry:
"Chirryway, chirryway, chirryway dem de, chirryway."
"Snake, he did nothing. The girl was weary of him and of them all. So she said she would marry the man that could get the best of Death. Well! So when they heard that, Frog said again:
and he went away, sad. And Pea-fowl too, he said again:
'Chirryway, chirryway, chirryway dem de, chirryway,'
and he went away sad. But Snake he said nothing, and he went along another road whistling. And he went to Death's house. And Death said, when he knocked on the door:
'Turn tulla-lulla-lum tum!'
"So Snake went in, and told Death why he had come. Death said: 'We will make believe to fight.' Snake said: 'She will not be taken in, she is a wise girl.' Death said: 'I will give you a bone of mine for her to look at.' And he gave Snake his bone.
"So Snake went back along the road not whistling, because he was holding the bone in his mouth for safety. Soon he came to the girl's door. 'What do you want, Snake?' But he could not speak, he was holding the bone. Then the girl got angry and pulled at the bone so that he might speak. But she fell down dead. And the bone sang:
'Turn tulla-lulla-lum tum!'
"So from that time Snake always carries the bone of Death in his mouth."
Maria listened attentively to the uncouth sounds, which conveyed her story to English ears as a stumbling mule might carry a pannier of oranges to market, and laughed when Conisby ended. To her this was an amusing legend, whose point lay in the shrewdness of the jester Death, neatly adding to his score of victims under pretence of helping a love affair. She laughed, therefore; but seeing that her audience did not find the conclusion funny, though smiles had encouraged her throughout the rest of the recital, she quickly drew her lips together.
Rain began hopping on the deck, rich drops of a weight to beat the sea flat and soak any dress in two minutes. There was a scramble to get below into shelter, and comment upon the negress's story was forgotten.
This rain continuing all evening imposed a new problem upon the passengers. During the three days that had passed since they set out from St. Jago meals had been eaten alfresco on the deck, Maria being present and taking her share, skilfully showing the others how best to deal with those unfamiliar fruits which were the chief of their diet. Now that rain obliged a meal in the cabin, hot from the beating of a day's sun and smoky from untended lamps, where was Maria to go? She herself, having kept house for the Padre Valgado and deriving from a race which ate unceremoniously, had no doubts as to what she should do. Mary Askill did not think about it, Ann Sawyer's objections to eating in the black woman's company had been mitigated by the decent distribution of a kerchief over her form. Only Conisby was uneasy. It had hung about him all day, heavy in the air, a sense that the ship was closing in upon them all; that those passions from which they had been delivered first by the need to strive for life, then by passivity following that need fulfilled, were about to demand satisfaction. He beheld his own conduct as mischievous, childish, could not see what end it had served. He was dissatisfied with himself. He sought to fend off trouble at least for one night, and put it to Maria that she should eat privately for once; but when unquestioning she accepted this whim as an order and he saw her go along the alley away from the cabin he called her back. She adapted herself to the second command as readily as to the first, and followed him to table.
Captain Bryant was not present, nor the Mate, to carve the leg of a young wild calf, and the task fell to Conisby. Maria at his nod mixed a salad after the Portuguese manner, with red wine instead of vinegar and pepper ground upon it out of a little mill. It was pleasant to taste fresh food and they ate not greedily, on account of the heat, but taking small quantities with appetite. They had come to the fruit when Captain Bryant appeared. He would take nothing, he had supped on the quarter-deck, he had a communication to deliver which in a sentence was made public.
"Mr. Conisby, you remember what I spoke to you. I see you have the woman here at table, and so you will let me have the money by to-night."
Conisby finished the salad on his plate, filled his wine-cup and lifted it. He drank leisurely before he answered.
"A little gold sauce, aurum potabile, with your supper, Mr. Bryant. And a bill of lading for your bill of fare. These would suit you very well, I believe."
"I hold you to it," said the other, not shifting his expression, dogged and impenetrable.
"Ah," Conisby said easily, "I will pay you, I will pay you—in your own coin, but at my own time."
The Master looked at him. Mary Askill spoke, not interrupting the encounter of the men's eyes. They disregarded her voice; it was not permitted to intrude upon the secret space in which dislike and contempt trod out their quarrel.
"Come into the open," Conisby said, still sitting at ease while the Master stooped. "You contracted to carry me to Barbados. You do so only by the mercy of God and the wit of a woman, that saved your ship and your pence along with it. Your owner will never know, Mr. Bryant, that an extra passenger has been carried, since the money for Maria's passage will never quit your pocket. I am not in the humour to give gold to a fellow whose niggardliness came near to buy me a grave. We'll go on as before, by your leave—or without your leave." And as though with that the matter were ended, dismissed, he said to Mary Askill, smiling:
"You see how wise you were not to accept Maria as my gift; Mr. Bryant might then have come bawling in your ear for her passage-money."
Mary Askill did not answer his words or his smile. She asked the Master civilly what he proposed to do with the negress; and got the answer that henceforth Maria must, with the rest of her colour, take her chance in the hold. She accepted that quietly, with a nod of the head.
It was an odd scene; the lamp hanging at an angle as wind pressed upon the Nonesuch's sails and tilted her, showed two faces ruminative, two faces angry, and one blank with that departure of all expression which is like the animal's stillness before danger. Implements upon the table clinked now and then, and through the planks which formed the cabin walls came a sound of water slapping and bubbling as the hull cleft it.
Only one of these five persons was consciously thinking, formulating decisions. The others were caught up in moods, and so remained as in a picture. Mary Askill alone was performing an act of thought, laying two and two together, reckoning her case. When she spoke she struck them all out of their moods as though somebody had cracked a whip in that wooden box ten feet by twelve. She said:
"The girl stays. I'll go with the slaves."
After pause there was a babble, in which the loudest voice was Ann Sawyer's. She got up and stretched across the table to take her companion's shoulder which she shook, crying out that works were not obliged upon the chosen, and that the black woman was a witch. Mary Askill easily put these frantic hands from her and repeated:
"I'll go with the slaves."
She gave no reason. Conisby alone did not ask one; but when the arguments and disclaiming ceased he said to Mary Askill:
"Will you give me a word?"
Her look answered the question behind his question, a look which said, I am afraid. It was this confession made without words that he dealt with when he spoke again.
"I will not torment you. I will cry off entirely, not speak nor come near you, on deck or at board. You need not fear me."
Again she did not answer, and it was as though she had said: I fear not you but myself. But the Master was taking a hand.
"What are you saying, Mrs. Askill? God knows such a thing wouldn't do."
"And why would it not do?" said she. Her face was growing whiter with each moment that passed, and Ann Sawyer could feel the fingers that still clasped her own becoming cold. The words which followed she perhaps spoke unknowing. "My place is with those who are captives."
"You are not a black, is my answer to that," the Master said, uncomfortably looking down. "And it's not you that is in my debt, but I'm in yours."
"So a debt's paid, what matter? Pay me this way." Conisby, half-smiling, said softly:
"Are you so much afraid of me?" When she did not answer him he brought the habitual mockery into his voice. "How will you deal with the heathen if you are afraid of one infidel? If you run away? Mary, do you hear me? Captain Bryant knows me better than you do. When his trick fails he admits it and we start again. You should keep to that example. Do not go into darkness for a word lightly spoken. It is ended, Maria sleeps where she pleases, there is no debt—none in money. We may kiss hands."
He kissed his own fingers and gently, almost indifferently touched her, as a woman at a church door will hand on holy water to another. She did not seem to see him. She was ranging somewhere out of reach of his words. When she did speak it was from that uncharted air that her words came weakly back:
"What should the woman do?"
The Master, disconcerted by the turn matters had taken, quickly consulting the others with his eyes, answered that there was no occasion, the matter was settled, let her think no more of it.
"No," said Mary Askill, beginning to tremble and to speak faster than her usual pace, the words crowding to her mouth, tumbling out. "The woman must strive, and the witness of the spirit must be borne. To be troubled in conscience is easy, trouble will not mend matters. What then will mend her, where must she fly? How shall the woman keep unspotted from the guile of the serpent? A covenant of works is scorned, yet works deliver, works are the refuge; the great stone is not of the spirit, not to be rolled away by the spirit, but by the hands. By laying on of hands the blind see, the halt go, the dead rise again; but oh, there is a laying on which is not to be endured, dangerous, treasonous! And brings no peace. But peace, that too is not to be desired. Peace, farewell. Too easily the spark lights. No peace, no peace! Weeping and gnashing of teeth through the years, until the Lord comes at last to his own, until the Bridegroom cometh. We are not to look for peace but a sword. And the sword is sheathed, and the sword beats in the water beside him, where the tempter goes. Such things shall be revealed at the waking, after suffering, as are not now to be told. To this end I have assurance, works are a snare, yet shall they deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man. Behold, I am chosen. And the stone before the bridal chamber shall be rolled away, lifted up to heaven where the winged things roll and give praise. So, and only so, goes the woman free."
She stood, hands wavering before her breast. Conisby was touched with pity at the sight of those hands no longer sure, and to hear the flesh, caught up by some gust of the spirit, betray its own secret. He was ashamed for her, and sorry. Quickly he consulted the other faces, to know if they too had made the discovery that she was troubled by her unwilling love for him. The Master was purely bewildered, shifting from foot to foot, and looking for help to stout Ann Sawyer. The regress remained still and mute; her eyes were upon the speaker, and something of the same fear that had informed her at recital of the text from Matthew earlier in the day began to round them. Ann Sawyer turned on Conisby; in her angry hot face, upon whose brow the scar seemed to pucker and redden, he perceived that by one person at least his knowledge was shared.
"You that must always be sniffing at her heels! You that carry hell about with you, and singe all you touch! What do you say now?"
Conisby spoke to the Master with a conscious sharpness that he hoped might pierce the situation and loose tension.
"It is frenzy. Have you no lazaret for passengers that become lunatic?"
Ann Sawyer cried, holding her fist tightly against her temple:
"She is saner than you. I'll look to her. After she has testified she's weak, forgets what she's said. Leave her to me."
Conisby's endeavour had been, not to draw fire from Mrs. Sawyer, but to cover Mary Askill's admission with the name of frenzy. He succeeded in conveying something of that notion to the Master, who spoke low:
"Mad, d'ye think?"
"Mad or saint, it's all one. Look, she's coming back." It was a curious return to watch, the return of the native of those eyes. They stirred, searched, recognized; then without warning were closed by a hearty sneeze. At the homely innocent sound they all with one accord laughed, and Mary Askill, finding herself back from the empyrean, restored to gay company, laughed too. Ann Sawyer put an arm about to lift her. She resisted.
"Sleep," Ann Sawyer shortly answered.
"I'm all over sleep," Mary Askill agreed, rubbing her eyes. She drew back to question again. "Testimony?"
Mary Askill did not follow up that word; she sat rubbing at her cheeks to liven them. The Master slapped his pocket and said to Conisby:
"She'll do best left alone."
"I'll come with you," Conisby answered. The Master halted to reject his company, but thought better of it, and went towards the ladder. At that moment came Mary Askill's voice:
"Captain, Mr. Bryant, where's your key?"
He turned, fixing her with an unbelieving stare.
"You're not back at that? Don't I tell you the matter's over and done with. Have I been whistling psalms to the taffrail?"
"It's not done with."
"Woman"—the Master began, exasperated; then moderated his voice. "I thought you had sense. What sense is there to go among these black people with their nastiness?" She held out her hand, smiling. He looked at it. "What's that for?"
"I helped you once. Repay me now."
"You're out of your reckoning." She smiled. "You're lunatic." She would not be disconcerted or denied. And there was a confidence in her smile against which he found it hard to argue. Still, he had something to say.
"Hark to me," said Bryant with authority, the ship-master speaking. "These people have troubles. I don't know if there are now any sick; I believe one or two; but the matter is, they say such things can be carried. My men are sound, we are a wholesome ship as ships go. I can't have you trafficking back and forth."
"I shall be safe there."
"Nor I won't have it said I compelled you. Bear witness, it's not I who compel you."
"It's by my own will and my own wish. You are quits with me."
The Master hesitated; then angrily, because he was touched, burst out that he would not do it, this was no sort of repayment for her care when he lay with a hole in his head. She said, putting a hand weightily on his arm:
"By that token I ask you. By that care I gave you."
"Let her go," said Conisby softly. "She will not be easy here."
And as he stood beside her he stooped, and, this time not mockingly, caught up a corner of her prim clean apron, which he lightly kissed and dropped again. She said, in the rough voice with which she always covered emotion:
"Ay, do that now. You won't be so ready when the smell of the blacks is on it, I'm thinking."
"Where thou goest, I will go. Mary, I'm coming."
That was Ann Sawyer. Her words encountered a shake of the head.
"Bide you here."
"We were together in prison."
"There's no call now."
"No, there's no call. I'm not so troubled by"—what, she did not name—"that I have to jump into a pit to escape."
Mary Askill took the stroke without winking. She let it alone, and Ann Sawyer, having made it, knew that she had destroyed her own case, that there could be no question now of them going among the blacks together. She sat down again, and with a gesture unconsciously symbolic beat her hand once or twice against her mouth.
The three went up the ladder with no further talk, Conisby in the middle. Their feet rapped heavily on the treads, the opening of a door on to the deck let in sounds of the sea; hissing of blown spray, whine of air parted by ropes, a bell striking four. It was ten o'clock at night, second hour of the first watch, and very dark.
When they had gone there was a movement from Maria; the tentative movement of a creature testing the retreat of danger. She came out of her forgotten corner, and delicately stole a fruit, which she held and ate without mess, now and then listening. Ann Sawyer said nothing, sat still. A second fruit was approached; this time the fat woman's quick movement caught her wrist. Maria moved it feebly, hopelessly in that country grip.
"This is along of you," said Ann Sawyer. "You—six foot of black nothing." The other made a timid questioning sound. "What for did you want to come aboard? What good are you but to make trouble? Will you kill that man for me?" But the thought she had put into words alarmed her, thus taking body. "No, no. You don't understand what I say." She let the wrist go. "I don't know as you've made all that difference. Poor thing, then."
She stroked the negress's cheek. Maria, comprehending the caress no better than the cuff, let her have her way.
Conisby went up the ladder firmly enough, offering a steady inoffensive hand as the ship came about and the deck changed its angle. While they stripped the coverings from her bed and rolled them, while she put her clothes into a bundle he did not talk, but surveyed the preparations tolerantly, asking only, as she took up her few pages of the Gospel, whether she thought the hold would afford light for reading, and if the negroes would be any wiser after she had preached to them in an unknown tongue. She did not answer; she was not hurt by him in his schoolboy moods. She cast up a single prayer: Let him not be gentle. He was not gentle. He was cocksure of something or other, and helped with the bundles indulgently as at a child's game which could not last long enough to be troublesome. He had one or two jibes which later she recollected; something about a jewel in an Ethiop's ear, and a question: if the Lord wished these people to be saved, would he not have seen to it that they were born in England as Brownists or Quakers? She could endure that sort of thing very well.
Preparations ended, the Master led the way along a narrow passage under the ship's ribs. The hint of a smell came into this passage; sweetish yet rank, honey out of the dead body of a lion.
"A nigger ship or a bone ship; any man that's been at sea can nose either one a mile off." She remembered that saying of the English sailor. Conisby's hand caught her arm; he repeated quickly and harshly his former question:
"Are you so much afraid of me?"
She would not answer his true meaning, and told him she feared no man.
"I do not believe it," said he, holding her still. The Master turned to wait for them, his face sardonic in the lantern's light. "You are running away from me. What is it you are doing?" He shook her arm. "It will be dark in this place. There will be stenches, the chance of plague. No, Mary. Mary, I won't persecute you. Only say one thing, only say that you do not trust yourself, and I swear you shall be free from me. Answer."
"Give over your love-songs," sang out the Master.
"Answer. Say you fear yourself, then, if you don't fear me. I know it; every turn of your head tells me so. Very well, then, you need not say even that; only speak to the Master, tell him you will go back. That will satisfy me. Say it." And he called Bryant with a lift of the voice that sounded hollow as the cry of Jonah, down among the ship's ribs:
"Hey! Mrs. Askill wants you."
The Master lifted his light enquiringly. Mary Askill made no sound. Conisby pressed her arm tightly, and shook it.
"Speak to him. Say you will go back. I ask no more. I leave you in peace henceforward."
"What's amiss?" Bryant called.
"Naught," she answered, and made towards him. Conisby held her back.
"You will not let yourself love. Say it, and have done. You are not like the Papists, tormenting yourself to please God. You do not run mad for God. You are a woman. Well, then. Answer."
She pulled away from him towards the waiting lantern. He let her go, but said in a voice clouded with bewilderment:
"Do you hate me, then? Have I tormented you too long?"
She said to that, over her shoulder:
"My little sir, make your mind easy. You're the least part of it all."
His mouth twitched, he turned back. The Master called:
"Where are you off to?"
Under his left arm Conisby had been carrying her clothes. He dropped the bundle now, and stooped away under the ship's ribs. Mary Askill, picking up the bundle, rejoined Bryant beside the iron door.
It was wholly dark in the fore-hold. As the Master's key turned, and the bolts below and above the latch were loosened, there began a rustling and a whispering among the people very like what may be heard in a farmyard when unusual noises disturb the fowls in their light sleep.
"We feed 'em from here," was all Bryant said, as the door was wrenched open.
Holding a lantern he stooped, then stood upright. A sweetish smell came at them which was unbearably troubling, so thick, a blanket of smell, that Mary Askill looked at the light expecting to see it go out. Still it burned on, protected by horn, bringing out of darkness whites of eyes, teeth apprehensively bared, of the people disturbed.
"They don't talk any lingo we know," said the Master. He made a wide sweep with his right arm, brushing the negroes back from him to make a place where the whites might stand. Then, pointing to Mary Askill, in the infantile English by which trade was conducted upon the African coast, he said the white woman was come to stay, eat, live. She good—he patted her to show approval—she talk plenty, do plenty good thing. The blacks gazed at Mary Askill as he gestured, all the clear eyeballs swung towards her. She said loudly:
"God pity you all. I don't come to hurt you."
The Master, fumbling, not abandoning his lantern, spread a blanket in a place where she might have the support as she lay of the curving hull. Her clothing made only a small bundle, but she had brought the spinning-wheel; these set down on the blanket, and the few printed pages of the New Testament laid with them, represented the only furnishings of this encampment, her home for weeks of tropical voyaging. The people were no longer afraid, but they were mystified, unable to suppose that this woman came among them as a volunteer, and fearing to descry in her traces of some sickness or madness which might have caused her thus to be set apart. They shrank back, and a whispering grew.
"Ready?" said the Master. He went on, jocularly:
"Try if prayers will keep the fleas off."
He could find no more to say; and after standing aimlessly, thrust out at her his hand with the lantern in it.
"Keep this, you'd better."
It was a saving man's gift; no more than half an inch of the dip remained; but it was acceptable in that place, dark by reason of its close walls, and the night, and the huddled black bodies. The Master went away, swinging his keys to make a cheerful noise, and shut the door, locking it. Mary Askill was left with her lantern like a traveller in the jungle, who sees round his fire the eyes of inquisitive or hungry beasts, waiting until the wood burns lower to come near.
She neither spoke to them, nor attempted in any other way to make herself known, but lay down peaceably. When they saw that she did not rebel against her situation they began to lose their fear; the whispering voices took body. She felt that they no longer mistrusted but were puzzled, as animals might be, by the intrusion of an unknown thing into their domain. Leaning forward upon her elbow she shifted the shutter of the lantern, letting her face come close that they might see it plain, and so blew out the candle.
In the dark she lay, not sleeping. Protest woke in her. Here was a woman like others, set apart out of the woman's way of life by some choice not her own, and cast into the irregular pattern of life as led by men; men, for ever dealing in matters which they could not hope to control; dependent upon weather for crops, winds for trade, and women for comfort; never content because never sure. Not theirs to take their time and seasons by the faithful moon. Not theirs, not hers, to live snug within the bounds of tasks renewing daily and unfailing as manna. She had a second's vision, stolen from the first chapter of Job; men, restless as Satan, going to and fro upon the earth and walking up and down in it, women stable as—. She checked her mind before it could pronounce that tremendous last syllable, the name of God. She had made this restlessness her own, through change pursuing the unchanging. God filled and pressed upon her as the wind upon the sail.
At the end of his morning watch the Mate stopped in the middle of a stretch and a yawn to focus a shape thrusting out of the misty horizon to starboard. The breeze from the south had dropped after its dawn liveliness, and the Nonsuch dawdled forward with the sun on her quarter. The shape dawdled too, seeming to swell and dwindle with the haze, so that even with his spyglass it was difficult for the Mate to form any precise opinion, beyond that the ship, whatever it might be, was advancing upon him.
The Master, summoned, did not like the cut of the newcomer. He looked at her long, then cast a quick eye along his own deck and frowned. The cannon had gone overboard to lighten the ship during the storm off Africa, but his glance sought those places where they had been, and his frown lamented their loss. He confided to the Mate that if she turned out a pirate there was no standing up to her. Reminded that Prince Rupert was on the high seas, in command of the Constant Reformation, he said he took little comfort from that, Rupert being as great a thief as any of them. But he did not, on the whole, appear much disquieted. His cargo now consisted of live freight, for which he had bartered ribbons, hats, and other English trifles with the Padre Valgado; until these had been exchanged in Barbados for sugar, at the rate of 1,500 pounds of that commodity per slave, and that same sugar sold in Amsterdam or London for money, he was not a man worth robbing. So he proclaimed. The Mate, recollecting a certain locked and heavy sea-chest in the corner across which was slung the Master's hammock, did not contradict in words. He asked for orders, and was told to hold the course awhile—"No need to run until he proves himself."
They held accordingly. The crew being now as well aware of the strange ship's onset as the denizens of the quarter-deck, gathered and gaped to starboard. The boatswain came to question whether they should not he issued with arms, and was told No.
"Last time you took up arms—" said Captain Bryant. He left the sentence unfinished, but touched his head, which a nightcap covered, his wound being still unsightly. "So we'll take our chance."
The newcomer approached as a small wind allowed, in zigzags, brief spurts of speed, languishings. His rig was outlandish, neither English nor Dutch, but as he turned they could see black squares along his side; ports for guns. He flew a pennant and some other flag not decipherable for those on board the Nonsuch. Half a mile off a puff of smoke and a thud came from one of his open ports, but no splash in the water ahead betokened shot. It was a signal, not a threat; an invitation to heave-to.
The Master gave orders. The adjusted sails, taking each his different pressure so as to cancel out stresses from the wind, held the Nonsuch still on water that seemed to darken now that the sun was getting high. The unknown ship performed the like manoeuvre. There was activity on her deck, a boat was lowered, men swarmed down a rope and filled it. The Master and Mate saw light blink off metal, and looked at each other. There was nothing to be done, however, save wait; and wait they did, not moving, while a stern ladder was hung out and their men restlessly shifted from rail to shrouds, conjecturing as to the flag which now hung limp, hidden by the mast.
The boat, rowed with precision by four oarsmen, came near enough to hail the Nonsuch. At sound of the voice which shouted the Master said:
"English! Well, thank God, for I'm no linkister."
"Not an English rig," the Mate contended.
"Rupert's not English."
They waited. The sound of dipping oars was audible now, as was the rhythmic plash the boat made advancing. She perceived the ladder and came under the stern to it. All heard the command "Oars!" and the rattle as they were lifted. The Mate, who had obeyed his captain mulishly hitherto, took a sort of cold comfort from the fact at least of not being stopped and boarded by a Dutchman.
A dark youngish man came aboard alone, and looking about him with a shrewd eye made the traditional enquiries; ship's name, from whence, whither bound, with what cargo? The Master asked parallel information, and was coolly informed that it was no concern of his."
"We," said the young man, "please ourselves."
"You're the Constant Reformation?"
"Near enough," the young man answered, grinning. "Her younger sister. Prince Maurice wants wine from you. We're short."
"I carry none."
"Ha!" said the young man, with the least change of countenance. "Psalm-singer, are you?"
"We lost our wine, and our cannon, and near the ship in a gale. I have thirty slaves aboard. No other cargo but the stores we need."
"We'll see," the young man told him. "I'll take a view of your quarters, if you please."
He was not armed. True, a couple of men who had mounted the ladder behind him had breastplates and short swords; but the young man himself carried no steel, offered no threat. The Master, in two minds about him, timely recollected the vessel broadside on to his own, whose open ports displayed the black roundels of guns. He made protest.
"I have my papers from France. You are out of your rights to search a friendly ship."
"Well," said the young man accommodatingly, "God save King Louis. Prince Maurice sends his cousinly compliments, and may he have the loan of a cask of wine?" He took off his hat, bowed, replaced it, and with his left hand extended invited the Master to be his guide. They went forward together. The two marine soldiers lingered at the head of the ladder, and turned out to be Germans when spoken to by the Mate.
The young man in a methodical way went about his search for wine. It could be seen that this was one of his more usual tasks, and he was perfect in it. At last he came to a curtained door.
The young man went in, stood a moment at gaze, and gave a shout, which a shout answered. The Master was obliged to make what he could of the spectacle of passenger and pirate embracing. He wheeled and left them.
The young man who with polite indifference had rejected the Master's sworn assurance that there was no wine, was content at once with Conisby's simple affirmation, and supposed there was nothing more to be said or done. But he expressed his astonishment at finding an ex-soldier, ex-drinker, on board a ship with never a cannon on her decks nor a firkin of wine in her hold, and was of opinion that Conisby had better shift his quarters.
"We'll take you aboard," said the young man. "And you'll come to Barbados sometime if that's what you are set on. (I have an uncle there, Colonel Modiford.) You may come late, but our company is livelier. Bring your black beauty with you, come to that."
"What do you know of my black beauty?"
"Only what I have seen. So she is yours? I thought as much. Well, then." And he went on:
"You need not share her. We are gentlemen in some matters, though my poor mother would blush to see my linen."
Conisby shortly told him he was mistaken, and added no more for a while. The young man, understanding that some other issue was at stake, waited civilly. Conisby sat with his clasped hands between his knees, staring down at them. At last, in a voice unnatural with some strain, he said that he would not join Prince Maurice; was grateful, sent his duty, wished he might send wine,' and got up from his bunk as though to signify that the matter was ended.
"You are your own master," said the young man shrugging; then with a burst of laughter:
"Not the fat one, is it?" Conisby laughed too. "She's a prophetess," the young man went on. "There was a question I heard disputed once; how these Puritan women ever come with child. Some said, on account of their men all being cuckolds; but that doesn't get over the chief difficulty."
Conisby did not laugh, and the young man with a shrewd twist brought the talk round again.
"And it's something we'll never prove now. What news when you left France?"
They talked of indifferent matters until the report of a gun sounded dully like the thump of a mallet on wood. The young man, with a casual curse for his Royal Highness's impatience, prepared to go. He tried a last word of persuasion.
"We'd be glad, John." Conisby shook his head. "As you choose. Confusion to Oliver!"
The German soldiers when he rejoined them had lost some of their severely military air. They had accepted fruit and struck up acquaintance with the crew of the Nonsuch; juice upon their beards and breastplates rendered them mortal to the view. The crew fed them, delighted as a child when some unknown animal takes food from its hand, and in the lingua franca of the seas exchanged sea gossip; what ships were about, what trade was to be had in Barbados, the chances of privateers. The young man's appearance stiffened them to attention once more, and the contrast with his carelessness was striking. He advanced, kicking idly at coils of rope, took a banana from a sailor's hand, stripped and ate it after a wide-armed signal to his ship; then, easily as ten years back he might have slid down the oak banisters of an English country house into its hall with stands of armour, he slipped down the rope ladder into his cock-boat, followed by the military. The Nonsuch cheered their departure.
The Master said, sourly watching—he had not been included in the farewells:
"Honour among thieves. We can thank Mr. Conisby he left us our pewter mugs. Now we may set a course again."
Easily spoken. But the wind of early morning was now dead. Such small idle waves as lifted between the ships were of its stirring, owned no present master. The Nonsuch spread all her canvas, Prince Maurice put on the like, both wooed the wind with all their skill; yet they did no more than drift apart at a speed which hardly was enough to break and whiten the water below their bowsprits' shadow. The sun was getting high. Conisby, treading the level steady deck in whose seams pitch began to shine and rise, looked once and again at the hatch fastened down above the hold. From this came no song, no sound at all; but he fancied as he stood by it that through canvas and wood came something of the stench that had crept after him the night before from the place where the black people, where Mary Askill lay.
He looked after the other ship withdrawing into the haze, and was in half a mind to swim for it as he had swum to the shore at St. Jago; one of his scholar's tags came to recollection, the saying that they change skies, not hearts, who voyage across seas. He was angry with himself that he could not change his heart. He was slave to a silly passion that had begun in pure idleness, pure mischief, the wish to turn the head of one of these praying women concerning whom his young friend had that morning made a cavalier joke. He shook himself and spat to clear the unpleasantness from his thought, a process he at once perceived to be futile as the previous imagined expedient; to swim away from a sick heart, to spit out knowledge of weakness, one matched the other for folly. The hot deck reminded him again that the woman for whose sake he had rejected the company of Prince Maurice was so unwilling that she preferred to him the heat and misery that lay a few feet below the sole of his shoe. He stamped with fury, twice; walked a little way, stamped again in turning, driving his heel at the deck with angry pleasure, then stopped, having heard as he walked his thumpings echoed: one two, a pause, one.
He stamped three times, listened. Faithfully the echo came. He stamped a more lively pattern of sound, and found it repeated, decorated as a musician decorates with grace-notes some smooth flowing theme. Who would have supposed the blacks so apt, almost so witty with their drumsticks? He began to knock out a dance, heel and toe. Beneath him the tapping followed and skirmished in the liveliest way about his fixed rhythm. He laughed as he danced, keeping scrupulous time. The tapping began to hold off from his beat, coming against it in a tantalizing way. He stamped harder; the drummer still eluded him, dodging the beat deliberately, it seemed, mocking him. He stood still all of a sudden, aware that he was sweating; the artist below broke into a flurry of taps like the cadenza towards the end of a song; slackened, waited for the rhythm to resume above him, all with an infuriating confidence and mastery of the poor device, bone upon wood, that was his skill's only instrument.
Conisby suddenly was angry again with himself and with the unseen drummer. He stood still. The man below invited feet to resume their play with a quick scamper of taps; he ignored them, did not move. Twice more the gay taps besought him. He violently trod out the last under a senseless rubbing and scuffling without rhyme or reason, and walked away, sweat rolling down the sides of his nose. He heard the taps half-heartedly resume, as though calling him back; then he was out of their range and came to a halt by Maria the negress.
Her candid face was frowning. Thought had visited and troubled her during the night. She said to him breathlessly in the tongue of her adopted people that she could not understand; where was—and she sketched with a quick movement of her fingers Mary Askill's square face, the kerchief round her shoulders. He told her roughly that the other was where she, Maria, ought to be.
"Down there. Among your people. Where the Master put her."
Maria took this calmly. Such things had happened within her experience to women who refused to be obliging to their masters.
"But," said she gently, frowning again, "is she not then your woman?"
He said that she was not. Never had been. Never would be. Had rather rot among blacks than be his woman. Was Maria satisfied? Or should he swear to it by the shoulder-bone of whatever saint she favoured with her devotions? She was troubled, because in the scene of the night before she still could not make out what her own part had been; she begged to be told whence came the anger of the Master, and why the woman who was not his had by him been shut away. Conisby's answer, that she had gone to hell on a fool's errand, hardly settled this question.
"If the other Maria is no man's woman, and not a slave, why must she go into the dark?"
Conisby answered, with a barking laugh which surprised her, that it was to keep herself no man's woman still that she had gone. She watched him for a while as a dog might watch, to discover his mood, then timidly said that the Master would open the door soon.
"Not while he can keep it shut and watch me kick."
"Perhaps he would give the key."
"Perhaps I would not ask him."
"No," Maria agreed.
Conisby patted her with a curved hand, hard, as he might have patted a dog, and said she was a good creature and it was no fault of hers if he were bewitched. Submissively she bowed. The Master, passing, was challenged:
"How do we get our wind this time, Mr. Bryant?" The Master did not answer. "You had best set Mrs. Sawyer to work again. But it came a hurricane last time, she is too extreme in praying. Better have up Mrs. Askill. Otherwise your wind will cost you money."
The Bryant swung upon him.
"If Mrs. Askill lies where she does it's by her own choosing."
"And the master of a ship cannot hinder, I suppose, a woman from her will? If it is her choice to sleep on the anchor or make a spindle of the backstaff he must bow to it?"
"Laugh," said the Master, "that is all your sort are fit for. The ship and passengers is my concern."
He went away. Conisby, foiled of quarrel, flung himself down upon the deck in a mast's shadow. The negress, stooping, took his head dutifully upon her knee. They sat in silence, surrounded as it seemed by motionless air; the slight stern breeze with which the ship's forward movement kept pace could not gain upon her enough to make them aware of its presence. Conisby spoke once, to ask where was Ann Sawyer. Maria answered that she was lying upon her bed, but this was simply for the sake of answering, not to disoblige her owner by a show of ignorance. She did not know that Ann Sawyer was at that moment in the galley with the cook, making a scene with texts, and demanding to supplement the loblolly prepared for the blacks with some dish fit for a Christian woman's keep.
Conisby could not be satisfied with this answer. His own helplessness would not let him rest. And the idleness of the ship, which afforded no occupation even for his eyes, gave no vicarious satisfaction to the desire for movement. He sprang up from the supporting knee to hail the Master again.
"When do you feed your black ivory?"
The Master ignored him, perhaps not hearing, for a slant of wind coming their way had roused all the familiar small sounds among the cordage. Conisby stood, flushing, and was lifting his hands to his mouth to bellow when the negress caught at his sleeve. He looked round at her angrily; she smiled, patting the leggings of white leather that she wore, pressing one tight upon her leg to show the shape of a key lying against her calf. Conisby held out his hand. She fished for the key with a forefinger, bought it to light, and laid it on his palm.
"From his pocket," said Maria. "But he does not know, perhaps."
Conisby looked at her very directly for a second or two, weighing the key up and down.
"So that's where you were." She met the questioning eye with modest complacency, and nodded. He slapped her thigh sharply, twice, and shook a finger at her. "I thought you understood nothing. I won't say what I think otherwise; but how could you know I might have a use for that key?"
Now her face became troubled again. With an uneasy flicker of her eyes she said she had taken the key for herself; that her owner's requirements had for once not been consulted by her; she had heard the singing, and it was singing known to her, the people below were her people; she had thought it might be possible, one night, to creep down below with them and sing.
"And carry food, I don't doubt." Conisby laughed. "Bryant's face!"
Maria looked blank. It had not occurred to her to better the lot of the slaves by stealing, but only to give herself pleasure. She was happy to have afforded him the occasion for laughter, regretting only the loss of her key, which she anxiously eyed. He stood, beating on his hand with it one of the rhythms he had danced half an hour back; then on an impulse made forward. She followed with a half-phrased plea—"for the love of Mary?"—which at first he would not hear. Then, recollecting that she knew the speech of the blacks, and might interpret if need be, he beckoned her and they went below.
Mary Askill waked to the same pains of cramp and damp and darkness that she had known before when the Mayor of Oxford sent her to his bridewell. This imprisonment was of her own choosing, none the more bearable for that, and had for decoration certain horrors of which the gaol at Oxford knew nothing. The smell, for one thing, was worse, and being a protean smell her nose could not become used to and discount it. It was disposed in layers, richest near the bottom; any movement stirred it and brought variety; every moment seemed to thicken it. And then, the noises made by the black people were not like the companionable snores or sighs of English women. They grunted, woke bubbling with nightmare, and spoke unintelligibly; something in the tones of those devils, it might be, that besought the Lord to let them enter into swine in the country of the Gadarenes. There was no window or outer port in the hold, only places grated with iron that gave upon the ribs of the ship.
She waked, then, not even to light. But by the stirring of the people, their louder talk, she knew it must be morning. Use of eyes denied, she employed her ears, and by recollection of the routine of the ship and the sound of its bells did what she could to guess the hour. But what she heard could be fitted into no shape of day with which she was familiar. Bare feet overhead went upon unusual errands, shod feet, stopping and shifting, answered to no step within her remembrance. She found herself listening for Conisby's quick walk, and did not hear it; for the clapping of water on the ship's sides, and did not hear it. She had gone into a world whence communication with all other was cut off; all other save one. She knelt, the blacks backing away from her, and repeated aloud a few sentences of praise. The words did not come easily. She took it that this costiveness of spirit was a thing not to be wrestled with, even though the example of Jacob and the angel appeared in her mind's eye. Getting to her feet, raising her head into a new stratum of the foul air, she said loudly in her country English:
"Now, neighbours, where's the water?"
There was none, as she discovered after she had blundered about the hold like a moth in a bed-curtain, thrusting her feet into couchant ribs and pushing with her hands between masses of smooth or sticky flesh. She had heard the Captain use a term in speaking of the slaves; he had said with some self-approval that he was not one for stowing them spoon-ways, that is, packed and lying close as a set of spoons. But the space between these bodies could not otherwise be measured.
She came, fumbling, upon a leather crock hung on a cleat in the partition wall. It was the only one, and it was empty. The blacks had poor light, no water, little air, no conduit to carry filth away. She recollected with discomfort the cleanliness of Maria, her pleasure in the fine linen she wore; these people of the same blood must suffer in filthiness. She could see, now that her eyes were adjusted to the meagre light, how they kept themselves from her as well as they could and made way for her explorations unrescntfully, even with a nervous quickness. The notion that they were afraid made her say aloud:
"You needn't fear me. Naught to eat or drink or do. We've the day before us, poor people, and more days like it. Hear your Lord and mine."
She began to repeat what she could remember of the Sermon on the Mount. The blacks gathered about her inquisitively at first, but they soon tired of the performance, monotonous yet halting; when shod feet began to stamp on the deck over their heads a little man climbed upon the shoulders of a tall one, bringing out from behind his ears two sheeps-shank bones, his only treasures, with which he tickled and smote the beams. Against this duet—for the hidden feet entered with spirit into the business—words in a strange tongue had poor chance of attention. She spoke louder, aware that she did so not to praise her Lord or to pull away the children of Shem from their trifling, but because only one person on the ship was capable of this heeland-toeing, towards whom her thoughts must go springing if sacred words could not check them. It was almost with relief that she heard the dancer overhead stop, rejecting the drummer's collaboration with a scornful shuffle.
But the sense of healing and safety was as far from her as ever. The people, disappointed at the ceasing of their entertainment, made groaning sounds and composed themselves again upon the floor of their prison; she heard soft thuds as they dropped all of a piece like dogs. They had no other occupation than to wait for the day when they might resume the go and come of slavery in the open air, but they were not oppressed, it seemed, by the slow passage of time. They did not calculate, as she straight out of freedom could not fail to calculate, that the ship must be at rest since no water chafed her sides, and deduce that if the ship rested their voyage and torment must be lengthened. They did not talk often. They were no more restless than horses might be that were kept standing twenty-four hours in a stable. And she felt her own helplessness to display for them the glories of God, since by words she could not move them, and their steadfastness in oppression was greater than her own. But she was responsible. Somehow she must lure them, and convert them after. She began to sing one of these chanties of the hayfield to which she had worked before she found light, a song in whose burden all were expected to join, and which could hardly lead astray those to whom English—strange, this, to consider—was gibberish like the mouthing of apes.
"Not drunken nor sober, but neighbour to both,
I met with a friend in Aylesbury vale,
He saw by my face I was in the case
To speak no harm of a pot of good ale.
A pot of good ale, a pot of good ale—"
She clapped her hands to it, and the blacks gently clapped with her on the last line:
"To speak no harm of a pot of good ale."
The unregenerate words came easily. She beat her breast, remembering how the words of praise had, an hour since, trickled slow. But she saw white teeth and eyeballs turned towards her in expectation, hands lifted, waiting. She sang on:
"And as we did meet, and friendly did greet,
He put me in mind of the name of the dale.
For Aylesbury's sake, some pain I would take
And not bury the praise of a pot of good ale."
They expected the chorus this time, and came in on it without prompting in their own version of the English words:
No birra-de pirra-da poto-gu-dayel."
The man with sheep's bones, who had been listening with his head on one side, now burst into an ornamental accompaniment on the leathern water-jack, giving airs and graces to the simple tune until it turned from English milkmaid to African queen. When he had sufficiently pleased himself he lapsed into a thrumming which was her cue.
"The ploughman and carter that toil all the day And tire themselves going behind the plough's tail Will speak no less things than of queens and of kings If their lips be but soused—"
Her voice dwindled away. She stood nearest to the door and had heard the key pushed into its lock. The blacks, supposing her hesitation but a trick to lure them on, came crashing down upon the chorus as before. But they too, when light widened at the door's opening, let the tune fall and stood expectant, though not of good; they seemed indifferent, yet they contrived their own way of reckoning hours, and it was not time for dinner. The white man came to them as to dogs, either with food or punishment. This could not be food; so much they knew.
Hardly any of the white men's sounds were intelligible to the blacks. The sound that greeted them at the opening of the door had, however, a significance not to be mistaken. The white man was laughing, laughing. They refrained from taking comfort from this, thinking he might be a madman put in to keep the strange woman company. The laugh stopped short and was followed by something brief as the man stepped within their precinct and took the stench full. A voice they could understand spoke from behind his shoulder:
"People," it said, "is the white woman safe?"
Safe, they said; and a short square man with authority in his voice asked why she had been put with them. Was it for some misdeed, or had she a sickness? Or was she an albino, a priestess, with her white face and ritual songs?
"Sir," said Maria, "she has run away from her man."
The blacks, scandalized, made a kind of chattering sound. Conisby, at last identifying the white face and kerchief, shoved aside one or two and came to Mary Askill. His voice still had the dregs of laughter in it.
"Are these songs of Sion?"
She answered, with no outer witness to the knocking of her heart but the hand pressed upon it:
"I must lift up their hearts."
"Can't they stomach psalms? I think better of them. Mary, come away. The comedy's over, the lesson is learned."
The authoritative man said:
"Is this her man come to take her back? Why does he not beat her?"
"They are not like us. She is a kind of priestess. I have heard her prophesy, and she spoke once of duppy and the dead walking. She has a charm with her—black marks on white."
The blacks drew away, keeping their faces turned towards Mary Askill like animals scared. Maria went on:
"With this charm she has caught the man. She says words over it, lifting her head up and down, and pointing with her finger. It is strong."
"Ha!" said the blacks. "He will not escape. Will she eat his soul?"
"Ask her," said Maria. A shouted chorus, whereby this notion was utterly rejected, bore down her voice. The white people ignored it.
"Mary, the door's open."
"The door's shut, John Conisby."
"By staying here you confess you love me."
"You spoke to that tune before."
"What good do you do, singing alehouse songs to these?"
"If I could find another way to reach them, I'd take it. Do you want to help me? Ask Mr. Bryant to let us have some air."
He could not see her face clearly. The tone of the voice, however, unhurried, not passionate, assured him that her mind was made up past changing. He said despairingly:
"What the devil am I to do? If I jump overboard will you come out of this sty?"
The voice answered unperturbed, with amusement in it:
"You think only of your own pleasure. Stay aboard, make yourself useful."
He bowed in the dark and called Maria to come away. She answered almost sulkily that they were going to sing.
"What of Mr. Bryant's key? Is he to be told who stole that?"
She chattered a quick explanation to her fellows, and came to Conisby's side. He called to Mary Askill:
"I have a small matter to settle. In an hour we come back."
She nodded. The door was drawn to and on one side and the other they heard the squeal of the key, which even daily use could not protect from rust in those latitudes, that thick salty air.
He held the key openly in his hand coming out once more upon the deck which now seemed, by contrast with the hold, to borrow the very breezes of Olympus. There was a new movement of wind and the Nonsuch was dipping to it, a white streak spreading at her bow. Though Conisby breathed it as a thirsty man drinks, Maria's breast rose in normal motion; she had smelled worse than the hold when, in Africa before her capture, retreating tides left the bare swamps steaming. But if suffocation could not impinge upon her calm, apprehension of discovery could; she looked at the key so freely swinging, unmistakable, and put her hand on Conisby's to cover it. He looked to see what she was doing.
"Don't be afraid, he shan't know your part in it."
And gently putting her from him he ran on to the quarter-deck by that ladder which he had once defended. Captain Bryant was there, taking the hour by the sun. He stood with his back to it, watched by the Mate, focusing his sight upon a contrivance of two juxtaposed arcs. Conisby did not distract them. But when the mystery was accomplished and the officers had leisure to observe him he was plucking feathers out of the dog-vane and watching them drift in the breeze. The Master called to him, and he obeyed with all promptness, coming to a stand with feet planted apart, and the key hanging from a scrap of ribbon on his shoulder like the badge of some cellarer of ancient kings. The Master spied it.
"That's a key I know. You have been down there, have you, after Mrs. Askill? I dare say I should thank you that the black scum is not now all over the ship; we have had white scum already. I'll thank you for that key."
"Wait a while. Keep your hands down. Will you make me bearer of this key? I need it for my own purposes, but I will serve yours. Make me doorkeeper, Mr. Bryant, and for once I'll be at your orders. When you require an open door I'll open it; only gratify my fancy."
The Master's heavy eyes met Conisby's, and dropped to where the hilt of a sword twinkled at his hip.
"Sweethearting among the Guinea-gold; that's your fancy, is it?"
"We'll hold to the matter, if you please. Shall I keep the key? You have my word of honour that I will not use it to bring disorder on the ship. But I am like a cat, I love an open door of all things. Take that for consideration, and consider considerately whether it is not better to agree with a man who offers, putting away his sword, to do as you bid him for once."
"Mr. Conisby," said the Master after a pause, "you and I have a score to settle. It grows longer every day, but it will keep till we get ashore. These things take no harm by waiting. Hold the key."
"He'll let all those black devils out," called the Mate, startled from silence. "We've had one taste of him."
"Sir," said Conisby, "you have not had much to do with gentlemen. Mr. Bryant, who could have thought you a wise man?"
He took the key from his shoulder, saluted with it, and at his leisure went down the ladder.
Said the Master to the Mate, brusquely turning:
"No loss if that fellow went overboard."
The Mate answered, after thought:
"He might yet."
The second expedition to the hold was five persons strong. Ann Sawyer, keeping jealous watch, had seen the first go by, but would not join with the ungodly even to have sight of the only creature she had ever allowed herself to love. When the pair set off again they were led by two sailors bearing food buckets, and the presence of these sailors somehow made less odious for her the thought of association with a papist and mocker. Saying nothing, she came behind Maria as they dropped down, and crept doggedly along in half-darkness with the ship's ribs arching to one side of her, and a general ancient and fishlike odour all about. Conisby turned once and saw her, but said nothing, only hailed her with the key. He began to sing as they reached the door the chorus of Mary Askill's song about ale, but was out in his notes. One of the listening blacks softly sang the phrase correctly, delicately putting him right. He could make out a kind of bustling and stamping on the other side of the door which disconcerted him; but one of the sailors banged the other sailor's bucket with his, calling out in his own tongue that the table was set, and Conisby understood that the impatient sounds were no more than what might be heard in a farmyard when the farmer's wife came out calling with her apron full of grain.
The door being opened, the buckets were first held in. No black stretched a hand to take them. Mary Askill stood in the opening, and Maria's stories had already set her legend running; one of the priestesses of the goddess Aynfwa, the goddess covered from head to foot with white hair like a goat, the goddess infinitely capricious but not malevolent if allowed first cut at food. They held back, therefore, while she parleyed with the white man, her slave; who, however, spoke more like a lord.
"Here I am, you see, faithful to my trust. Maria for interpreter, and Mrs. Sawyer for luck. What is our text? Come out and stand here awhile; breathe while you may."
She said, without regard to his words:
"Hark you, John Conisby. Last night a child was born here, this morning it died."
"What's to be done, then?" said he, taken aback.
"It must be put decently away. And we'll have more light here. The father trampled it, not knowing—"
"Well, now, such things are beastly."
Ann Sawyer pushed her way forward past the sailors, under Conisby's arm.
"I'm here, Mary."
"Be you? Then say to Mr. Bryant, without he wants his goods spoiled he'll look to 'em better. Put it that way and he'll heed. Say, for lack of light that costs nothing he's lost a baby worth gold."
"He's feared of them getting loose."
"Ask him if he's ever seen a calf taken to a fair. It don't get loose from the cart, for why? There's a net over. And where'd you look for nets, if it's not on a ship? Go you and talk to him. He won't heed John Conisby."
She turned upon the people, all holding away meekly from the buckets of food and water, and told them to eat. But they still stood back, murmuring. Maria spoke rapidly to Conisby.
"They want you to touch the food. They think you are—" He held back, with sudden caution, the word he might have used, and substituted:—"lucky."
"Not them," said she. "They're not Bedlam, whatever else they are, poor creatures." But she touched the mess of sodden biscuit. "Ann, go straightway, there's my good friend."
The blacks began then to eat in no disorderly manner, according to some rule whereby the men filled their hands first, and the women later. There was no grasping or cheating. It was understood that a double handful each allowed enough for all. Thus the buckets emptied.
"They say an empty stomach is hard of hearing, but they're filling up. When does the sermon begin?"
"John," said Mary Askill gravely, "hark you now to me. Why I came into this hole—I will give you this much I don't rightly know. It may be that there was pride and fear last night in what I did. I was in a passion, for all I kept it under. You may sink yourself in darkness, but your shadow stays by you."
"Our souls are twin," said he, "though I put it to myself differently. No escape for the soul in chains, not even by swimming."
"There is escape," said she. "How can I say it hard enough for you to understand, you that can't take a truth without it's swaddled in words out of Latin and Greek?"
She stood quite silent. She was trying to translate into words a paradox which she had instinctively guessed at, to discover a bridge between them which her thought might cross. To imprison a body whose soul was not awake was no more than to keep an animal chained. She in her Oxford prison had been able to think on the Lord and take strength. On what could these people meditate, save on their lost homes and empty bellies? A first knowledge of God must creep along the channels of physical mercy; yet that mercy must be seen as the emblem and symbol of a larger compassion, not as the alms of the papists, cash price of salvation. By no work of the flesh might the Creator of all flesh be bound.
She perceived it clearly, could not set it forth. But in the endeavour to reach Conisby her mind thrown inwards discovered and marvelled at the infinite skill with which she had been led, the tireless provision of God's providence for one silly woman like a thread stretched for guidance in a maze. She had been preserved alive by a spinning-wheel, teased into apostolate, lent the power of tongues by way of an unregenerate cavee and a negress caparisoned in striped silk. The sense of abandonment departed from her suddenly and with it the need to defend herself. God's foot was upon her once more, the buzz of the wheel sang through her like the running of those wheels in Ezekiel in which dwelt the living spirit.
"I'll go to the Master myself;" she said, surprising him, and bent her head to the door. "First, though, give me that baby."
The blacks, eating without conversation, paid no heed to this; but on the command coming to them through two languages, they looked up; and the chief man asked Maria what the body was required for.
"The child must be given its chance of being born again. It must stay near the women."
"Perhaps she will use it for her charms. That is very honourable."
"Very well. But ask, make sure."
Maria hedged. She was frightened to put this question to the woman in whose charm-paper it was written that the dead should start walking. She therefore put to Conisby another question which he could hand on, thus appearing to obey.
"They say, will she ask for more water?"
Mary Askill, when the question reached her, answered:
"That I will—" too brief a sentence for Maria to stuff with fictitious meaning. She translated Conisby's even briefer Portuguese Yes into:
"She says, Be quiet."
"We cannot," the chief man answered. "If she is a priestess she knows why. We cannot risk that the child should be restless and come plaguing us. It died without blood, tell her."
Maria then, casting about in her mind and remembered an outburst in the cabin, found this:
"They ask, will she prophesy?"
Conisby grinned, handing on the question.
"What are they at?" Mary Askill wondered. "But no, I won't waste words on them. An alehouse song or the parables, it's all one to them. They ask for prophecy as they asked a man on deck a while back to jig his heels—"
"That was your servant."
"Then let my servant say through his servant: If God will come to them and give them understanding he may. But I am back at myself now, I know what I am to do. Let them give me the child's body for burial and bide till I come."
"She says, she will do a charm with the child, so that it cannot haunt you. She says you must give it to her, and she will make magic with it. She says, who are you to question a priestess? She will turn you into crocodiles if you disobey."
They believed this, since the voice of the white woman had been indignant and strong. The baby's naked body was brought, its small clammy weight laid upon her hands. Maria spoke again, to the effect that they thanked her and obeyed. Stepping out of the hold Mary Askill said over her shoulder:
"God bless you, poor people."
When the whites and their interpreter had gone the blacks began loudly to sing. They understood that they were under protection, but the protection of one spirit did not always avail; besides, none could tell what wickedness or malice might not be all about them in this strange country of the deep water. They knew only the power of rivers, which slid away stealthily from the roots of mangroves, or noisily sprang over rocks. The sea was another dominion, harbouring other gods, whose voices could be heard whispering through the ship's timbers or crying from her ropes when there was wind. They felt themselves helpless, not knowing how to approach these spirits nor what would please them, and they were almost glad that the white woman had taken the business of propitiation out of their hands. For what could be offered to the spirit of the sea that he could not take for himself if the fancy seized him? What food could he enjoy, how could he be wrapped from cold? And how in his ever-shifting bush, through which ships made their own paths which lie immediately smoothed over, could forest people know what places were sacred, and where trespass lay?
They sang, therefore, such a song as they used for their canoes, acceptable to the spirits of river water, and so perhaps not hateful to this larger creation. They sang softly, under the leadership of the man with the bones, using no words, but allowing the urgent rhythm to carry their intention. "Protect us. Let us not be the prey of stranger spirits. Do not punish us for crimes we commit unknowing."
Singing together they took a kind of comfort, behind the re-locked door.
"I don't want to see the thing," the Master declared a second time.
"It's money thrown away," Mary Askill told him, still holding out a trampled baby, no sight for the nice. "This might have grown, and thrived; you could have sold it for money."
"Throw it in the sea, for God's sake."
"I'll do that, if you do the rest."
"I knew," said he, "a cavee's word was nothing to hold by. I say nothing of Mr. Conisby, and his key, and his promises. But I thought you had more regard for the right than do what you swore you'd never do—come out of that place and march through the ship with a child that died God knows how."
"Died God knows how!" She echoed that, and stretched out her arms with the baby. "I know how, Mr. Bryant. Stamped to death, as you could see for yourself if you'd lay your eyes on it for a moment."
"Well," said he, walking away, "but who ever heard of the hatch being off for a parcel of slaves?"
"I've heard of a man that bought swine dear, and kept 'em dirty, and lost the lot with fever."
"No offence," said the Master, smiling awkwardly. "I have a regard for you, Mrs. Askill, spite the company you keep. You saved my life, not that I care about that. But you kept the Nonsuch afloat, and there's something. Have it your way."
"I'd ask God to bless you," said she, "but he'll please himself whether or no."
The baby was to be committed to the deep. Mary Askill begged a rag of canvas, and into this stitched with her own hands the unshapely corpse, a shot at its feet to keep it under water so long as might be. No sharks had been seen of late about the ship, only porpoises diving and rising in schools whose scholars had a gaiety as of perpetual truants. She walked with her burden to the side of the ship; then on an impulse transferred it to Conisby's hands with the words:
"Throw him far."
Conisby weighed the bundle, and supposed she needed her hands free to pray with.
"There's no call for prayer. His Maker has him. But—I don't care to be the one to cast the poor flesh away."
Conisby nodded, grave for once, and swung the bundle for throwing. Maria called down into the hold:
"She gives the child to the sea. Something for the sea to eat, so that we may have good winds and smoothness."
The pent people groaned, and the chief man called upwards:
"What charm has she done? The child may walk."
"She has sewn him up, and at his feet is a heavy thunder charm, such as they put into the tubes that roar when they are touched with fire. He will not return to plague us."
The people, reassured, ceased to shuffle uneasily. They listened for the sounds that would tell them they were delivered from fear of the ghost. On deck above their heads Conisby held the bundle still and spoke in mockery a kind of funeral oration.
"Here you lie. Once flesh and blood surrounded you, but could not keep you from adventurously coming upon the world. Now only a rag and some stitchery stands between you and the creatures of the deep; a weight commodiously bears you down to their dwellings. As well float upon the surface and be food for gulls, as make meat for sea-snakes in the dark under water. But you chose to be born into Christian company, and with us out of sight is out of mind."
He swung with a one, two, three. The bundle clove the water, leaving no more trace upon its marbled surface than a fish diving. Looking after the few bubbles that drifted astern Conisby spoke something in a tongue unknown. Mary Askill looked a question.
"What I spoke then," said Conisby answering this look, "is not papistry, but paganism, of which you Gospellers know too little to have thought yet about condemning it. There was a man once; he was a pagan and a poet, a sinner too, on his own showing. He spoke, however, in his old age, of death, that it would not be terrible if only we might have some practice in it; but to perform a difficult act for the first time, which must also be the last, gives a man no chance to do himself credit. Every death is bungled, since every one is an experiment. Perhaps the infants, those without knowledge of what they are doing, and therefore without fear, may be less clumsy than the rest of us."
"I said as much to you, days back; you have not remembered. You heed better what comes out of a book."
On the deck by their side the toy cannon suddenly barked, then ran back like a timid dog. Conisby cast a swift eye along the horizon; no sail showed, and the boatswain, questioned as to why he wasted powder, admitted that the gun was fired by his captain's order. Mr. Bryant, indeed, overtaken by some impulse of funereal jocularity, had commanded this salvo with a view to livening the ship up. He had been pondering the proposition that humanity, in the secondary sense of that word, might be made to pay. The results of his musings were two. First, this lively salute to the dead child, which had the effect of filling its progenitors and the rest of the cargo with intolerable alarm, besides drawing from Conisby the jibe that if his blacks were to be pampered thus with princely tributes of gunpowder they would all be tumbling over themselves to die. Secondly, the sailors heard with astonishment an order to uncover the hatch and rig a net over it. They laboured readily, agog for any novelty, pleased to think that soon the blacks would be on view like animals in a cage, and might be watched performing those everyday actions which take on interest and strangeness when performed by creatures of another geography. A song came out clearly as they knocked away the wooden pins and lifted the structure, and they worked to it, recognizing it as a water-song, having one of those beats to which ropes may be hauled or oars dipped, and which get the best out of strength. As the hatch lifted it could be seen that the people were standing, stretching up their hands towards the light in attitudes of adoration, and the song ceased, as though impotence in sound had come upon them. When the net was rigged the sailors stood back from it and burst out laughing. They got scraps of broken biscuit, and tossed these through the mesh upon imploring hands, experiencing a sensation of power and benevolence, They were grateful to the negroes for being helpless. Now that they might view this helplessness and compare it with their own freedom to walk at ease about a cockleshell darting snipe-like over a waste of water, they could recognize themselves as fine fellows. They chuckled and cast cheerful insults down.
Captain Bryant, surveying the pleasant bustle created by his own display of enlightened self-interest, threw from the poop a suggestion.
"Now they're wide open, try if they'll hear a sermon."
He added, not without malice:
"You find the deck more to your taste than the hold, Mrs. Askill." Mary Askill answered that this was not so; that she was, indeed, on her way back among the people; and for a sermon, the only language they understood was that of corporal mercy.
"That's a soldier I don't know," the Master replied. "But you are welcome to stay above decks, for me."
"She had rather go down into lewdness," Ann Sawyer said very low. "An unbeliever keeps the key to her abiding place."
Mary Askill turned. The two women eyed each other; the scar on the fat woman's forehead showed angry as the blood sank away from her face.
"They'll hear no word of God from you," went on Ann Sawyer. "Only something they should not."
"What have I said that should not be heard?" Conisby took the fat woman's hand to distract her from her anger, and kissed it. She turned, with all her strength striking at him so that he stumbled against the gunwale. Mary Askill said, troubled:
"Answer me, Ann."
"Don't heed her," instantly Conisby advised. "She'll tell you a packet of lies; she lies like a pedlar."
"You aren't willing Mary should hear the truth. You're in a mind to keep your secret mockeries, and use God's vessel for your drinking pot."
The altercation had its eager witnesses; Bryant, sardonic above; the negress, rendered still by fear of the clamouring voices; sailors, lingering by the open hatch, turning from the pastime of spitting (but in a friendly spirit) upon woolly heads to watch this cockand-lien fight.
Mary Askill, gathering her temper, said:
"I hear you. Say what you have to."
Ann Sawyer took breath; but in the very instant of voicing her accusation found herself up-ended. Conisby, advancing, by a wrestler's trick took and held her against his hip, head downwards. Her skirt fell over her mouth, from which stifled sounds issued that had no bearing upon the dispute; she clawed with her hands to maintain such decency as a petticoat might secure; from prophetess she had become in a twinkling the mere squabbling goose of the market-place, helpless, ridiculous. The spectators, at this unexpected ending to the scene, burst out laughing; below in the ship the cargo, to whom the whole affair was invisible but who could catch laughter skilfully as a tossed ball, repeated the sound. Mary Askill caught at Conisby's arm.
"For shame. Set her down."
"Would she not have shamed you? Would she not have set you down if she could?" He addressed his victim, who struggled no longer:
"Do you swear to be civil?"
There was no answer. Mary Askill said again:
"Set her down. You don't pleasure me, I can tell you. I fight my own battles."
Conisby lowered the stout woman to the deck where she lay unmoving. They could see now that she had fainted. The young man surveyed the open mouth, slack body, and with a shrug gave it as his opinion that no doubt they were wasting powder and shot.
"This is a woman, a kind of animal to which men in their dotage write verse, making immortal Death's morsel. One should never set eyes on women save in pictures, interview them only by night, and talk with them never. Thus illusion might be preserved—"
Mary Askill disregarded this fantasy, and, a sailor having brought water in his cap, began by such means as she had to revive the insensible woman. In a moment Ann Sawyer, with snortings and haltings of the breath, came to herself. Finding Mary Askill holding her, she leaned against her for a moment, the old trustfulness instinctively reviving; but it died with returning powers. She pushed away the hand that soothed her forehead.
"Let me up. I've no place here."
"Ann, I had no part in what he did to you."
"What he did to me—that's naught. It's what he've done to you, Mary Askill. Thieving you from God. Making you his abomination."
"Come you down among the poor people. See for yourself, there's naught but misery there."
"You can't carry God to them, having none of their speech. What for should you lie among them, if not by reason of that man?"
"All sermons is not by words."
"It's the Word saves, and so you know well enough, Mary Askill."
"Then in God's name, the Word let them have," said Mary Askill.
She carried now a little stripe of red upon each cheek-bone. Her head was high, and as she walked to the net over the hatch Conisby promised himself a study in the alchemy of the spirit; anger distilling prayer. A further possible development occurred to him, one which, while it offered matter for laughter, held promises of deeper mischief. A Biblical happening recurred to his thought, more accustomed to admit tags from dead classics; the affair of the angel who troubled the waters and so brought forth healing. Smiling at himself in the part of this heavenly messenger he called to Maria, who obeyed his finger, and stood with a hand insolently upon her bare waist to speak to the priestesses.
"Rule of three, Mrs. Ann, Mrs. Askill. There is a way to make yourselves apprehended, if you will but take it." As they halted he enlarged his meaning. "Let Mrs. Askill talk English. I will roll her meaning out in Portuguese into Maria's ear; Maria then from Portuguese shall make their own mumbo-jumbo of it. Thus, by relay, like the runners of old Greece, news of salvation comes."
The Master looking down, the sailors standing level, and the blacks gazing up, as in a church carving of earth, hell, heaven, heard thus the threefold sermon delivered.
"Poor creatures, dark with the darkness of Satan, will you have the light, will you be clean? I speak that have lain among you, and seen your distresses. Will you have comfort and joy, will you have food and living water? All these lie in one that is the Lord's unworthy vessel, to be spilled upon you when you have learned to ask. Poor people, taken from your homes. Poor people, caught up by the oppressor into bondage. Yet if in these bonds you learned God's freedom, they are not bonds, but gates by which you enter upon a kingdom. People, there is one God only. That God is your lover, he thirsts after you, he will have you for his own. In my country, when a woman will marry with a man, that man must say before witnesses that he takes her to have and to hold, and when he has so spoken the two cannot be put asunder by voice or hand of man. So it is with God. Say you that you will have and hold him, know him for your Lord as the woman knoweth her husband. So are you his, and he yours, and no sin, no stain can sunder you one from the other—"
JOHN CONISBY, translating freely into Portuguese:—
"Unfortunates, you are the devil's children, will you now forsake your father? One speaks that knows you. One speaks who has power to give you good food, clean water, in return for the thing you must do. Will you have courage to break your bonds? You are many, these people few that confine you. If you will but ask and bestir yourself, a kingdom is yours for the taking. You wonder to hear a woman speak before a man, and a man follow her words. But is not this the way of marriage? Words are women, deeds are men. Speak then as she asks. Call down the power of God into you, and after speaking do. If it is your will to be free, say, and do, and it will be so. And there is no power can hinder you, for God will be with you."
MARIA, speaking the tongue of the Galu rivers, embroidering the Portuguese as fancy dictated:—
"They speak with strange tongues. I am not sure that I know what the woman would be at. The man is the one to listen to. He orders you to do something, but what it is I can't make out. He wants the woman, but she will not take him. It would break her magic to take him. She has spoken a charm to you to make you strong. When you have called upon her, she will get strength out of the sky, and give it to you, and you will not be kept down there for slaves any more. There will be a marriage, but I do not know how. Perhaps she will marry the sky to make wind or rain. I do not understand them. I think he wants you to call on—" She did not speak the name of the most feared and sacred deity of the Galu, but made a sign such as was proper for a woman to use in reference to him. The chief man, a good deal shocked, interrupted her to protest that there were women present, and therefore it would be most undesirable to speak that name aloud. In this place, which was after all a place of waters, it would not do to be careless of the most feared one of the rivers.
Maria answered that any name would do, spoken loudly; or any song. The white woman only required a sign. ("What do they say?" Ann Sawyer was asking; the question was handed down through the two languages. "What do they say?" Back it came, the soft river speech shifting to Lusitanian, with harsh Arab sounds; thence to English, which the blacks in their innocence had named the snake-tongue, from its quick hissed s so often recurring.) Before any reply could trace its laborious way to them, the man with the bones had hit upon something acceptable, announcing it to a rhythm his fellows recognized; and away went the strong voices on a chorus which they believed could not fail to be the very thing the priestess desired:—
A linka deklinka de
If the words were less clearly pronounced than they might have been, the tune was not to be mistaken. These people readily caught such things, hung tunes in their memories as they hung bundles on their shoulders, unthinkingly sure. Thus there was no misapprehending this outburst. Mary Askill, Conisby, Ann Sawyer recognized the unregenerate song which came flooding up from the open hatches, psalm to their sermon. It struck the flag from Mary Askill's cheeks. Conisby laughed. Captain Bryant also, but grimly, laughed. The sailors approved the chorus and took it up themselves, unmelodiously. Ann Sawyer and Mary Askill faced each other and spoke low, with deadly distinctness.
"God hears that. Are there no songs of Zion in your heart now, any longer?"
"God hears whom he has chosen."
"Taking your Bible down there, him learning you to read—to read in the dark. Woe unto you, scribes and hypocrites!"
The hubbub on deck subsided. From the hatch still came the strong chant of the prisoners, trustfully crying as they had been bid; repeating the chant untiring, without variation nor shadow of turning; thumping its rhythm with their bare feet, clapping sharp emphasis with their bare hands, happy with monotony as children are, safe in routine. The witnesses on deck, Captain Bryant raised above it, saw the two women stand close, quite still, though one seemed to be quivering. Again they spoke together, too quietly to be overheard.
"I've watched you. God's you may be, you're his elect, none can take you from him. But there's one can send you to him, before you defile the cup of another's salvation."
"Have done, Ann. I'll go down to the people."
"You shan't multiply your whoredoms. You shan't be a stumbling block."
"What's in your hand? Ann—"
It was the blade of a knife that showed white as Ann Sawyer's hand came upwards. The Master shouted warning. Conisby, who had turned away, faced about. Mary Askill stood still, the point touching, denting the skin of her throat. Ann Sawyer might kill before she could be hindered; the rescuers hung back. A third time the women spoke quietly together.
"Are you defiled?"
"You are, and know it not. Your eyes are for him. Your thoughts are with him. When the hand of God lies upon you, when you are moved, you speak of him. You fly from him, he is with you in your heart. Your abominations rise against you. God's forgot."
"What did I say, Ann? When have I spoken?"
"Unknowing, three times. The night he came back from the island with Maria. Last night, when you testified—"
"And said, what?"
"Oh, Mary, wicked things not to be told, lustful sayings, and your face with God's seal on it—"
"Who heard, save you?"
"All these here. The man himself. Lie like a pedlar, do I? It's truth, and he knows it. He has heard you declare yourself."
"Will God permit such a thing?" said Mary Askill softly.
"Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh," Ann Sawyer answered, spitting out the text. "Do you understand now what for I take up the knife?"
"If I spoke when God was upon me," Mary Askill said, as if pondering, "I spoke what was true." The negress Maria who had watched closely, saw the face of Ann Sawyer change. She had observed that look before, in the eyes of a sacrifice, drunken with fervour, calling down the knife. She made signal to her fellows down below therefore, and spoke quickly in their language.
"They're going to bleed her. Jump up, what good will it do if you can't smell the blood?"
As Maria spoke, the pommel of a sword, thrown cunningly, caught Ann Sawyer just between the eyes. She put up both hands towards the shock, her knife fell, she bowed down, blood dripped between her fingers. Maria's yelp of astonishment, the strong excited curses of the sailors, carried a wrong message to the congregation devoutly and alertly waiting below.
In the hold men standing on each other's shoulders clawed at the netted ropes, straining to see the blood which was to save them. Their weight parted the ropes, rotten with too many weathers; through the holes they swarmed, fifteen of them, roused from acceptance of servitude by the one unfailing stimulus, an act of religion.
This appearance, perfectly unexpected, threw the sailors into confusion and interrupted, as the chief man immediately perceived, the ceremony they had come to share. He beheld a woman prostrate, a weapon ready. It was not the woman he had been led to suppose, but she seemed to wait so passively, so decently, hands over her face in all propriety, that he scarcely hesitated. The knife being to hand, he found the ritual spot below the right ear and drove it in. His followers welcomed the ensuing blood with high-pitched cries, hailing it strongest of waters. When Mary Askill fell on her knees to stanch it they lifted her away kindly, explaining in language she did not comprehend that she must not interfere with the libation, while they touched her dabbled fingers with reverence. She spoke, rebuking and persuading. They were past persuasion.
Captain Bryant now, bawling at his men to look alive, found himself in difficulties. Since the mutiny he had kept all arms under his own eye, even necessary tools of the trade like marlin-spikes had been niggardly dealt out by the boatswain. Thus his fellows had only their bare hands to oppose to the bare hands, more powerful, of the invaders of the deck. Conisby's thrown weapon a black hand picked up. It was fifteen men against eleven, fifteen drunken and warm with religious ecstasy against eleven alarmed and disunited. The Master up his ladder might shout, the crew was not given leisure to cup hands to ears and make out his meaning. They looked to Conisby; but Conisby stood still, arms at his sides, as though beggared of power to act.
In fact, the turmoil with the two women at its heart had struck at his recollection. He had never known the names of the preachers who had on his word been committed to gaol at Oxford; he knew them now as though they had been proclaimed for his sole benefit by heralds with trumpets. He could hear his own sophistical arguments, whereby it was proved that the whole duty of flesh was to pay the debts of the spirit; that you might set ten lines of good verse against ten stripes of the lash, and strike a balance satisfactory to any philosopher. This phantasm of memory possessed him like a dream, and dreamlike robbed his limbs of motion. He saw sailors springing into the rigging, struggling there with men who climbed better than they. The Master, disappearing to fetch weapons, drew pursuit upon him, and was seen no more; from the place where he had gone black men came out, steel in their hands. All about him was the very noise and confusion which a few weeks ago he had provoked in a vain attempt to die and lose life unawares as a man might lose a purse in a crowd. He could not take his place in it. Blood ran on the deck, he saw it as wine, and stood still. It appeared to the poet in him orderly and right that he should now die; but at the back of his mind, where a soldier lay encamped, there was questioning.
Mary Askill, rising from Ann Sawyer's side after composing the limbs decently, stood upright. He thought she was about to pray, but there was no exaltation in her attitude or her eyes. She seemed to be considering deeply, looking down at the companion of past years. A black man, the leader, came and spoke to her, holding in his left hand the severed hand of a sailor. This he dropped at her feet. Other men came with trophies or put them before her, making obeisance. She could understand by their urgent voices that they were calling on her to prophesy, to reward them with promises of protection. The girl Maria, her stateliness departed, screamed a request in Portuguese: Tell them what more is to be done, is it finished, are we safe now from the gods of water, and the child? Nobody was concerned for Conisby, it was as though he had been stricken invisible.
However, it was towards him that Mary Askill walked, the blacks making way. When she stood by him, and Conisby felt them both safe on that stained and spattered deck, the soldier in him drew level with the poet. His question might have come from either:
"Why do they leave me living?"
She had her own question, brushing this irrelevance aside.
"John Conisby, what's next to be done?"
Behind them the black women began to gather, as good climbers as their men, swarming up by the broken nets now that the killing was over. They made a noise sharp and eager, a market-place noise very different from their previous song, not apt to the desolation of the deck. Conisby said, continuing his own troubled thoughts:
"You had better know. You have me to thank for your prison at Oxford. You have me to thank for this last bloodshed."
Again she put away the personal matter to ask:
"Can you sail a ship?"
"Do you hear me?" Conisby insisted. "I have twice been your tormentor. I have brought this on you." Mary Askill, putting out her strong hands to his shoulders, grasped and shook him.
"Wash your conscience another time. Mr. Bryant is dead. Can you sail a ship, can you order these men? If you can, then set to it. They will obey you. They think you are my servant."
"Am I not?" said he.
"Have done," she told him in her loud farm-girl's voice. "This is no time for see-sawing back upon the past. This is a time for strength, and wits, and God Almighty. Look at them."
The blacks, indeed, all ritual passion spent, were now assembling in a circle about the pair, sinking on their hams to watch the colloquy, whispering, looking for orders. She dropped her hands from his shoulders.
"They can pull a rope, I dare say, where they are told. Can you guide our ship? Answer me."
"I can make shift."
She nodded, considering. He broke in upon her thoughts.
"Once before—you did not know it—I dedicated to you the work of my hands, Mary."
"Oh, great Lord God of Hosts!" she answered, in a burst of rage, face reddening, eyes swinging upwards:
"Does a man never learn that there are times and seasons? Take Maria and speak them their orders; bid them clean the decks down. Will you stand there and simper out compliments with blood under your feet? Must I box your ears for you?"
That request, with all the echoes of childhood about it and the small sins of home, spoken on a deck strewn with bodies of men, caught Conisby out of his mood and allowed the old easy self once more to take command. He bent double, up came his legs, and he stood balanced on his hands, head sunk between them to the level of her shoe. Thus standing he spoke defiance.
"That's more like," answered Mary Askill without a smile turning away. The black people, at this unexpected ending to the grave conversation of their commanders began to laugh, and on the broad buckle of a dead man's belt the little jester, the musician, beat out an amusing rhythm with his pair of bones.
The ship which had been hanging undecided upon a light wind, running this way and that, helplessly beating her canvas upon the spars as a woman in doubt or fear claps her hands together, now resumed her course. Steadily she took the wind upon her shoulder, coursing west.
GABRIEL: Compare fond knowledge, with true wisdom: Thy spirits of lying with us, that are the voice of truth: The vanity that they lead thee into, and the reward of our message: And say within thyself, peccavi. Wilt thou be persuaded by experience? Consider thy imprisonments, thy affliction and shame of body. Consider the love of a few and envy of a multitude. Weigh with thyself the vanity of thy life. Thy rash footsteps. All that happened unto thee by the society and (as thou thinkest) comfort; but, indeed, the stinging pricks of thy enemies.
But, this sayeth the Lord, I deal with you as a childe: But the vessel that I must use, must be clean.
A True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many years between Dr. John Dee and some Spirits.
Captain Nathaniel Uring, master mariner, in his Voyages and Travels gives a very particular description of the Bay of Honduras, on whose coast owing to shipwreck and treachery he once found himself cast away. He drew indeed a picture of those shores, having the notion that some such chart might be of use to "masters of Ships that may, by Accident, be drove into those Seas, or Trade thither, and are unacquainted therewith. In order to draw the said Draught, I made a wooden Pair of Compasses, and a Scale; my Ink was made with gunpowder and my Pens with the Feathers of wild Fowl; with these Utensils I draw the Draught of the Bay of Honduras, describing all the Islands therein, and the Coast of the Muschetos, which, with some Alterations I have made since, is a pretty good one."
Among these islands Captain Uring's chart shows, not far off the mouth of the Monkey River, one to which he gives without comment the name (no doubt traditional) of Forsaken Island. This place, when visited by another traveller in the year 1710, was found to be fertile yet deserted. Traces of buildings were visible, whose stone foundations had survived the tornadoes and equinoctial storms by which those latitudes are scourged; from these it could be deduced that a community once had lived upon the island which understood something of civilized life. A well was properly faced with stone; dwellings, instead of being scattered in the Indian manner, were grouped about one central building as an English village crowds about its church.
This second traveller, not being a prisoner or castaway, and so having more leisure for detail than Captain Uring (who was concerned to instruct rather than to conjecture), goes into a kind of rhapsody about the abandoned island. What, he enquires of the Fates, Sisters Three, and such branches of learning, can in the first place have brought a white community to lodge thus far from the noises of the world? And having taken such a step, what could induce that same community to forsake an island which he describes as "a veritable Garden of Cucumbers." Going on to say that there are in fact no cucumbers upon it, though almost every other vegetable and fruit was to be plucked in unheard-of profusion, the second traveller composes an imaginary explanation of the exodus in which Spanish buccaneers, dark-eyed maidens, treacherous Indians and simple-hearted Englishmen combine to make one heroic pattern. His enthusiasm even propels him to quote verse:
"Has Heaven reserv'd, in Pity to the Poor,
No pathless Waste, or undiscover'd shore?
No secret Island in the boundless Main?
No peaceful Desert yet unclaimed by Spain?
Quick let us rise, the happy Seats explore,
And bear oppression's Insolence no more."
After this outburst the second traveller, having explored one happy Seat, seems to have moved on, returning doubtless to that very oppression which he deplored, but which provided the necessary audience for his adventures. His romantic interpretation of the exodus from Forsaken Island remains perfectly untrue.
As a drunken man, unable to protect himself against injury, is observed to move more safely through dangers than a man sober, so did the Nonsuch preserve her timbers and the lives of her crew when she followed the wind's bidding into West Indian seas. Though the Master and Mate had fallen, it was discovered that not all of her, crew had been put out of action by the blacks in their assault. The boatswain, though damaged, was in a condition to help with the working of the ship, and some time after the noises on deck had died down, when swabbing was over, and food was being distributed, the carpenter appeared from his chosen seclusion in the ship's bowels where daily he wrought like a Dutchman against the incursions of the sea. Thus four white persons were left to control the fortunes of the Nonsuch and the souls aboard her.
The Africans, after one outburst of killing which appeared to have settled their minds, proved tractable and civil, not wholly inexpert in the management of a ship. They were content to obey those whom circumstance had set over them, knowing themselves lost in this restless desert of the sea. They were conscious of rectitude, they had sacrificed to it and whatever deity owned it; they might hope for the best, a return to their own place. Meanwhile, shrewdly aware that in dealing with the unknown numbers must stoop before knowledge, they made themselves obedient, pulling ropes as they were bid and behaving with restraint in the matter of food.
Captain Bryant's charts, discovered in his cabin, were works of fantasy rather than statements of fact. Large ornamental dolphins swam in their waters, the shapes of all islands had a family resemblance. Only here and there near some long-established settlement the scrawled symbol of an anchor showed where safe water might be found.
Conisby counselled that they should keep away—"if we can, for the wind's our master"—from all the larger islands of the Mexique Bay. In and out of their harbours sped ships of war both French and Spanish, privateers, buccaneers, and adventurous Indians in vessels whose walls, no thicker than paper, served to stimulate endeavour when it came to a fight, since for them it was sink or conquer. He had large notions of riding behind the Leeward Islands, finding arms somehow, and cutting out a lagging galleon of the Silver Fleet on her way home to Spain from Cartagena.
The carpenter had other views. He was all for keeping their course, and making for Barbados. He laughed as he pointed out the humour of it, how the blacks should work, and keep watch, all free as air, and so sail themselves back into captivity one fine day without the least notion of what was in store for them.
The boatswain had little to say, recollecting how he had once tormented the woman who now by the fortunes of war was set over him. He looked at her out of the corners of his eyes, and sat on his hands like a schoolboy.
Mary Askill would not have piracy, would not have Barbados. The one meant bloodshed, the other a sick heart; she could not contemplate delivering the trustful singing people again into slavery. She was, to their surprise, more practical than the men, her considerations ranged wider than theirs. She had reckoned up the stores of food and water, knew them provisioned for so many days, had some notion where, upon the blankness of the chart, the Nonsuch lay. She had her plan, based upon these things, that they should attempt a colony upon some island unclaimed, of which Captain Bryant had told her there were many off the coast of Yucatan.
"Look ye here," said she, "we have among us all the powers such a village would need. There is one that can build houses and teach the rest of us. There is one that can be schoolmaster in peace, and learn us to defend ourselves against war. There is one, a woman, that can plant gardens, and milk cows. And for the black people, let them labour as they do in their own country, for their own living, not sweat for a master."
Conisby gave a brief groan.
"Strange schooling! What print have we aboard? Your antique Gospel, an Ephemeris showing the places of the planets, their latitudes and motions; and, in one of my pockets, Horace in his own tongue."
And he went on to mock at the notion of an island unclaimed; as likely, said he, to find sixpence unclaimed ten days after it had slipped from your pocket in Westminster Hall. He was for Barbados, if she would not come privateering. Sell the blacks and set up (since she would have it so) as farmers with the money they might fetch.
The carpenter backed this opinion, putting in his claim for a third of what the cargo would bring. Said he:
"I have kept you afloat, I and my hammer and my pail of pitch. The weeds hold her planks together as grass holds earth on a dyke, and I have so contrived that they are not interfered with. I made the spinning wheel that saved us out of the doldrums. If we are above water at all, it is thanks to me. But I will be content with my share."
Mary Askill demurred. The carpenter, elbow seeking the boatswain's side, supposed that she had instructions from on high. Conisby looked dangerously at him. It seemed as though these four, preserved amid so many perils, could not be at one for their own safety, but must dispute until peril should unite them again.
It was Conisby who found the means of deciding. He had pulled from his pocket, when the matter of school-mastering was in question, the little Horace which he kept always by him; now, studying this, he spoke.
"It was my father's custom, when he could not make up his mind on some question, to ask advice of what he called a better man than himself. He would go to the big volume of Virgil, run a pin between its leaves, and act as the pin directed; that is to say, according to the verse at which it pointed. We have a wise man of the ancients here at hand. Will you stand by what he may tell us?"
The carpenter, after thought, agreed that the idea was a good one; he was willing to abide by what might chance. Nor did the boatswain, when the matter had been explained to him, see any harm in it. Mary Askill, however, made shrewd objection.
"We are three here that knows no Latin. You are a scholar, you may make what you please of the writing and we be none the wiser."
"You don't trust me," said Conisby, half-smiling, speaking her inner thought aloud for her. "Small blame to you, after I played you that trick with the sermon. Well, then, let it be your Bible upon which we cast the sortes."
The carpenter thought this altogether better; safe against cheating—he could read English a little—and more religious besides. The boatswain too accepted the plan. It was he, having no tincture of learning whatsoever, who was set to the actual task of divination from the tattered pages of St. Luke.
He took from Mary Askill's hand one of the pins that she kept in a row, drilled like pikemen, upon the shoulder of her dress, and pushed the pages apart, eyes tightly shut.
"No need for that," Conisby told him. "You cannot read, you are blindfold already by ignorance. Choose your verse how you will, by its shape or its length, or the capital letter. To you it's all one. Wait, though. Let St. Luke be questioned in order. What's first to be asked?"
"We want to know who's to command," said the carpenter. "Until that's settled, there'll be nothing rightly settled. The Lord was a carpenter, there is something about my craft in that book. Take the beginning, master."
"Well," said Conisby, "let it be so. Will you abide by that, Mary? This is for who shall command."
She nodded. The boatswain again shut his eyes, and blindly thrust with a pin at the open page. They all leaned over his shoulder to find their fate.
"And agayne he sayde, wereunto shall I lyken the Kingdome of God; it is lyke leven, which a woman toke and hyd in thre bushells of floure tyll all was thorowe levended."
It was Conisby who read the verse aloud. When he had done he laughed abruptly.
"There's the answer, then. We three are the flour to your leaven, Captain Mary."
She said nothing, looking at the other men. The carpenter, after a grumble or two that females should stick to their spinning and not go sailing the seas, admitted that St. Luke might have done worse. But he stipulated that he was not to be expected to obey anything she might command in one of her fits, such obedience being against reason and nature. She answered:
"But if God speaks through me thus? You are saying you will obey when the servant tells you, but not the master."
The carpenter still hesitating, Conisby put his hand forward to cover the hand of the she-captain, and said, very seriously looking into her face:
"Mary, I think such things are over; such signs and wonders."
"We are under protection still."
"There will be no more of it. Only by way of the empty vessel can the great voice sound, and the day of that vessel was done when you took me for partner."
"I took you unknowing."
She stood up on the word, and bade them all three go to their posts.
In this manner, thus commanded, the Nonsuch pursued her way, driving blindly among legendary dangers. Slow, she passed unseen by swift raiders lurking in the shelter of the Leewards; unsound, she was spared the inquisition of rocks and shallows; ill supplied, she trawled successfully for fish, bringing up out of the surface waters creatures so magically coloured that even the blacks clicked tongues and pointed before knocking them on the head for food. On her flanks grew weed that cheated her of pace; she lagged along, for all the brisk holding wind, like a ship in a dream, and Conisby was able to perceive that for the necessary tip-and-run of privateering she was about as well suited as that bowl in which the three wise men of Gotham went to sea. He respected Mary Askill's judgment and said so, lying idly by her on the deck.
"We are telling the tale of a tub. We are like those creatures whose very defencelessness serves as defence, we cannot fight nor fly. Each night we prick our bow into the sunset, and so, I understand it, west is our direction. But where we lie as concerns South or North is a mystery out of my competence. Shall you take it amiss if we end up in the Brazils?"
She answered gravely that she did not think they would do that, having regard to the position of the North Star. He was silent for a moment.
"And you and I, which way do we move? Towards what star, Venus or the Virgin?"
"Venus is heathen, the Virgin's popish. Talk plain."
"You are hard on us poor University fellows. If all the world talked plain there'd be few books, fewer commentators, and how would the learned live?"
She looked at him; smiled. He shifted his position to lay hold of her foot. It wore a square rough shoe, the tongue patched where a bullet once had struck it. He said, stroking the toe timidly, like a child:
"I am back in my doldrums. I did you once a wrong so dreadful, it seems to me you never should forgive it. When I touch you there comes a picture of your skin torn with whips at Oxford, and myself making jingles out of it."
"Have I reproached you?"
"Wait till I do."
She went on with her work, cutting one ample petticoat of dead Ann Sawyer's into a couple of skirts for the black women. She was equable. Her coolness and industry goaded him.
"How am I to make court to a woman that won't be revenged, that won't be in a passion, that snips away like Atropos when I am all lively with the fires of Eros?"
"Love. The emblem of loneliness."
She let him take the length of stuff out of her hands, and was surprised when, instead of pitching it away, he held it, thinking. His own words had brought to mind a remembrance of three women sitting like the Fates. He had endured at that time a foreboding of death; instead, love had come with pangs and bewilderment not much easier to endure. He spoke out of his thought something which for her had no relevance:
"But there is this about love, that a man may try it more often than once. The terror should be less."
He rolled the garment up and tossed it away, remaining on his knees before Mary Askill. Her hands, deprived of occupation, lay in her lap. Her eyes met his with frankness.
"Help me talk to you. Some things it takes two to say."
"What troubles you?"
"You trouble me. I find no instructions, even in Horace, for making love to a prophetess."
"You want to ask me to come to bed to you."
He sat back upon his heels.
"Study of Holy Writ makes a woman plain-spoken. I was asked a question once concerning Roundheads, how they ever got families; now I have my answer. Well, and suppose I do? (I am back at your statement.) What would you say?"
"Without a parson? Unless some great fish spews up a prophet upon us out of the sea."
She said then very seriously, putting off her defence:
"You told me something of yourself once, how you could never do any great act save in hot blood, skirmishing and turmoil, and out of that you draw courage. I said to you then—it was the night of the spinning; my foot pained me—I said I felt God upon me, driving me as I drove my wheel."
He did not interrupt. But he gave a short sigh, thinking of his rival, the unseen power, hidden and safe upon his throne. She went on:
"I am not like you. All I do must be done coldly, save when the breath blows. Ann Sawyer said I spoke of love for you. I've been thinking, she was angry then, she might tell a lie to provoke me. Say true, don't spare me. Did I speak of that, on that night?"
Conisby said, questioning:
"You trust me to tell the truth, do you? I have been treacherous before, when it served my purposes. If I say that you spoke love for me, you would accept that as God's bidding and obey. I should be sure of you, so. Do you trust me indeed?"
She answered slowly:
"I know you better. You do not like to accept me from the hand of God. You would rather I came unwilling, struggling. Because that would show your power over me, and the other would show God's power."
He broke out, after an astonished pause:
"How do you know such things? I that am knowledgeable, that have fought and read and gone about the world, how is it I can't hide from you? And yet you are dark to me; I move in your mind like a blind man without his dog in a strange city. How could you know that it's what I can't endure, to have you delivered over to me, signed and sealed, like a slave?"
She loosed her fingers that had been tightly clasped together.
"So I did speak of you. God it was that bade me take you. That doesn't please you. You are jealous."
He said angrily:
"Because I can never possess you as you have been possessed by God, I shall never hear you cry out, or see you look as you do in those waking frenzies. It is like wedding Pygmalion's widow."
"Isn't a willing woman better than one that flies you and fears you?"
He said brutally:
"Maria is a willing woman."
Mary Askill, looking at him squarely and sadly, answered:
"Why must you torment yourself and me? You are one that can't take a piece of money without biting it. All these weeks since you took upon yourself to destroy me, you could not leave me be. I went among the dark people, you came after. I ran to God's bosom, you plucked me back. What will you have now? I have said I will lie with you. But that won't do. You must have tears and shame, you must see pain before you can take pleasure—"
"Ah, Mary, no! I've caused you pain enough. I could beat out my silly brains on the mast when I think of it. Pity my weakness, the crooked run of my mind. Only, you spoke so coldly."
"I've told you, I am made so."
"Will you say no more than that? Is there no way to strike a spark?" He stretched up his hand to her cheek. "Does nothing light when I touch you?"
"You said that before."
"So you remember. You're not quite without passions. You did not hate me that night."
"I had not licence then to love you."
"Again!" He struck her cheek hard, and after bowed his head against it. "Mary, be pitiful. I am a fool, but I am suffering. If it were a man that I could run my sword through—"
She put her hands to his head, lifted it, looked in the eyes which for once did not smile at her.
"The miseries men make for themselves! As if there wasn't enough of it real in the world. What can I say to quiet you?"
"Say—" He considered, turning over phrases.
"Listen," said she. "Take this for your comfort. I don't feel any more the press of God upon me. That's departed. It's as if I had gone back to the old life, when I tended the cows and sang a song or two, and took no thought for black men's souls or my own. I have a kind of peace in me. I lie quiet, like this ship when the wind dies. God gives me over—" He made an impatient movement. "Not to you. To myself. I'm my own woman again, that I never thought to be in this life. I can give now, and I can take."
"Say it, Mary. 'I take this man—'"
She repeated the words of the marriage ceremony, as he remembered them and dictated. Conisby was not yet satisfied.
"Do you swear?" She shook her head, and he understood her. "Well, it is not your custom to swear, but do you declare it? Do you say that you come for love, and not because you are bid?"
"I say that," she steadily answered.
He got up from his knees, and said, looking down on her:
"Do you think me a madman? Feared of a spirit—"
She shook her head.
"It's the kind of spirit you do well to be feared on. It comes in fire."
"Mary, I will have it. Speak as a woman now, not the anointed and the elect, I don't know what; as a woman that has the want of a man in her blood."
"John," she said. It was her only word, it was spoken with difficulty, there was none of the sureness of prayer about it, nothing more followed.
"Ah," said he, very gently. "That's it. Now I'm content."
The choice of the island was a matter of chance. The Nonsuch was thrown upon it late one night; not so much thrown indeed as laid upon the sand that surrounded it, silt from Monkey River which had piled softly about a submarine hill. The shock was not great, hardly so disturbing as the strong opposition of a seventh wave; the Nonsuch ceased her idling progress, heeled a trifle and lay canted, as much at ease as a dog that drops down on his side in sunlight.
It was evident to her company that by night nothing could be done; when day came, that nothing need be done. Here was the very island to serve their purpose, well watered it would seem, having good soil; unfrequented as far as an hour's exploration could tell. Four of the strongest black men were given cutlasses and food, and sent out to march across it with instructions to spy for smoke and for water, marking the places where both rose.
On the shore crabs scurried, many turtles reclined, good omen that the island was not often visited by men. Radiant fishes nuzzled the sides of the Nonsuch, seeking food among the weeds which streamed from her. Mary Askill surveying these creatures, of which not even the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel had given her any previous conception, had a moment's mistrust of herself. Could one used to England's green fields and homely beasts pull a living from thicketed woods, and animals in armour? But the boatswain, adroitly turning a turtle on its back, answered that question in part, while the black men, when they returned from their expedition unharmed, made it clear that there was nothing hid in the woods to make a colonist uneasy. They had found a little lake, fed, they thought, by springs; and though no river flowed from it, showing that they were not yet come into the territory of the gods they knew, yet it was fresh water and so welcome. One circumstance only seemed to disconcert them in connection with this lake. It was boiling hot.
"That will save us firewood," said Mary Askill when they told her. Had they said icicles hung from the palm-trees she would not have questioned it. She was astray in a world not her own, where the most distracted imaginings might be truth. "Well, we had better take counsel. What's to do with the ship?"
Here the first difficulty arose. Well enough for Mary Askill and her co-mates to settle matters by St. Luke and the thrust of a pin; the majority of the ship's company, which had been allowed no voice in that arrangement, saw no reason why it should be eternal. They had accepted her while the ship rode water, having faith that she might know more of the sea than they did; on land, delivered at last out of these mysteries, they were free to return to the natural way of life in which women and cattle ranked side by side. Something in their way of looking and walking betrayed this change to Conisby. He told her without mockery for once that there was danger. She would not have it. She spoke of the meekness of the black people under duress, the tenderness with which even in the heat of conflict they had regarded her safety. She bade him, through Maria, call a council. He shrugged and obeyed.
They consulted pretty much after the manner to which the blacks in their own land were accustomed. Maria the interpreter lay by Mary, and played at arranging coloured stones. Conisby, by now accustomed to this contrast, the dignity of each movement compared with the puerility of each thought, sat by, and offered contributions to the pattern she was making. The carpenter and the boatswain, seeing no reason why black heathens should be consulted about their own fate, held aloof, conspicuously busy about practical matters, but not out of hearing. Mary Askill asked her first question, so simple as to pass undistorted through the medium of two other tongues.
"Does this place please you to abide in?"
The chief man asserted on behalf of his fellows that it did, being not so very different from their own country. There were vegetables, he said, that he recognized, with which they could make do.
"Will you go on taking me for your ruler?"
With the answer to this the interpreters had some difficulty. Others spoke besides the chief man, there was argument, which even Maria's ears could not easily follow.
"She asks, will we obey her? She is bound to show us a sign."
"It is not good to obey women in ordinary matters. In religion it may sometimes be otherwise."
"A woman cannot rule. She is unclean at times, and then she blasts crops and brings blood-drinking spirits about the village paths."
"This is a white woman, she is not like our women."
"Will she bring rain? Can she imprison spirits in a basket? Ask what she can do before we choose her."
"The white men are stronger than we are, the white men obey her."
"They have had a sign, no doubt. Ask if it is so. Ask for a sign."
That, at last, all the voices echoed: Ask for a sign. Conisby, before he would translate the request, bade Maria be explicit; what sign, what were they asking? Maria, using the Portuguese word with which she was familiar, gave Conisby the sense of the demand:
"They say they will obey if she will first of all do a miracle."
Mary Askill eyed the interpreters without speaking. Conisby insisted that he had not changed the meaning, that this was in fact what they were asking, and offered to contrive something which would serve.
"It won't do," said Mary Askill.
They were, all of a sudden, back upon their old dispute, their old relationship. He saw the matter as a simple one, involving nothing more than some easily contrived pretence of power, which should prove a key to power's reality. She perceived it as a temptation, the more subtle because its end seemed desirable, order attained without strife.
Conisby pressed her.
"They want their answer. They will have it. Listen."
The black women had in fact begun very softly to sing. Unable by tradition to form part of the council circle, they gathered in a group out of earshot and waited to be told their fate. They sang softly, swaying as to the motion of paddles, a song which, within the frame of an old rhythm voiced new fears and hopes:
"Here we sit, olélé,
All among the turtles
Who will lead us, olélé,
And give us nice fine food?
Crocodile, parrot, olélé
Snake, mudfish, olélé,
The dear little bite of a monkey's shoulder,
Olélé. Nice fine food."
Each woman contributed singly that which she thought best to eat, and the chorus came in on the final suggestion with an appetizing nonsense word that sounded like the bubbling of cooking pots:
They drummed on their thighs for accompaniment and the song went on monotonously, enquiring where the food was to come from, who was to cook it, how the partakers would feel as it digested, and whether the island devils would insist upon a share. It had an irrevocable insistence, as of persons in no hurry. Mary Askill felt the weight of it. She said loudly, defying the tempter within, that she had no sign for them, that she was no disposer of signs, that signs came from God and that God was not mocked.
"You say truth there," said Conisby, "but how if a sign be preparing, lying in readiness, and you have but to proclaim it?" She told him, none could know of such a thing. "Can they not? I have a prophecy here under my hand, printed for one Mercurius Anglicanus, a fellow whose trade it is to study the stars in their courses. He by calculation (nothing illicit, nothing but commonsense mathematical) declares that about this day in these parts there must come an eclipse of the sun. Well? What says conscience?"
"How can such a thing be foreseen? How should it be told in a book?"
Not answering in words, he pulled out a shabby duodecimo, an Ephemeris, whole library of the late Captain Bryant, and held it out to her. Painfully she traced the words:
"It cannot be seen in England, but the total shade entereth upon the disk of the Earth in the midst of the Mar del Zur, thence traversing the lands of the Brasils, where about Three of the after Noon the Sun will appear with a Luminous Ring about the dark body of the Moon."
Conisby watched as she spelled it out; said nothing, looked at her half-smiling, and thumped with his hand on the sand the beat of the women's song; now (though he did not know it) declaring:
"We are many, olélé,
They are few, olélé,
They carry their magic,
Ours has forsaken us, olélé,
They must protect us henceforth when we go in the woods,
In the fields, on the water—in the night,
In the twilight, in the light of the moon.
From the gods lying in wait,
And the dead people walking, olélé."
Taking a dead twig that lay by him Conisby stuck it upright in sand and observed the shadow, short, and standing a little eastwards. There was no mistaking this invitation to mark the hour. Midday was past.
"You had best lose no time," said he. "Will you warn them? Or shall I take that task upon myself?"
Mary Askill got up and walked away. The black women seeing her come towards them stressed the beat of their song, the men looked at each other satisfied; their doctors of witchcraft also withdrew to prepare marvels. She went into the shadows of the trees that grew almost down to the sand. Beneath them the air was heavy to breathe. There was no motion of leaves, no calling of birds, and underfoot none of the crispness of an English wood in summer; fallen leaves and branches gave out no cracklings, they yielded, sodden, softly cupping the foot. Mary Askill's thoughts halted her facing an unfamiliar tree. This tree was host to all manner of other plants, after the easy fashion of those latitudes; narrow foliage grew by broad, fibres laced them together; life abundantly and carelessly strayed upon it, taking food at second hand, affording refuge or a hunting ground as its guests might decide. It was a way of life for trees which would not have done in England. Ivy and mistletoe she knew, the one killed, the other clung; they were to a tree as whore and wife to a man. Here the issue was confused. It could not be told what was the effect of all this casual verdure upon the life of the forest, save that it flourished; but whether despite or by reason of this disdain of right vegetable thinking she could not yet tell.
The shadows were strong. In their darkness Mary Askill sat, and her thoughts moved slowly, clouded by past surrenders. In this silent place, this softly weighted air, she could not hear the voice for which she had been used to listen, but only Conisby's voice. She shut her eyes, as she did when he spoke softly at her ear, and heard his sayings charged with reasonableness. If by some magic of mathematics it could indeed be discovered that the sun would on this day and in this place be veiled, what harm to tell the people so? Joshua bade both sun and moon stand still, and the Scripture said that what he did was written in a book, the book of Jasher; an Ephemeris perhaps, wherein was laid down for the chosen people what to expect of the planets, those lamps of the Lord.
Mary Askill became aware that she was drowsing; this after a morning of inactivity, and in the very eye of the day. A month before she would indignantly have shaken off the temptation to lie still and let decision take its chance; now she temporized, gazing at a tiny patch of sunlight that wavered on her arm. The pale roundel of light was strong, she could feel on her flesh the shape of it printed in its own heat. She thought:
"I am Mary Askill, that has passed through the fire. Mary Askill, that has forgotten her Lord in the love of man. I must stand now on my own feet."
With that she put off drowsiness like a covering grown stifling, and set her face towards the outer trees, the sand, and the attentive people.
It was no more than ten minutes' walking, at the rate of her long country strides. Before she had taken fifty steps, however, she became aware of a coolness in the air. There was a new silence. What her ear had before accepted as silence was a texture of tiny sounds so close-woven and so frail that their hum seemed no more than a throbbing of blood in the living ear. This was quite other, a very antithesis of noise, hearing blinded. She could have thought the heavy quiet not ominous, no more than a caprice of the tropic afternoon but for one thing; light began to be withdrawn as a candle's flame dwindles descending some long-neglected well. The gap leading to the shore was no longer to be perceived. It had framed a line of white, the shore, a line of blue, the sea; both were enveloped in the growing shadow.
Mary Askill stood still. The mould on which she trod had steamed an hour ago, its exhalations now were cold. A drear little wind blew, running low, pushing at the tendrils of the creepers. In the fringed wood of a tropic island at whose centre lay a hot lake she stood shivering, feeling the hairs rise on her forearms; not at all afraid, since this darkness and chill were not of the soul, but greatly perplexed. She was lost. She waited.
The point of turning came after some three slow minutes. Light drained back through the leaves, colour started out again here and there, sound began with the shrieking of birds in confused flight overhead, bursting from the tree-tops in which they had hidden at the first alarm. Mary Askill resumed her march.
The sand offered to her eyes a singular scene. All the women had fallen flat face down on the earth; they lay stretched full length in diving attitudes, hands joined and pointed. The men still sat crouched on their hams; their heads were sunk, and they peered between fingers at the world renewed. Conisby lay on his back, facing the sky and rubbing at his eyes with one hand which still held a scrap of horn through which he had been gazing. Huddled, with her head thrust between his arm and ribs, Maria lay like a terrified dog.
As Mary Askill came out of the wood there was a kind of movement and rustling among the blacks. The chief man saw her first, and in a moment all the company was aware of her, including the girl Maria, who looked up from her burrow and pointed. Conisby obeyed the gesture, sprang up unconcernedly at first; but with a sense of the occasion soon put on decorum, and made the advancing figure an elaborate bow, hand to heart. He called out, Maria translating:
"We have seen enough. We know where power dwells."
Maria added, elaborating her abasement:
"She can dry up the sea. She can make the land smoke. She can bring rain. Let us obey her."
The chief man, rising, turned towards the advancing figure. He performed quickly a series of ritual motions, his hands which he had touched with spittle lifted and crossed in front of his face, like the preening forelegs of a fly. Mary Askill took no notice of him. She came direct to Conisby.
"What was it?"
"Eclipse," he answered. "Now you see that we schoolmen may sometimes net the truth in our books."
"Look at that man and the others, look what they do. You have laid it upon me, have you?"
"I said no word. They draw their own conclusions." Then, as she would not speak, but looked at him angrily:
"If you tell them you had no hand in it, they will never believe you."
She stood awhile, thinking. At her back the blacks had begun to bestir themselves, to go and come, never once treading on those marks in the sand made by the broad sole of her shoe, keeping away from her shadow. She spoke at last in a voice that betrayed her trouble:
"I cannot speak to them. I am cut off from them, save as you serve me to speak, you and Maria. If I ask you now to tell them how it came about, that it was none of my doing, would you obey in honesty?"
"It might mean death."
"For blaspheming the goddess whose power they have witnessed, and which they doubt no longer."
She stood still, closing her eyes. He saw with compunction tears gathering among the lashes, and forgetting his studied attitude of deference took her head in his hands and pressed it down upon his shoulder. He could feel the sobs shake her, and knew that she wept for her helplessness and the weight that had been laid upon her, accepted against her judgment. But though he pitied he was triumphant at the thought of his rival by this acceptance put down from first place. Mary Askill, looking up, saw through her tears the triumph in his eyes, and knew that in him the old jealousy of God was not dead; knew too, with a sort of wonder surprising her own heart, that it no longer had cause.
The building of the village went forward in a reasonable way. The blacks, who at first were inclined to put up the kind of huts they preferred, built of branches rather on the lines of a stork's nest, draughty to wind and pervious to rain, found themselves overruled and set to work felling trees. This was done a little inland, so that the clearing might not be observed by raiders from the sea. They put up cabins in two decorous rows, and not, as their own happy-go-lucky instincts prompted, facing every way and sprinkled about disorderly. Conisby, who had previously made in bark and sand a model of the village for their instruction, wished to have it wholly upon the English plan, with an inn and a church; this being, he explained, the nearest he would ever get to home until the devil saw fit to claim Oliver.
But Mary Askill refused to sanction the erection of any such buildings, more especially the steeple-house, as she called the church. He rebuked her.
"Do you know what you are? You are an iconoclast."
"One that breaks images. You have broken for me the image of home, imperfect yet dear, that I had made for myself. What of the inn, will you rob me of that too?"
"What use is an inn? We'll see no travellers."
"To sing songs in; songs, it may be, about pots of good ale. I have thought out a name for it, the boatswain shall paint it in: 'The Silent Woman,' and a picture of you with your head under your arm."
She laughed, but would not agree to the idea of any such place. Conisby kicked down the models he had made and rubbed them back to earth with the heel of his boot.
"No place in your village for the inpouring or outpouring of spirit. Queen Dido, that diddled the blacks with an oxhide, was wiser than you."
But he became obstinate in his turn when she wished her cabin to be no different from the others. She must be different, he declared, in order that the people might respect and continue to obey. They were accustomed to rapacious mysterious chieftains, who extorted food and tribute from them on pretence of making rain. "They will forget, if you live in all ways as they do, that you can put out the sun."
She jerked her shoulder irritably at that, telling him that the people were meek, and would respect humility.
"You are wrong," said Conisby seriously. "These people of yours are meek only while they are helpless. You are not to judge by their behaviour as prisoners. They do not waste effort in hopeless resistance, and so far they are wise. But there are certain springs which set them moving; one of these you have seen at work already, their religion, and powerful it is, enough to beat down the crew and officers of the Nonsuch with bare hands. They have no care for my Latin or your Luke. They will do as they are told so long as the command comes in thunder, and no reasons given; so long as you make yourself not too common among them."
She kept silence. He argued no further with her, but suddenly asked:
"How shall we name this place? Let us oblige the geographers when they come by having our answer ready for them."
"It's named already, maybe, by the Spaniards."
"The Spaniards will have given it some papist name; True Cross, or Assumption, or something of the sort. Shall we not re-baptize it according to our own dispensation, call it after its ruler; Maryland, perhaps, or Maid-No-More?"
But she would not even so far oblige the geographers.
The houses, finished at last, were distasteful to most of those who had to live in them. The chief man, while maintaining an attitude of the utmost respect, pointed out that to plant houses in rows went against nature; not thus did trees flourish. Moreover, these dwellings were so solidly constructed, the chinks so well stopped with dried mud, that nobody could see what his neighbour was doing, and a highly disconcerting privacy was thereby imposed. Asked whether the people wished to be able to spy upon each other, he replied that they did, their only use for privacy being the secret one of manufacturing traps for spirits. If family were to be set apart from family in this way, said he, there was no knowing what would come of it, the heart of man being deceitful and desperately wicked.
"Also," said the chief man, "we are not used to live in the same manner day after day. In our own place we hunt animals when news of them is brought by our young men. For days we do not taste meat, and then for days we do nothing but eat. When we are full, and sometimes when we are hungry, we lie in wait for our enemies, tying bells across the bush-paths to warn them of our coming. We make long prayers for rain, or we build up our houses, which are always falling down. In our own place there is much to be done. Here the houses stand up, there are no animals, no enemies, our rain is made for us. We have always the same food, not too much nor too little. We do not understand such a way of living. We are too safe."
Conisby, who by now had something of their language, told the chief man that something would be done. He said, mocking a memory:
"We will cause you perhaps to go to school."
"What is that?"
"It is a means to make medicine men of you all."
"That would never do," said the head man, troubled. "When all can make magic, who will buy it? If all could command spirits this would be a dangerous world."
Conisby had no answer, but he made application of the saying by requesting Mary Askill to keep herself more than ever secluded. She, accustomed to go about freely, rebelled, and was all for making herself the universal parent and guardian, accessible, loving. She found it hard to believe that people should prefer a life filled with uncertainties to one which answered the sun's rise and fall, steady as the hand of a clock to its pendulum. But she perceived that here under the tropic as in England under Charles's Wain mischief might be made by idle hands, and after thought she gave decision.
"I'll teach 'em myself."
"How, without speech?"
"There's a plenty things, Mr. Scholar," said she, "that can be taught without speech." He broke into a loud laugh, and was commenting on her changed outlook—"that's a joke you could not have made six months ago—" when she stopped him with an angry word for his lewdness and went in to the house. Coming out, she held the spinning-wheel which had saved the Nonsuch, and a handful of oakum that she had brought for occupation.
"And what can you do with that?"
"What I did before; spin, and hope that good may come."
She sat down and began to run the oakum through her fingers. The people, attracted by the whirr, looked her way, and little by little came closer. They admired the obedience of the wheel, the excellent strength of the thread and its transformation from a confused mass of fibre. They made thread for fishing sometimes, rolling bark on their thighs, but this method was less laborious, besides having something toylike and entertaining about it.
They watched, therefore, wondering at the length of the line that was spun, and were not made much wiser by Maria's officious explanations that by and by the thread would be put together and turned into clothes.
"Such clothes as yours?" the women asked, for they had none of them been able to resist envy of Maria's purple and gold.
"Not such as mine," Maria answered proudly.
The women asked, What sort of clothes, then? And when they were told, like the stuff of the Nonsuch's sails, lost interest in the wheel. In vain did Mary Askill, advancing gently towards them as towards a herd of timid heifers, explain with gestures that they should come one at a time to sit in her place, and guide the thread as she had shown. They drew back, shocked at her affability. The class of onlookers dwindled.
"Tell them," she said to Conisby, standing by, "that I will teach them to make clothing."
He translated faithfully enough; but the women replied that if they could not have clothing as fine as Maria's they were content to do without. Clothing, they said, should be for display. If it were neither bright nor rich, why put it on? It was not necessary, while the sun gave warmth all the time, to hamper legs and arms with woven stuff. Dress was something extra, its purposes were either to show valour, like the leopard-tails which their young men had been used to wear, or to delude evil spirits by altering the appearance.
This false reasoning Mary Askill could not combat. The wheel still spun, unheeded. Examining the blacks' way of life as far as they would allow, for enquiry involved either forbidden contacts or alarming proximities, she found herself at a loss for any object lesson drawn from her experience that would profit theirs. In the ship they had been filthy for lack of space and means to be otherwise; for the same cause they had trampled their babies, and indecently juxtaposed their bodies. Now, with the open waters of the Honduras Bay at their doors, they swam perpetually in primal innocence, men, women, and children together, as though the memory of that slaver's hold must have a hundred new tides to wash it away. They ceased to infect the air. They tolerated no vermin. As for their teeth, the natural strength and gleam of these did not content them. They cut twigs whose ends they frayed, and scrubbed at their gums after meals.
The meals themselves were haphazard, keeping no hour. This was all that remained of the African uncertainty which once ruled their lives. Food was available whenever they chose to catch, gather, or take it. They cooked it on hot stones, wrapping the fish or roots in leaves and covering these with ash; handing round the courses later on freshly plucked leaves, done to a turn. They seemed to know no way of making fermented or otherwise troublesome drinks. Their cookery involved little labour, no housewifely display of apparatus. It was adequate, even excellent at times.
As for the children, these found plenty to amuse them, gave no trouble, and wore no clothing. Discipline was maintained by the accurate throwing of small stones, and, in extremer cases, by threatening to loose devils upon them out of woven sheaths made for the purpose of grass and small sticks.
In fact, the blacks had the art, theirs by birth and geography, of living in a manner adapted to such lazy climates as that of the unnamed island. Nothing that Mary Askill could show from her English notion of right living profited them. They were as cleanly, as orderly as she. All that she could teach was the way to save their immortal souls, and even for this she could not answer. No breath from heaven bore upon her half-furled sail.
She answered with indignation therefore, when Conisby returned to the people's grumble concerning safety and sameness:
"Is it not enough that they should be warmed and fed with little labour? Have their children about them and own no master?"
"Not near enough. There are twenty-four hours in the day, prophetess, that must somehow be filled. Even you, though you have so greatly changed, even you will not long tolerate being idle."
"I wouldn't be idle, if I could find a way to be otherwise."
"That I can show you, if you'll hear."
"I'll hear," she answered. He was sitting close to her on the sanded floor of their house, and suddenly with touching submission folded himself so that his head was at her knees. Thence he spoke while she, contented, marvelled at the line of his hair at the temples.
"There are two kinds of labour; one direct and one, as Mercury Angelicanus might say, oblique. Of the first on this island there is barely enough to go round; it is the labour necessary for the body's needs, soon over. The other, that by which we lace and trim up our lives, is inexhaustible as man's invention. It conceives the king's crown, the Pope's tiara and chair, the mace that Oliver hurried away out of Parliament. The order it imposes derives neither from reason nor necessity and cannot therefore be questioned in terms of either. With this labour you and I must concern ourselves—"
"Let our gatherings be called agapemone, if that contents your Puritan conscience. I am saying that we should do well to draw up a commonwealth and give each man his place in it, his insignia too, such as we can devise. We must find them occupation, since Nature does not oblige them to sweat for their bread."
He lifted his head, listened a moment and sprang up to run to the door. A quarrel had broken out with the spontaneity of a dog-fight not five yards away, and the voices raised in yelps of insult were voices of white men. It was the carpenter and the boatswain who stood foot to foot plying their fists; one nose was bloody already, a circlet of shells lay trampled on the sand. Back turned to the tumult, the figure of Maria was to be seen retreating serenely towards the line of trees.
Conisby's sword was at his side. He hitched it up, scabbard and all, and clouted the fighters apart. They withdrew from each other in obedience to these blows, but their eyes still were engaged and watched for an opening as they spoke with him.
Said the carpenter:
"A fine thing for a man my age to be risking his skin for a black slut. But this bosun won't be reasonable."
"What d'you call reasonable?"
"He won't share." The boatswain confirmed this with an unclean word or so. "What should I do, Mr. Conisby? I can't look for a wife among these other black women, there's not enough to go round for their men. And if Maria's willing—"
"Who says she is?"
"I know she is," answered the carpenter, his eye on the boatswain. "But he's all for treating her like a Christian and pinning her down to the one man. I brought her some shells to-day that she was glad enough to take when he comes spying and nosing round."
"For that matter," said Conisby, "Maria is mine by gift."
"Sir," answered the carpenter, "you may be a gentleman and carry a sword, but it's not common justice that you should have the pick of both bunches."
"I do carry a sword," Conisby answered him, stripping off the scabbard and standing poised between the disputants. "Shall we put it to the issue?"
"Fight?" The carpenter pondered. "Where there's no law, who shall abide by it? In a place like this it's catch as catch can."
Mary Askill came upon them from the house, and the men at once dropped their stiff attitudes; but blood still ran from the boatswain's nose, and the sand showed where they had trodden in the course of battle. The boatswain backed away. The carpenter held his ground and reasoned.
"On a ship," said he, "there is always something to be done, and the worse the ship the more occupation she gives. Always a leak or so, or a deck-plank to be caulked; worst come to worst," he eyed her with humour—"a woman to fit out with a wheel. But a sailor ashore without liquor or women is a fish out of water, goes against nature. You must excuse this poor bloody fellow, ma'am, for that reason."
The boatswain, ignoring the apology for his conduct, turned towards the trees and made a signal.
"Would you?" said the carpenter with sudden ferocity, intercepting this. "I tell you, she's mine for to-day, so take yourself off if you don't want that beak of yours worsened."
The boatswain replied with a jet of spittle that landed on the carpenter's bare foot. The battle was resumed. Again Conisby's sword earned him a hearing.
"Have done fighting like beasts. Give me the chance, I'll see that you fight like men to-morrow."
Mary Askill said loudly:
"I'll have no violence here."
Conisby put his hand, holding the sword, across her body, stepping in front of her. She could not snatch at the sword. The blacks had disturbed their siestas to roll to the doors of their cabins and observe the scene. She was aware that she ought to walk away and leave Conisby as her officer of justice to deal with the situation, but she had been stirred unreasonably by his action in putting her aside. She said, therefore, loudly:
"Give me that sword."
"These two cocks will have it out one way or the other. Make a spectacle of it, we shall all have good."
"Give me that sword," she said again, but had the wisdom not to put out her hand or offer to struggle for it. He shook his head. The carpenter, hearing Conisby's words, acclaimed them as good sense and showed willing, saying that there was nothing to liven the doldrums like a good fight, and offering to lay off his opponent until such time as Mr. Conisby might appoint, provided it were not too far distant. The boatswain, when the sense of the matter had been conveyed to him, was of the same opinion. Conisby bade them wait until to-morrow when he would see to it that they had opportunity, and invited them to decide upon their weapons. There were cutlasses if they meant mischief, or cudgels, more suitable to a friendly dispute.
They conferred. In preparing for violence its reason was forgotten, friendship swelled up between the men, ill-feeling dispersed before the happy prospect of death or mutilation within the rules. Amicably they were arguing the merits of weapons.
"Will you hear me, men, for the sake and the love of God?" called Mary Askill.
They ceased their interchange to observe her. She was flushed with anger, she spoke with her full great voice, she was tall, they admired her. She said:
"If white men quarrel, how shall blacks keep the peace? If you that are the like skin with myself will not take my orders, how should they? We are here wrecked out of a ship, we should thank God and each other, not tussle like cats in a basket. If Maria makes trouble between you, put it to her fairly, let her choose which man she will have, and take him and keep him, and make an end. Will you fight when a word can settle the matter? Send for Maria."
Conisby twitched up his eyebrows with a look of resignation so comical that the boatswain laughed, and blew away the last clot of blood from his nose between his fingers. A child, whistled up from a near-by doorway, was sent to fetch Maria, whose draperies betrayed her a comfortable spectator's distance away.
She came obediently, walking over hot sand with the gait of Sheba treading Solomon's pavement of glass, and stood modestly before them, eyes cast down, while Conisby interrogated her.
"You are my property. The Padre Valgado bestowed you on me, for my use. I now make a gift of you, in my turn, to one of these two men."
Maria raised her eyes, gazed innocently at the boatswain and carpenter, and made her beautiful gesture of acceptance, arms crossed on her breast.
"Look at that," the carpenter commented involuntarily. "Sugar outside and pepper in. What can you do with them?"
The boatswain eyed him. Conisby resumed his speech, not ignorant of the fact that about them now was gathering a crowd.
"This I do, according to orders which I obey, as you obey my orders. Here stand two men. Which do you take for your husband?"
Maria inclined her head over the crossed arms, and modestly, innocently, made reply:
"With your honour's permission, both."
Conisby, taken aback, laughter rising in him, echoed her word with a gesture of two fingers which explained it to the onlookers:
Mary Askill said brusquely and angrily:
"No foolery. Tell her to choose."
Maria, interrogated again, made the same answer, enlarging upon her reasons. She was now, she said, sure that this was the only peaceable way out of the trouble; for if she were to choose one of the men, the other would plague her, and so there would be fighting, whereas by setting up house with both she could content everybody.
Conisby had control of his countenance now, and could deliver the judgment to Mary Askill in all seriousness, verbatim. He, Maria, the two men and their audience awaited the white woman's verdict.
"Wait," said the carpenter of a sudden. "What Maria says is right, and I for one am agreeable to bide by it. You, what d'you say?" He took the boatswain by the arm. "We don't want to be carving each other."
"Who gives orders here?" Mary Askill interrupted. "Two men, even such poor Christian stuff as yourselves, can't share the one woman. It's not decent, it's not to be suffered."
She appeared to the black watchers very angry. They began to cry apprehensively to Maria for a translation of what was being said, guidance as to when they should begin to get out of the way. Maria, lacking comprehension, made mendacious answer, that the white woman required all three white men for herself.
"That is reasonable," responded the chief man, "she is inhabited by one whose needs are many. Be submissive, drive the men away or I will beat you."
Maria, translating this to Conisby as an endorsement of her resolve, found that he had understood quite enough to know she was lying. He did not render the sense of this answer, nor did Mary Askill wait for it. The matter must be settled, said she, once for all. The carpenter told her bluntly that Maria had sense. He asked, with a kind of sneer, where was her authority over him? That Conisby answered, with a hand that went quickly to his weapon.
"What?" said the carpenter. "I see. It comes to this. If I do not obey this woman you will fight me, Mr. Conisby, and you are a fire-eater. I have seen you at work. If I do obey, I must kill this poor boatswain, against both our wills, because Christians don't go three in a bed. This island is not a Christian country, woman! Let be, say your own prayers. It is none of your business to interfere in this sort of matter."
"Again," said Conisby briefly; then, as the carpenter gazed at him, not understanding:
"Say that again. Be insolent. Give me plenty of cause."
"I tell you, Mr. Conisby," the carpenter answered, reasoning, "I'm no fighting cock, save when there's something worth fighting over. Why will you pick a quarrel? When I would have been glad to fight, had begun to fight, you held me back. Now it's the other way. There's no pleasing you; her either."
"I don't like your way of speech," said Conisby deliberately. "I don't care for your beard, or those great outstanding ears of yours. I don't like a man that prophesies in cold blood who shall cuckold him."
Mary Askill moved more quickly than the carpenter. She spoke:
"Have done. No quarrels. Maria, go to my house. It will do you no harm to be there for a night or two. I won't give judgment now. Let you gather here to-morrow."
The fiat travelled to the people, who looked at Maria with sympathy and interest, for they had no doubt that she would not emerge from that house in the same state as she went in. They said to each other:
"Will Maria's soul be eaten? Will she be killed, then dug up from her grave and made labour? What will happen if she hampers any of the doings of the god?" These were the men. The women said:
"It all comes about because she is allowed to parade in those extravagant clothes, has no child and does no work."
They dispersed to their siesta. Mary Askill, pushing Maria before her, went into her house and shut the door. The carpenter began to seek for the shells he had brought as a love-gift, and mended the broken thong on which they were strung, the boatswain sitting friendly by. Conisby waited; they ignored him; and he could find no better occupation for his temper than to fence a few passes with his own shadow, that at this early hour of afternoon danced dwarfishly before him on the sand.
That night Conisby spoke with animation while Maria lay with her ear to the mud wall, gathering what information she could from the tone of the alternating voices.
"Mary, this quarrel between the two men comes like manna to the Israelites. We may build upon it, turn it into such a ceremony as will stir their thoughts for a month. It is the old story, idle hands make mischief. Devise, devise!"
She said bitterly:
"Two souls fighting like rams to please the eyes of the ignorant."
"Two souls fighting." He repeated the words softly. "I thought that fight was won."
"I don't speak of you and me."
"Yet the quarrel is between you and me. These men are no more than the outward show of that old quarrel. Mary, your way has failed. It is not meat for these minds."
Mary Askill was silent, and Maria listened some fifty heart-beats before the answer came.
"God's meat for all minds."
"I'll continue the image. Do you know that song the women sing? The one that sways back and forth—" he gave a stave of it, humming. "It tells of their chosen food, crocodile, monkey, snake. How shall such a taste chime into ours, that reckons in honest beef and mutton?"
No answer except, after a moment, a murmur.
"Mary, let it go. Forget what you have remembered till now of England. You are a vagabond and wanton, let me tell you, by the law of England. They would whip you if you came again to Oxford and if they found you in the bed of a Master of Arts with no ring on your finger." His voice was tender, he was laughing. "Here you may wield the whip if you will. You are powerful. It remains only that you should learn to be wise."
"I'll try again, find some other thing to teach the people. I'll learn their tongue. Anything; but they shall not be fobbed off with vain shows."
"You speak, I can't see you. This darkness will not show me your eyes. Yet I know how they look. There is not in them now the light that burned us all on the ship's deck. God's foot—they are your own words—God's foot is no longer upon you."
"This is to be like you were at the beginning—"
"Your own words. Answer me; do you feel that pressure still?"
That word came out not softly but with the strength of a question answered in pain. Conisby's voice sounded gentle.
"Then be advised. Let us do for these people what we can. Give me the toys their thoughts need, and never go pining after the will of God, who has forsaken you. Yes, forsaken! Though you lie here safe and sound and fed, you are no longer his servant, save as all mankind must serve. Put away that old duty, put on the new. Be the prophetess still, but of another dispensation. We must make some sort of a life for ourselves and these poor devils."
The quick ear attending to this spoken duet heard movements, a tread going up and clown the little room, heavy, purposeless, the tread of a prisoner. It halted.
"In England once before you brought me to shame. That was only the shame of the body. Now—I am what you have made me."
The tread was resumed; other and lighter feet echoed it.
"Mary, must I always lay pain upon you? Then I did it unknowing, now because I must."
"Must? Must chivvy and trouble me, turn my thoughts upside down? I can't argue, I'm not scholar enough. I know what you're wanting me to say. Because we can't make these people Christians, we must turn heathens ourselves."
"I am asking you to trust your soul to me as you have trusted your body. Listen. There is in this place, by reason of the bounty of nature, no thump of the drum of necessity to which we keep time. I will not affront you with heathenish things; teach the people hymns if you will, but let there be outward signs. We are the law-givers of this country, who as yet have given no laws. We are the parents and nurses too, and as yet have given no toys. Let the Lord govern, but because these are weak, let him be made manifest. Do you hear, Mary? You that sang to them once a drinking song."
Her voice, emotion tricking it to leaps of tone, and short unsteady phrases:
"A month ago—I had then strength, and knowledge not my own. When I submitted myself to you, that departed. Now I am nothing. I can't answer with reasons. I can only—"
A sound of sobbing, that lifted Maria's head in astonishment; hardly a woman's wailing, but a succession of brief breaking sounds unfamiliar to her experience. The feet stopped their march. His voice:
"Mary. Mary, do you hate it so to be my lover?"
The sounds were less clearly heard. Maria, crouching and turning so that her car came flat against the very chink, could catch no more of them. She kept that position for a time, until it seemed that there was to be no more talk that night. Then noiselessly withdrawing she stood up, stretched, and with the purposeful indifference of a cat climbed out into the moonlight.
In the morning Conisby, the black drummer prancing before him, stood in the central place of the village to proclaim a holiday. In effect what he proclaimed was a day of labour, but his intent was ferial, and thus the people accepted it. Bored with indolence, they listened enchanted to a speech exhorting them to work in preparation for a ceremony sacred to the whites, in which by courtesy and as spectators they were to be allowed their share. The head man showed especial interest, enquiring whether a performance by his young men would be acceptable.
"They will be forgetting," said the head man, "our good customs. They will become an easy prey to witches and masterless souls if they neglect the precautions."
Conisby, with a glance towards the house in which Mary Askill sat withdrawn, agreed that something of the kind might add to the solemnity of the occasion. The head man declared that a day or two's grace would therefore be necessary, so that the ceremonial might be perfect. He was of opinion that to perform a ceremony badly was far worse than to neglect it altogether, since it served in that case only to exasperate and tease those against whom it was directed, increasing their malice, while the protection it afforded was unsure.
Conisby with a nod called the drummer to beat again, and made this point clear. Two days' preparation; a day's marching, a day of ceremonial observance by the side of the hot lake, and so home.
The black people, interested, gathered about their chieftain to receive instructions, and soon were busy. The drummer slid away among the trees and could there be heard practising short inscrutable rhythms. The women caught crabs and cooked them; caught turtles and cooked them; accumulated mountains of food while they sang their song about those things they liked best to eat and which here were not to be had—ripe musky crocodile, strong hippopotamus, the delicate thumb of a very young monkey.
The carpenter said to the boatswain:
"All this is for you and me, to settle our quarrel. We are to make a poppy-show for these blackamoors. Times are changed. What's come over Mary that she stands by, and says no word to forbid it?"
The boatswain finding no answer, save that it was not for women to forbid men, the carpenter continued his musings:
"I don't say I object to a fight, or to lookers-on, no matter how chimneyfied they may be. But I can't see her hand in it. And for all she's a holy Jenny, she's got more sense to her than this cockerel with the sword."
The boatswain surmised that she was no longer so holy as she might be, and added some proverb in his own lingo to the effect that pitch sticks.
"Well," said the carpenter, "that's true enough. Women say their prayers, most of them, for lack of a man. But she was not like that. I could have swore she had something spirity in her that man could not put down; it would lift up, like a flame out of that pitch you talk of; and scorch the man that was not wary. He has bamboozled her, I suppose. Or it may be she's with child, and in no state to cross him."
The boatswain agreed that it must be so, and again invited the carpenter's voice as to how they should fight.
"All this slicing and pinking," said the carpenter after consideration, "it's not for seamen. Fists and be damned to you. There's some flags in one of my lockers, come with me, they'll make a show."
The boatswain suggested consulting Maria. The carpenter rejected this, on the grounds that she would steal the flags for dresses. They went together to raid the locker.
Conisby stooped, and after making elaborate obeisance, passed in to the house where Mary Askill sat. The contrast between the busy hands out of doors, and hers for once lying idly together, was enough to make him speak.
"We have set the wheels in motion. And you—are you studying your part? I'm not used to see you so still."
"We came to agreement last night, or so I imagine."
"Not about that. There was a story Maria told once. It comes back to me. I don't care to remember, but I can't forget. A kind of parable."
"I don't remember. Maria? What story?"
She shook her head and put up her hand to rest it on his belt, to touch him.
"What was that you said to them with the drum? What devilry are you brewing?"
"Mary," said he with an effort at patience. "Sec now. In this matter you have agreed to trust me. If I could give these people beasts to hunt, I would; if I could give them enemies to fight, I would. As it is, with food for the eating and peace for the asking, there is nothing to make their lives endurable but such shows as this I am preparing. People must be doing; or if they cannot, they must be watching others do. Have you heard what I am saying?"
"Not to heed."
She sank her head again and spoke against the worn stuff:
"What's come to me, that I'm so soft?"
He was pleased at her submission. Nevertheless, he had matters to see to, the plan for the march, the order of the happenings, food, dress. He said, whispering almost:
"You are their goddess and mine, whether you like it or no. This for your ear." Then letting his arm fall from her shoulder:
"I came for your Luke. Is he at hand?"
"What to do?"
"I must compose some sort of liturgy, some sort of rite. A sounding text or two should come in very well. There is something about the dead walking—"
He began to look about him. The room was bare enough, the quarto pages large enough, but he could not see them. When he turned to her with a lifted eyebrow and a hand outstretched, she stood unresponsive.
"Well? Help me."
"What's this?" said he. "Does conscience trouble you?"
"No matter what troubles me. Do without Luke."
"So I will," said he with a laugh not authentic. "Any mumbo-jumbo should serve, no one will be the wiser. This is an excellent island, Mary, and our people is a good people, and Mercurius Anglicanus a good seer, that gave us preknowledge, which is power. Are you happy?"
She did not answer that. He insisted:
"Are you happy?"
She said with sudden passion:
"How should I know? I'm empty, gone out of myself."
"Into you, you. When I sit like you found me, empty-handed, it's you I think of. When you're not with me I look for you, and when you are with me I can't look past you. I'm ashamed for myself, sick and sorry, to have a man so under my skin."
She ceased to speak, gave a great sigh, and stood with hands hanging at her sides. Conisby did not touch her. He looked gravely at her, but she would not meet his eyes which, as she guessed, showed a kind of pity. He was sorry for her distress, yet troubled, at this moment of capitulation, by a memory of her pacing on the Nonsuch. She had found then words at once more fiery and more abject when loudly she proclaimed' God. He said, spurred by the jealousy that crossed him:
"So much mine. And out of wedlock too!"
She came from humility as from a sleep, squared herself, and asked in her ordinary tone:
"What plan have you made, then, for the people?"
He told her briefly, watching for signs of strife or weakness. His own moods could not be thus abruptly put away out of sight. But Mary Askill refused further to embarrass a discussion on polity by any personal intrusion, and heard without comment what he had to say in the matter of the joust between carpenter and boatswain. She could see from her window the moving people, and was aware of an atmosphere different from the usual drowsy morning buzz; iniquities too. Here a child was being painted with some compound of white in skeleton designs, there one woman braided another's woolly hair to a fantastic pattern of plaits outstanding like the spokes of a wheel; everyone seemed to wear less clothing than usual, and that with a fine disregard of the decencies. They were pagans returning to their vomit. It could not be denied that they did so innocently, and she was reminded of her native village long ago, on a May morning; the same plaiting of hair and twisting of coronets, the same decking of children, bustle, noise.
"Will you come with us?" Conisby was saying. "I think I might contrive some kind of progression for you not to disgrace your godhead; a litter of branches, or some such vanity. You need have no care for the ceremony, need not witness it. The light of your countenance may hide under a bushel if it so chooses. It would serve no purpose that you should stay here three days alone."
"One for the march, one for the feast, one for return."
She pondered, eyes down. He waited and would not urge her. She who once with composure had sentenced herself to thirty days of darkness and stench in the ship's bowels, thirty days of silence amid the solitude of incomprehensible speech, now was unwilling to face three days alone in a place safe and full of light. He knew this, and the reason, and what she would say before it was said. But instead of any direct answer, turning away she stood on a stool, felt along one of the roof-ties, and brought down the Gospel she had refused to lend him. He said nothing. She held it out; her hand shook a little.
"Here's what you asked for. Will you take it?"
He took the long stiff pages and turned them idly, as though embarrassed. When he looked up he smiled. "It's a parable. You give me that you hold most dear. What use am Ito make of it?"
"What you think best."
"Ah," said he, "now I have faith to add to hope and love. You'll come?"
She nodded. He made as though to kiss her. But with a sudden gesture that resembled a shudder she turned away from him and went out of the house so suddenly that a child had hardly time to dodge her glance, and fled in fear to its mother, who did a little home-made spell over it. He halted no longer than a moment, wondering more at himself than at her. He felt still upon him that pleasure of victory which in such of his thoughts as he troubled to word he called love; yet he could not but know that the frenzy was running less high. He said inwardly that what the soldier had won the scholar must rule, and would not encounter that third personage within him who was neither soldier nor scholar, one who, like a hound, ran after what would run, disdained that which cowered and lay still. He ignored this shadow who kept him a kind of intermittent company, seen out of the tail of the eye, face to face never.
With a shrug he moved to seek out the carpenter, and consult with him about certain things needed from the ship to make more awful the day of feasting.
In the open space which served as forum and gossip-room of the village Conisby had erected a sundial. One long stone set upright formed the plinth of it, and a pointer of baked clay swung its shadow daily in the track of the hurrying tropical sun, daily recording, nightly effacing. By way of motto he had engraved with the point of his own sword a Virgilian query: Solem quis dicere falsum audeat? This to commemorate the day of the eclipse, a wry-mouthed joke which as yet none of his subjects, and not even Mary Askill, had invited him to explain. "Who dare give the lie to the sun?" Yet the sun had told something less than a half-truth when on that occasion, obedient to Mercury Anglicanus and a she-prophet, it had slipped behind the moon. He stood beside the stone with his drummer early on the morning of the third day, saw that the shadow was as yet unborn, and considering how he and Mary moved and commanded by reason only of this vast audacious lie, told himself that the head man was right: if all were medicine-men none would buy magic. This while, with an imperative gesture, he bade the drummer sound assembly.
The people came obediently and with sober gaiety from their houses. They had varied their appearance as well as the resources of the island would allow, the women by hairdressing and flowers, the men by a display of ritual weapons composed of such materials as offered. All true weapons, axes and knives were to be left behind, on the head man's suggestion; damage was apt to come from them when excitement ran high; and thus their ancient custom dictated the use, on such occasions, of knives made of shell or stone, spears of green wood. They understood the order of march and fell into the way of it with rhythmic stampings; the young men first, a valiant body, looking about them with a pantomime of vigilance, the women and children next, then Conisby, with the carpenter on one side and the boatswain on the other. Lastly the litter carried by four older men, Maria, still gloriously arrayed, attending, and Mary Askill, self-condemnatory, inside.
The young men knew the way. It was not difficult to find, nor was the undergrowth thick, but they tramped heavily to clear a path and sang, while the procession came in with such nonsense as suited their feet on the chorus:
"We are brave persons,
Able to encounter lions,
We are protected persons,
Lions cannot harm us.
He will not show his face.
He hears us and hides, because
We are brave persons—"
And so on, da capo, with recapitulations of all the dangers conceivably to be met with in African forests; here absent, so far as anyone knew. Even, they sang an almost blasphemous verse about Sasabonsum, friend of witches, who lives under trees and eats wayfarers; thus after their manner defying the sun:
"We are brave persons,
We go by trees where the earth is red.
We are protected persons,
The One with straight hair cannot harm us.
He will not show his face,
He hears us and hides, because
We are brave persons—"
Conisby, dropping back to walk near the litter, leaving the sacrificial victims together, found Mary Askill impatient of her eminence, and of the green boughs which afforded shelter for flies.
"Not so. It is irreligious for you to proceed like an ordinary being."
"These poor men aren't able for the weight. I won't bide."
"We must distract you. Maria shall tell you a story. Come, Maria, one of your stories about spiders—"
That was said with a passion which puzzled him, but he yielded to it, and putting his hand up within the shield of boughs caught hers for a moment, long enough to hold her quiet. Then good-temperedly he began a story of his own, in which books and battles illuminated each the other, and whose hero was himself.
The people marched and sang, sang and marched. The sun swung, pouring his weight through the defence of leaves; all lay down for a while at noon and slept, cast to earth by this pressure. Mary Askill at the halt stepped out from her litter and made off alone. Conisby did not oppose this. It was right that she should be different from the others. Maria watched her go; then with a face blank of all expression save a kind of smoothness and righteousness came to lay her head on Conisby's ribs. He said:
"Are not two enough for you?"
Maria answered that she came for protection. "Against what?"
Wicked men, said Maria, working herself into a comfortable coil.
"Not against—?" He made a gesture towards the empty litter.
Maria shook, or rather rolled from side to side the head that rested on him, and cocking an eye at her he saw that she was laughing. She was not, evidently, in the least afraid of the power of the Lady of the Island. Curious to discover why, he put questions to her; had she not seen the sun go in, had she not beheld the various wonders that the prophetess wrought? She still rolled her head and laughed, like a young lioness playing with some small dead creature before devouring it. She would not answer, teasing him. At last she consented to admit that she believed only virgins had power.
"Ha! And where do you get that from?"
She answered innocently that it was a thing well known. In the Padre Valgado's house was a great picture of one who was the Virgin paramount, and others of lesser ladies—St. Lucy, St. Agnes, St. Catherine with a great wheel; all able to do miracles because they kept away men. Mary Askill too had done wonders, but she would do them no more.
Disconcerted, for this heresy must not get about among the people, pleased to have confirmation of his own victory over that other, his rival, Conisby slapped Maria's cheek lightly, with an admonition to hold her tongue. She took the cuff as a dog might take it, came closer to him, and lay with the pink palm of her hand turned trustfully upwards.
Mary Askill meanwhile stood alone among trees in a kind of daze, questing after her conscience. She knew with certainty that the forest was not the place to find it, her English conscience, so trim, so sure. None owned these wildernesses. In her own lost leafy country a man, or woman either, might tell to a yard where a farmer's land ended and a lord's land began, knew when trespass was committed and recognized which fruits of the earth were licit to gather, which forbidden. A conscience might roam among these trees till it lost itself and never discover boundaries of reproach.
She stood still, attempting to pray. Her heart would not lift, the sun held it pressed down among the warm smells, too rank for Paradise. She spoke softly some of the words of a psalm, and ceased almost at once, frightened by such timid sounds dropped into the august silence of the forest; a silence as of night, in which the voices of birds flitted, dwindled by distance to bat-like cries. She knew this power of the forest and yet sought it, willing to be overcome by the creation that, though it seemed in its overflowing strength to deny him, yet was God's.
Her eyes, which she had forbidden to disturb her in the effort of meditation, made a signal; come to the windows, they commanded, and peer out. She looked. A green snake reared among the leaves not far from her hand. It had long viewed her from its hiding-place, and now, making an act of faith in her immobility, moved at its own pace along the branch towards her. She had a moment's pang of fear lest the symbol of evil should speak. It came closer, travelling with assurance upon its rounded pathway, the head from time to time lifting to display eyes set like jewels.
Mary Askill watched, and the recollection that had been troubling her sprang to life in her mind; Snake carrying Death's bone in his mouth for a love-token to the wise girl, the witch. The girl took it and fell dead, while the bone sang in triumph its refrain:
She heard herself chant that, in a voice as deep as she could pitch. The green snake halted, wavered, seemed to recant its trust, and suddenly hung head downwards in a loop that for all the world resembled a tendril of creeper, just of that colour, just so still.
She was frightened by its transformation. When her eye turned away for a single moment she could no longer tell tendril from snake, the trees all were looped with temptation and menace. She ran back towards the dell where the people were sleeping, remembering at the last moment, just before she became visible, to slacken her pace.
Conisby heard her approach. Even the soft yielding tissues of this undergrowth made protest when feet trod them too roughly down. He thrust Maria's head away and got up quickly.
"Oh! Oh! That one waits, she gives the signal. Up, sleepers, the night is for rest, and we have a journey to go."
The drummer ripped out a summons ending on three loud beats. The people came to their sense like babies, rubbing eyes, scratching their hips numbed by the earth. The sun still was heavy. They adjusted their hair, their flowers, took up weapons and children, and returned to their marching order singing, this time not boastfully but with decent humility inviting the forest to aid them:
"Let us alone,
We march for a blessing,
If you are patient
You shall see blood.
We are good people,
Let us pass quickly—"
And the chorus:—
"If you are patient
You shall see blood."
They came as night was falling to the hot lake. It did not steam, the air above it came too near its own temperature for that, but from time to time there rose and broke on its surface a great bubble, as though underneath, far down, huge creatures were drowning. The trees had withdrawn from its banks a little way.
These trees, what with abundance of moisture and the continual urging of warmth, were taller than elsewhere on the island; long naked smooth trunks breaking into foliage forty feet above the soil, like savages putting all their finery on their heads.
Conisby had his plan for the people. Here they were to cook, here gather, here sit by companies, and here the litter with Mary Askill in it was to be set, to serve as a cabin until he had some place worthily prepared. He told her that she had better not show herself awhile, but she was impatient, she had borne all day long the confinement of the green tumbril, and wished to be breathing the air. Disregarding him she went to stand by the water not moved by wind, but trembling with its own energy of heat perpetually renewed. She felt the breath of it come upwards to her, saw even in that half-light its colour, a deep and heavenly blue, cold, the colour of deep ice, and felt the contradiction before Conisby voiced it:
"It invites, it promises as if it would cool you. If I did not know that five minutes' soak in it would cook me like a lobster I should put my hands up and be in."
"Unholy," she answered, looking down as a bubble broke. "All a part of this devil's country."
"Dear," said he laughing, "your mission never took you as far afield as Bath in Somerset. Had you been guided there you would have found sick men and women steaming the pain out of themselves in just such water; more temperate than this, but as hot as godly England can expect."
"Why did you bring us here? A day's weary march."
"Because the best way to prepare for a feast is by a fast. If we are to rule these people by strangeness, we must choose and use those places which are strange."
They stood together, looking down into the water which, now that night was falling and the air growing cooler, began to lift here and there little trails of steam. Mary Askill put her hand into the man's for comfort, and was astonished when he with immediate ceremony bowed, and dropped it. She said with a touch of her old bluntness:
"A nice time to treat a farmer's girl like a court lady, with none but savages looking, in the thick of a lost place."
"It's for that reason," said he, with a beck of his head indicating the dark faces about them. "I dare not be familiar before our small world."
"I'm sick of deceit."
"So are not they."
He looked at her, could not make out her expression in the half-night, and made his voice sturdy to answer:
"It is for you to choose."
She gave a sigh. He knew that it was for the thought of him lying dead, his quick body gone heavy. This was the thought she could not endure; consequences to which she was indifferent in her own person were fearful to contemplate as they included him. She even said this, in her hidden kind of speech:
"I can't think of you dead." He smiled, relieved that he had interpreted her mind so well. She added: "Nor old."
For some reason, standing there above the warmth of the hot lake, that chilled him. He went away among the people to forget the unwilling shiver which his old nurse had told him meant feet above his grave. She looked after him through the gloom and slowly returned to her litter of woven boughs.
Fires sprang up now. They gave more smoke than light, for the wood gathered about the lake was sodden, but they kept away insects, and made gathering places whose summons no people in any clime can ignore. The greater part of the food was already cooked, but two small fish had been lapped in leaves and transported for purposes of experiment. These now were speared and sunk in the lake, which hissed as the bodies touched it. Withdrawn after some minutes they were seen to have become flaccid, and were judged to be cooked. Conisby directed that these fish should be laid on broad leaves and brought to the litter with seven small loaves of bread, there to be presented by two young men. He said in his new rounded priestly voice:
"Deign to bless this fish, prepared by the god your cousin who lives under the earth, whose breath is fire. Bless this bread." And he added, keeping the same tone: "Do not eat. I will bring you food later. Touch them only."
Obediently her hand came out, touched the warm shapes of the two fish on the leaf, and withdrew. "The bread too."
The hand obeyed, touching one after the other; but as the count neared seven it hesitated; over the last loaf it changed its languid shape, clenched and pointed. Her voice asked harshly:
"Loaves and fishes—what's this you do?"
"Let me alone," he answered, maintaining the smooth flow of his voice. "It is necessary. I told you we must have ritual."
Before she could intervene or speak again he had gathered the food, and bidden the young men go with it among the people; each person was to taste a fragment from the holy hand and by this symbol be assured of the divinity's care for their well-being. The young men went about their errand, the people partook, Conisby speaking over them the words he had conned out of Luke, those verses concerned with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. He was sufficiently unsure of Mary Askill's discretion to translate them into Latin, and prepared to forestall protest by glancing very often towards the litter of boughs. No sign came from within. He rounded off the ceremony, which the blacks appeared to have understood and enjoyed, with a kind of benediction, both arms raised; then took his place among the elders with a good stomach for his supper.
This eating, though gross in quantity, was done orderly, without speech, here as in the darkness of the Nonsuch's bowels. Only the carpenter and the boatswain spoke, sitting together, and their dialogue was pastoral:
"I remember," said the carpenter, "the time when I had no eye for the things of home. I would be out on the quay, and every ship that came in I thought a marvel; sailors the same. They talked of parrots and forests, and people brown like monkeys, and I thought, if I could see those things I'd have nothing left to wish for. Now I have them by the bellyful, I find more strangeness in the sawdust of my father's shop than all the blue-tailed macaws in Honduras Bay."
The boatswain said that he too, now he could never return to it, thought of home. He begged the carpenter to go easy on the morrow, and look out for his, the boatswain's, left hand, which was the dangerous one.
"If you'd be reasonable about the girl, there's no need for men of our ages to be fighting at all. None gets anything out of it only him—" he flicked a pebble towards Conisby—"and if we don't keep awake he'll have the girl into the bargain. She's inclined to him, the little sow."
The boatswain thought that they might trust Mary Askill for that.
"You might," said the carpenter, "if she was one of these everyday women. But she's gunpowder. Hey, that puts me in mind—"
He got up and spoke to Conisby, sitting by the head man's fire, and eating in monastic silence. They conferred. The carpenter laughed, and all the woolly heads lifted to look gravely at the man who thus brought sound to quarrel with digestion.
"Signal when you're ready," said he, departing.
"Prayers first," Conisby answered. "Where's your sense of propriety?"
The carpenter answered with a cock of his head like a magnified wink. Maria reclined by Conisby's side, now and then stealing food from his plaited dish with dignity unabated; she did so as the carpenter spoke. Conisby's eye was taken by the movement of her hand; he struck it down like a thieving paw, telling the carpenter that until their matter was decided the girl was safer by him.
"Or by Mary."
"And are not Mary and I one?"
The carpenter had no answer to that, or none worth making. But the bower of leaves was near and he went to it.
"Mrs. Askill, are you there? Do you hear me? Look you after Maria. I don't trust your spark."
There was a silence which gave him the idea that some sound had been interrupted. He said again, trying to peer through the leaves:
"Are you there? You that could daunt a whole boatload of men with cutlasses, what's come to you? Let him work his hocus-pocus and the blacks bow to it if they're such fools. I'll help him, but you make sure he don't touch the girl."
At that he heard a rustling behind the leaves and Mary Askill's thickened voice saying:
The voice of Conisby cut across his answer, calling on all men to attend. The drummer sent from his drum a series of sounds like a beast coughing, smoothed those out with the heel of his hand, and settled down to a steady purring note against which Conisby's voice sounded, speaking in the blacks' own tongue:
"We have come safe to this place. It is a sacred place. It is a place of fire." He repeated that in English, casting his voice upwards in a shout: "A place of fire."
The carpenter, shrewdly nodding, went away to a clump beside the lake's brim, and there became busy. Mary Askill stood, seeing Conisby's figure now lit, now obscured by smoke. She understood none of his words; they were extravagant.
"It is the dwelling of one who lives under the waters. You are a water people, whites are fire people."
He gave a loud shout. On that from behind the clump came a thunderous sound and a brisk light which died immediately. This was repeated a moment later from another point and another, along the whole of one side of the small lake; half a dozen times the lake itself, the trees, the staring eyeballs were made visible, then doused, put out like candles. The people were quite silent; even the drummer halted amazed. Conisby went on, speaking in the high commanding voice words whose meaning was clear. He paused again on a shout; a ball of fire came out from the carpenter's lair, descended on the surface of the lake and there continued burning while the water supported and seemed to feed it, until it too broke in a flash with thunder.
Mary Askill smelt saltpetre and pitch. She saw, as the fire blazed up for an instant, Conisby turn to the lair of leaves where he supposed her hidden. She walked towards him, stumbling among the people and through their fires until she stood beside him.
"Stop all this."
Conisby retained his subservient position while he spoke:
"Let me alone. I know what I do."
"I too, I know what you do. And putting it all on to me, I make no doubt, as you did before."
"Not you. On God, the god of the lake, your immortal cousin." Still he spoke respectfully and soft. "Take yourself off, I do this for all our sakes."
"You blasphemed a while back. You mocked the miracle."
"Dear," said he, "the Almighty is wise enough to understand, if you are not."
"No," she answered, "it's too pitiful. It must end. My fault, my weakness, none of the blame yours. But it must end."
She stretched out her arms in a gesture which called all eyes to her, smoke the while drifting round and past her. Conisby made a signal to the drummer; he summoned all ears.
"Don't heed him, poor people. We're not masters sent from heaven, we're weak creatures like you. We have no power of ourselves. I can't stop the sun, or make cold this lake. I am weaker than you, and a deal more guilty. You've never known the light, I've gone blind to it. Don't heed him. Trust us if you can and let us serve you, not by tricks and lies—"
The smoke caught her throat. The headman asked Maria:
"What does she say?"
Maria, who had understood no word, answered that the talk was concerned with very high things, the moon and such. There might be an overcoming of the moon as once of the sun.
"Does she say what the god will have us do?"
No, said Maria, she did not say that, except that it was a poor sacrifice only to cook two little fish in the lake, and then take them away.
Conisby did not hear this interchange. He was speaking to Mary Askill:
"They understand no word of this. Your truth has left as much trace as a bird on a field, flying over it."
She put him aside, and sent out her voice again over the black men and women.
"The first time, when the sun was obscured, I had no hand in deceiving you. It might be—it might, for once I had speech with God—that we were allowed to know of the eclipse by a providence. But this jugglery is man's doing. You should not be fooled by it."
Conisby shook his head slowly from side to side. The people were not held by her, did not marvel. They were respectful while she stood before them, but drowsy after the long march, and inattentive to a voice which, as they well noted, had none of the gustiness of possession.
She went on her knees then, and with hands lifted up towards a sky now pallid with the rising moon, asked, lips hardly moving, for the gift of tongues. She offered petition, waited. The people had heard Maria's lie. They shifted inquisitively like animals, and some of them pointed upwards to the brightening edges of the tree-tops.
"Will that which dwells in her put out the moon? Ask her what is to be done with the moon, but first to warn us."
"That is reasonable," agreed the head man. "Tell the god, Maria."
Maria, grown suddenly timid, muttered that she would interfere no further. All the watchers now were aware that something was being waited for; so much they took from the stiff attitude of the woman, the hush, and the slow whitening of the sky. Even Conisby resisted the temptation to pull Mary Askill to her feet, and a question knocked at his consciousness: How if she should truly do a wonder? He knew he did not wish that this should happen, because it would mean that she had escaped him and run back. Seeing her there motionless, imploring help other than his, he had a new pang of desire for her.
Mary Askill's lips were busy with petition. Understanding; the tongues of fire; they descended once upon men who were cowards and faithless, who turned their Lord's words to vile uses, and hid while atonement was made, afraid for their skins. "For the sake of the stripes I once bore, let me speak to be heard, though the people slay me. Let them come, the tongues of fire. Let me speak, and atone, and die."
The moon showed brilliant above the tree-tops, fretted by them to a texture of lace. It climbed, the rays dropped full upon the silent waiting company by the lake, not living but dead fire lit Mary Askill's forehead.
"Will the god work now?" asked the head man of Conisby, Maria having sidled away. "The moon is in full view, defenceless."
"Be quiet," Conisby told him, himself unsure.
"Or should we give something more than the two fish? The sun was put out without sacrifice." Suddenly Mary Askill's head drooped. Her petition was unheard. Conisby saw and interpreted, knew that the field was his again. It was for him to make the stroke, her rebellion had failed, endangering them both, perhaps. He said roughly to the man:
"Why do you spy on her? She talks to the god in the lake, the man in the moon. Such things are not for your ears. Do not concern yourself with them. Sleep, you will have occupation to-morrow."
The headman said, bewildered, with a sign of his chin towards the figure of Maria, whose clothes took the moonlight:
"She said it. That there might be an overcoming of the moon."
"Ah," Conisby said with authority, "come here; what's this?"
She approached with her balanced delicate gait and stood before the two men. "You have been the cause of much mischief. I have a mind to strip those clothes off you, which by hiding make you desirable. Two men fight for you, you have the honour of walking by the priestess. Yet you are nothing, nobody, a girl put into my hand like a piece of bread that one man is not hungry enough to eat, and tosses to another."
Maria stood subservient, never lifting her eyes, the bondwoman, black but comely, of a dozen Biblical stories, accepting the voice of the master as her law while he asked angry rhetorical questions, abusing her for double-dealing and cowardice.
"You saw with your own eyes the sun covered over. You are brave enough now, you were on your marrowbones then."
"She was then a virgin," said Maria softly, looking sidelong.
A moment later she had repeated the saying in her own tongue, using the phrase which according to how it was pronounced meant two things; unmarried woman, sealed basket in which spirits were confined. She spoke it with the second significance. The head man, nodding, said to Conisby:
"Is it with the white woman as with ours when the god comes?"
He got no answer. Like children tiring of a spectacle the black people had ceased to attend to the attitudes and shouts of the whites. They turned themselves about, and with brief preliminary chirpings and stirrings, like birds along a bough, were settling to sleep.
"Mary, I won't reason, I know it troubles you to box with words. I won't blaspheme, as you call it, nor ask that you should quit your beliefs. Only I will say that this is not the soil for them. Here credence grows lush and tangled like the forest. Faith must stand upon its head in a country where the very waters forget their natural property to be cool; where trees take away life and flowers eat flesh."
"Had I put your words into their language an hour ago, do you think any of us would have been the better? They would not understand you, though you spoke like one of them born. To these God is manifest in terror and strangeness. Because it is so, we rule. You strive like Samson at the pillars of the temple when you make us out flesh and blood. You will bring us all down in ruin."
"You have lost the power you had to move them. Better, then, trust to such wits as I have. It is trickery, if you like. What purpose is served if we conduct ourselves like a schoolmaster and his dame?" He laughed at himself. "It is pretty much of a hedge-school. Don't you feel your thoughts swelling and taking shapes that elsewhere they have not known? Here I find myself ruler of a few square miles; such I might be in England, if Oliver would only die. But there I should not be absolute and dare not be gaudy. Here I may wear purple, I may flaunt, I send my imagination whistling off to fetch me any fine feathers I please. I may turn this pliable people into farmers, warriors, what I will; ordain that they shall wear rings through their noses, march upon their hands and keep their feet upwards to shade their heads, instead of going plantigrade. What tune I pipe, that they will dance to. Why, this is to be like God—" He checked. "I gave you my word I wouldn't blaspheme. But indeed it is a little like."
"You gave me your word about Luke."
Now it was he who did not answer. They could hear in the trees about them the slight restlessness of creatures disturbed by the moon, bright as daylight returning untimely. Mary Askill said no more. Conisby would not speak, unable to discover the words which might disarm her. He trusted therefore to an older language, the easy idiom of touch, but she would not be beguiled by this either. He was not sorry, the day's march having been strenuous, to be denied further fatigues. He soon slept. She lay long waking.
Next morning, as the people breakfasted, and children played, screaming and dipping their fruits in the hot lake, Mary Askill emerged, obedient to the destiny imposed upon her. She saluted the people gravely, bore herself aloof, and took no notice of the food set before her, beyond touching it in sign of acceptance. Conisby praised. She answered briefly:
"I'll try your path now mine's lost."
"No bad resolution, for one caught in the jungle."
Maria, ready to claim the nearness which brought her honour among her own people, was officious at the priestess's side; with gently swaying branches she kept away pertinacious insects, she had garlanded and oiled herself, she was conscious of being the central figure of the day. Conisby, meeting her eye calm with self-righteousness, put his hands on his hips to stare her down. She began to laugh with the abandon of her race, like a baby tickled, hiding her face with the branch and peeping through at him. He said in English:
"You are a bitch. In England it would be the bride-well lash for you. Here it is the bridal knot. Better have left you behind with the Padre Valgado. He knew what to do with you; bed and beatings. You make mischief as a cow makes milk."
Maria, pleased to have attention, continued her grimace. When he turned away, as soon he did, she dropped all mopping and mowing at once, bending her branch again in regular sweeps with a dignity that grew out of grotesqueness as naturally as flowers out of the crack in a tomb.
Black woman and white were together on a mound where the bole of a tree, broken a hundred storms ago, made a kind of natural throne. Mary Askill could not be incurious as to the movements below; nor could she repel the memory of old may-days, seeing the people so intent on their celebration, and so careful of their ridiculous finery that a man wearing two feathers in his wool must try them a dozen ways, using the lake for mirror, before they stood to his liking. She observed that the birds in their quick journeys never flew above, but always round the lake. Conisby's words about the bridewell and the lash had roused no echo, good or bad, in her mind, and she supposed that henceforth her thoughts must do as the birds did, never travelling above that place from which a warmth mounted which the night before had been called the breath of the god. She said aloud, none hearing save Maria (who bent as though she comprehended, but laughed shallowly like a parrot):
"Lost—my path's lost."
A word which once had carried with it the whole picture of hell, darkness, flames; but here was no more than the cry of one astray among unfamiliar creations, forest growths and beasts, not evil because not having knowledge; the state of man in Eden.
The young men were first to dance. They had taken much trouble to arrange their display and contrive the costumes for it; these latter were mostly concerned to convey to the eye that the wearers were not what they seemed. They enacted a hunting scene, in which an elephant was to be tracked and captured. The hunters advanced on him, carrying branches to disguise them; the man who played the quarry wore broad leaves on his head for ears which he moved with his hands to symbolize the elephant's complacency, suspicion, and final fury as he sought to burst his way out of the ring of hunters. The movements of spears were true ones and might have killed if they would; points fell and sank in the soft earth close to the feet of the elephant actor. He trumpeted, and the sound was inhuman. At last he sank, permitted in his final agony to tread down a spearman, who yelled. The victors rushed upon him, the leader seized the leafy ears and bore them off, the body was cut up and a pantomime of gluttony performed, marred only by the victim's uncontrollable tendency to laugh as they handled his body. There were screams of triumph, not to be distinguished from those with which the onlookers recorded their applause. This done, performers and audience mingled as though the beast's dark flesh had in fact been triumphantly brought home; they swaggered, smiled, sang fitfully, and again began to eat, as the play with its mimicry of plenty set their appetites working and their imaginations too; they tore at soft fruits and fish as if these were indeed the rubbery meat seized out of danger, to be incorporated while its juices ran magical and fresh.
Maria had followed delightedly the story told in the dance. Her green fan lowered, she had watched and clapped the battle, encouraging the spearmen and rebuking the elephant for his audacity in opposing men so crafty. Now she took up the fan again, and her grave pose. She said:
"It is time now for the fighting of the white men. Black men fight with spears, but they take care not to bleed. The white men will bleed, perhaps. Now we shall see something."
The white men did not appear all at once. First, Conisby must make a speech explaining why it was necessary that they should thus ceremonially fight.
"Among us it is considered unseemly that men should share a wife. This is your custom too. A man may have as many wives as he can buy, but no one woman should tend two cooking pots."
The blacks laughed, pleased with this reference to the native treachery of women, their skill in poisons, and the headman called out:
"This is true, it is not safe that one woman should have two men, for one of them will surely he unlucky."
He indicated the kind of bad luck such an unfavoured husband might have, putting his hand to his stomach and twisting his eyes upwards. There was another laugh, loudest among the women themselves, reminded in this lively manner of their powers. Conisby went on, shifting about through three languages and topping off with a dozen Latin hexameters. The crowd, accustomed to long speeches, tolerated his efforts and lay back under the sunlight to digest and ruminate. They had forgotten their appetite for magic, a thing of the night.
Conisby ended his discourse. His sword took the sun. He signalled with it. The combatants, who had been engaged in binding up their hands with strips of canvas, came forward together, awaiting sheepishly his word to be ferocious. They showed their sense of the occasion by an arrangement of flags worn as sashes, and eyed each other, not with the fighter's appraising look (they were familiar, from months of voyaging, with each other's capacities) but with a kind of cornradely commiseration at being caught together in a ridiculous undertaking. The carpenter said, as Conisby's hand went up:
"I can't tell which of us is the bigger fool."
The hand dropped. They began to walk about, the smaller man crouched, the larger keeping his fists before him as though they carefully upheld a pair of roosting birds. From time to time one of these fists flew out and pecked at the carpenter's head, withdrawing at once into safety. The carpenter ventured no aggression but moved in every direction as though he had eyes in the back of his head. The blacks approved these passages at arms, which they took for ceremonial, and called comments to each other:
"The big man strikes gently to show he will be merciful. The small man dances, he is asking a blessing."
The women spoke under their hands to each other after their fashion, and, when they surveyed the boatswain, laughed.
After a minute or two this slow, mystic pacing and pushing changed to something less akin to ritual. The carpenter, lifting one agile foot, kicked the boatswain in the stomach. The boatswain bent double; then opening his immense hands and his mouth at the same time, came ravening forward. The carpenter did not attempt to withstand the onset. He ran, leaping his way out of the audience, and fled, not unattended, into the forest. There was laughter, and a quick shifting of people, endeavouring to follow the course of the flight. Echoes of it reached them, sounds ripped from the throat untimely, full-term threats, occasional silences no less ominous. Even these withdrew as the fight faded into the forest. Maria's fate was not to be publicly decided, it seemed, after all. Conisby said as much.
"Not thus did Amadis fight, or Gawain; though the Green Knight talked very affably with the latter after his head had been struck off in some such silly combat as this, running among trees. Maria, what next? Shall we tie you to a trunk, as in the other Indies they lay bait for tigers?"
He spoke fondling the black woman's ear, and looking at Mary Askill, moved to torment her who now accepted his bidding to see how well she could obey; or, if rebellion followed, to have the pleasure of quelling it. She looked away from his hand too quickly. When he perceived this he immediately quitted with a buffet the head he had been caressing, satisfied of his power, not loath to punish the instrument by which it had been shown. Maria, to whom any handling was better than none, grinned at him and asked what was next to be done.
"The white men have run away, there will be no marriage, my people will be sorry." Then, laughing to show that the proposal was not a serious one: "Let us have another kind of fight, she and I will fight each other, you shall take the winner."
Conisby put up a finger to stop her, oblivious that Mary Askill could not speak Portuguese. The use of that language, the little gesture warning of indiscretion, set him and Maria apart for an instant. Mary Askill got up from her mouldering throne; her shadow fell, not unobserved, upon the black girl standing near, who was not discommoded by it.
"Let someone seek out those men."
"Let them run," said he, "if they are such noddies. Here, with all the world watching, I could have kept them from harming each other. In there they may do murder. Well, our houses are built now, and ashore the uses of a boatswain are limited. The men are no loss, save as they spoil our festival. As this girl says: no winner, no marriage."
The people, resigned to the departure of their chief spectacle and very well able to amuse themselves, were at play again, the women assembling about a singer, who sat like the steersman in a canoe, legs wide and a stick in his hand. They had put together a song about a boiling river, how the rowers jumped when they were splashed, and the fish swam about ready cooked, and how the hippopotamuses all turned red like crabs in that pure hot water. They sang with gusto and the liveliest pantomime. Conisby, observing them, had a moment's vision of what, Christianized, they might do with some of the more sinister psalms of the shepherd king.
They sang tirelessly, and tirelessly as children repeated their game, the brief phrases of the river song. Now and then one would think of some fresh absurdity connected with the property of heat in a river; as the fact that lions coming down to drink might scald their tongues, and sneeze, and growl. They enacted this, with the flight of timid animals, the hiss of a snake falling from a bough, finally the yells of enemies routed by this impassable barrier. Sang those who were triumphant:
"We need not carry fire,
We are chosen.
Our cooking-pot bubbles
Down among the dead men.
Jump in, dead man!
Our pot will warm you."
Playing, eating, the day wheeled past. Still no living soul emerged from the forest, Maria's future was undecided, games were continued, shadows crept. In the early afternoon there was siesta, people and children drowsing off, putting their high spirits behind them for an hour or two like sugar-sticks stowed away. Mary Askill desiring to sleep, would not do so under the eyes (though closed) of the blacks. Nor would she hide in her litter, a dwelling-place of insects, its leaves giving out already a smell of mould; so short a time in these latitudes did live things take to die. She walked towards the end of the lake. Conisby watched her go, but was too unsure of her mood to venture his company. Like other servants of the altar in other times, he knew when it was not well to tempt divinity.
Divinity accordingly lay alone, meditating upon old stories, handed about still among English villagers, of the priests of the Scarlet Woman. They with artful picturings and carvings simulated to the eye the mysteries they taught, trusting to the ear only on Sundays. The walls of their steeple-houses they painted with ineffable sufferings, set reminders of heaven and hell upon roof-beams and water-spouts, and themselves, dressed in purple and fine linen, postured singing before their unholy Ark. They might have reached these people so, thought Mary Askill; evil has a long arm. And she pondered, but timidly as a child touches a sick creature, on her own fate.
When she woke it was to the sound of the drum and of cries. Another dance was beginning. The inexhaustible black people were on their feet again, taking pleasure in iterated movement. This time the women were assembled, working out some mimicry of their own. Maria led them as they circled and sprang. Mary Askill could at first make nothing of the pantomime, which had in fact to do with the ritual of growing yams; but she could guess at what it was concerned with, and after a little time the gestures began to take on a meaning. The women danced to the men, who sat together; motionless they received this homage of the women's twisting bodies, stamping feet, eyes half closed. Mary Askill too watched without movement, and unwillingly but perfectly understood their parable. Into her mind ran a phrase turned wrong way about as all things turn which come of the devil: the flesh made word.
The women lashed themselves with their own noise. Maria's suppleness was a challenge to the others, the bride whose grooms had fled swung herself in rapture to the tune of this ancient petition, the plea to be made fertile which her ancestresses had invented in defence of their race; many children to set against the many and desperate chances of the forest. Mary Askill became angry. She stirred in her lair, straightened her shoulders, and marched towards the dancers with a strong step that had in it nothing either of parable or of allure. They did not observe her, nor did the men, now beginning to unbend to their petitioners, clapping softly, leaning forward and back in rhythm. Maria led her prancing line closer to the seated watchers. The drums quickened, the women, panting and sweating, nevertheless increased the pace, no longer pleading but frantic. The drum lifted them to utmost endeavour, then stopped. The women cast themselves down.
It was Maria who saw Mary Askill. She lay at Conisby's feet, and he was stooping to pull her to him, half-caught by the urgency of the ritual, when she who of all had seemed most abandoned became at once the most aware. Invitation died out of her face, which took on a watchfulness not alarmed, the watchfulness of a fighter before an equal opponent. Conisby exclaimed and turned swiftly. His tone halted the men, advancing upon the prostrate dancers. These stared at the white woman, disconcerted by the silence and unknown purpose of her approach. The head man said:
"Does she want some of us for her service?"
Conisby called out to her, in a voice which forgot its usual studied reverence, the priestly tone:
"Don't come here."
Mary Askill did not speak. She walked to a place where there jutted out into the water a rock, flat and low. She was troubled less by the scene into which she had intruded than by her own heart, sickened and confused. Conisby, seeing her stand upon this platform and remembering his role, called out to the people that she would bless them, trusting to his own wit to translate, if need be, the message of a curse. In English he called to her:
"Lift up your hands. Say nothing."
Maria, who still stared from behind his shoulder, tense as a cat, flashed her teeth in a laugh which had for origin no more than the need to release excitement; it was not insulting, the poise of her shining body did not seek to provoke, she was gay, her head harboured only such visions and fears as might dwell in the cramped skull of a monkey. She was part of the time and place, hers were such actions as in these torrid and reeking woods it was suitable to perform. The white woman was the interloper.
Mary Askill, seeing all these things, and that they were hateful; remembering perhaps something of an Englishman who thrust his offending hand into the flame; resolving no more to play the deity, even the deity hidden and unwilling, knelt on her rock and held up one bare arm with the hand open, calling the sky to witness before she plunged it into the blue water that, as its surface was disturbed, sent up a waft of steam.
She held her arm thus some twenty breaths, withdrew without looking at it, pulled the sleeve over, and again walked out of sight into the trees.
None followed. She stepped into their shadows as into a withdrawing room, aware of pain, her heart not eased by it. At this she felt a kind of surprise, for it had been the habit of her mind to take ease from the body's discomfort. She walked slowly in a direction unknown, save that it was away from the voices and the drum whose note they sent after her to plead for her return. Very well it pleaded, with a kind of limping weakly beat, like a child lost and calling, but her ears were too full of another beat to heed it; her own blood in tumult.
She walked. The trees' shadow began to thicken, and there was movement among their distant tops, conversation of birds coming home before nightfall. She stood and spoke aloud:
"I've never pitied myself before. This is what comes when the body starts whimpering."
The culprit reminded her of its wrongs. Her forearm pained, the sturdy beat of her heart was quick almost beyond bearing. She struck down across the shrinking nerves with her left hand to increase their protest and leave no room in her mind for other contemplations. The body shrank, recorded its misery, and again abased itself. She spoke:
"No more." And again, strongly: "No more."
But she saw two pictures as she said it, one of herself playing the goddess under a fan of leaves, one of Conisby looking at her as sometimes he did with a kind of wondering tenderness; and which of these two the words served to dismiss she could not have told.
There was after that a momentary silence, through which sounded a cry. It did not come from the direction of the lake; it was the cry, not of a seeker but of one desiring to be found. Instantly remembering the runaway men, she came to herself again and put away her bewilderment, imagining one of the combatants, (surely the carpenter as the weaker) left injured and helpless somewhere. She sent out her voice to him. Again the cry, and a noise of distant stumbling feet, hands pulling at the soft undergrowth for support. Going towards this, she by continued calling through the twilight directed the uncertain steps and her own until they came together. It was the carpenter.
He said, unreasonably whispering now, after a quarter-hour of calling:
"Don't let them hear us. Talk low."
"Are you hurt? Who's 'them'? Where's the boatswain?"
The carpenter, whose face she could not now see, asked if she had any water. She said she had not. He took her hand and guiding it to his head discovered there a ridge like the weal from a blow. It had bled; she could feel the blood caked about it.
"It would take more than my pot of tar to caulk that," said the carpenter, and she could feel the muscles of his face alter to accommodate a smile. "That's your boatswain for you. All you'll see of him." He groaned and put her hand away. "I can't get much further. It's night already."
"It's quiet now. The lake's not far away. I'll call—"
But he, at that, gripped his fingers about her arm and again forbade all noise; not a breath; danger. "What danger?"
The carpenter then, gasping and wasting wind to curse his dry throat, gave her the history of the fight. He had the legs of the boatswain; for an hour he dodged him here and there until the heavy hour of the afternoon came when, the pain from that kick in the stomach being no longer lively enough (or so he said) to preclude sleep, the boatswain had indicated that the pair of them might, instead of dodging and snorting about among the trees like pigs, lie under them like rational creatures and sleep for an hour or two. The carpenter agreed, and fixed a signal for the renewal of combat; the first to wake to give three long whistles, neither to strike without this warning.
They slept therefore. But whether the signal was forgotten or not observed, the carpenter woke to find the boatswain standing over him with what appeared to be a log uplifted in both hands. He had just time to protect his head from the full weight of the blow, a knot in the wood tore a gash and blinded him with blood. If there was one thing more amply clear than another, it was that the boatswain had the best of it, and that a man with a leak in his head that might sink a merchantman was in no state to claim a bride. He therefore feigned to be completely unconscious—"remember to turn your eyes up, there's no true feigning without that"—and lay like the log that had felled him until he heard the boatswain stepping away.
All this happened at the edge of a natural clearing, a ravine whose rocks were for once in a way too much for the trees. Turning down his eyes, but making no other movement, he saw the boatswain's steps halt, like a man who listens. His own head, he said, was ringing a triple bob major, and there were Catherine wheels in it too, so he heard nothing. But the boatswain did. He hesitated, looked about with quick pecks of his head like a great bird, and suddenly darted back almost to where the carpenter's body lay. That astute man turned up his eyes again but took no further precaution against discovery by whatever was about to invade the clearing, trusting to the boatswain's care for his own skin to give warning of danger.
Through the changes in his head he then heard something that he had not heard since the olive-green soldiers of the Padre Valgado stalked with their captives on the quay of that other and now distant island; the sound of metal on metal, armed men marching. The boatswain sank behind a tree-trunk.
In a moment, coming from the northern side of the clearing, walking up the stream, which was shallow and afforded better going, despite its rocks, than the soft tentacles of the undergrowth allowed, five men appeared. Under the heat of the day they were armed, and not lightly. He saw three pistols, and flasks the shape to hold powder. One was better dressed than the others. His long boots were in good condition, though they had suffered in the march, and his shirt decently approximated to white. All these had the countenance, clay-coloured even when warm, of the Portuguese; when they came into the clearing and exchanged some speech, it was (so far as the carpenter, no linguist, could tell) the speech of Lusitania. He caught a word or two: sleep, ship, comrades, water; words that come within the wide vocabulary of men of the sea, to whose company he belonged.
They ceased their progress. The leader came out of the ravine and seemed to curse his boots, which he almost at once took off, and hung up on a branch to dry. The men laid themselves down, and brought out victuals from their breeches; bread, some sort of dried meat. The boatswain, who had not eaten earlier in the day, budged a little seeing the provender; the leader, quick of hearing and decision, turned instantly towards the noise, but took no action, possibly because he lacked his boots. They ate in a half-silence, one venturing a remark from time to time, the others grunting or ignoring it. They ate sparingly, putting back scraps of food in their breeches. The leader said a brief word after a guess at the hour made by standing a stick in a small patch of sun. It was permission to sleep. Instantly the men obeyed, stretching out without preparation on the soil that was soft with the death of millions of leaves, year after year. The leader, after inspection of his boots, leaned against a tree in an attitude of half-vigilance. His eyelids sank. The carpenter could see his face losing expression, becoming blank behind the young beard so trim that it seemed to have been painted on. Under the Catherine wheels and the ding-donging in his head he calculated that if the boatswain chose to do so, now was his moment to slip away and warn the camp by the lake.
Instead, he sneezed. The carpenter, who had his eye upon the silent motionless body behind the tree, saw it contorted, then heard the noise that burst out from it; not a noise to be confused with any hissing a serpent might make, or a bird's call, or a beast's cough; the purely human sound of a sneeze which, like love, cannot be hid. In a moment, boots or no, the leader was on his feet and had his sword out. In another moment the men too were awake, and the boatswain, valiant with fists but no man to face five swords, was surrounded by them, helpless.
They interrogated him. He shook his head. The leader tried another language. This seemed to hit the mark, for the boatswain answered something—what, the carpenter could not hear. The men were dissatisfied, and gave him a punch or two, but the leader stopped them, continuing his questions. The boatswain's answer included gestures, not so vivid as those the blacks were accustomed to employ, but yet significant. The direction he pointed to was the direction of the village, due south. And he seemed to be explaining, at length and with emphasis, something which the carpenter could not interpret.
At last the leader seemed satisfied. He unrolled from his own wrist a strap with a buckle which he kept there—the carpenter noted this practical touch—and with it tied the hands of the boatswain together behind their owner's back. He looked about him then, and gave an order. The men at once went off in different directions, beating the undergrowth like sportsmen. Almost at once the carpenter was discovered. He turned up his eyes and lay still, letting the bells and wheels have their way in his head. He had taken the precaution—"this is something that should be known"—of putting a rounded pebble under each armpit on which he clenched the muscles without seeming to do so, thereby causing the pulse to cease beating. He could not swallow a round pebble and do the same trick by his lungs; nevertheless, as a good swimmer should, he could hold his breath; and he knew how to appear collapsed, how to ape the dead man's terrible shrinkage. The gash in his forehead caused by the log was providentially sizable.
He was found, therefore. The leader, called, turned him over with a foot and he obeyed with all due limpness, as a body obeys. The boatswain was interrogated. By a simple reckoning of the boatswain's muscles and the size of the log, which lay, bloody and swarming with ants, close by the tree, and by the faithful trick of the pulses, it was easily determined that the carpenter ought to be dead, if not would soon die, was in any case an encumbrance. With his eyes twisted up until he seemed to be looking through the roof of his own skull the carpenter heard his fate discussed, and took the kick which the leader dealt him for good measure after it had been decided. The party moved off, the boatswain with tied hands going between two groups of men. No more sleep for them that day. They clanked off down the ravine in silence. The carpenter then yielded to the insistence of the bells in his head, the strong regular compulsion of the turning wheels.
He was not clear how long ago all this had happened. He asked for water again. There was none; he had left the stream behind him. His wound had rendered him timid, he would not hear of being left alone, would not move nor let her move. In half an hour he was babbling to the silence of these Indian trees how oak and elm were worked at his father's bench in Devon. Mary Askill sat by him, not heeding, considering what was best to be done.
"If these men are indeed Portugal men, then they come from a ship. Put it that they landed on the northern beaches of our island, what are they seeking for, here in the centre? Portugals care for slaves and gold. There is no gold here. How if they take our people? Five armed men, he said—" And she interrogated the carpenter: "Five armed men with swords—hark now, hush! Was it five?" But he was murmuring of life at the other side of the world. "So many, and we have only the one. Pistols too, he said. The blacks' spears are toys. I must give warning."
And she determined without sentiment that the carpenter must be left to whatever fate the woods had in store for him, it being urgent that this warning should be conveyed. She felt easy having something immediate, though dangerous, to do; not beyond her wits, either; no goddess trick, but a task fit for a woman. She had not known such ease since the day when she sat down to spin safety for the Nonsuch out of a pile of ropes' ends, many weeks ago.
She stooped over the carpenter. His breathing was uneven, he was dropping out of his frenzy into a quiet perhaps more deadly. She felt about his body for the knife which she knew he always carried, hidden at his waist. The Portugal men had not robbed the rags he wore; the knife was safe. She took it and went off through the thickness of the trees, notching one here and there for a guide by daylight to the place where she had left him; and following the moon, now high, stepped forward.
Her sense of direction did not fail her. At the end of half an hour's slow progress she caught a whiff of smoke from the camp's evening fires, and with this and the moon to aid came uneventfully to the lake's end. The people were still at their noise, so strongly that she felt a moment's astonishment; she had heard none of it until she was almost upon them, though the breeze blew towards her. Conisby was not in his place among the men. He seemed not to be present at all, and her heart laboured, not for anxiety concerning him, but because without him her journey had been made for nothing, the warning could not be delivered.
Then he appeared from some place within the forest's edge, alone, from time to time turning to survey the place from which he had come. He passed not far from her. She called, and saw him halt, heard his breath go in on a gasp and come out on a whistle.
"You, Mary! I've been hunting you. Your arm—I've been afraid for you."
She had forgotten her arm, and the impulse which led her to thrust it in the water. He went on:
"Purging yourself, atoning for the sight you could not help seeing. I don't know what meaning the people put to what you did, they are not curious for meanings but for happenings. I did not interfere, or seek you. I told them you wished their sport well, and needed to be alone. But I've been troubled and afraid for you." And he added, in something of a hurry: "Who'd have thought that devil Maria would celebrate her marriage thus wholesale?"
Mary Askill answered none of this. She began to tell him what she knew of the five armed men; their seizure of the boatswain and casual brutality to the carpenter, their departure southwards. He heard without comment or interruption; at last, when she ended, asked a sharp question or two.
"Where is the carpenter? Did he hear no more of their talk? What are the words, again, that he could understand?"
She repeated them with her own conjecture, that the invaders were seeking either gold or slaves; and her own resolve, that the black people must be defended.
"Defended!" He laughed at that. "I admire your estimate of my powers. We have only one sword, unless you can call down help from heaven, gladius Domini. We'll do better to hide, not return to-morrow to the village. Well. I'll think awhile. We must lose no time."
He did not thank her. He had forgotten his concern for her departure and her arm. He too was by this event liberated from the nets they had woven. They walked together towards the fires where the people were singing, and did not so much as think to touch hands.
Conisby stepped through the dance as an animal walks through a whirl of dust in the road, and commanded attention. When all were silent he gave the gist of Mary Askill's story and put it that a council should be called. This done, he invited the headman to speak.
"A grave matter surely," the headman agreed. "We know the men with the green faces. They have no pity. They are strong, but they do not work. They are able to fight and take slaves, therefore they do not need to work. They have certainly come to this place looking for people to carry away in their ships. They are exceedingly strong, treacherous and wily. It is my advice to you that we should hide from them."
Others agreed with the headman. They had recolections of those months of slavery to which they never gave voice even in their songs; but it could he seen by the imperfect light of a hastening moon that something of that humiliation was upon them now; the drummer beat a solemn stave or two until nearer voices hushed him.
"For my part," said Conisby, "that is not what I should counsel. We run, it may be, from a shadow if we hide. We have not our account from one that has seen them directly, only a sick man's story remembered and retold. Five men armed! Granted there are so many, and that their purpose is to enslave us, and that the boatswain is a traitor; given the worst that can happen, what will it profit us to go skulking about the forest for who knows how long, until it is their pleasure to leave hunting us? We plan in the dark, and in the dark are devils. There must be something done that will reveal their numbers and their intent, and give us matter upon which to make our way."
The headman said that the crocodile may allow himself to be seen, but deer should trust tall grass. He looked at Conisby's sword, the only weapon worth calling so among the men there gathered, for their spears were of green wood, ornamental. Conisby took up the challenge.
"Where has this man led them? To the village, since he has not brought them here. And what to do there?"
There was but one answer to that. The return was planned for next day. An ambush carefully concealed, falling upon the returning pilgrims at the end of a long march, would have every chance of success. There was plenty of food in and about the cabins. The Portuguese might lie there at their ease, with nothing to do but prime their pistols and wait.
"But we are not sure of it," Conisby said. "We must make sure. We must be certain of their purpose. We must spy upon them, follow them. And I, because I know their speech, am the man to undertake this."
The blacks did not dispute that the man with the sword was the man to investigate the danger; they wondered, however, whether a short cut to the knowledge they needed might not be found; the priestess who had brought news of the invaders might prophesy concerning them and make known their minds.
Conisby hesitated, having no wish thus to entrust the solution of the problem to chance. The headman answered for him calmly:
"Better not. She is—"
And he used the phrase with the two meanings, the phrase which implied a woman deflowered and a basket of trouble unsealed, with which Maria had excused her own disbelief. The elders, glancing among themselves and nodding, to Conisby's bewilderment made no further comment, taking the matter for granted. He had been prepared for trouble arising from this blasphemy, had spent part of his solitude scheming out new miracles to override it. In fact, the blacks were accustomed to the sight of persons singled out and afterwards forsaken by strong powers. Certain men and women among them became, from time to time, dwelling-places of gods and took the attributes of gods, their bodies being put on like dresses by the gods and shaken off when the unknown purpose had been served. The white woman had been so chosen. Now the deity was gone, capriciously as it had come. This was in the nature of things, not disturbing. They therefore abandoned all hope of help from her and looked to the man for aid, he having a sword and being, as they had seen for themselves, a personage of resource.
He developed his plan quickly. He would set off at once, while the moon served. A man travelling alone is not subject to delays. He could be upon them, it might be, while they slept; or could take them one by one if they strayed into the forest. He spoke boastfully and excitedly, covering up as he supposed the dwindling of Mary Askill's godhead, casting the mantle of it over him.
"I shall match them. I shall be protected. No harm can come to me, she watches over me. She and I are your saviours."
One of the young men put forward a plea: that two persons should go to spy out the land. Thus, one being taken or disabled, or having the chance of an accident, one would survive to be useful. Conisby was arrogant.
"Do you suppose I can fail? What accident can touch me?"
The headman would not put the suggestion away so lightly. It seemed to him and to others a wise precaution. He amended it, however, in an ingenious manner. The second person to accompany the sword should be a woman, should be Maria.
"She speaks their tongue," said the headman. "Moreover, she is sly. If she is caught, they will not kill her as they would kill a man. They will keep her for their pleasure, and thus she may learn much."
This was perceived by all, Conisby included, to be the merest common sense. However, he would not agree to it. He was unwilling to accept a co-saviour, unless it might be Mary Askill; feared what harm the choice of Maria and her successful undertaking of the expedition might do to the influence he had built up. He began to object; a woman could not travel so fast, a woman could not keep a quiet tongue, and so on. He perceived the feeling of the council to be against him, and with a swift turn of the mind threw the whole authority for the decision upon the white woman. If she commanded, if she ordained, Maria should go.
Mary Askill, interrogated, thought it might answer pretty well. The plan was agreed. But he observed with distress that while she gave her judgment silence was not accorded her. While food was found, and water, for the chosen pair to carry Conisby pulled her aside to speak in the darkness, out of the arc of the moon.
"Something has changed them. Will you be safe here alone?"
"The house of lies is falling down."
"I thought when you stirred the lake—Mary, why did you do that? Was it because of me? Have I not caused you pain enough?"
"It's over now. Tribulation's over."
"Don't speak as if you were dead. Mary, this girl coming with me—it wasn't I who willed that. The dance, too. She did it to plague me, she's a mischievous devil. It was their chief who obliged her to come with me."
"She'll be serviceable."
"Are you angry? I can't see your face."
"No. I'll ask you a question, though."
"Better not tempt you. Never mind it."
"Tempt me to what?"
She would not say the word that had been on her tongue; to lie. She twisted the talk away from themselves to the matter of his task.
"I'll be safe. They're kind people. I never harmed them, only myself by feigning." With a recollection of the carpenter's counsel, without other relevance she added: "Now I may turn my eyes down." Before he could question she went on in the darkness, taking her practical country tone: "When you come to the village don't risk yourself, don't run on all their five swords at once. These people depend on you. I know your temper, to challenge and make a noise, bring trouble on to have it the sooner over. But you mustn't think for yourself."
"I think for you. The people don't heed you now. That girl—what in God's name has she done to them? She's an ape in queen's robes."
"I shall do well enough."
"Do you love me?"
He caught and held her to him. She was wise again, in command of every purpose, no longer to be swayed. He felt this firmness and grudged it; beneath his power she had trembled. He pressed her closer, bearing without knowing it upon the scalded arm. She welcomed the pain, it was fruitful; what her own violence could not do his accomplished; her mind had ease. He felt with astonishment a sudden clinging, the response she could afford to make because she was free, and read it wrongly.
"What? Still? Though I plague you, and intrude upon your salvation? Do you indeed, Mary? Are you so truly woman to forgive it all and still to love?"
She leant upon the pain, but still did not tremble. He would have his answer. He would not go into danger, out of life perhaps, lacking the assurance that she was his; that she would weep for him; that his rival was at this hour defeated, though she might pray hereafter. He said:
"You told me once that you are what I have made you. What have I made you? With my whips at Oxford and my scorpions at sea? Answer. What, with all my faults, have I made you?"
She answered with a last lie, steadying her soul:
He breathed, and let her go.
The blacks, gathered together closely like sheep huddling against attack, began to sing in half-voices, gravely, out of the shadow of captivity that for the second time had fallen upon them. The song, like that which once burst from the close stinking hold of the Nonsuch, had no words; and being given out softly into the night it had a quality that belonged to the place, dark, questioning and afraid. Conisby said:
"I am not worth a deal. But I will give what is in me so that they shall never sing for Zion again out of the belly of a ship."
The moon was declining, it was time to be gone. Maria stood ready. She had put off her clothes, which being light-coloured might have betrayed her, and was setting out quite naked. Conisby spoke to the people, telling them that the priestess would have good care of them. No one spoke either to approve this or deny. The two slipped away southwards.
When there was no longer the least sound from their going and the people's song had died down, watchmen were posted about the lake. They had trimmed their green spears, tempering them as well as they could in the embers of the fires, and these they held ready. The women, pulling their children near to them, lay down to sleep for the hour that remained before daybreak. The older men drowsed, would not yield themselves wholly to sleep. They talked for a time of the green-faced men, recollecting enormities suffered, companions lost in the prosecution of their mysterious greed to be masters. As the talk sank away in drowsiness the headman said to his still wakeful neighbour:
"When that girl returns we had better make an end of her. She is a trouble-maker. She has no husband now, and she covets the white man. There will be discord. She had better go."
"Certainly let her go," the neighbour agreed. "There has already been too much commotion on her account. Women are pests that do not make themselves useful. This one is idle, a talker, proud. Let her die."
"The white woman does not sleep," said the headman. "They are restless after the god departs."
"She, too, serves no purpose now," the elder answered. "After they have been used and the god has gone, they are no more than dead people walking. This we know."
"We cannot be certain that it is with these people as with ours," said the headman. "She too has been idle and useless of late, but she knows things that we do not. It is my advice that we should not molest her."
"We shall see what news the others bring of our enemies," the elder said, watching Mary Askill moving by the lake, "and whether they return or no. We may need her if the green-faced men set upon us. We may sell her to them as one of their own skin. But if they depart, and the man does not return, she had better not remain with us. That which has been used by the god is not safe afterwards for men."
"True," said the headman. "We burn the plates that have served them, and the spirit baskets when these are empty. It is something to be considered. But as for Maria, that is decided."
"She will make a good blood-offering," the elder agreed. "It is long since we had one."
They slept till daylight.
Mary Askill waked to find herself inside her litter, without recollection of how she got there. She felt drained, unwilling to move. But an army of ants passing along their highway beside her foot by some leap of the mind called to memory the carpenter lying with a bloody head somewhere not far off. She roused herself at once, and summoned two of the men to accompany her. They could not understand what she needed, and would not come close to her, or heed her gestures which, though part of the universal language, deal adequately only with the appetites. She succeeded all the same in beckoning the men like dogs to her heel, noting as they came that there was reluctance which she set down to the wrong cause. She said, exasperated yet with humour:
"You're like my own people—God help them!—in England. Stand up to cold and hunger, and scared of the headless horseman."
"What does she want?" her attendants asked pitifully of their chieftain. "Shall we obey? What need is there to obey her now?"
"None," said the headman briefly. "But go."
The pair went behind Mary Askill along the path that she, the night before, had marked with notches from her steel knife. This tracking reassured them, and they spoke with each other softly, wondering what game it was that they were to carry home; large, that it needed two men. Then they were overcome with apprehension, for there was in the island, so far as they knew, no beast of a weight to need the muscles of two men. They went softly, watching.
When the notches upon the tree-trunks came to an end Mary Askill could find no carpenter. She saw fresh leaves that had been crushed, and found the log that had felled him. She showed it to her men. It was blood-covered, lively with ants and such creatures; pointing with it she sent them like dogs to seek the trail. She, standing with hollowed hands to her mouth, stood calling. Hearing this, the men understood for what they were seeking, set to work with all their skill, and in a little time found their quarry a surprising distance away, not long dead. The birds had not discovered his eyes, which, now that there was no longer any need to feign, stared straight before him. But a little snake that had flexed itself round his wrist eyed them and slithered away in haste.
The men began to cut sticks and shape them for a bier. She with a motion bade such preparations cease, and sat down for a while to contrive what she should do. The foreign logic of the forest invaded her mind. Why hide away in earth the poor rags and tatters of the soul? In England these, lying above ground in a country where every yard was trodden, gave offence, spread unwholesomeness. Here where there was no eye to see, no foot to strike against these ribs while they rotted, why should the small creatures of the forest be cheated of their food? England spread feasts for worms only, forbidding other guests. These climes, as they were more abundant and solitary, were more generous. The vultures, ants, and those innominates that would invade the flesh when it grew soft enough wordlessly presented their claim to Mary Askill, while she sat by the dead man, hands between her knees.
She stirred at last, and herself cut out the first sod from that rich ground. Even such poor Christian stuff should have burial, be given to decent invisible decay and not to plunder. She left the main work of digging to the men, feeling once more void of power. A young tree springing near reminded her, by its smooth-surfaced bark, of one further duty. She summoned her little learning, composed the epitaph and wrote with her knife in Gothic letters, the only letters she knew how to form:
here lye an
The men, looking round from time to time from their labour, eyed this magic in the making. They observed that the hand holding the knife was reddened and weeping, could not make the blade bite deep; it was the hand chastised by the god of the lake. They saw that strength had been taken from this hand, and were not astonished that jealousies and strife should prevail between the immortals as among men, or that presumption should be punished.
When the body had been laid below ground they made their way back to the lake. Here there was still no news, nor could they expect it; and still no food. The last meal had been copious, but it was now a memory. One or two children, whose stomachs being smaller than those of their elders soonest required replenishing, were beginning to wail. The women to comfort them rocked and sang their ditty about the delicacies to be had in Africa, crocodile and the rest of the list. At one point in the song the headman stopped it with a brief interjection, and set four of them to splitting sticks, making pronged implements which the four women carried off while those left behind sang with gusto, and crowded with anticipatory relish about the fires which, for fear of their betraying smoke, had been allowed to die down.
When the four returned, as they did one by one in no very long time, they bore what appeared to be whips in their two hands; snakes held in the prongs and hanging alive from them. Each had been caught behind the head with a sudden pounce of the stick, but the vitality which creatures need that have neither thick skins nor speed to ensure the continuance of their kind, so informed them that even held thus, strangling, they could not die. Some were thin and green as tendrils of creeper, some longer and thickly swelling, with a pattern of diamonds along their spines. The men beheaded them with blows of a sharp heavy stone, and carefully sank in the lake the poisonous heads that carried Death's bone in their shallow mouths. Not troubling to skin the bodies, they only shifted them in the prongs, and with cheerful cries held them to cook in the blue water. Later they brought on a leaf a piece of whitish flesh, rounded, looking not too much unlike the flesh of an eel, to tempt Mary Askill's appetite. She accepted for courtesy, but could not eat. She felt no want of food, though it was more than twenty-four hours since she had tasted any. The blacks rejoiced at the food, and took their sleep afterwards. This was to them a congenial existence, living as by their own rivers they were accustomed to live, gorging one day, fasting the next. Here as there, they had an uncertain plenty. Here, as there, the shadow waited.
The men with spears came to eat with the rest, then went back to their watch.
Next morning, about an hour before the sun was at zenith, Mary Askill restlessly marching by the lake saw one of the watchmen sink low, poising his weapon. She stood. Her eyes, reddish from sleeplessness, stared past him apprehensively at the unseen approach, and she was motionless as an animal catching fear from the wind.
The man rose, going forward eagerly towards whoever was coming through the trees from the south; Maria alone. She was naked still, her left hand carried something wrapped in leaves, and a broad leaf was on her head for coolness. A shout warned those who waited, they went to meet her, running. Mary Askill reached the crowd at the moment when the chieftain's interrogation had begun. She was made way for, nobody touched her, a good place for seeing and hearing was accorded to her civilly. She surveyed the faces, trying with her whole mind to read these, since the book of their tongues was not open to her. Maria's look was smooth, the headman spoke quietly; as for the people, their faces were blanks of attention. Yet something of importance was being told. It was as though this matter went too deep for outward expression, thoughts evaded betrayal as birds avoided the lake. The gist of the first question was evident:
"Why are you alone?"
Maria jerked her head backwards, and that, too, could be read. He was delayed, he was following, must surely be the significance of such beckoning. And the next questions could only be concerned with their errand:
"Where are the green-faced men? How have you left them?"
Maria began a long story, standing before her hearers in an attitude upright and easy despite the journey and the day's heat. Her body shone with sweat, her face had a kind of animation that revealed nothing, wind on shallow water. She made few movements with her hands, one of which still held to her side the green-wrapped burden. It could not be known from her way of telling whether the matter of the story were tragic or gay. Once the people, listening, drew in their breaths sharply and looked at each other. Once they made a sound all together like an amen or a prayer. With desperate attention Mary Askill heeded the smooth run of the spoken syllables, that clucked sometimes like a river over stones, and searched the impenetrable faces.
Soon it appeared that the headman possessed all the facts. He ceased to question. The people, who out of respect for him had held back, now began a storm of talk. The revelation had been made, and Mary Askill could only guess at it. There had been a quick flicking of fingers as of skittles falling down—the enemy, surely? And then at one point a kind of dancing lunge different from the handling of the black men's weapons, a mimicry of some white swordsman; but which one? Had there been a combat? How quarrelled and what the issue?
Mary Askill put out her hands, the people parted like water before a swimmer. She stood in front of Maria and spoke softly two words: a name:
"John Conisby? John Conisby?"
Maria looked startled. She saw the state of the arm and hand and spread her fingers above it, regretfully shaking her head, as though she would have liked to tend this hurt according to the skill she had with wounds.
"Never mind that," said Mary Askill. "That's my own doing, it'll pass. Where's he, where's John Conisby?"
Maria said nothing. Instead she unwrapped that which she carried at her hip, rolled in leaves; the hilt of a sword, its blade broken off two or three inches below the guard. In this the whole of her long story was resumed. Despite trouble, fatigue and perhaps great fear that she had endured, she could not help watching the face of the white woman inquisitively for signs of pain, witnesses of humanity.
Mary Askill recognized the sword-hilt instantly, as did the people. They made again the sad reluctant sound, like an amen, that had greeted one passage in Maria's recital, and Mary Askill knew that this was the moment at which they had been told that their protector was dead. She could from this groan and single relic put together all she needed of the fight, a rash and brave one against odds, the black woman watching it unseen, not helping, useless as a bright bird, and afterwards coming back, stepping among blood to pick up evidence that would attest the story. Mary Askill held the hilt before her eyes, searching the cut steel of the guard for blood. Here and there she saw a round stain where something had lain, dried, and flaked away in dust.
The headman was speaking to her, making a further detail of the occurrence clear. He squatted before her, and choosing a few sticks and grasses built up a tiny cabin such as those which they had built to the orders of the white man, in straight rows unlike trees. Over these he made a sound with his tongue, a crackling and spitting sound, then with his hand swept the erection down, looking up for comprehension like a dog performing a trick.
Mary Askill signified that she knew what he would have her know. There had been fire in the village, no chance destruction but the deliberate contrivance of men hoping for gain and finding none, no gold for the picking up and all the blackbirds flown. The shining hilt made a rallying-point for her thoughts, concerned now with the salvation of the people, but not running clear as before when she had saved them from the waters; troubled as the pool by the angel before it healed.
Seeing her thus intent Maria ventured forward, and with a quick deprecating movement laid the broad leaf which she had taken from her head round the arm and wrist that showed sore. Softly, holding it there, she made certain sounds which in the house of the Padre Valgado the women used in the treatment of wounds. Confident in the power of what she was saying, the African woman called in the Latin tongue upon a long dead soldier of Rome, Longinus, that by the virtue of his spear piercing a sacred side to draw forth blood and water this evil might cease. Mary Askill did not heed her. Painfully she was setting facts in order. Their village was gone. They could not, for lack of food, remain here by the lake. The island itself was no longer hidden from men, invaders had come from the north. They were without weapons to meet such onset, without a leader—but her mind would not be obedient, it ran towards a point, the shining hilt dulled here and there as with spots of dust. She ceased to be aware of the crowding people.
The headman, who had been conferring with the elders, now spoke a word or two and stretched out his finger in an imperative gesture towards Maria. She sank down by the white woman's side; the whites of her eyes showed as she rolled them upwards in fear. The headman repeated what he had said in a voice that did not need to be loud to have authority, and the women set up an immediate clamour, angry, insistent.
They were blaming Maria, whose clothes they could not emulate, whose nearness to the great ones only these fine feathers justified, for whatever it was that she had done over there in the village now smoking and abandoned. They threatened her; and their men, standing aloof, would not interfere.
But she was in sanctuary, gripping fast to the skirt of the white woman who stood holding the wrought fragment of steel and looking down at it, still as the lake. They owed this figure no divine observances, it was no more now than a spirit basket unsealed, the principle that had claimed reverence was gone. Maria inspired no pity. Her small animal soul looked this way and that out of eyes that, untroubled, had contemplated fire and death. Her smooth skin knew fear of another smoothness, cold, that of the knife, and her imagination dreaded to quit the world she knew, an easy monkeyish world of food, contacts of flesh, warmth, obedience of strong limbs, for one that lacked all these things. She clung and tugged at the skirt, looking up, letting her fear make its own plea.
The headman spoke, telling her that judgment had been passed, and appealed to the people; was it not so? Here was a cause of dissension, preserved so long as, by her knowledge of the white people's ways and tongues, she could be of use. Now that the white man was dead, and the woman forsaken, there was no longer reason to preserve such a creature in idleness. He invited those who did not agree to give their voices. One or two spoke to say that a woman was, after all, a beast capable of labour, representing so much wealth to a community which it was a pity to destroy. Against these the women shouted that there was no good to be had of this one, that she had been spoiled by the whites too long, was sterile and no longer capable of doing an ordinary day's work. It was agreed by a majority that their estimate was just.
The women began to stamp and clap, demanding sacrifice. Their impatience was caught up by the drummer who, with his hands beating his thighs, sounded an insistent request; die, let her die; die, let her die! Maria heard, holding the stuff of the skirt over her ears with both hands.
There was a consultation among the men. Their knives, ritual blades of shell and stone, though suitable enough to strike off the heads of snakes, were not of a sharpness adequate to this sacrifice. The handle of the carpenter's knife catching his eye as it stuck out above Mary Askill's belt, the headman spoke to her, asking for it, and explaining that it was necessary for what they had to do. He did not step forward to take it from the still figure. Nor did any of the rhythmically stamping women, though they urged him to snatch it up and have done, care to undertake that duty. He spoke again, reminding the white woman of what had been done on the deck of the ship, how by blood they had been saved and protected; how needful was blood; and how the sentence which had been passed upon Maria was just. She did not answer, and after waiting a little he put his hand on the knife.
At that there came out of the white woman's mouth—she still looking down at what she was holding—the strong yet empty voice they had thought not to hear again. The authentic hollowness was there of the empty vessel echoing, and this they recognized, abasing themselves before the sound of words whose sense they could not interpret. The drummer ceased to clap his thighs, the women hesitated and sank down, swaying and moaning. The men stood, watching with exaltation and fear the god again taking up his habitation, calling so as to be heard by his fellows under the water and in the sky:
"Why trimmest thou thy ways to seek love? Therefore hast thou also taught the wicked ones thy ways. Also in thy skirts is found the blood of the souls of the poor innocents, I have not found it by secret search but upon all these. The cool fountains forsaken, living water forsaken, dead water welling up out of hell to fill their cisterns, broken cisterns that hold no water. How shall the Lord be answered when he comes to drink, and finds the reek of the abomination? How shall we answer, what cup shall we pour? Only the cup of bitterness, and of strife, and of lies; the cup that was offered under the green tree. To what purpose cometh incense, and sweet cane from a far country? These are not acceptable, not sweet, only the heart set before the Lord is sweet, the sweet cane crushed in a mortar. Call for the mourning women that they may come, for the cunning women and let them make haste, that the people may be delivered—"
The voice ceased. The people answered with a murmur of submission and lifted their faces. They saw the white woman take a stride or two forward, Maria holding to her until she was shaken off; then, relieved of this burden, walk slowly and with purpose southwards into the trees. Without consultation the people followed. They no longer feared the shadow, knowing that the powers they obeyed still were with this woman, and they accordingly still under protection.
As they stepped behind her the people sang. It was no easy march, for Mary Askill held a good pace, and the day was sullen. They kept no guard, even the formality of the green spears was neglected; asked no questions; knew only that they were being led, and that the one thing necessary was to follow. Their songs were not now of food or of defiance, but were sung for the purpose of sustaining the march, a sober beat with now and then a shuffle and shrug to fit the shifting stride. The song had to serve for breath, food, water. There was no halt for rest throughout the clay.
The movements of this column of people were the only ones perceptible in the woods through which they made their way. All life, save that which crept unseen in the veins of the trees, seemed to have been beaten down by the heat. When the sky could be seen, clouds hung there brooding. The birds were silent, forgetting their eternal search. The air stood still, yet seemed to offer resistance to movement, as though the people walked through water. They bent their bodies forward and doggedly followed, Maria keeping for safety close to the leader's heel.
When they came to the place where the village had been it could be seen that fire had completely possessed it. The wooden walls, the leafy roofs, all were gone, sunk in ashes. Even the dial that told the sun was smashed down. Outside that which had been Mary Askill's dwelling a man in foreign clothing lay dead; there were bones among the ruins, and the broken blade of a sword.
She did not stop for these, but marched on towards the beach. The ship's boat in which they had been accustomed to make their journeys to the Nonsuch was missing; it might be supposed that the invaders had taken it and set off for the mainland, not distant, but a treacherous coast which sailors had reason to fear. The Nonsuch lay on her spit of sand like an old hippopotamus on a mud-bank, wallowing there harmlessly, weed trailing from her sides seaward or shoreward as the tides chose to direct it. Beyond her on the horizon lay a bank of cloud so thick and rounded, and of so heavy a purple colour that it had the look of a bale of cloth.
The tide was high, the spit of sand nearly covered. There was a quarter-mile of water to traverse before the ship could be reached. Into this Mary Askill led them, not troubling to lift her heavy skirts which floated awhile, giving her figure the appearance of being sustained by them until they soddened and went down. The people followed through the water, finding it kinder than the forest's heavy air. They shifted their song to greet it, the children lifted on their mother's shoulders clapped and laughed as it splashed up at them.
The Nonsuch had been visited by the invaders. A ragged drop or two of blood was on the deck and on the wooden splinter that had torn a hand reaching up to scale over the bulwarks. She had been visited, searched for weapons or food, then abandoned to the trough she had rocked for herself in the sand. The people swarmed over her, not discontented that this was again to be their habitation, liking the sound of water sucking and slapping under their feet again. She was canted at an angle; they laughed, clinging on the steep decks, peering into the hold where once they had lain in darkness, singing. They bore the ship no They were water people, aware that it is the hand and not the paddle or the keel that should be blamed for disaster; and they had, to gild their memory of the previous sojourn, the recollection of that magnificent and victorious fight in which they had, by numbers and faith, borne down white men armed with iron and thunder. They were without food, such water as had accumulated in the butts on deck stank and bore a scum, the sky threatened. They laughed, confident of safety.
She in whom they confided had sunk upon the deck like a dead thing, and there lay. Maria, having a mind to keep within the influence, not risking her fate beyond it, gathered the head to her bare knee. There was life in Mary Askill's face though the pinching and widening of the nostrils alone betrayed it; in sleep her quitted body was faithful to its grip upon the hilt of the sword.
A gust of wind from the east, whence the purple cloud was unrolling, came at the ship like a buffet and withdrew. It was wind hotter even than the calm that had preceded it. The Nonsuch was secure as a turtle turned on its back in the sand; for all that, such tempests as the one that threatened were of a kind to move mountains. Even under this single thrust the masts groaned and whistled. The headman said to Maria:
"What are we commanded to do?"
Maria, without answering, smoothed the head tilted on her knee, drawing forth no more than a sigh. The headman, recollecting the matter of the sun's withdrawal, was not without hope that this wind might yet by some hidden means be held away. He had seen trees of a hundred years' growth stirred from their soil by weather, and the masts of the Nonsuch, seasoned as they were, had roots not comparable with these. He said again:
"What shall we do? She must wake."
The gust came again, this time thrusting hard against the ship's side, so that water piled along it suddenly, and dropped away, foaming. As though it had been a push from a hand Mary Askill woke, stared about her, and asked in English:
"What are we doing here?"
She knew the deck at once, and was not troubled at being upon it, though lost to know what had brought her. A stiffness and weight in her hand drew her eyes down to the sword-hilt. She remembered, sickened at her thoughts, and leaned back for an instant against the black woman's knee. The wind, steadying, thrummed among the rotten cordage that stayed the masts. Her spirit rose to it, to the storm and the need of the people. She stood up, staggering as the deck heaved, and the Nonsuch stirred in her trough of sand. The lagoon across which they had waded was tossing now, the trees along the shore tossed more uneasily than the sea. No refuge there, she thought, only life coming out of the ground, too close to the ground on which snakes ventured, cutting demi-circles in the dust with their gaily-coloured bellies as they travelled, and carrying death in their jaws for a gift to lovers. She spoke again aloud, and though she was not aware of what had been said, it was without any wonder that she saw the black people had understood, were taking her orders to close hatches and doors and to prepare.
The wind held off for a moment. There was a quiet in which could be heard the rattling of waves on the Nonesuch's side, even the complaints of trees half a mile away, still swaying under the last impact. Sea-birds, whose wings had proved of no avail against that pressure and had dropped for shelter to the water, rose and beat landwards. The wind, renewing, caught them in air; it hurled them powerless in a straight course as though down some unseen road or tunnel cleft in the sky, and struck the ship, which heeled and stirred, came with a protesting noise out of the hollow where she had lain so long, and drove westwards, helpless as the birds, masts bare.
Mary Askill, cast to the deck with the shock of that enormous thrust, called to her people to have courage. This furious impulse towards an end unknown was that which had driven them all that day, and her for a longer time. They had courage, obeying in all simplicity; while she, lying on the deck, forgot the body and felt upon her again the acceptable pressure of the spirit of God, moving as once before over the face of the waters.
The Portuguese adventurer, he of the boots, safe in port again after hardships not to be told, was recounting his story:
"This island, when we descended upon it from the north, seemed empty. But not barren, I would have you know. It showed fine woods, there was water to be had; fish and beasts; the means to live. We determined, the few of us, to set out across it on foot; find Indians if we could, and return with a greater power, remembering the place. We found traces and paths, but no people except at one spot, where there were two men; white; speaking a language I knew. One was dead, or half way. The other fellow had been a sailor, and spoke a kind of seaman's lingo. He offered to guide us."
"A Christian?" asked the young priest, one of the company attentively listening. "Not a demon of the woods?"
"Hell is more choice," answered the adventurer, "and has servants better trained than was this sailor, father."
"Proceed, son," the young priest bade his elder.
"We asked him, was there a settlement on the island. He told us yes, towards the coast to the south. There was some story of a girl, but I could not understand it. We agreed with him to lead us to the place, and so he did, going under protest, with a sharp point before and behind him.'
"When I observed by the treading of the paths and the cutting of trees that we were close upon this village, I gave my signal, and the points did what they were sharpened for. I could not encumber my little force with a man who would need to be guarded lest he should betray us. This fellow, therefore, was killed."
One of the listeners lifted his hand to his forehead and breast, but the priest checked him, saying that we were not bound to intercede for the souls of unbelievers.
"That done, I surveyed the village. There was no smoke. I went among the houses. No soul, no sign. Yet there was food in the houses, not very stale. My men began then, father, to talk of the devil in earnest. And I too was afraid, for better reason. There is a scourge other than the devil that leaves houses standing empty, with no mark of war or fire upon them."
"Plague," murmured the listeners to each other.
"Plague," the adventurer echoed, "or other deadly sicknesses of those parts. I bade the men sleep in the woods, and regretted that we had not enquired more closely of our prisoner before we killed him, to discover whether he had meant us ill by bringing us to the village.
"In the morning, for prudence, I gave the order to fire the houses. We overturned a stone with a pointer on it to tell the sun, and a verse writ under the pointer. What it was now I have forgotten; it was in Latin."
"Son," said the young priest, troubled, "these villagers were, then, Christians after all?"
"To that I can't speak. It may be. The next thing was, as we were firing the houses, a man leapt out on me from the roof of one of them. He was not there, I'll swear, the night before. And he spoke Latin, too, like the pointer. Stood on the roof shouting it, defying us. Spoke it like an Englishman, what I could catch; not church stuff neither. We had smoked him out, he was well hidden in the thatch, we should never have bolted him but for the flames. He fought well against the five of us. Killed one, before we broke his sword for him, and then made a quick end."
There was a stir. But the audience recollected what the young priest had said, and refrained from prayer for one whose Latin was not church stuff.
"We found, beached on a spit of sand, the ship that had brought the settlers to this island. She was gutted, no rope in her worth the flick of your nail, no stores. Her fat sides gaped where she lay in her bed of sand. A dead ship, swollen and oozing. No use to us. But there was a good kind of launch, a boat with oars, and that, after some argument, we took; thinking it less labour, and more wholesome besides, to make our way by sea back to the island's northern harbour where our own ship lay. We contrived a sail, we had water and food enough. There was little wind, and we could not travel fast. But our feet thanked us, I can tell you, for the good notion of this boat."
The audience laughed, and stretched their own toes to the fire of sea-wood that burned with hues of the sea, green, purple, blue.
"And now, father, you may hear talk of devils. There came a storm as storms come in those waters, suddenly as a flea bites. We took in sail, and laid the canvas over our boat like a deck, to keep out the sea. The waves mounted, the wind took us. We endured. There is no describing such a storm except to say that each soul feels alone in it. As we tossed, it lightened. Their lightning is other than ours, it spreads out branches like a tree, and gives light longer. By this light I saw what I saw. You remember I spoke of a ship, a fat ship waddling in the sand?"
"That ship I saw coming towards us out of the storm. A dead ship walking. As the waves heaved her up, water spouted from her seams like fountains playing. It was not this that troubled us. Any sick old hulk may be blown adrift. It was the sound that came out of her."
"The sound?" the young priest asked. "What sound? A howling?"
"No," the adventurer answered. "It was a sound as sweet and strong as wine. Men and women singing together for joy, in a ship with five minutes to live."
"She sank, then?"
"Soon. But the singing continued, it seemed to us, out of the depths."
"De profundis," said the young priest, "clamavi ad te, domine. It was surely an illusion of the devil, such as the good Inquisitor, Martin Delrio, warns us against in his Disquisitions. These were voices of the lost."
"It may be," the adventurer agreed. "I never knew fear as in that moment."
The audience shivered and came closer to their fire, thinking of the ship with her cargo sinking to this music, souls drunk with the wine of their own canticle going joyfully to hell.
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