Epoch the Third
Chapter XV. In the Matter of Bucklaw
 

The Bridgwater Merchant and the Swallow made the voyage down with no set- backs, having fair weather and a sweet wind on their quarter all the way, to the wild corner of an island, where a great mountain stands sentinel and a bay washes upon a curving shore and up the. River de la Planta. There were no vessels in the harbour and there was only a small settlement on the shore, and as they came to anchor well away from the gridiron of reefs known as the Boilers, the prospect was handsome: the long wash of the waves, the curling, white of the breakers, and the rainbow-coloured water. The shore was luxuriant, and the sun shone intemperately on the sea and the land, covering all with a fine beautiful haze, like the most exquisite powder sifted through the air. All on board the Bridgwater Merchant and the Swallow were in hearty spirits. There had been some sickness, but the general health of the expedition was excellent.

It was not till the day they started from Boston that Phips told Gering he expected to meet some one at the port who had gone to prepare the way, to warn them by fires in case of danger, and to allay any opposition among the natives--if there were any. But he had not told him who the herald was.

Truth is, Phips was anxious that Gering should have no chance of objecting to the scoundrel who had, years before, tried to kidnap his now affianced wife--who had escaped a deserved death on the gallows. It was a rude age, and men of Phips's quality, with no particular niceness as to women, or horror as to mutiny when it was twenty years old, compromised with their conscience for expediency and gain. Moreover, in his humorous way, Bucklaw, during his connection with Phips in England, had made himself agreeable and resourceful. Phips himself had sprung from the lower orders,--the son of a small farmer,--and even in future days when he rose to a high position in the colonies, gaining knighthood and other honours, he had the manners and speech of "a man of the people." Bucklaw understood men: he knew that his only game was that of bluntness. This was why he boarded Phips in Cheapside without subterfuge or disguise.

Nor had Phips told Bucklaw of Gering's coming; so that when the Bridgwater Merchant and the Swallow entered Port de la Planta, Bucklaw himself, as he bore out in a small sail-boat, did not guess that he was likely to meet a desperate enemy. He had waited patiently, and had reckoned almost to a day when Phips would arrive. He was alongside before Phips had called anchor. His cheerful countenance came up between the frowning guns, his hook-hand ran over the rail, and in a moment he was on deck facing--Radisson.

He was unprepared for the meeting, but he had taken too many chances in his lifetime to show astonishment. He and Radisson had fought and parted; they had been in ugly business together, and they were likely to be, now that they had met, in ugly business again.

Bucklaw's tiger ran up to stroke his chin with the old grotesque gesture. "Ha!" he said saucily, "cats and devils have nine lives."

There was the same sparkle in the eye as of old, the same buoyant voice. For himself, he had no particular quarrel with Radisson; the more so because he saw a hang-dog sulkiness in Radisson's eye. It was ever his cue when others were angered to be cool. The worst of his crimes had been performed with an air of humorous cynicism. He could have great admiration for an enemy such as Iberville; and he was not a man to fight needlessly. He had a firm belief that he had been intended for a high position--a great admiral, or general, or a notable buccaneer.

Before Radisson had a chance to reply came Phips, who could not help but show satisfaction at Bucklaw's presence; and in a moment they were on their way together to the cabin, followed by the eyes of the enraged Radisson. Phips disliked Radisson; the sinister Frenchman, with his evil history, was impossible to the open, bluff captain. He had been placed upon Phips's vessel because he knew the entrance to the harbour; but try as he would for a kind of comradeship, he failed: he had an ugly vanity and a bad heart. There was only one decent thing which still clung to him in rags and tatters--the fact that he was a Frenchman. He had made himself hated on the ship--having none of the cunning tact of Bucklaw. As Phips and Bucklaw went below, a sudden devilry entered into him. He was ripe for quarrel, eager for battle. His two black eyes were like burning beads, his jaws twitched. If Bucklaw had but met him without this rough, bloodless irony, he might have thrown himself with ardour into the work of the expedition; but he stood alone, and hatred and war rioted in him.

Below in the cabin Phips and Bucklaw were deep in the chart of the harbour and the river. The plan of action was decided upon. A canoe was to be built out of a cotton-tree large enough to carry eight or ten oars. This and the tender, with men and divers, were to go in search of the wreck under the command of Bucklaw and the captain of the Swallow, whose name Phips did not mention. Phips himself was to remain on the Bridgwater Merchant, the Swallow lying near with a goodly number of men to meet any possible attack from the sea. When all was planned, Phips told Bucklaw who was the commander of the Swallow. For a moment the fellow's coolness was shaken; the sparkle died out of his eye and he shot up a furtive look at Phips, but he caught a grim smile on the face of the sturdy sailor. He knew at once there was no treachery meant, and he guessed that Phips expected no crisis. It was ever his way to act with promptness, being never so resourceful as when his position was most critical: he was in the power of Gering and Phips, and he knew it, but he knew also that his game must be a bold one.

"By-gones are by-gones, captain," he said; "and what's done can't be helped, and as it was no harm came anyhow."

"By-gones are by-gones," replied the other, "and let's hope that Mr. Gering will say so too."

"Haven't you told him, sir?"

"Never a word--but I'll send for him now, and bygones let it be."

Bucklaw nodded, and drummed the table with his tiger. He guessed why Phips had not told Gering, and he foresaw trouble. He trusted, however, to the time that had passed since the kidnapping, and on Gering's hunger for treasure. Phips had compromised, and why not he? But if Gering was bent on trouble, why, there was the last resource of the peace-lover. He tapped the rapier at his side. He ever held that he was peaceful, and it is recorded that at the death of an agitated victim, he begged him to "sit still and not fidget."

He laid no plans as to what he should do when Gering came. Like the true gamester, he waited to see how he should be placed; then he could draw upon his resources. He was puzzled about Radisson, but Radisson could wait; he was so much the superior of the coarser villain that he gave him little thought. As he waited he thought more about the treasure at hand than of either--or all--his enemies.

He did not stir, but kept drumming till he knew that Gering was aboard, and heard his footsteps, with the captain's, coming. He showed no excitement, though he knew a crisis was at hand. A cool, healthy sweat stood out on his forehead, cheeks and lips, and his blue eyes sparkled clearly and coldly. He rose as the two men appeared.

Phips had not even told his lieutenant. But Gering knew Bucklaw at the first glance, and his eyes flashed and a hand went to his sword.

"Captain Phips," he said angrily, "you know who this man is?"

"He is the guide to our treasure-house, Mr. Gering."

"His name is Bucklaw--a mutineer condemned to death, the villain who tried to kidnap Mistress Leveret."

It was Bucklaw that replied. "Right--right you are, Mr. Gering. I'm Bucklaw, mutineer, or what else you please. But that's ancient--ancient. I'm sinner no more. You and Monsieur Iberville saved the maid I meant no harm to her; 'twas but for ransom. I am atoning now--to make your fortune, give you glory. Shall by-gones be by-gones, Mr. Gering? What say you?"

Bucklaw stood still at the head of the table. But he was very watchful. What the end might have been it is hard to tell, but a thing occurred which took the affair out of Gering's hands.

A shadow darkened the companion-way, and Radisson came quickly down. His face was sinister, and his jaws worked like an animal's. Coming to the table he stood between Gering and Bucklaw, and looked from one to the other. Bucklaw was cool, Gering very quiet, and he misinterpreted.

"You are great friends, eh, all together?" he said viciously. "All together you will get the gold. It is no matter what one English do, the other absolve for gold. A buccaneer, a stealer of women--no, it is no matter! All English--all together! But I am French--I am the dirt-- I am for the scuppers. Bah! I will have the same as Bucklaw--you see?"

"You will have the irons, fellow!" Phips roared.

A knife flashed in the air, and Bucklaw's pistol was out at the same instant. The knife caught Bucklaw in the throat and he staggered against the table like a stuck pig, the bullet hit Radisson in the chest and he fell back against the wall, his pistol dropping from his hand. Bucklaw, bleeding heavily, lurched forwards, pulled himself together, and, stooping, emptied his pistol into the moaning Radisson. Then he sank on his knees, snatched the other's pistol, and fired again into Radisson's belly; after which with a last effort he plunged his own dagger into the throat of the dying man, and, with his fingers still on the handle, fell with a gurgling laugh across the Frenchman's body.

Radisson recovered for an instant. He gave a hollow cry, drew the knife from his own throat and, with a wild, shambling motion, struck at the motionless Bucklaw, pinning an arm to the ground. Then he muttered an oath and fell back dead.

The tournament of blood was over. So swift had it been there was no chance to interfere. Besides, Gering was not inclined to save the life of either; while Phips, who now knew the chart, as he thought, as well as Bucklaw, was not concerned, though he liked the mutineer.

For a moment they both looked at the shambles without speaking. Sailors for whom Phips had whistled crowded the cabin.

"A damned bad start, Mr. Gering," Phips said, as he moved towards the bodies.

"For them, yes; but they might have given us a bad ending."

"For the Frenchman, he's got less than was brewing for him, but Bucklaw was a humorous dog."

As he said this he stooped to Bucklaw and turned him over, calling to the sailors to clean the red trough and bring the dead men on deck, but presently he cried: "By the devil's tail, the fellow lives! Here, a hand quick, you lubbers, and fetch the surgeon."

Bucklaw was not dead. He had got two ugly wounds and was bleeding heavily, but his heart still beat. Radisson's body was carried on deck, and within half an hour was dropped into the deep. The surgeon, however, would not permit Bucklaw to be removed until he had been cared for, and so Phips and Gering went on deck and made preparations for the treasure- hunt. A canoe was hollowed out by a dozen men in a few hours, the tender was got ready, the men and divers told off, and Gering took command of the searching-party, while Phips remained on the ship.

They soon had everything ready for a start in the morning. Word was brought that Bucklaw still lived, but was in a high fever, and that the chances were all against him; and Phips sent cordials and wines from his own stores, and asked that news be brought to him of any change.

Early in the morning Gering, after having received instructions from Phips, so far as he knew (for Bucklaw had not told all that was necessary), departed for the river. The canoe and tender went up the stream a distance, and began to work down from the farthest point indicated in the chart. Gering continued in the river nearly all day, and at night camped on the shore. The second day brought no better luck, nor yet the third the divers had seen no vestige of a wreck, nor any sign of treasure--nothing except four skeletons in a heap, tied together with a chain, where the water was deepest. These were the dead priests, for whom Bucklaw could account. The water was calm, the tide rising and falling gently, and when they arrived among what was called the Shallows, they could see plainly to the bottom. They passed over the Boilers, a reef of shoals, and here they searched diligently, but to no purpose; the divers went down frequently, but could find nothing. The handful of natives in the port came out and looked on apathetically; one or two Spaniards also came, but they shrugged their shoulders and pitied the foolish adventurers. Gering had the power of inspiring his men, and Phips was a martinet and was therefore obeyed; but the lifeless days and unrewarded labour worked on the men, and at last the divers shirked their task.

Meanwhile, Bucklaw was fighting hard for life.

As time passed, the flush of expectancy waned; the heat was great, the waiting seemed endless. Adventure was needed for the spirits of the men, and of this now there was nothing. Morning after morning the sun rose in a moist, heavy atmosphere; day after day went in a quest which became dreary, and night after night settled upon discontent. Then came threats. But this was chiefly upon the Bridgwater Merchant. Phips had picked up his sailors in English ports, and nearly all of them were brutal adventurers. They were men used to desperate enterprises, and they had flocked to him because they smelled excitement and booty. Of ordinary merchant seamen there were only a few. When the Duke of Albemarle had come aboard at Plymouth before they set sail, he had shrugged his shoulders at the motley crew. To his hint Phips had only replied with a laugh: these harum-scarum scamps were more to his mind than ordinary seamen. At heart he himself was half-barbarian. It is possible he felt there might some time be a tug-of-war on board, but he did not borrow trouble. Bucklaw had endorsed every man that he had chosen; indeed, Phips knew that many of them were old friends of Bucklaw. Again, of this he had no fear; Bucklaw was a man of desperate deeds, but he knew that in himself the pirate had a master. Besides, he would pick up in Boston a dozen men upon whom he could depend; and cowardice had no place in him. Again, the Swallow, commanded by Gering, was fitted out with New England seamen; and on these dependence could be put.

Therefore, when there came rumblings of mutiny on the Bridgwater Merchant, there was faithful, if gloomy, obedience, on the Swallow. Had there been plenty of work to do, had they been at sea instead of at anchor, the nervousness would have been little; but idleness begot irritation, and irritation mutiny. Or had Bucklaw been on deck, instead of in the surgeon's cabin playing a hard game with death, matters might not have gone so far as they did; for he would have had immediate personal influence repressive of revolt. As it was, Phips had to work the thing out according to his own lights. One afternoon, when Gering was away with the canoes on the long search, the crisis came. It was a day when life seemed to stand still; a creamy haze ingrained with delicate blue had settled on land and sea; the long white rollers slowly travelled over the Boilers, and the sea rocked like a great cradle. Indefiniteness of thought, of time, of event, seemed over all; on board the two ships life swung idly as a hammock; but only so in appearance.

Phips was leaning against the deck-house, watching through his glass the search-canoes. Presently he turned and walked aft. As he did so the surgeon and the chief mate came running towards him. They had not time to explain, for came streaming upon deck a crowd of mutineers. Phips did not hesitate an instant; he had no fear--he was swelling with anger.

"Why now, you damned dogs," he blurted out, "what mean you by this? What's all this show of cutlasses?"

The ringleader stepped forwards. "We're sick of doing nothing," he answered. "We've come on a wild goose chase. There's no treasure here. We mean you no harm; we want not the ship out of your hands."

"Then," cried Phips, "in the name of all the devils, what want you?"

"Here's as we think: there's nothing to be got out of this hunt, but there's treasure on the high seas all the same. Here's our offer: keep command of your ship and run up the black flag!"

Phips's arm shot out and dropped the man to the ground.

"That's it, you filthy rogues!" he roared. "Me to turn pirate, eh? You'd set to weaving ropes for the necks of every one of us--blood of my soul!"

He seemed not to know that cutlasses were threatening him, not to be aware that the man at his feet, clutching his weapon, was mad with rage.

"Now look," he said, in a big loud voice, "I know that treasure is here, and I know we'll find it; if not now, when we get Bucklaw on his feet."

"Ay! Bucklaw! Bucklaw!" ran through the throng.

"Well, then, Bucklaw, as you say! Now here's what I'll do, scoundrels though you be. Let me hear no more of this foolery. Stick to me till the treasure's found--for God take my soul if I leave this bay till I have found it!--and you shall have good share of booty."

He had grasped the situation with such courage that the mutineers hesitated. He saw his advantage and followed it up, asking for three of their number to confer with him as to a bond upon his proposal. After a time the mutineers consented, the bond was agreed to, and the search went on.