Chapter I. How My Solitude Came to an End
 

"Justice, O God, upon mine enemy. For the pain I suffer, may I see him suffer; for the anguish that is mine, so may I watch his agony! Thou art a just God, so, God of Justice, give to me vengeance!"

And having spoken this, which had been my prayer for three weary years, I composed myself to slumber. But even so, I started up broad awake and my every nerve a-tingle, only to see the moonlight flooding my solitude and nought to hear save the rustle of the soft night wind beyond the open door of the cave that was my habitation and the far-off, never-ceasing murmur that was the voice of those great waters that hemmed me in,--a desolate ocean where no ships ever sailed, a trackless waste that stretched away to the infinite blue.

Crouched upon my bed I fell vaguely a-wondering what should have roused me, hearkening to the distant roar of the surf that seemed to me now plaintive and despairing, now full of an ominous menace that banished gentle sleep.

Thereupon I must needs bethink me how often I had waked thus during my long and weary sojourn on this lonely island; how many times I had leapt from slumber, fancying I heard a sound of oars or voices hailing cheerily beyond the reef, or again (and this most often and bitterest phantasy of all) a voice, soft and low yet with a wondrous sweet and vital ring, the which as I knew must needs sound within my dreams henceforth,--a voice out of the past that called upon my name:

"Martin--Oh, Martin!"

And this a voice that came to me in the blazing heat of tropic day, in the cool of eve, in the calm serenity of night, a voice calling, calling infinite pitiful and sweet, yet mocking me with my loneliness.

"Martin, dear love! Oh, Martin!"

"Joan!" I whispered and reached out yearning arms to the empty air. "Damaris--beloved!"

Beyond the open door I heard the sighing of the wind and the roar of the surf, soft with distance, infinite plaintive and despairing. Then, because sleep was not for me, I arose and came groping within my inner cave where stood a coffer and, lifting the lid, drew forth that I sought and went and sat me on my bed where the moon made a glory. And sitting there, I unfolded this my treasure that was no more than a woman's gown and fell to smoothing its folds with reverent hand; very tattered it was and worn by much hard usage, its bravery all tarnished and faded, yet for me it seemed yet to compass something of the vivid grace and beauty of that loved and vanished presence.

Almost three years of solitude, of deluding hopes and black despair, almost three years, forgotten alike of God and man. So that I had surely run mad but for the labour of my days and the secret hope I cherished even yet that some day (soon or late) I should see again that loved form, hear again the sweet, vital ring of that voice whereof I had dreamed so long.

Almost three years, forgotten alike of God and man. And so albeit I prayed no more (since I had proved prayers vain) hope yet lived within me and every day, night and morn, I would climb that high hill the which I had named the Hill of Blessed Hope, to strain my eyes across the desolation of waters for some sign which should tell me my time of waiting was accomplished.

Now as I sat thus, lost in bitter thought, I rose to my feet, letting fall the gown to lie all neglected, for borne to me on the gentle wind came a sound there was no mistaking, the sharp report of a musket.

For a moment I stood utterly still while the shot yet rang and re-echoed in my ears and felt all at once such an ecstasy of joy that I came nigh swooning and needs must prop myself against the rocky wall; then, the faintness passing, I came hasting and breathless where I might look seaward and beheld this:

Hard beyond the reef (her yards braced slovenly aback) a ship. Betwixt this vessel and the reef a boat rowed furiously, and upon the reef itself a man fled shorewards marvellous fleet and nimble. Presently from his pursuers in the boat came a red flash and the report of a musquetoon followed by divers others, whereat the poor fugitive sped but the faster and came running to that strip of white beach that beareth the name Deliverance. There he faltered, pausing a moment to glance wildly this way and that, then (as Fortune willed) turned and sped my way. Then I, standing forth where he might behold me in the moon's radiance, hailed and beckoned him, at the which he checked again, then (as reassured by my looks and gesture) came leaping up that path which led from the beach. Thus as he drew nearer I saw he was very young, indeed a mere stripling. From him I glanced towards his pursuers (they being already upon the reef) and counted nine of them running hitherward and the moon aglint on the weapons they bore. Thereupon I hasted to my cave and brought thence my six muskets, the which I laid ready to hand.

And presently comes this poor fugitive, all panting and distressed with his exertions, and who (clambering over that rampire I had builded long ago to my defence) fell at my feet and lay there speechless, drawing his breath in great, sobbing gasps. But his pursuers had seen and came on amain with mighty halloo, and though (judging by what I could see of them at the distance) they were a wild, unlovely company, yet to me, so long bereft of all human fellowship, their hoarse shouts and cries were infinitely welcome and I determined to make them the means of my release, more especially as it seemed by their speech that some of them were Englishmen. To this end I waited until they were close, then, taking up my nearest piece, I levelled wide of them and fired. Startled by the sudden roar they incontinent scattered, betaking them to such cover as they might. Then I (yet kneeling behind my rampire) hailed them in mighty kindly fashion.

"Halt, friends!" cries I. "Here is harm for no man that meaneth none. Nay, rather do I give ye joyous welcome in especial such of you as be English, for I am an Englishman and very solitary."

But now (and even as I spake them thus gently) I espied the fugitive on his knees, saw him whip up one of my muskets (all in a moment) and fire or ever I might stay him. The shot was answered by a cry and out from the underbrush a man reeled, clasping his hurt and so fell and lay a-groaning. At this his comrades let fly their shot in answer and made off forthwith. Deserted thus, the wounded man scrambled to hands and knees and began to creep painfully after his fellows, beseeching their aid and cursing them by turns. Hearing a shrill laugh, I turned to see the fugitive reach for and level another of my weapons at this wounded wretch, but, leaping on him as he gave fire, I knocked up the muzzle of the piece so that the bullet soared harmlessly into the air. Uttering a strange, passionate cry, the fugitive sprang back and snatching out an evil-looking knife, made at me, and all so incredibly quick that it was all I could do to parry the blow; then, or ever he might strike again, I caught that murderous arm, and, for all his slenderness and seeming youth, a mighty desperate tussle we made of it ere I contrived to twist the weapon from his grasp and fling him panting to the sward, where I pinned him beneath my foot. Then as I reached for the knife where it had fallen, he cried out to me in his shrill, strangely clear voice, and with sudden, fierce hands wrenched apart the laces and fine linens at his breast:

"Stay!" cried he. "Don't kill me--you cannot!"

Now looking down on him where he lay gasping and writhing beneath my foot, I started back all in a moment, back until I was stayed by the rampire, for I saw that here was no man but a young and comely woman.