Chapter XI. How I Fought in the Dark with One Pompey, a Great Blackamoor

I was yet upon my knees when came Job the quartermaster with two men who, at his command, dragged me to my feet and out upon deck; cursing my hampering fetters, they tumbled me down the quarter-ladder and so down into the waist of the ship.

Now as I went I kept my eyes upraised to the serene majesty of the heavens; the moon rode high amid a glory of stars, and as I looked it seemed I had never seen them so bright and wonderful, never felt the air so good and sweet upon my lips.

Being come to the fore-hatchway I checked there, despite my captors' buffets and curses, to cast a final, long look up, above and round about me, for I had a sudden uneasy feeling, a dreadful suspicion that once I descended into the gloom below I never should come forth alive. So I stared eagerly upon these ever-restless waters, so bright beneath the moon, upon the white sands of Deliverance Beach, on lofty palmetto and bush-girt cliff and then, shivering despite all my resolution, I suffered them to drag me down into that place of shadows.

I remember a sharp, acrid smell, the reek of bilge and thick, mephitic air as I stumbled on betwixt my captors through this foul-breathing dimness until a door creaked, yawning suddenly upon a denser blackness, into which I was thrust so suddenly that I fell, clashing my fetters, and lying thus, heard the door slammed and bolted.

So here lay I in sweating, breathless expectation of I knew not what, my ears on the stretch, my manacled hands tight-clenched and every nerve a-tingle with this dreadful uncertainty. For a great while it seemed I lay thus, my ears full of strange noises, faint sighings, unchancy rustlings and a thousand sly, unaccountable sounds that at first caused me direful apprehensions but which, as I grew more calm, I knew for no more than the flow of the tide and the working of the vessel's timbers as she strained at her anchors. All at once I sat up, crouching in the dark, as from somewhere about me, soft yet plain to hear, came a sound that told me some one was stealthily drawing the bolts of the door. Rising to my feet I stood, shackled fists clenched, ready to leap and smite so soon as chance should offer. Then came a hissing whisper:

"Easy all, brother! Soft it is, comrade! 'Tis me, messmate, old Resolution, friend, come to loose thy bilboes, for fair is fair. Ha, 'tis plaguey dark, the pit o' Acheron ain't blacker, where d'ye lay--speak soft for there's ears a-hearkening very nigh us."

In the dark a hand touched me and then I felt the muzzle of a pistol at my throat.

"No tricks, lad--no running for't if I loose ye--you'll bide here--come life, come death? Is't agreed?"

"It is!" I whispered. Whereupon and with no more ado, he freed me from my gyves, making scarcely any sound, despite the dark.

"I'll take these wi' me, friend and--my finger's on trigger."

"Resolution, how am I to die?"

"Black Pompey!" came the hissing whisper.

"Hath Joanna ordered this?"

"Never think it, mate--she's ashore and I swam aboard, having my suspicions."

"Resolution, a dying man thanks you heartily, purely never, after all, was there pirate the like o' you for holiness. Could I but find some weapon to my defence now--a knife, say." In the dark came a griping hand that found mine and was gone again, but in my grasp was a stout, broad-bladed knife.

"'Let the heathen rage,' saith Holy Writ, so rage it is, says I, only smite first, brother and smite--hard. And 'ware the starboard scuttle!" Hereafter was the rustle of his stealthy departure, the soft noise of bolts, and silence.

And now in this pitchy gloom, wondering what and where this scuttle might be, I crouched, a very wild and desperate creature, peering into the gloom and starting at every sound; thus presently I heard the scrape of a viol somewhere beyond the bulkheads that shut me in and therewith a voice that sang, the words very clear and distinct:

  "Oh, Moll she lives in Deptford town,
  In Deptford town lives she;
  Let maid be white or black or brown.
  Still Moll's the lass for me;
  Sweet Moll as lives in Deptford town,
  Yo-ho, shipmates, for Deptford town,
  Tis there as I would be."

Mingled with this singing I thought to hear the heavy thud of an unshod foot on the planking above my head, and setting my teeth I gripped my knife in sweating palm.

But now (and to my despair) came the singing again to drown all else, hearken how I would:

  "Come whistle, messmates all.
  For a breeze, for a breeze
  Come pipe up, messmates all,
  For a breeze.
  When to Deptford town we've rolled
  Wi' our pockets full o' gold;
  Then our lasses we will hold
  On our knees, on our knees."

Somewhere in the dark was the sudden, thin complaint of a rusty and unwilling bolt, though if this were to my right or left, above or below me, I could not discover and my passionate listening was once more vain by reason of this accursed rant:

  "Who will not drink a glass,
  Let him drown, let him drown;
  Who will not drink a glass,
  Let him drown.
  Who will not drink a glass
  For to toast a pretty lass,
  Is no more than fool and ass;
  So let him drown, let him drown!"

A sudden glow upon the gloom overhead, a thin line of light that widened suddenly to a square of blinding radiance and down through the trap came a lanthorn grasped in a hugeous, black fist and, beyond this, an arm, a mighty shoulder, two rows of flashing teeth, two eyes that glared here and there, rolling in horrid fashion; thus much I made out as I sprang and, grappling this arm, smote upwards with my knife. The lanthorn fell, clattering, and was extinguished, but beyond the writhing, shapeless thing that blocked the scuttle, I might, ever and anon, behold a star twinkling down upon me where I wrestled with this mighty arm that whirled me from my feet, and swung me, staggering, to and fro as I strove to get home with my knife at the vast bulk that loomed above me. Once and twice I stabbed vainly, but my third stroke seemed more successful, for the animal-like howl he uttered nigh deafened me; then (whether by my efforts or his own, I know not) down he came upon me headlong, dashing the good knife from my grasp and whirling me half-stunned against the bulkhead, and as I leaned there, sick and faint, a hand clapped-to the scuttle. And now in this dreadful dark I heard a deep and gusty breathing, like that of some monstrous beast, heard this breathing checked while he listened for me a stealthy rustling as he felt here and there to discover my whereabouts. But I stood utterly still, breathless and sweating, with a horror of death at this great blackamoor's hands, since, what with the palsy of fear by reason of the loss of my knife, I did not doubt but that this monster would soon make an end of me and in horrid fashion.

Presently I heard him move again and (judging by the sound) creeping on hands and knees, therefore as he approached I edged myself silently along the bulkhead and thus (as I do think) we made the complete circuit of the place; once it seemed he came upon the lanthorn and dashing it fiercely aside, paused awhile to listen again, and my heart pounding within me so that I sweated afresh lest he catch the sound of it. And sometimes I would hear the soft, slurring whisper his fingers made against deck or bulkhead where he groped for me, and once a snorting gasp and the crunch of his murderous knife-point biting into wood and thereafter a hoarse and outlandish muttering. And ever as I crept thus, moving but when he moved, I felt before me with my foot, praying that I might discover my knife and, this in hand, face him and end matters one way or another and be done with the horror. And whiles we crawled thus round and round within this narrow space, ever and anon above the stealthy rustle of his movements, above his stertorous breathing and evil muttering, above the wild throbbing of my heart rose the wail of the fiddle and the singing:

  "Who will not kiss a maid,
  Let him hang, let him hang;
  Who fears to kiss a maid,
  Let him hang.
  Who will not kiss a maid
  Who of woman is afraid,
  Is no better than a shade;
  So let him hang, let him hang!"

until this foolish, ranting ditty seemed to mock me, my breath came and went to it, my heart beat to it; yet even so, I was praying passionately and this my prayer, viz: That whoso was waiting above us for my death-cry should not again lift the scuttle lest I be discovered to this man-thing that crept and crept upon me in the dark. Even as I prayed thus, the scuttle was raised and, blinded by the sudden glare of a lanthorn, I heard Job's hoarse voice:

"Below there! Pompey, ahoy! Ha'n't ye done yet an' be curst?"

And suddenly I found in this thing I had so much dreaded the one chance to my preservation, for I espied the great blackamoor huddled on his knees, shading his eyes with both hands from the dazzling light and, lying on the deck before him a long knife.

"Oh, marse mate," he cried, "me done fin' no curs' man here'bouts--"

Then I leaped and kicking the knife out of reach, had him in my grip, my right hand fast about his throat. I remember his roar, the crash of the trap as it closed, and after this a grim and desperate scuffling in the dark; now he had me down, rolling and struggling and now we were up, locked breast to breast, swaying and staggering, stumbling and slipping, crashing into bulkheads, panting and groaning; and ever he beat and buffeted me with mighty fists, but my head bowed low betwixt my arms, took small hurt, while ever my two hands squeezed and wrenched and twisted at his great, fleshy throat. I remember an awful gasping that changed to a strangling whistle, choked to a feeble, hissing whine; his great body grew all suddenly lax, swaying weakly in my grasp, and then, as I momentarily eased my grip, with a sudden, mighty effort he broke free. I heard a crash of splintering wood, felt a rush of sweet, pure air, saw him reel out through the shattered door and sink upon his knees; but as I sprang towards him he was up and fleeing along the deck amidships, screaming as he ran.

All about me was a babel of shouts and cries, a rush and trampling of feet, but I sped all unheeding, my gaze ever upon the loathed, fleeing shape of this vile blackamoor. I was hard on his heels as he scrambled up the quarter-ladder and within a yard of him as he gained the deck, while behind us in the waist were men who ran pell-mell, filling the night with raving clamour and drunken halloo. Now as I reached the quarter-deck, some one of these hurled after me a belaying pin and this, catching me on the thigh, staggered me so that I should have fallen but for the rail; so there clung I in a smother of sweat and blood while great moon and glittering stars span dizzily; but crouched before me on his hams, almost within arm's reach, was this accursed negro who gaped upon me with grinning teeth and rolled starting eyeballs, his breath coming in great, hoarse gasps. And I knew great joy to see him in no better case than I, his clothes hanging in blood-stained tatters so that I might see all the monstrous bulk of him. Now, as he caught his breath and glared upon me, I suffered my aching body to droop lower and lower over the rail like one nigh to swooning, yet very watchful of his every move. Suddenly as we faced each other thus, from the deck below rose a chorus of confused cries:

"At him, Pompey! Now's ye time, boy! Lay 'im aboard, lad, 'e be a-swounding! Ha--out wi' his liver, Pompey--at him, he's yourn!"

Heartened by these shouts and moreover seeing how feebly I clutched at the quarter-rail, the great negro uttered a shrill cry of triumph and leapt at me; but as he came I sprang to meet his rush and stooping swiftly, caught him below the knees and in that same moment, straining every nerve, every muscle and sinew to the uttermost, I rose up and hove him whirling over my shoulder.

I heard a scream, a scurry of feet, and then the thudding crash of his fall on the deck below and coming to the rail I leaned down and saw him lie, his mighty limbs hideously twisted and all about him men who peered and whispered. But suddenly they found their voices to rage against me, shaking their fists and brandishing their steel; a pistol flashed and roared and the bullet hummed by my ear, but standing above them I laughed as a madman might, jibing at them and daring them to come on how they would, since indeed death had no terrors for me now. And doubtless steel or shot would have ended me there and then but for the man Diccon who quelled their clamour and held them from me by voice and fist:

"Arrest, ye fools--stand by!" he roared. "Yon man be the property o' Captain Jo--'tis Joanna's man and whoso harms him swings--"

"Aye, but he've murdered Pompey, ain't 'e?" demanded Job.

"Aye, aye--an' so 'e have, for sure!" cried a voice.

"Well an' good--murder's an 'anging matter, ain't it?"

"An' so it be, Job--up wi' him--hang him--hang him!"

"Well an' good!" cried Job again. "'Ang 'im we will, lads, all on us, every man's fist to the rope--she can't hang us all, d'ye see. You, Diccon, where be Belvedere; he shall be in it--"

"Safe fuddled wi' rum, surely. Lord, Job, you do be takin' uncommon risks for a hatful o' guineas--"

So they took me and, all unresisting, I was dragged amidships beneath the main yard where a noose was for my destruction; and though hanging had seemed a clean death by contrast with that I had so lately escaped at the obscene hands of this loathly blackamoor, yet none the less a sick trembling took me as I felt the rope about my neck, insomuch that I sank to my knees and closed my eyes.

Kneeling thus and nigh to fainting, I heard a sudden, quick patter of light-running feet, a gasping sigh and, glancing up, beheld Job before me, also upon his knees and staring down with wide and awful eyes at an ever-spreading stain that fouled the bosom of his shirt; and as he knelt thus, I saw above his stooping head the blue glitter of a long blade that lightly tapped his brawny neck.

"The noose--here, Diccon, here, yes!"

As one in a dream I felt the rope lifted from me and saw it set about the neck of Job.

"So! Ready there? Now--heave all!"

I heard the creak of the block, the quick tramp of feet, a strangling cry, and Job the quartermaster was snatched aloft to kick and writhe and dangle against the moon.

"Diccon, we have lost our quartermaster and we sail on the flood; you are quartermaster henceforth, yes. Ha--look--see, my Englishman is sick! Dowse a bucket o' water over him, then let him be ironed and take him forward to the fo'castle; he shall serve you all for sport--but no killing, mind." Thus lay I to be kicked and buffeted and half-drowned; yet when they had shackled me, cometh the man Diccon to clap me heartily on the shoulder and after him Resolution to nod at me and blink with his single, twinkling eye:

"Oh, friend," quoth he, "Oh, brother, saw ye ever the like of our Captain Jo? Had Davy been here to-day he might perchance ha' wrote a psalm to her."

That morning with the flood tide we hove anchor and the Happy Despatch stood out to sea and, as she heeled to the freshening wind, Job's stiffening body lurched and swayed and twisted from the main yard. And thus it was I saw the last of my island.