Chapter XIV. Telleth How the Fight Ended
 

When sight returned to me at last, I was yet staring up at the moon, but now she had climbed the zenith and looked down on me through a dense maze, a thicket of close-twining branches (as it were) whose density troubled me mightily. But in a little I saw that these twining branches were verily a mass of ropes and cordage, a twisted tangle that hung above me yet crushed me not by reason of a squat column that rose nearby, and staring on this column I presently knew it for the shattered stump of the mizzenmast. For a great while I lay staring on this (being yet much dazed) and thus gradually became aware that the guns had fallen silent; instead of their thunderous roar was a faint clamour, hoarse, inarticulate, and very far away. I was yet wondering dreamily and pondering this when I made the further discovery that by some miraculous chance the chain which had joined my fettered wrists was broken in sunder and I was free. Nevertheless I lay awhile blinking drowsily up at the moon until at last, impelled by my raging thirst, I got to my knees (though with strange reluctance) and strove to win clear from the tangle of ropes that encompassed me; in the which labour I came upon the body of a dead man and beyond this, yet another. Howbeit I was out of this maze at last and rising to my feet, found the deck to heave oddly 'neath my tread, and so (like one walking in a dream) came stumbling to the quarter-ladder and paused there awhile to lean against the splintered rail and to clasp my aching head, for I was still greatly bemused and my body mighty stiff and painful.

Looking up after some while I saw the Happy Despatch lay a helpless wreck, her main and mizzenmasts shot away and her shattered hull fast locked in close conflict with her indomitable foe. The English ship had run us aboard at the fore-chains and as the two vessels, fast grappled together, swung to the gentle swell, the moon glinted on the play of vicious steel where the fight raged upon our forecastle. Mightily heartened by this, I strove to shake off this strange lethargy that enthralled me and looked about for some weapon, but finding none, got me down the ladder (and marvellous clumsy about it) and reaching; the deck stumbled more than once over stiffening forms that sprawled across my way. Here and there a battle lanthorn yet glimmered, casting its uncertain beam on writhen legs, on wide-tossed arms and shapes that seemed to stir in the gloom; and beholding so many dead, I marvelled to find myself thus unharmed, though, as I traversed this littered deck, its ghastliness dim-lit by these flickering lanthorns and the moon's unearthly radiance, it seemed more than ever that I walked within a dream, whiles the battle clamoured ever more loud. Once I paused to twist a boarding-axe from stiffening fingers, and, being come into the waist of the ship, found myself beside the main hatchway and leaned there to stare up at the reeling fray on the forecastle where pike darted, axe whirled, sword smote and the battle roared amain in angry summons. But as I turned obedient to get me into this desperate fray, I heard a low and feverish muttering and following this evil sound came upon one who lay amid the wreckage of a gun, and bending above the man knew him for Diccon the quartermaster.

"How now, Diccon?" I questioned, and wondered to hear my voice so strange and muffled.

"Dying!" said he. "Dying--aye, am I! And wi' two thousand doubloons hid away as I shall ne'er ha' the spending on--oh, for a mouthful o' water--two thousand--a pike-thrust i' the midriff is an--ill thing yet--'tis better than--noose and tar and gibbet--yet 'tis hard to die wi' two thousand doubloons unspent--oh, lad, I parch--I burn already--water--a mouthful for a dying man--"

So came I to the water-butt that stood abaft the hatchway, and filling a pannikin that chanced there with some of the little water that remained, hastened back to Diccon, but ere I could reach him he struggled to his knees and flinging arms aloft uttered a great cry and sank upon his face. Then, finding him verily dead, I drank the water myself and, though lukewarm and none too sweet, felt myself much refreshed and strengthened thereby and the numbness of mind and body abated somewhat.

And yet, as I knelt thus, chancing to lift my eyes from the dead man before me, it seemed that verily I must be dreaming after all, for there, all daintily bedight in purple gown, I beheld a fine lady tripping lightly among these mangled dead; crouched in the shadow of the bulwark I watched this approaching figure; then I saw it was Joanna, saw the moon glint evilly on the pistol she bore ere she vanished down the hatchway. And now, reading her fell purpose, I rose to my feet and stole after her down into the 'tween-decks.

An evil place this, crowded with forms that moaned and writhed fitfully in the light of the lanthorns that burned dimly here and there, a place foul with blood and reeking with the fumes of burnt powder, but I heeded only the graceful shape that flitted on before; once she paused to reach down a lanthorn and to open the slide, and when she went on again, flames smouldered behind her and as often as she stayed to set these fires a-going, I stayed to extinguish them as well as I might ere I hasted after her. At last she paused to unlock a door and presently her voice reached me, high and imperious as ever:

"Greeting, Don Federigo! The ship's afire and 'tis an ill thing to burn, so do I bring you kinder death!"

Creeping to the door of this lock-up, I saw she had set down the lanthorn and stood above the poor fettered captive, the pistol in her hand.

"The Senorita is infinitely generous," said Don Federigo in his courtly fashion; then, or ever she might level the weapon, I had seized and wrested it from her grasp. Crying out in passionate fury, she turned and leapt at me.

"Off, murderess!" I cried, and whirling her from me, heard her fall and lie moaning. "Come, sir," said I, aiding the Don to his feet, "let us be gone!" But what with weakness and his fetters Don Federigo could scarce stand, so I stooped and taking him across my shoulder, bore him from the place. But as I went an acrid smoke met me and with here and there a glimmer of flame, so that it seemed Joanna had fired the ship, my efforts notwithstanding. So reeled I, panting, to the upper air and, loosing Don Federigo, sank to the deck and stared dreamily at a dim moon.

And now I was aware of a voice in my ear, yet nothing heeded until, shaken by an importunate hand, I roused and sat up, marvelling to find myself so weak.

"Loose me, Senor Martino, loose off my bonds; the fire grows apace and I must go seek the Senorita--burning is an evil death as she said. Loose off my bonds--the Senorita must not burn--"

"No, she must not--burn!" said I dully, and struggling to my feet I saw a thin column of smoke that curled up the hatchway. Gasping and choking, I fought my way down where flames crackled and smoke grew ever denser. Suddenly amid this swirling vapour I heard a glad cry:

"Ah, Martino mio--you could not leave me then to die alone!" And I saw Joanna, with arms stretched out to me, swaying against the angry glow behind her. So I caught her up in my embrace and slipping, stumbling, blind and half-choked, struggled up and up until at last I reeled out upon deck, and with Joanna thus clasped upon my breast, stood staring with dazed and unbelieving eyes at the vision that had risen up to confront me. For there before me, hedged about by wild figures and brandished steel, with slender hands tight-clasped together, with vivid lips apart and eyes wide, I thought to behold at last my beloved Damaris, my Joan, my dear, dear lady; but knowing this false, I laughed and shook my head.

"Deluding vision," said I, "blest sight long-hoped and prayed for--why plague me now?"

I was on my knees, staring up at this beloved shape through blinding tears and babbling I know not what. And then arms were about me, tender yet strong and compelling, a soft cheek was pressed to mine and in my ear Joan's voice:

"Oh, my beloved--fret not thyself--here is no vision, my Martin--"

"Joan!" I panted. "Oh, Damaris--beloved!" And shaking off these fettering arms, I rose to my feet. "Joan, is it thou thyself in very truth, or do I see thee in heaven--"

And now it seemed I was sinking within an engulfing darkness and nought to see save only the pale oval of this so loved, oft-visioned face that held for me the beauty of all beauteous things. At last her voice reached me, soft and low, yet full of that sweet, vital ring that was beyond all forgetting.

"Martin--Oh, Martin!"

Out towards me in the growing dark I saw her hands reach down to me: and then these eager, welcoming hands were seized and Joanna was between us on her knees.

"Spare him--Oh, lady, in mercy spare my beloved--kill me an you will, but spare this man of mine--these arms have cradled him ere now, this bosom been his pillow--"

"Joan!" I muttered, "Oh, Damaris, beloved--"

But seeing the stricken agony of her look and how she shrank from my touch, I uttered a great cry and turning, sped blindly away and stumbling, fell and was engulfed in choking blackness.