Chapter IX. We Fall Among Pirates
 

At my sudden coming they fell silent, one and all, staring from me to Joanna, where she stood beside a buxom, swaggering ruffling fellow whose moustachios and beard were cut after the Spanish mode but with a monstrous great periwig on his head surmounted by a gold-braided, looped hat. His coat was of scarlet velvet, brave with much adornment of gold lace; his legs were thrust into a pair of rough sea-boots; and on his hip a long, curved hanger very broad in the blade.

"'S fish!" said he, looking me over with his sleepy eyes. "Is this your Englishman, Jo? And what must we do wi' him--shall he hang?"

"Mayhap yes--when 'tis so my whim," answered she, 'twixt smiling lips and staring me in the eyes.

But now, and all at once, from the wild company rose a sudden hoarse murmur that swelled again to that fierce, exultant uproar as down towards us paced Don Federigo.

"Aha, 'tis the Marquis!" they cried. "'Tis the bloody Marquis! Shoot the dog! Nay, hang him up! Aye, by his thumbs. Nay, burn him--to the fire wi' the bloody rogue!"

Unheeding their vengeful outcry he advanced upon the men (and these ravening for his blood), viewing their lowering faces and brandished steel with his calm, dispassionate gaze and very proud and upright for all his bodily weakness; pausing beside me, he threw up his hand with haughty gesture and before the command of this ragged arm they abated their clamour somewhat.

"Of a surety," said he in his precise English, "it is the Capitan Belvedere. You captured my daughter--my son--in the Margarita carrack three years agone. 'Tis said he died at your hands, Senor Capitan--"

"Not mine, Don, not mine," answered this Belvedere, smiling sleepily. "We gave him to Black Pompey to carbonado." I felt Don Federigo's hand against me as if suddenly faint, but his wide-eyed gaze never left the Captain's handsome face, who, aware of this look, shifted his own gaze, cocked his hat and swaggered. "Stare your fill, now," quoth he with an oath, "'tis little enough you'll be seeing presently. Aye, you'll be blind enough soon--"

"Blind is it, Cap'n--ha, good!" cried a squat, ill-looking fellow, whipping out a long knife. "Hung my comrade Jem, a did, so here's a knife shall blind him when ye will, Cap'n, by hookey!" And now he and his fellows began to crowd upon us with evil looks; but they halted suddenly, fumbling with their weapons and eyeing Joanna uncertainly where she stood, hand on hip, viewing them with her fleering smile.

"Die he shall, yes!" said she at last. "Die he must, but in proper fashion and time, not by such vermin as you--so put up that knife! You hear me, yes?"

"Hanged my comrade Jem, a did, along o' many others o' the Fellowship!" growled the squat man, flourishing his knife, "Moreover the Cap'n says 'blind' says he, so blind it is, says I, and this the knife to--" The growling voice was drowned in the roar of a pistol and, dropping his knife, the fellow screamed and caught at his hurt.

"And there's for you, yes!" said Joanna, smiling into the man's agonised face, "Be thankful I spared your worthless life. Crawl into the boat, worm, and wait till I'm minded to patch up your hurt--Go!"

For a moment was silence, then came a great gust of laughter, and men clapped and pummelled each other.

"La Culebra!" they roared. "'Tis our Jo, 'tis Fighting Jo, sure and sartain; 'tis our luck, the luck o' the Brotherhood--ha, Joanna!"

But, tossing aside the smoking pistol, Joanna scowled from them to their captain.

"Hola, Belvedere," said she. "Your dogs do grow out of hand; 'tis well I'm back again. Now for these my prisoners, seize 'em up, bind 'em fast and heave 'em aboard ship."

"Aye, but," said Belvedere, fingering his beard, "why aboard, Jo, when we may do their business here and prettily. Yon's a tree shall make notable good gallows or--look now, here's right plenty o' kindling, and driftwood shall burn 'em merrily and 'twill better please the lads--"

"But then I do pleasure myself, yes. So aboard ship they go!"

"Why, look now, Jo," said Belvedere, biting at his thumb, "'tis ever my rule to keep no prisoners--"

"Save women, Cap'n!" cried a voice, drowned in sudden evil laughter.

"So, as I say, Joanna, these prisoners cannot go aboard my ship."

"Your ship?" said she, mighty scornful. "Ah, ah, but 'twas I made you captain of your ship and 'tis I can unmake you--"

"Why look ye, Jo," said Belvedere, gnawing at his thumb more savagely and glancing towards his chafing company, "the good lads be growing impatient, being all heartily for ending these prisoners according to custom--"

"Aye, aye, Cap'n!" cried divers of the men, beginning to crowd upon us again. "To the fire with 'em! Nay, send aboard for Black Pompey! Aye, Pompey's the lad to set 'em dancing Indian fashion--"

"You hear, Jo, you hear?" cried Belvedere. "The lads are for ending of 'em sportive fashion--especially the Don; he must die slow and quaint for sake 'o the good lads as do hang a-rotting on his cursed gibbets e'en now--quaint and slow; the lads think so and so think I--"

"But you were ever a dull fool, my pretty man, yes!" said Joanna, showing her teeth. "And as for these rogues, they do laugh at you--see!" But as Belvedere turned to scowl upon and curse his ribalds, Joanna deftly whisked the pistols from his belt and every face was smitten to sudden anxious gravity as she faced them.

"I am Joanna!" quoth she, her red lips curving to the smile I ever found so hateful. "Oh, Madre de Dios, where now are your tongues? And never a smile among ye! Is there a man here that will not obey Joanna--no? Joanna that could kill any of ye single-handed as she killed Cestiforo!" At this was an uneasy stir and muttering among them, and Belvedere's sleepy eyes widened suddenly. "Apes!" cried she, beslavering them with all manner of abuse, French, Spanish and English. "Monkeys, cease your chattering and list to Joanna. And mark--my prisoners go aboard this very hour, yes. And to-day we sail for Nombre de Dios. Being before the town we send in a boat under flag of truce to say we hold captive their governor, Don Federigo de Cosalva y Maldonada, demanding for him a sufficient ransom. The money paid, then will we fire a broadside into the city and the folk shall see their proud Governor swung aloft to dangle and kick at our mainyard; so do we achieve vengeance and money both--"

From every throat burst a yell of wild acclaim, shout on shout: "Hey, lads, for Cap'n Jo! 'Tis she hath the wise head, mates! Money and vengeance, says Jo! Shout, lads, for Fighting Jo--shout!"

"And what o' your big rogue, Jo?" demanded Belvedere, scowling on me.

"He?" said Joanna, curling her lip at me. "Oh, la-la, he shall be our slave--'til he weary me. So--bring: them along!"

But now (and all too late) perceiving death to be the nobler part, even as Don Federigo had said, I determined to end matters then and there; thus, turning from Joanna's baleful smile, I leapt suddenly upon the nearest of the pirates and felling him with a buffet, came to grips with another; this man I swung full-armed, hurling him among his fellows, and all before a shot might be fired. But as I stood fronting them, awaiting the stab or bullet should end me, I heard Joanna's voice shrill and imperious:

"Hold, lads! You are twelve and he but one and unarmed. So down with your weapons--down, I say! You shall take me this man with your naked hands--ha, fists--yes! Smite then--bruise him, fists shall never kill him! To it, with your hands then; the first man that draweth weapon I shoot! To it, lads, sa-ha--at him then, good bullies!"

For a moment they hesitated but seeing Joanna, her cheeks aglow, her pistols grasped in ready hands, they laughed and cursed and, loosing off such things as incommoded them, prepared to come at me. Then, perceiving she had fathomed my design and that here was small chance of finding sudden quietus, I folded my arms, minded to let them use me as they would. But this fine resolution was brought to none account by a small piece of driftwood that one of these fellows hove at me, thereby setting my mouth a-bleeding. Stung by the blow and forgetting all but my anger, I leapt and smote with my fist, and then he and his fellows were upon me. But they being so many their very numbers hampered them, so that as they leapt upon me many a man was staggered by kick or buffet aimed at me; moreover these passed their days cooped up on shipboard whiles I was a man hardened by constant exercise. Scarce conscious of the hurts I took as we reeled to and fro, locked in furious grapple, I fought them very joyously, making right good play with my fists; but ever as I smote one down, another leapt to smite, so that presently my breath began to labour. How long I endured, I know not. Only I remember marvelling to find myself so strong and the keen joy of it was succeeded by sudden weariness, a growing sickness: I remember a sound of groaning breaths all about me, of thudding blows, hoarse shouts, these, waxing ever fainter, until smiting with failing arms and ever-waning strength, they dragged me down at last and I lay vanquished and unresisting. As I sprawled there, drawing my breath in painful gasps, the hands that smote, the merciless feet that kicked and trampled me were suddenly stilled and staring up with dimming eyes I saw Joanna looking down on me.

"Oh, Martino," said she in my ear, "Oh, fool Englishman, could you but love as you do fight--"

But groaning, I turned my face to the trampled sand and knew no more.