The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 8

The Spaniard

The Swallow, having passed through a gale in the Bay of Biscay — a gale which she weathered like the surprisingly steady old tub she was — rounded Cape Finisterre and so emerged from tempest into peace, from leaden skies and mountainous seas into a sunny azure calm. It was like a sudden transition from winter into spring, and she ran along now, close hauled to the soft easterly breeze, with a gentle list to port.

It had never been Master Leigh’s intent to have got so far as this without coming to an understanding with his prisoner. But the wind had been stronger than his intentions, and he had been compelled to run before it and to head to southward until its fury should abate. Thus it fell out — and all marvellously to Master Lionel’s advantage, as you shall see — that the skipper was forced to wait until they stood along the coast of Portugal — but well out to sea, for the coast of Portugal was none too healthy just then to English seamen — before commanding Sir Oliver to be haled into his presence.

In the cramped quarters of the cabin in the poop of the little vessel sat her captain at a greasy table, over which a lamp was swinging faintly to the gentle heave of the ship. He was smoking a foul pipe, whose fumes hung heavily upon the air of that little chamber, and there was a bottle of Nantes at his elbow.

To him, sitting thus in state, was Sir Oliver introduced — his wrists still pinioned behind him. He was haggard and hollow-eyed, and he carried a week’s growth of beard on his chin. Also his garments were still in disorder from the struggle he had made when taken, and from the fact that he had been compelled to lie in them ever since.

Since his height was such that it was impossible for him to stand upright in that low-ceilinged cabin, a stool was thrust forward for him by one of the ruffians of Leigh’s crew who had haled him from his confinement beneath the hatchway.

He sat down quite listlessly, and stared vacantly at the skipper. Master Leigh was somewhat discomposed by this odd calm when he had looked for angry outbursts. He dismissed the two seamen who fetched Sir Oliver, and when they had departed and closed the cabin door he addressed his captive.

“Sir Oliver,” said he, stroking his red beard, “ye’ve been most foully abused.”

The sunshine filtered through one of the horn windows and beat full upon Sir Oliver’s expressionless face.

“It was not necessary, you knave, to bring me hither to tell me so much.” he answered.

“Quite so,” said Master Leigh. “But I have something more to add. Ye’ll be thinking that I ha’ done you a disservice. There ye wrong me. Through me you are brought to know true friends from secret enemies; henceforward ye’ll know which to trust and which to mistrust.”

Sir Oliver seemed to rouse himself a little from his passivity, stimulated despite himself by the impudence of this rogue. He stretched a leg and smiled sourly.

“You’ll end by telling me that I am in your debt,” said he.

“You’ll end by saying so yourself,” the captain assured him. “D’ye know what I was bidden do with you?”

“Faith, I neither know nor care,” was the surprising answer, wearily delivered. “If it is for my entertainment that you propose to tell me, I beg you’ll spare yourself the trouble.”

It was not an answer that helped the captain. He pulled at his pipe a moment.

“I was bidden,” said he presently, “to carry you to Barbary and sell you there into the service of the Moors. That I might serve you, I made believe to accept this task.”

“God’s death!” swore Sir Oliver. “You carry make-believe to an odd length.”

“The weather has been against me. It were no intention o’ mine to ha’ come so far south with you. But we’ve been driven by the gale. That is overpast, and so that ye’ll promise to bear no plaint against me, and to make good some of the loss I’ll make by going out of my course, and missing a cargo that I wot of, I’ll put about and fetch you home again within a week.”

Sir Oliver looked at him and smiled grimly. “Now what a rogue are you that can keep faith with none!” he cried. “First you take money to carry me off; and then you bid me pay you to carry me back again.”

“Ye wrong me, sir, I vow ye do! I can keep faith when honest men employ me, and ye should know it, Sir Oliver. But who keeps faith with rogues is a fool — and that I am not, as ye should also know. I ha’ done this thing that a rogue might be revealed to you and thwarted, as well as that I might make some little profit out of this ship o’ mine. I am frank with ye, Sir Oliver. I ha’ had some two hundred pounds in money and trinkets from your brother. Give me the like and. . . . ”

But now of a sudden Sir Oliver’s listlessness was all dispelled. It fell from him like a cloak, and he sat forward, wide awake and with some show of anger even.

“How do you say?” he cried, on a sharp, high note.

The captain stared at him, his pipe neglected. “I say that if so be as ye’ll pay me the same sum which your brother paid me to carry you off. . . . ”

“My brother?” roared the knight. “Do you say my brother?”

“I said your brother.”

“Master Lionel?” the other demanded still.

“What other brothers have you?” quoth Master Leigh.

There fell a pause and Sir Oliver looked straight before him, his head sunken a little between his shoulders. “Let me understand,” he said at length. “Do you say that my brother Lionel paid you money to carry me off — in short, that my presence aboard this foul hulk of yours is due to him?”

“Whom else had ye suspected? Or did ye think that I did it for my own personal diversion?”

“Answer me,” bellowed Sir Oliver, writhing in his bonds.

“I ha’ answered you more than once already. Still, I tell you once again, since ye are slow to understand it, that I was paid a matter of two hundred pound by your brother, Master Lionel Tressilian, to carry you off to Barbary and there sell you for a slave. Is that plain to you?”

“As plain as it is false. You lie, you dog!”

“Softly, softly!” quoth Master Leigh, good-humouredly.

“I say you lie!”

Master Leigh considered him a moment. “Sets the wind so!” said he at length, and without another word he rose and went to a sea-chest ranged against the wooden wall of the cabin. He opened it and took thence a leather bag. From this he produced a handful of jewels. He thrust them under Sir Oliver’s nose. “Haply,” said he, “ye’ll be acquainted with some of them. They was given me to make up the sum since your brother had not the whole two hundred pound in coin. Take a look at them.”

Sir Oliver recognized a ring and a long pear-shaped pearl earring that had been his brother’s; he recognized a medallion that he himself had given Lionel two years ago; and so, one by one, he recognized every trinket placed before him.

His head drooped to his breast, and he sat thus awhile like a man stunned. “My God!” he groaned miserably, at last. “Who, then, is left to me! Lionel too! Lionel!” A sob shook the great frame. Two tears slowly trickled down that haggard face and were lost in the stubble of beard upon his chin. “I am accursed!” he said.

Never without such evidence could he have believed this thing. From the moment that he was beset outside the gates of Godolphin Court he had conceived it to be the work of Rosamund, and his listlessness was begotten of the thought that she could have suffered conviction of his guilt and her hatred of him to urge her to such lengths as these. Never for an instant had he doubted the message delivered him by Lionel that it was Mistress Rosamund who summoned him. And just as he believed himself to be going to Godolphin Court in answer to her summons, so did he conclude that the happening there was the real matter to which she had bidden him, a thing done by her contriving, her answer to his attempt on the previous day to gain speech with her, her manner of ensuring that such an impertinence should never be repeated.

This conviction had been gall and wormwood to him; it had drugged his very senses, reducing him to a listless indifference to any fate that might be reserved him. Yet it had not been so bitter a draught as this present revelation. After all, in her case there were some grounds for the hatred that had come to take the place of her erstwhile love. But in Lionel’s what grounds were possible? What motives could exist for such an action as this, other than a monstrous, a loathly egoism which desired perhaps to ensure that the blame for the death of Peter Godolphin should not be shifted from the shoulders that were unjustly bearing it, and the accursed desire to profit by the removal of the man who had been brother, father and all else to him? He shuddered in sheer horror. It was incredible, and yet beyond a doubt it was true. For all the love which he had showered upon Lionel, for all the sacrifices of self which he had made to shield him, this was Lionel’s return. Were all the world against him he still must have believed Lionel true to him, and in that belief must have been enheartened a little. And now . . . His sense of loneliness, of utter destitution overwhelmed him. Then slowly of his sorrow resentment was begotten, and being begotten it grew rapidly until it filled his mind and whelmed in its turn all else. He threw back his great head, and his bloodshot, gleaming eyes fastened upon Captain Leigh, who seated now upon the sea-chest was quietly observing him and waiting patiently until he should recover the wits which this revelation had scattered.

“Master Leigh,” said he, “what is your price to carry me home again to England?”

“Why, Sir Oliver,” said he, “I think the price I was paid to carry you off would be a fair one. The one would wipe out t’other as it were.”

“You shall have twice the sum when you land me on Trefusis Point again,” was the instant answer.

The captain’s little eyes blinked and his shaggy red eyebrows came together in a frown. Here was too speedy an acquiescence. There must be guile behind it, or he knew naught of the ways of men.

“What mischief are ye brooding?” he sneered.

“Mischief, man? To you?” Sir Oliver laughed hoarsely. “God’s light, knave, d’ye think I consider you in this matter, or d’ye think I’ve room in my mind for such petty resentments together with that other?”

It was the truth. So absolute was the bitter sway of his anger against Lionel that he could give no thought to this rascally seaman’s share in the adventure.

“Will ye give me your word for that?”

“My word? Pshaw, man! I have given it already. I swear that you shall be paid the sum I’ve named the moment you set me ashore again in England. Is that enough for you? Then cut me these bonds, and let us make an end of my present condition.”

“Faith, I am glad to deal with so sensible a man! Ye take it in the proper spirit. Ye see that what I ha’ done I ha’ but done in the way of my calling, that I am but a tool, and that what blame there be belongs to them which hired me to this deed.”

“Aye, ye’re but a tool — a dirty tool, whetted with gold; no more. ’Tis admitted. Cut me these bonds, a God’s name! I’m weary o’ being trussed like a capon.”

The captain drew his knife, crossed to Sir Oliver’s side and slashed his bonds away without further word. Sir Oliver stood up so suddenly that he smote his head against the low ceiling of the cabin, and so sat down again at once. And in that moment from without and above there came a cry which sent the skipper to the cabin door. He flung it open, and so let out the smoke and let in the sunshine. He passed out on to the poop-deck, and Sir Oliver — conceiving himself at liberty to do so — followed him.

In the waist below a little knot of shaggy seamen were crowding to the larboard bulwarks, looking out to sea; on the forecastle there was another similar assembly, all staring intently ahead and towards the land. They were off Cape Roca at the time, and when Captain Leigh saw by how much they had lessened their distance from shore since last he had conned the ship, he swore ferociously at his mate who had charge of the wheel. Ahead of them away on their larboard bow and in line with the mouth of the Tagus from which she had issued — and where not a doubt but she had been lying in wait for such stray craft as this — came a great tall-masted ship, equipped with top-gallants, running wellnigh before the wind with every foot of canvas spread.

Close-hauled as was the Swallow and with her top-sails and mizzen reefed she was not making more than one knot to the Spaniard’s five — for that she was a Spaniard was beyond all doubt judging by the haven whence she issued.

“Luff alee!” bawled the skipper, and he sprang to the wheel, thrusting the mate aside with a blow of his elbow that almost sent him sprawling.

“’Twas yourself set the course,” the fellow protested.

“Thou lubberly fool,” roared the skipper. “I bade thee keep the same distance from shore. If the land comes jutting out to meet us, are we to keep straight on until we pile her up?” He spun the wheel round in his hands, and turned her down the wind. Then he relinquished the helm to the mate again. “Hold her thus,” he commanded, and bellowing orders as he went, he heaved himself down the companion to see them executed. Men sprang to the ratlines to obey him, and went swarming aloft to let out the reefs of the topsails; others ran astern to do the like by the mizzen and soon they had her leaping and plunging through the green water with every sheet unfurled, racing straight out to sea.

From the poop Sir Oliver watched the Spaniard. He saw her veer a point or so to starboard, heading straight to intercept them, and he observed that although this manceuvre brought her fully a point nearer to the wind than the Swallow, yet, equipped as she was with half as much canvas again as Captain Leigh’s piratical craft, she was gaining steadily upon them none the less.

The skipper came back to the poop, and stood there moodily watching that other ship’s approach, cursing himself for having sailed into such a trap, and cursing his mate more fervently still.

Sir Oliver meanwhile took stock of so much of the Swallow’s armament as was visible and wondered what like were those on the main-deck below. He dropped a question on that score to the captain, dispassionately, as though he were no more than an indifferently interested spectator, and with never a thought to his position aboard.

“Should I be racing her afore the Wind if I as properly equipped?” growled Leigh. “Am I the man to run before a Spaniard? As it is I do no more than lure her well away from land.”

Sir Oliver understood, and was silent thereafter. He observed a bo’sun and his mates staggering in the waist under loads of cutlasses and small arms which they stacked in a rack about the mainmast. Then the gunner, a swarthy, massive fellow, stark to the waist with a faded scarf tied turban-wise about his head, leapt up the companion to the brass carronade on the larboard quarter, followed by a couple of his men.

Master Leigh called up the bo’sun, bade him take the wheel, and dispatched the mate forward to the forecastle, where another gun was being prepared for action.

Thereafter followed a spell of racing, the Spaniard ever lessening the distance between them, and the land dropping astern until it was no more than a hazy line above the shimmering sea. Suddenly from the Spaniard appeared a little cloud of white smoke, and the boom of a gun followed, and after it came a splash a cable’s length ahead of the Swallow’s bows.

Linstock in hand the brawny gunner on the poop stood ready to answer them when the word should be given. From below came the gunner’s mate to report himself ready for action on the main-deck and to receive his orders.

Came another shot from the Spaniard, again across the bows of the Swallow.

“’Tis a clear invitation to heave to,” said Sir Oliver.

The skipper snarled in his fiery beard. “She has a longer range than most Spaniards,” said he. “But I’ll not waste powder yet for all that. We’ve none to spare.”

Scarcely had he spoken when a third shot boomed. There was a splintering crash overhead followed by a sough and a thud as the maintopmast came hurtling to the deck and in its fall stretched a couple of men in death. Battle was joined, it seemed. Yet Captain Leigh did nothing in a hurry.

“Hold there!” he roared to the gunner who swung his linstock at that moment in preparation.

She was losing way as a result of that curtailment of her mainmast, and the Spaniard came on swiftly now. At last the skipper accounted her near enough, and gave the word with an oath. The Swallow fired her first and last shot in that encounter. After the deafening thunder of it and through the cloud of suffocating smoke, Sir Oliver saw the high forecastle of the Spaniard rent open.

Master Leigh was cursing his gunner for having aimed too high. Then he signalled to the mate to fire the culverin of which he had charge. That second shot was to be the signal for the whole broadside from the main-deck below. But the Spaniard anticipated them. Even as the skipper of the Swallow signalled the whole side of the Spaniard burst into flame and smoke.

The Swallow staggered under the blow, recovered an instant, then listed ominously to larboard.

“Hell!” roared Leigh. “She’s bilging!” and Sir Oliver saw the Spaniard standing off again, as if satisfied with what she had done. The mate’s gun was never fired, nor was the broadside from below. Indeed that sudden list had set the muzzles pointing to the sea; within three minutes of it they were on a level with the water. The Swallow had received her death-blow, and she was settling down.

Satisfied that she could do no further harm, the Spaniard luffed and hove to, awaiting the obvious result and intent upon picking up what slaves she could to man the galleys of his Catholic Majesty on the Mediterranean.

Thus the fate intended Sir Oliver by Lionel was to be fulfilled; and it was to be shared by Master Leigh himself, which had not been at all in that venal fellow’s reckoning.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29