“Full seven long hours in all men’s sight
This fight endured sore,
Until our men so feeble grew,
That they could fight no more.
And then upon dead horses
Full savorly they fed,
And drank the puddle water,
They could no better get.
“When they had fed so freely
They kneeled on the ground,
And gave God thanks devoutly for
The favor they had found;
Then beating up their colors,
The fight they did renew;
And turning to the Spaniards,
A thousand more they slew.”
The Brave Lord Willoughby. 1586.
When the sun leaped up the next morning, and the tropic light flashed suddenly into the tropic day, Amyas was pacing the deck, with dishevelled hair and torn clothes, his eyes red with rage and weeping, his heart full — how can I describe it? Picture it to yourselves, picture it to yourselves, you who have ever lost a brother; and you who have not, thank God that you know nothing of his agony. Full of impossible projects, he strode and staggered up and down, as the ship thrashed close-hauled through the rolling seas. He would go back and burn the villa. He would take Guayra, and have the life of every man in it in return for his brother’s. “We can do it, lads!” he shouted. “If Drake took Nombre de Dios, we can take La Guayra.” And every voice shouted, “Yes.”
“We will have it, Amyas, and have Frank too, yet,” cried Cary; but Amyas shook his head. He knew, and knew not why he knew, that all the ports in New Spain would never restore to him that one beloved face.
“Yes, he shall be well avenged. And look there! There is the first crop of our vengeance. And he pointed toward the shore, where between them and the now distant peaks of the Silla, three sails appeared, not five miles to windward.
“There are the Spanish bloodhounds on our heels, the same ships which we saw yesterday off Guayra. Back, lads, and welcome them, if they were a dozen.”
There was a murmur of applause from all around; and if any young heart sank for a moment at the prospect of fighting three ships at once, it was awed into silence by the cheer which rose from all the older men, and by Salvation Yeo’s stentorian voice.
“If there were a dozen, the Lord is with us, who has said, ‘One of you shall chase a thousand.’ Clear away, lads, and see the glory of the Lord this day.”
“Amen!” cried Cary; and the ship was kept still closer to the wind.
Amyas had revived at the sight of battle. He no longer felt his wounds, or his great sorrow; even Frank’s last angel’s look grew dimmer every moment as he bustled about the deck; and ere a quarter of an hour had passed, his voice cried firmly and cheerfully as of old —
“Now, my masters, let us serve God, and then to breakfast, and after that clear for action.”
Jack Brimblecombe read the daily prayers, and the prayers before a fight at sea, and his honest voice trembled, as, in the Prayer for all Conditions of Men (in spite of Amyas’s despair), he added, “and especially for our dear brother Mr. Francis Leigh, perhaps captive among the idolaters;” and so they rose.
“Now, then,” said Amyas, “to breakfast. A Frenchman fights best fasting, a Dutchman drunk, an Englishman full, and a Spaniard when the devil is in him, and that’s always.”
“And good beef and the good cause are a match for the devil,” said Cary. “Come down, captain; you must eat too.”
Amyas shook his head, took the tiller from the steersman, and bade him go below and fill himself. Will Cary went down, and returned in five minutes, with a plate of bread and beef, and a great jack of ale, coaxed them down Amyas’s throat, as a nurse does with a child, and then scuttled below again with tears hopping down his face.
Amyas stood still steering. His face was grown seven years older in the last night. A terrible set calm was on him. Woe to the man who came across him that day!
“There are three of them, you see, my masters,” said he, as the crew came on deck again. “A big ship forward, and two galleys astern of her. The big ship may keep; she is a race ship, and if we can but recover the wind of her, we will see whether our height is not a match for her length. We must give her the slip, and take the galleys first.”
“I thank the Lord,” said Yeo, “who has given so wise a heart to so young a general; a very David and Daniel, saving his presence, lads; and if any dare not follow him, let him be as the men of Meroz and of Succoth. Amen! Silas Staveley, smite me that boy over the head, the young monkey; why is he not down at the powder-room door?”
And Yeo went about his gunnery, as one who knew how to do it, and had the most terrible mind to do it thoroughly, and the most terrible faith that it was God’s work.
So all fell to; and though there was comparatively little to be done, the ship having been kept as far as could be in fighting order all night, yet there was “clearing of decks, lacing of nettings, making of bulwarks, fitting of waist-cloths, arming of tops, tallowing of pikes, slinging of yards, doubling of sheets and tacks,” enough to satisfy even the pedantical soul of Richard Hawkins himself. Amyas took charge of the poop, Cary of the forecastle, and Yeo, as gunner, of the main-deck, while Drew, as master, settled himself in the waist; and all was ready, and more than ready, before the great ship was within two miles of them.
And now while the mastiffs of England and the bloodhounds of Spain are nearing and nearing over the rolling surges, thirsting for each other’s blood, let us spend a few minutes at least in looking at them both, and considering the causes which in those days enabled the English to face and conquer armaments immensely superior in size and number of ships, and to boast that in the whole Spanish war but one queen’s ship, the Revenge, and (if I recollect right) but one private man-of-war, Sir Richard Hawkins’s Dainty, had ever struck their colors to the enemy.
What was it which enabled Sir Richard Grenville’s Revenge, in his last fearful fight off the Azores, to endure, for twelve hours before she struck, the attack of eight Spanish armadas, of which two (three times her own burden) sank at her side; and after all her masts were gone, and she had been boarded three times without success, to defy to the last the whole fleet of fifty-four sail, which lay around her, waiting for her to sink, “like dogs around the dying forest king”?
What enabled young Richard Hawkins’s Dainty, though half her guns were useless through the carelessness or treachery of the gunner, to maintain for three days a running fight with two Spaniards of equal size with her, double the weight of metal, and ten times the number of men?
What enabled Sir George Cary’s illustrious ship, the Content, to fight, single-handed, from seven in the morning till eleven at night, with four great armadas and two galleys, though her heaviest gun was but one nine-pounder, and for many hours she had but thirteen men fit for service?
What enabled, in the very year of which I write, those two “valiant Turkey Merchantmen of London, the Merchant Royal and the Tobie,” with their three small consorts, to cripple, off Pantellaria in the Mediterranean, the whole fleet of Spanish galleys sent to intercept them, and return triumphant through the Straits of Gibraltar?
And lastly, what in the fight of 1588, whereof more hereafter, enabled the English fleet to capture, destroy, and scatter that Great Armada, with the loss (but not the capture) of one pinnace, and one gentleman of note?
There were more causes than one: the first seems to have lain in the build of the English ships; the second in their superior gunnery and weight of metal; the third (without which the first would have been useless) in the hearts of the English men.
The English ship was much shorter than the Spanish; and this (with the rig of those days) gave them an ease in manoeuvring, which utterly confounded their Spanish foes. “The English ships in the fight of 1588,” says Camden, “charged the enemy with marvellous agility, and having discharged their broadsides, flew forth presently into the deep, and levelled their shot directly, without missing, at those great ships of the Spaniards, which were altogether heavy and unwieldy.” Moreover, the Spanish fashion, in the West Indies at least, though not in the ships of the Great Armada, was, for the sake of carrying merchandise, to build their men-of-war flush-decked, or as it was called “race” (razes), which left those on deck exposed and open; while the English fashion was to heighten the ship as much as possible at stem and stern, both by the sweep of her lines, and also by stockades (“close fights and cage-works”) on the poop and forecastle, thus giving to the men a shelter, which was further increased by strong bulkheads (“cobridgeheads”) across the main-deck below, dividing the ship thus into a number of separate forts, fitted with swivels (“bases, fowlers, and murderers”) and loopholed for musketry and arrows.
But the great source of superiority was, after all, in the men themselves. The English sailor was then, as now, a quite amphibious and all-cunning animal, capable of turning his hand to everything, from needlework and carpentry to gunnery or hand-to-hand blows; and he was, moreover, one of a nation, every citizen of which was not merely permitted to carry arms, but compelled by law to practise from childhood the use of the bow, and accustomed to consider sword-play and quarter-staff as a necessary part and parcel of education, and the pastime of every leisure hour. The “fiercest nation upon earth,” as they were then called, and the freest also, each man of them fought for himself with the self-help and self-respect of a Yankee ranger, and once bidden to do his work, was trusted to carry it out by his own wit as best he could. In one word, he was a free man.
The English officers, too, as now, lived on terms of sympathy with their men unknown to the Spaniards, who raised between the commander and the commanded absurd barriers of rank and blood, which forbade to his pride any labor but that of fighting. The English officers, on the other hand, brought up to the same athletic sports, the same martial exercises, as their men, were not ashamed to care for them, to win their friendship, even on emergency to consult their judgment; and used their rank, not to differ from their men, but to outvie them; not merely to command and be obeyed, but, like Homer’s heroes, or the old Norse Vikings, to lead and be followed. Drake touched the true mainspring of English success when he once (in his voyage round the world) indignantly rebuked some coxcomb gentlemen-adventurers with —“I should like to see the gentleman that will refuse to set his hand to a rope. I must have the gentlemen to hale and draw with the mariners.” But those were days in which her majesty’s service was as little overridden by absurd rules of seniority, as by that etiquette which is at once the counterfeit and the ruin of true discipline. Under Elizabeth and her ministers, a brave and a shrewd man was certain of promotion, let his rank or his age be what they might; the true honor of knighthood covered once and for all any lowliness of birth; and the merchant service (in which all the best sea-captains, even those of noble blood, were more or less engaged) was then a nursery, not only for seamen, but for warriors, in days when Spanish and Portuguese traders (whenever they had a chance) got rid of English competition by salvos of cannon-shot.
Hence, as I have said, that strong fellow-feeling between officers and men; and hence mutinies (as Sir Richard Hawkins tells us) were all but unknown in the English ships, while in the Spanish they broke out on every slight occasion. For the Spaniards, by some suicidal pedantry, had allowed their navy to be crippled by the same despotism, etiquette, and official routine, by which the whole nation was gradually frozen to death in the course of the next century or two; forgetting that, fifty years before, Cortez, Pizarro, and the early Conquistadores of America had achieved their miraculous triumphs on the exactly opposite method by that very fellow-feeling between commander and commanded by which the English were now conquering them in their turn.
Their navy was organized on a plan complete enough; but on one which was, as the event proved, utterly fatal to their prowess and unanimity, and which made even their courage and honor useless against the assaults of free men. “They do, in their armadas at sea, divide themselves into three bodies; to wit, soldiers, mariners, and gunners. The soldiers and officers watch and ward as if on shore; and this is the only duty they undergo, except cleaning their arms, wherein they are not over curious. The gunners are exempted from all labor and care, except about the artillery; and these are either Almaines, Flemings, or strangers; for the Spaniards are but indifferently practised in this art. The mariners are but as slaves to the rest, to moil and to toil day and night; and those but few and bad, and not suffered to sleep or harbor under the decks. For in fair or foul weather, in storms, sun, or rain, they must pass void of covert or succor.”
This is the account of one who was long prisoner on board their ships; let it explain itself, while I return to my tale. For the great ship is now within two musket-shots of the Rose, with the golden flag of Spain floating at her poop; and her trumpets are shouting defiance up the breeze, from a dozen brazen throats, which two or three answer lustily from the Rose, from whose poop flies the flag of England, and from her fore the arms of Leigh and Cary side by side, and over them the ship and bridge of the good town of Bideford. And then Amyas calls:
“Now, silence trumpets, waits, play up! ‘Fortune my foe!’ and God and the Queen be with us!”
Whereon (laugh not, reader, for it was the fashion of those musical as well as valiant days) up rose that noble old favorite of good Queen Bess, from cornet and sackbut, fife and drum; while Parson Jack, who had taken his stand with the musicians on the poop, worked away lustily at his violin, and like Volker of the Nibelungen Lied.
“Well played, Jack; thy elbow flies like a lamb’s tail,” said Amyas, forcing a jest.
“It shall fly to a better fiddle-bow presently, sir, an I have the luck —”
“Steady, helm!” said Amyas. “What is he after now?”
The Spaniard, who had been coming upon them right down the wind under a press of sail, took in his light canvas.
“He don’t know what to make of our waiting for him so bold,” said the helmsman.
“He does though, and means to fight us,” cried another. “See, he is hauling up the foot of his mainsail, but he wants to keep the wind of us.”
“Let him try, then,” quoth Amyas. “Keep her closer still. Let no one fire till we are about. Man the starboard guns; to starboard, and wait, all small arm men. Pass the order down to the gunner, and bid all fire high, and take the rigging.”
Bang went one of the Spaniard’s bow guns, and the shot went wide. Then another and another, while the men fidgeted about, looking at the priming of their muskets, and loosened their arrows in the sheaf.
“Lie down, men, and sing a psalm. When I want you, I’ll call you. Closer still, if you can, helmsman, and we will try a short ship against a long one. We can sail two points nearer the wind than he.”
As Amyas had calculated, the Spaniard would gladly enough have stood across the Rose’s bows, but knowing the English readiness, dare not for fear of being raked; so her only plan, if she did not intend to shoot past her foe down to leeward, was to put her head close to the wind, and wait for her on the same tack.
Amyas laughed to himself. “Hold on yet awhile. More ways of killing a cat than choking her with cream. Drew, there, are your men ready?”
“Ay, ay, sir!” and on they went, closing fast with the Spaniard, till within a pistol-shot.
“Ready about!” and about she went like an eel, and ran upon the opposite tack right under the Spaniard’s stern. The Spaniard, astounded at the quickness of the manoeuvre, hesitated a moment, and then tried to get about also, as his only chance; but it was too late, and while his lumbering length was still hanging in the wind’s eye, Amyas’s bowsprit had all but scraped his quarter, and the Rose passed slowly across his stern at ten yards’ distance.
“Now, then!” roared Amyas. “Fire, and with a will! Have at her, archers: have at her, muskets all!” and in an instant a storm of bar and chain-shot, round and canister, swept the proud Don from stem to stern, while through the white cloud of smoke the musket-balls, and the still deadlier cloth-yard arrows, whistled and rushed upon their venomous errand. Down went the steersman, and every soul who manned the poop. Down went the mizzen topmast, in went the stern-windows and quarter-galleries; and as the smoke cleared away, the gorgeous painting of the Madre Dolorosa, with her heart full of seven swords, which, in a gilded frame, bedizened the Spanish stern, was shivered in splinters; while, most glorious of all, the golden flag of Spain, which the last moment flaunted above their heads, hung trailing in the water. The ship, her tiller shot away, and her helmsman killed, staggered helplessly a moment, and then fell up into the wind.
“Well done, men of Devon!” shouted Amyas, as cheers rent the welkin.
“She has struck,” cried some, as the deafening hurrahs died away.
“Not a bit,” said Amyas. “Hold on, helmsman, and leave her to patch her tackle while we settle the galleys.”
On they shot merrily, and long ere the armada could get herself to rights again, were two good miles to windward, with the galleys sweeping down fast upon them.
And two venomous-looking craft they were, as they shot through the short chopping sea upon some forty oars apiece, stretching their long sword-fish snouts over the water, as if snuffing for their prey. Behind this long snout, a strong square forecastle was crammed with soldiers, and the muzzles of cannon grinned out through portholes, not only in the sides of the forecastle, but forward in the line of the galley’s course, thus enabling her to keep up a continual fire on a ship right ahead.
The long low waist was packed full of the slaves, some five or six to each oar, and down the centre, between the two banks, the English could see the slave-drivers walking up and down a long gangway, whip in hand. A raised quarter-deck at the stern held more soldiers, the sunlight flashing merrily upon their armor and their gun-barrels; as they neared, the English could hear plainly the cracks of the whips, and the yells as of wild beasts which answered them; the roll and rattle of the oars, and the loud “Ha!” of the slaves which accompanied every stroke, and the oaths and curses of the drivers; while a sickening musky smell, as of a pack of kennelled hounds, came down the wind from off those dens of misery. No wonder if many a young heart shuddered as it faced, for the first time, the horrible reality of those floating hells, the cruelties whereof had rung so often in English ears, from the stories of their own countrymen, who had passed them, fought them, and now and then passed years of misery on board of them. Who knew but what there might be English among those sun-browned half-naked masses of panting wretches?
“Must we fire upon the slaves?” asked more than one, as the thought crossed him.
“Spare them all you can, in God’s name; but if they try to run us down, rake them we must, and God forgive us.”
The two galleys came on abreast of each other, some forty yards apart. To outmanoeuvre their oars as he had done the ship’s sails, Amyas knew was impossible. To run from them was to be caught between them and the ship.
He made up his mind, as usual, to the desperate game.
“Lay her head up in the wind, helmsman, and we will wait for them.”
They were now within musket-shot, and opened fire from their bow-guns; but, owing to the chopping sea, their aim was wild. Amyas, as usual, withheld his fire.
The men stood at quarters with compressed lips, not knowing what was to come next. Amyas, towering motionless on the quarter-deck, gave his orders calmly and decisively. The men saw that he trusted himself, and trusted him accordingly.
The Spaniards, seeing him wait for them, gave a shout of joy — was the Englishman mad? And the two galleys converged rapidly, intending to strike him full, one on each bow.
They were within forty yards — another minute, and the shock would come. The Englishman’s helm went up, his yards creaked round, and gathering way, he plunged upon the larboard galley.
“A dozen gold nobles to him who brings down the steersman!” shouted Cary, who had his cue.
And a flight of arrows from the forecastle rattled upon the galley’s quarter-deck.
Hit or not hit, the steersman lost his nerve, and shrank from the coming shock. The galley’s helm went up to port, and her beak slid all but harmless along Amyas’s bow; a long dull grind, and then loud crack on crack, as the Rose sawed slowly through the bank of oars from stem to stern, hurling the wretched slaves in heaps upon each other; and ere her mate on the other side could swing round, to strike him in his new position, Amyas’s whole broadside, great and small, had been poured into her at pistol-shot, answered by a yell which rent their ears and hearts.
“Spare the slaves! Fire at the soldiers!” cried Amyas; but the work was too hot for much discrimination; for the larboard galley, crippled but not undaunted, swung round across his stern, and hooked herself venomously on to him.
It was a move more brave than wise; for it prevented the other galley from returning to the attack without exposing herself a second time to the English broadside; and a desperate attempt of the Spaniards to board at once through the stern-ports and up the quarter was met with such a demurrer of shot and steel, that they found themselves in three minutes again upon the galley’s poop, accompanied, to their intense disgust, by Amyas Leigh and twenty English swords.
Five minutes’ hard cutting, hand to hand, and the poop was clear. The soldiers in the forecastle had been able to give them no assistance, open as they lay to the arrows and musketry from the Rose’s lofty stern. Amyas rushed along the central gangway, shouting in Spanish, “Freedom to the slaves! death to the masters!” clambered into the forecastle, followed close by his swarm of wasps, and set them so good an example how to use their stings, that in three minutes more there was not a Spaniard on board who was not dead or dying.
“Let the slaves free!” shouted he. “Throw us a hammer down, men. Hark! there’s an English voice!”
There is indeed. From amid the wreck of broken oars and writhing limbs, a voice is shrieking in broadest Devon to the master, who is looking over the side.
“Oh, Robert Drew! Robert Drew! Come down, and take me out of hell!”
“Who be you, in the name of the Lord!”
“Don’t you mind William Prust, that Captain Hawkins left behind in the Honduras, years and years agone? There’s nine of us aboard, if your shot hasn’t put ’em out of their misery. Come down, if you’ve a Christian heart, come down!”
Utterly forgetful of all discipline, Drew leaps down hammer in hand, and the two old comrades rush into each other’s arms.
Why make a long story of what took but five minutes to do? The nine men (luckily none of them wounded) are freed, and helped on board, to be hugged and kissed by old comrades and young kinsmen; while the remaining slaves, furnished with a couple of hammers, are told to free themselves and help the English. The wretches answer by a shout; and Amyas, once more safe on board again, dashes after the other galley, which has been hovering out of reach of his guns: but there is no need to trouble himself about her; sickened with what she has got, she is struggling right up wind, leaning over to one side, and seemingly ready to sink.
“Are there any English on board of her?” asks Amyas, loath to lose the chance of freeing a countryman.
“Never a one, sir, thank God.”
So they set to work to repair damages; while the liberated slaves, having shifted some of the galley’s oars, pull away after their comrade; and that with such a will, that in ten minutes they have caught her up, and careless of the Spaniard’s fire, boarded her en masse, with yells as of a thousand wolves. There will be fearful vengeance taken on those tyrants, unless they play the man this day.
And in the meanwhile half the crew are clothing, feeding, questioning, caressing those nine poor fellows thus snatched from living death; and Yeo, hearing the news, has rushed up on deck to welcome his old comrades, and —
“Is Michael Heard, my cousin, here among you?”
Yes, Michael Heard is there, white-headed rather from misery than age; and the embracings and questionings begin afresh.
“Where is my wife, Salvation Yeo?”
“With the Lord.”
“Amen!” says the old man, with a short shudder. “I thought so much; and my two boys?”
“With the Lord.”
The old man catches Yeo by the arm.
“How, then?” It is Yeo’s turn to shudder now.
“Killed in Panama, fighting the Spaniards; sailing with Mr. Oxenham; and ’twas I led ’em into it. May God and you forgive me!”
“They couldn’t die better, cousin Yeo. Where’s my girl Grace?”
“Died in childbed.”
The old man covers his face with his hands for a while.
“Well, I’ve been alone with the Lord these fifteen years, so I must not whine at being alone a while longer —‘t won’t be long.”
“Put this coat on your back, uncle,” says some one.
“No; no coats for me. Naked came I into the world, and naked I go out of it this day, if I have a chance. You’m better to go to your work, lads, or the big one will have the wind of you yet.”
“So she will,” said Amyas, who has overheard; but so great is the curiosity on all hands, that he has some trouble in getting the men to quarters again; indeed, they only go on condition of parting among themselves with them the new-comers, each to tell his sad and strange story. How after Captain Hawkins, constrained by famine, had put them ashore, they wandered in misery till the Spaniards took them; how, instead of hanging them (as they at first intended), the Dons fed and clothed them, and allotted them as servants to various gentlemen about Mexico, where they throve, turned their hands (like true sailors) to all manner of trades, and made much money, and some of them were married, even to women of wealth; so that all went well, until the fatal year 1574, when, “much against the minds of many of the Spaniards themselves, that cruel and bloody Inquisition was established for the first time in the Indies;” and how from that moment their lives were one long tragedy; how they were all imprisoned for a year and a half, not for proselytizing, but simply for not believing in transubstantiation; racked again and again, and at last adjudged to receive publicly, on Good Friday, 1575, some three hundred, some one hundred stripes, and to serve in the galleys for six or ten years each; while, as the crowning atrocity of the Moloch sacrifice, three of them were burnt alive in the market-place of Mexico; a story no less hideous than true, the details whereof whoso list may read in Hakluyt’s third volume, as told by Philip Miles, one of that hapless crew; as well as the adventures of Job Hortop, a messmate of his, who, after being sent to Spain, and seeing two more of his companions burnt alive at Seville, was sentenced to row in the galleys ten years, and after that to go to the “everlasting prison remediless;” from which doom, after twenty-three years of slavery, he was delivered by the galleon Dudley, and came safely home to Redriff.
The fate of Hortop and his comrades was, of course, still unknown to the rescued men; but the history even of their party was not likely to improve the good feeling of the crew toward the Spanish ship which was two miles to leeward of them, and which must be fought with, or fled from, before a quarter of an hour was past. So, kneeling down upon the deck, as many a brave crew in those days did in like case, they “gave God thanks devoutly for the favor they had found;” and then with one accord, at Jack’s leading, sang one and all the Ninety-fourth Psalm:11
“Oh, Lord, thou dost revenge all wrong;
Vengeance belongs to thee,” etc.
11 The crew of the Tobie, cast away on the Barbary coast a few years after, “began with heavy hearts to sing the twelfth Psalm, ‘Help, Lord, for good and godly men,’ etc. Howbeit, ere we had finished four verses, the waves of the sea had stopped the breaths of most.”
And then again to quarters; for half the day’s work, or more than half, still remained to be done; and hardly were the decks cleared afresh, and the damage repaired as best it could be, when she came ranging up to leeward, as closehauled as she could.
She was, as I said, a long flush-decked ship of full five hundred tons, more than double the size, in fact, of the Rose, though not so lofty in proportion; and many a bold heart beat loud, and no shame to them, as she began firing away merrily, determined, as all well knew, to wipe out in English blood the disgrace of her late foil.
“Never mind, my merry masters,” said Amyas, “she has quantity and we quality.”
“That’s true,” said one, “for one honest man is worth two rogues.”
“And one culverin three of their footy little ordnance,” said another. “So when you will, captain, and have at her.”
“Let her come abreast of us, and don’t burn powder. We have the wind, and can do what we like with her. Serve the men out a horn of ale all round, steward, and all take your time.”
So they waited for five minutes more, and then set to work quietly, after the fashion of English mastiffs, though, like those mastiffs, they waxed right mad before three rounds were fired, and the white splinters (sight beloved) began to crackle and fly.
Amyas, having, as he had said, the wind, and being able to go nearer it than the Spaniard, kept his place at easy point-blank range for his two eighteen-pounder culverins, which Yeo and his mate worked with terrible effect.
“We are lacking her through and through every shot,” said he. “Leave the small ordnance alone yet awhile, and we shall sink her without them.”
“Whing, whing,” went the Spaniard’s shot, like so many humming-tops, through the rigging far above their heads; for the ill-constructed ports of those days prevented the guns from hulling an enemy who was to windward, unless close alongside.
“Blow, jolly breeze,” cried one, “and lay the Don over all thou canst. — What the murrain is gone, aloft there?”
Alas! a crack, a flap, a rattle; and blank dismay! An unlucky shot had cut the foremast (already wounded) in two, and all forward was a mass of dangling wreck.
“Forward, and cut away the wreck!” said Amyas, unmoved. “Small arm men, be ready. He will be aboard of us in five minutes!”
It was too true. The Rose, unmanageable from the loss of her head-sail, lay at the mercy of the Spaniard; and the archers and musqueteers had hardly time to range themselves to leeward, when the Madre Dolorosa’s chains were grinding against the Rose’s, and grapples tossed on board from stem to stern.
“Don’t cut them loose!” roared Amyas. “Let them stay and see the fun! Now, dogs of Devon, show your teeth, and hurrah for God and the queen!”
And then began a fight most fierce and fell: the Spaniards, according to their fashion, attempting to board, the English, amid fierce shouts of “God and the queen!” “God and St. George for England!” sweeping them back by showers of arrows and musquet balls, thrusting them down with pikes, hurling grenades and stink-pots from the tops; while the swivels on both sides poured their grape, and bar, and chain, and the great main-deck guns, thundering muzzle to muzzle, made both ships quiver and recoil, as they smashed the round shot through and through each other.
So they roared and flashed, fast clenched to each other in that devil’s wedlock, under a cloud of smoke beneath the cloudless tropic sky; while all around, the dolphins gambolled, and the flying-fish shot on from swell to swell, and the rainbow-hued jellies opened and shut their cups of living crystal to the sun, as merrily as if man had never fallen, and hell had never broken loose on earth.
So it raged for an hour or more, till all arms were weary, and all tongues clove to the mouth. And sick men, rotting with scurvy, scrambled up on deck, and fought with the strength of madness; and tiny powder-boys, handing up cartridges from the hold, laughed and cheered as the shots ran past their ears; and old Salvation Yeo, a text upon his lips, and a fury in his heart as of Joshua or Elijah in old time, worked on, calm and grim, but with the energy of a boy at play. And now and then an opening in the smoke showed the Spanish captain, in his suit of black steel armor, standing cool and proud, guiding and pointing, careless of the iron hail, but too lofty a gentleman to soil his glove with aught but a knightly sword-hilt: while Amyas and Will, after the fashion of the English gentlemen, had stripped themselves nearly as bare as their own sailors, and were cheering, thrusting, hewing, and hauling, here, there, and everywhere, like any common mariner, and filling them with a spirit of self-respect, fellow-feeling, and personal daring, which the discipline of the Spaniards, more perfect mechanically, but cold and tyrannous, and crushing spiritually, never could bestow. The black-plumed senor was obeyed; but the golden-locked Amyas was followed, and would have been followed through the jaws of hell.
The Spaniards, ere five minutes had passed, poured en masse into the Rose’s waist, but only to their destruction. Between the poop and forecastle (as was then the fashion) the upper-deck beams were left open and unplanked, with the exception of a narrow gangway on either side; and off that fatal ledge the boarders, thrust on by those behind, fell headlong between the beams to the main-deck below, to be slaughtered helpless in that pit of destruction, by the double fire from the bulkheads fore and aft; while the few who kept their footing on the gangway, after vain attempts to force the stockades on poop and forecastle, leaped overboard again amid a shower of shot and arrows. The fire of the English was as steady as it was quick; and though three-fourths of the crew had never smelt powder before, they proved well the truth of the old chronicler’s saying (since proved again more gloriously than ever, at Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman), that “the English never fight better than in their first battle.”
Thrice the Spaniards clambered on board, and thrice surged back before that deadly hail. The decks on both sides were very shambles; and Jack Brimblecombe, who had fought as long as his conscience would allow him, found, when he turned to a more clerical occupation, enough to do in carrying poor wretches to the surgeon, without giving that spiritual consolation which he longed to give, and they to receive. At last there was a lull in that wild storm. No shot was heard from the Spaniard’s upper-deck.
Amyas leaped into the mizzen rigging, and looked through the smoke. Dead men he could descry through the blinding veil, rolled in heaps, laid flat; dead men and dying: but no man upon his feet. The last volley had swept the deck clear; one by one had dropped below to escape that fiery shower: and alone at the helm, grinding his teeth with rage, his mustachios curling up to his very eyes, stood the Spanish captain.
Now was the moment for a counter-stroke. Amyas shouted for the boarders, and in two minutes more he was over the side, and clutching at the Spaniard’s mizzen rigging.
What was this? The distance between him and the enemy’s side was widening. Was she sheering off? Yes — and rising too, growing bodily higher every moment, as if by magic. Amyas looked up in astonishment and saw what it was. The Spaniard was heeling fast over to leeward away from him. Her masts were all sloping forward, swifter and swifter — the end was come, then!
“Back! in God’s name back, men! She is sinking by the head!” And with much ado some were dragged back, some leaped back — all but old Michael Heard.
With hair and beard floating in the wind, the bronzed naked figure, like some weird old Indian fakir, still climbed on steadfastly up the mizzen-chains of the Spaniard, hatchet in hand.
“Come back, Michael! Leap while you may!” shouted a dozen voices. Michael turned —
“And what should I come back for, then, to go home where no one knoweth me? I’ll die like an Englishman this day, or I’ll know the rason why!” and turning, he sprang in over the bulwarks, as the huge ship rolled up more and more, like a dying whale, exposing all her long black hulk almost down to the keel, and one of her lower-deck guns, as if in defiance, exploded upright into the air, hurling the ball to the very heavens.
In an instant it was answered from the Rose by a column of smoke, and the eighteen-pound ball crashed through the bottom of the defenceless Spaniard.
“Who fired? Shame to fire on a sinking ship!”
“Gunner Yeo, sir,” shouted a voice up from the main-deck. “He’s like a madman down here.”
“Tell him if he fires again, I’ll put him in irons, if he were my own brother. Cut away the grapples aloft, men. Don’t you see how she drags us over? Cut away, or we shall sink with her.”
They cut away, and the Rose, released from the strain, shook her feathers on the wave-crest like a freed sea-gull, while all men held their breaths.
Suddenly the glorious creature righted herself, and rose again, as if in noble shame, for one last struggle with her doom. Her bows were deep in the water, but her after-deck still dry. Righted: but only for a moment, long enough to let her crew come pouring wildly up on deck, with cries and prayers, and rush aft to the poop, where, under the flag of Spain, stood the tall captain, his left hand on the standard-staff, his sword pointed in his right.
“Back, men!” they heard him cry, “and die like valiant mariners.”
Some of them ran to the bulwarks, and shouted “Mercy! We surrender!” and the English broke into a cheer and called to them to run her alongside.
“Silence!” shouted Amyas. “I take no surrender from mutineers. Senor,” cried he to the captain, springing into the rigging and taking off his hat, “for the love of God and these men, strike! and surrender a buena querra.”
The Spaniard lifted his hat and bowed courteously, and answered, “Impossible, senor. No querra is good which stains my honor.”
“God have mercy on you, then!”
“Amen!” said the Spaniard, crossing himself.
She gave one awful lounge forward, and dived under the coming swell, hurling her crew into the eddies. Nothing but the point of her poop remained, and there stood the stern and steadfast Don, cap-a-pie in his glistening black armor, immovable as a man of iron, while over him the flag, which claimed the empire of both worlds, flaunted its gold aloft and upwards in the glare of the tropic noon.
“He shall not carry that flag to the devil with him; I will have it yet, if I die for it!” said Will Cary, and rushed to the side to leap overboard, but Amyas stopped him.
“Let him die as he has lived, with honor.”
A wild figure sprang out of the mass of sailors who struggled and shrieked amid the foam, and rushed upward at the Spaniard. It was Michael Heard. The Don, who stood above him, plunged his sword into the old man’s body: but the hatchet gleamed, nevertheless: down went the blade through headpiece and through head; and as Heard sprang onward, bleeding, but alive, the steel-clad corpse rattled down the deck into the surge. Two more strokes, struck with the fury of a dying man, and the standard-staff was hewn through. Old Michael collected all his strength, hurled the flag far from the sinking ship, and then stood erect one moment and shouted, “God save Queen Bess!” and the English answered with a “Hurrah!” which rent the welkin.
Another moment and the gulf had swallowed his victim, and the poop, and him; and nothing remained of the Madre Dolorosa but a few floating spars and struggling wretches, while a great awe fell upon all men, and a solemn silence, broken only by the cry
“Of some strong swimmer in his agony.”
And then, suddenly collecting themselves, as men awakened from a dream, half-a-dozen desperate gallants, reckless of sharks and eddies, leaped overboard, swam towards the flag, and towed it alongside in triumph.
“Ah!” said Salvation Yeo, as he helped the trophy up over the side; “ah! it was not for nothing that we found poor Michael! He was always a good comrade — nigh as good a one as William Penberthy of Marazion, whom the Lord grant I meet in bliss! And now, then, my masters, shall we inshore again and burn La Guayra?”
“Art thou never glutted with Spanish blood, thou old wolf?” asked Will Cary.
“Never, sir,” answered Yeo.
“To St. Jago be it,” said Amyas, “if we can get there; but — God help us!”
And he looked round sadly enough; while no one needed that he should finish his sentence, or explain his “but.”
The foremast was gone, the main-yard sprung, the rigging hanging in elf-locks, the hull shot through and through in twenty places, the deck strewn with the bodies of nine good men, beside sixteen wounded down below; while the pitiless sun, right above their heads, poured down a flood of fire upon a sea of glass.
And it would have been well if faintness and weariness had been all that was the matter; but now that the excitement was over, the collapse came; and the men sat down listlessly and sulkily by twos and threes upon the deck, starting and wincing when they heard some poor fellow below cry out under the surgeon’s knife; or murmuring to each other that all was lost. Drew tried in vain to rouse them, telling them that all depended on rigging a jury-mast forward as soon as possible. They answered only by growls; and at last broke into open reproaches. Even Will Cary’s volatile nature, which had kept him up during the fight, gave way, when Yeo and the carpenter came aft, and told Amyas in a low voice —
“We are hit somewhere forward, below the water-line, sir. She leaks a terrible deal, and the Lord will not vouchsafe to us to lay our hands on the place, for all our searching.”
“What are we to do now, Amyas, in the devil’s name?” asked Cary, peevishly.
“What are we to do, in God’s name, rather,” answered Amyas, in a low voice. “Will, Will, what did God make you a gentleman for, but to know better than those poor fickle fellows forward, who blow hot and cold at every change of weather!”
“I wish you’d come forward and speak to them, sir,” said Yeo, who had overheard the last words, “or we shall get naught done.”
Amyas went forward instantly.
“Now then, my brave lads, what’s the matter here, that you are all sitting on your tails like monkeys?”
“Ugh!” grunts one. “Don’t you think our day’s work has been long enough yet, captain?”
“You don’t want us to go in to La Guayra again, sir? There are enough of us thrown away already, I reckon, about that wench there.”
“Best sit here, and sink quietly. There’s no getting home again, that’s plain.”
“Why were we brought out here to be killed?”
“For shame, men!” cries Yeo; “you’re no better than a set of stiff-necked Hebrew Jews, murmuring against Moses the very minute after the Lord has delivered you from the Egyptians.”
Now I do not wish to set Amyas up as a perfect man; for he had his faults, like every one else; nor as better, thank God, than many and many a brave and virtuous captain in her majesty’s service at this very day: but certainly he behaved admirably under that trial. Drake had trained him, as he trained many another excellent officer, to be as stout in discipline, and as dogged of purpose, as he himself was: but he had trained him also to feel with and for his men, to make allowances for them, and to keep his temper with them, as he did this day. True, he had seen Drake in a rage; he had seen him hang one man for a mutiny (and that man his dearest friend), and threaten to hang thirty more; but Amyas remembered well that that explosion took place when having, as Drake said publicly himself, “taken in hand that I know not in the world how to go through with; it passeth my capacity; it hath even bereaved me of my wits to think of it,” . . . and having “now set together by the ears three mighty princes, her majesty and the kings of Spain and Portugal,” he found his whole voyage ready to come to naught, “by mutinies and discords, controversy between the sailors and gentlemen, and stomaching between the gentlemen and sailors.” “But, my masters” (quoth the self-trained hero, and Amyas never forgot his words), “I must have it left; for I must have the gentlemen to haul and draw with the mariner, and the mariner with the gentlemen. I would like to know him that would refuse to set his hand to a rope!”
And now Amyas’s conscience smote him (and his simple and pious soul took the loss of his brother as God’s verdict on his conduct), because he had set his own private affection, even his own private revenge, before the safety of his ship’s company, and the good of his country.
“Ah,” said he to himself, as he listened to his men’s reproaches, “if I had been thinking, like a loyal soldier, of serving my queen, and crippling the Spaniard, I should have taken that great bark three days ago, and in it the very man I sought!”
So “choking down his old man,” as Yeo used to say, he made answer cheerfully —
“Pooh! pooh! brave lads! For shame, for shame! You were lions half-an-hour ago; you are not surely turned sheep already! Why, but yesterday evening you were grumbling because I would not run in and fight those three ships under the batteries of La Guayra, and now you think it too much to have fought them fairly out at sea? What has happened but the chances of war, which might have happened anywhere? Nothing venture, nothing win; and nobody goes bird-nesting without a fall at times. If any one wants to be safe in this life, he’d best stay at home and keep his bed; though even there, who knows but the roof might fall through on him?”
“Ah, it’s all very well for you, captain,” said some grumbling younker, with a vague notion that Amyas must be better off than he, because he was a gentleman. Amyas’s blood rose.
“Yes, sirrah! it is very well for me, as long as God is with me: but He is with every man in this ship, I would have you to know, as much as He is with me. Do you fancy that I have nothing to lose? I who have adventured in this voyage all I am worth, and more; who, if I fail, must return to beggary and scorn? And if I have ventured rashly, sinfully, if you will, the lives of any of you in my own private quarrel, am I not punished? Have I not lost —?”
His voice trembled and stopped there, but he recovered himself in a moment.
“Pish! I can’t stand here chattering. Carpenter! an axe! and help me to cast these spars loose. Get out of my way, there! lumbering the scuppers up like so many moulting fowls! Here, all old friends, lend a hand! Pelican’s men, stand by your captain! Did we sail round the world for nothing?”
This last appeal struck home, and up leaped half-a-dozen of the old Pelicans, and set to work at his side manfully to rig the jury-mast.
“Come along!” cried Cary to the malcontents; “we’re raw longshore fellows, but we won’t be outdone by any old sea-dog of them all.” And setting to work himself, he was soon followed by one and another, till order and work went on well enough.
“And where are we going, when the mast’s up?” shouted some saucy hand from behind.
“Where you daren’t follow us alone by yourself, so you had better keep us company,” replied Yeo.
“I’ll tell you where we are going, lads,” said Amyas, rising from his work. “Like it or leave it as you will, I have no secrets from my crew. We are going inshore there to find a harbor, and careen the ship.”
There was a start and a murmur.
“Inshore? Into the Spaniards’ mouths?”
“All in the Inquisition in a week’s time.”
“Better stay here, and be drowned.”
“You’re right in that last,” shouts Cary. “That’s the right death for blind puppies. Look you! I don’t know in the least where we are, and I hardly know stem from stern aboard ship; and the captain may be right or wrong — that’s nothing to me; but this I know, that I am a soldier, and will obey orders; and where he goes, I go; and whosoever hinders me must walk up my sword to do it.”
Amyas pressed Cary’s hand, and then —
“And here’s my broadside next, men. I’ll go nowhere, and do nothing without the advice of Salvation Yeo and Robert Drew; and if any man in the ship knows better than these two, let him up, and we’ll give him a hearing. Eh, Pelicans?”
There was a grunt of approbation from the Pelicans; and Amyas returned to the charge.
“We have five shot between wind and water, and one somewhere below. Can we face a gale of wind in that state, or can we not?”
“Can we get home with a leak in our bottom?”
“Then what can we do but run inshore, and take our chance? Speak! It’s a coward’s trick to do nothing because what we must do is not pleasant. Will you be like children, that would sooner die than take nasty physic, or will you not?”
“Come along now! Here’s the wind again round with the sun, and up to the north-west. In with her!”
Sulkily enough, but unable to deny the necessity, the men set to work, and the vessel’s head was put toward the land; but when she began to slip through the water, the leak increased so fast, that they were kept hard at work at the pumps for the rest of the afternoon.
The current had by this time brought them abreast of the bay of Higuerote; and, luckily for them, safe out of the short heavy swell which it causes round Cape Codera. Looking inland, they had now to the south-west that noble headland, backed by the Caracas Mountains, range on range, up to the Silla and the Neguater; while, right ahead of them to the south, the shore sank suddenly into a low line of mangrove-wood, backed by primaeval forest. As they ran inward, all eyes were strained greedily to find some opening in the mangrove belt; but none was to be seen for some time. The lead was kept going; and every fresh heave announced shallower water.
“We shall have very shoal work off those mangroves, Yeo,” said Amyas; “I doubt whether we shall do aught now, unless we find a river’s mouth.”
“If the Lord thinks a river good for us, sir, He’ll show us one.” So on they went, keeping a south-east course, and at last an opening in the mangrove belt was hailed with a cheer from the older hands, though the majority shrugged their shoulders, as men going open-eyed to destruction.
Off the mouth they sent in Drew and Cary with a boat, and watched anxiously for an hour. The boat returned with a good report of two fathoms of water over the bar, impenetrable forests for two miles up, the river sixty yards broad, and no sign of man. The river’s banks were soft and sloping mud, fit for careening.
“Safe quarters, sir,” said Yeo, privately, “as far as Spaniards go. I hope in God it may be as safe from calentures and fevers.”
“Beggars must not be choosers,” said Amyas. So in they went.
They towed the ship up about half-a-mile to a point where she could not be seen from the seaward; and there moored her to the mangrove-stems. Amyas ordered a boat out, and went up the river himself to reconnoitre. He rowed some three miles, till the river narrowed suddenly, and was all but covered in by the interlacing boughs of mighty trees. There was no sign that man had been there since the making of the world.
He dropped down the stream again, thoughtfully and sadly. How many years ago was it that he passed this river’s mouth? Three days. And yet how much had passed in them! Don Guzman found and lost — Rose found and lost — a great victory gained, and yet lost — perhaps his ship lost — above all, his brother lost.
Lost! O God, how should he find his brother?
Some strange bird out of the woods made mournful answer —“Never, never, never!”
How should he face his mother?
“Never, never, never!” wailed the bird again; and Amyas smiled bitterly, and said “Never!” likewise.
The night mist began to steam and wreathe upon the foul beer-colored stream. The loathy floor of liquid mud lay bare beneath the mangrove forest. Upon the endless web of interarching roots great purple crabs were crawling up and down. They would have supped with pleasure upon Amyas’s corpse; perhaps they might sup on him after all; for a heavy sickening graveyard smell made his heart sink within him, and his stomach heave; and his weary body, and more weary soul, gave themselves up helplessly to the depressing influence of that doleful place. The black bank of dingy leathern leaves above his head, the endless labyrinth of stems and withes (for every bough had lowered its own living cord, to take fresh hold of the foul soil below); the web of roots, which stretched away inland till it was lost in the shades of evening — all seemed one horrid complicated trap for him and his; and even where, here and there, he passed the mouth of a lagoon, there was no opening, no relief — nothing but the dark ring of mangroves, and here and there an isolated group of large and small, parents and children, breeding and spreading, as if in hideous haste to choke out air and sky. Wailing sadly, sad-colored mangrove-hens ran off across the mud into the dreary dark. The hoarse night-raven, hid among the roots, startled the voyagers with a sudden shout, and then all was again silent as a grave. The loathly alligators, lounging in the slime, lifted their horny eyelids lazily, and leered upon him as he passed with stupid savageness. Lines of tall herons stood dimly in the growing gloom, like white fantastic ghosts, watching the passage of the doomed boat. All was foul, sullen, weird as witches’ dream. If Amyas had seen a crew of skeletons glide down the stream behind him, with Satan standing at the helm, he would have scarcely been surprised. What fitter craft could haunt that Stygian flood?
That night every man of the boat’s crew, save Amyas, was down with raging fever; before ten the next morning, five more men were taken, and others sickening fast.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10