by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
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The pier was not far distant from the house in which Joanna lay; it now only remained to get the men on shore, to surround the house with a strong party, burst in the door and carry off the captive. They might then regard themselves as done with the Good Hope; it had placed them on the rear of their enemies; and the retreat, whether they should succeed or fail in the main enterprise, would be directed with a greater measure of hope in the direction of the forest and my Lord Foxham’s reserve.
To get the men on shore, however, was no easy task; many had been sick, all were pierced with cold; the disorder on board had shaken their discipline; the movement of the ship and the darkness of the night had cowed their spirits. They made a rush upon the pier; my lord, with his sword drawn on his own retainers, must throw himself in front; and this impulse of rabblement was not restrained without a certain clamour of voices, highly to be regretted in the case.
When some degree of order had been restored, Dick, with a few chosen men, set forth in advance. The darkness on shore, by contrast with the flashing of the surf, appeared before him like a solid body; and the howling and whistling of the gale drowned any lesser noise.
He had scarce reached the end of the pier, however, when there fell a lull of the wind; and in this he seemed to hear on shore the hollow footing of horses and the clash of arms. Checking his immediate followers, he passed forward a step or two alone, even setting foot upon the down; and here he made sure he could detect the shape of men and horses moving. A strong discouragement assailed him. If their enemies were really on the watch, if they had beleaguered the shoreward end of the pier, he and Lord Foxham were taken in a posture of very poor defence, the sea behind, the men jostled in the dark upon a narrow causeway. He gave a cautious whistle, the signal previously agreed upon.
It proved to be a signal far more than he desired. Instantly there fell, through the black night, a shower of arrows sent at a venture; and so close were the men huddled on the pier that more than one was hit, and the arrows were answered with cries of both fear and pain. In this first discharge, Lord Foxham was struck down; Hawksley had him carried on board again at once; and his men, during the brief remainder of the skirmish, fought (when they fought at all) without guidance. That was perhaps the chief cause of the disaster which made haste to follow.
At the shore end of the pier, for perhaps a minute, Dick held his own with a handful; one or two were wounded upon either side; steel crossed steel; nor had there been the least signal of advantage, when in the twinkling of an eye the tide turned against the party from the ship. Someone cried out that all was lost; the men were in the very humour to lend an ear to a discomfortable counsel; the cry was taken up. “On board, lads, for your lives!” cried another. A third, with the true instinct of the coward, raised that inevitable report on all retreats: “We are betrayed!” And in a moment the whole mass of men went surging and jostling backward down the pier, turning their defenceless backs on their pursuers and piercing the night with craven outcry.
One coward thrust off the ship’s stern, while another still held her by the bows. The fugitives leaped, screaming, and were hauled on board, or fell back and perished in the sea. Some were cut down upon the pier by the pursuers. Many were injured on the ship’s deck in the blind haste and terror of the moment, one man leaping upon another, and a third on both. At last, and whether by design or accident, the bows of the Good Hope were liberated; and the ever-ready Lawless, who had maintained his place at the helm through all the hurly-burly by sheer strength of body and a liberal use of the cold steel, instantly clapped her on the proper tack. The ship began to move once more forward on the stormy sea, its scuppers running blood, its deck heaped with fallen men, sprawling and struggling in the dark.
Thereupon, Lawless sheathed his dagger, and turning to his next neighbour, “I have left my mark on them, friend,” said he, “the yelping, coward hounds.”
Now, while they were all leaping and struggling for their lives, the men had not appeared to observe the rough shoves and cutting stabs with which Lawless had held his post in the confusion. But perhaps they had already begun to understand somewhat more clearly, or perhaps another ear had overheard, the helmsman’s speech.
Panic-stricken troops recovered slowly, and men who have just disgraced themselves by cowardice, as if to wipe out the memory of their fault, will sometimes run straight into the opposite extreme of insubordination. So it was now; and the same men who had thrown away their weapons and been hauled, feet foremost, into the Good Hope, began to cry out upon their leaders, and demand that someone should be punished.
This growing ill-feeling turned upon Lawless.
In order to get a proper offing, the old outlaw had put the head of the Good Hope to seaward.
“What!” bawled one of the grumblers, “he carries us seaward!”
“It is true,” cried another. “We are betrayed for sure.”
And they all began to cry out in chorus that they were betrayed, and in shrill tones and with abominable oaths bade Lawless go about-ship and bring them speedily ashore. Lawless, grinding his teeth, continued in silence to steer the true course, guiding the Good Hope among the formidable billows. To their empty terrors, as to their dishonourable threats, between drink and dignity he scorned to make reply. The malcontents drew together a little abaft the mast, and it was plain they were like barnyard cocks, “crowing for courage.” Presently they would be fit for any extremity of injustice or ingratitude. Dick began to mount by the ladder, eager to interpose; but one of the outlaws, who was also something of a seaman, got there first.
“Lads,” he began, “you are wooden heads, I think. For to get back, by the mass, we must have an offing, must we not? And this old Lawless—”
Someone struck the speaker on the mouth, and the next moment, as a fire springs among dry straw, he was felled upon the deck, trampled under the feet, and despatched by the daggers of his cowardly companions. At this the wrath of Lawless rose and broke.
“Steer yourselves,” he bellowed, with a curse; and, careless of the result, he left the helm.
The Good Hope was, at that moment, trembling on the summit of a swell. She subsided, with sickening velocity, upon the farther side. A wave, like a great black bulwark, hove immediately in front of her; and, with a staggering blow, she plunged headforemost through that liquid hill. The green water passed right over her from stem to stern, as high as a man’s knees; the sprays ran higher than the mast; and she rose again upon the other side, with an appalling, tremulous indecision, like a beast that has been deadly wounded.
Six or seven of the malcontents had been carried bodily overboard; and as for the remainder, when they found their tongues again, it was to bellow to the saints and wail upon Lawless to come back and take the tiller.
Nor did Lawless wait to be twice bidden. The terrible result of his fling of just resentment sobered him completely. He knew, better than any one on board, how nearly the Good Hope had gone bodily down below their feet; and he could tell, by the laziness with which she met the sea, that the peril was by no means over.
Dick, who had been thrown down by the concussion and half drowned, rose wading to his knees in the swamped well of the stern, and crept to the old helmsman’s side.
“Lawless,” he said, “we do all depend on you; you are a brave, steady man, indeed, and crafty in the management of ships; I shall put three sure men to watch upon your safety.”
“Bootless, my master, bootless,” said the steersman, peering forward through the dark.
“We come every moment somewhat clearer of these sandbanks; with every moment, then, the sea packs upon us heavier, and for all these whimperers, they will presently be on their backs. For, my master, it is a right mystery, but true, there never yet was a bad man that was a good shipman. None but the honest and the bold can endure this tossing of a ship.”
“No, Lawless,” said Dick, laughing, “that is a right shipman’s byword, and has no more of sense than the whistle of the wind. But how are we doing? Do we lie well? Are we in good case?”
“Master Shelton,” replied Lawless, “I have been a Grey Friar—I praise fortune—an archer, a thief, and a shipman. Of all these coats, I had the best fancy to die in the Grey Friar’s, as you may readily guess, and the least fancy to die in John Shipman’s tarry jacket; and that for two excellent good reasons: first, that the death might take a man suddenly; and second, for the horror of that great, salt smother and welter under my foot here”—and Lawless stamped with his foot. “Howbeit,” he went on, “if I die not a sailor’s death, and that this night, I shall owe a tall candle to our Lady.”
“Is it so?” asked Dick.
“It is right so,” replied the outlaw. “Do you not feel how heavy and dull she moves upon the waves? Do you not hear the water washing in her hold? She will scarce mind the rudder even now. Wait until she has settled a bit lower; and she will either go down below your boots like a stone image, or drive ashore here, under our lee, and come all to pieces like a twist of string.”
“You speak with a good courage,” returned Dick. “You are not then appalled?”
“Why, master,” answered Lawless, “if ever a man had an ill crew to come to port with, it is I—a renegade friar, a thief, and all the rest as well. Well, you may wonder, but I keep a good hope in my wallet; and if that I be to drown, I will drown with a bright eye, Master Shelton, and a steady hand.”
Dick returned no answer; but he was surprised to find the old vagabond of so resolute a temper, and fearing some fresh violence or treachery, set forth upon his quest for three sure men. The great bulk of the men had now deserted the deck, which was continually wetted with the flying sprays, and where they lay exposed to the shrewdness of the winter wind. They had gathered, instead, into the hold of the merchandise, among the butts of wine, and lighted by two swinging lanterns.
Here a few kept up the form of revelry, and toasted each other deep in Arblaster’s Gascony wine. But as the Good Hope continued to tear through the smoking waves, and toss her stem and stern alternately high in air and deep into white foam, the number of these jolly companions diminished with every moment and with every lurch. Many sat apart, tending their hurts, but the majority were already prostrated with sickness, and lay moaning in the bilge.
Greensheve, Cuckow, and a young fellow of Lord Foxham’s whom Dick had already remarked for his intelligence and spirit, were still, however, both fit to understand and willing to obey. These Dick set, as a body-guard, about the person of the steersman, and then, with a last look at the black sky and sea, he turned and went below into the cabin, whither Lord Foxham had been carried by his servants.