List Of Contents | Contents of Black Bartlemy's Treasure by Jeffrey
Next Page > >
from the book made available by Dr Mike Alder.










The Frenchman beside me had been dead since dawn.  His scarred
and shackled body swayed limply back and forth with every sweep
of the great oar as we, his less fortunate bench-fellows, tugged
and strained to keep time to the stroke.

Two men had I seen die beside me, yet Death ever passed me by,
nay, it seemed rather that despite the pain of stripes, despite
the travail and hardship, my strength waxed the mightier; upon
arm and thigh, burnt nigh black by fierce suns, the muscles
showed hard and knotted; within my body, scarred by the lash, the
life leapt and glowed yet was the soul of me sick unto death. 
But it seemed I could not die--finding thereby blessed rest and a
surcease from this agony of life as had this Frenchman, who of
all the naked wretches about me, was the only one with whom I had
any sort of fellowship.  He had died (as I say) with the dawn, so
quietly that at first I thought he but fainted and pitied him,
but, when I knew, pity changed to bitterness.

Therefore, as I strove at the heavy oar I prayed 'twixt gnashing
teeth a prayer I had often prayed, and the matter of my praying
was thus:

"O God of Justice, for the agony I needs must now endure, for the
bloody stripes and bitter anguish give to me vengeance--
vengeance, O God, on mine enemy!"

So prayed I, hoarse-panting and with the sweat trickling down
whiles I stared at the naked back of him that rowed before me--a
great, fat fellow he had been once, but now the skin hung in
numberless creases whereon were many weals, some raw and bloody,
that crossed and re-crossed each other after the manner of lace-

"Justice, O God, upon mine enemy!  Since Death is not for me let
me live until I be avenged; for the pain I suffer so may I see
him suffer, for the anguish that is mine so may I watch his
agony.  Thou art a just God, so, God of Justice, give to me

The sun rose high and higher over our quarter, beating down upon
our naked backs and adding greatly to our torments thereby,
waking the pain of old stripes and lending an added sting to new.

Ever and anon would come the sharp crack of the drivers' whips
followed by the squealing cry of quivering flesh (a cry wherein
was none of the human) the which, dying to a whine, was lost in
the stir and bustle of the great galleass.  But ever and always,
beneath the hoarse voices of the mariners, beneath the clash of
armour and tramp of feet, beneath the creak and rumble of the
long oars, came yet another sound, rising and falling yet never
ceasing, a dull, low sound the like of which you shall sometimes
hear among trees when the wind is high--the deep, sobbing moan
that was the voice of our anguish as we poor wretches urged the
great "Esmeralda" galleass upon her course.

The oar whereto I was chained along with my three bench-mates had
at some time been badly sprung, so that the armourers had made
shift to strengthen it with a stout iron fillet some six inches
wide.  Now it so happened that my grasp came upon this fillet,
and, with every stroke of the oar, day after day, week in and
week out, it had become my wont to rub the links of my chain to
and fro across this iron band, whereby they had become very
smooth and shining.

The words of my prayer were yet upon my lips, when, chancing to
look upon one of these links, I beheld that which set my heart a-
leaping and my riotous blood a-tingle to my fingers' ends; yet
'twas a very small thing, no more than a mark that showed upon
the polished surface of the link, a line not so thick as a hair
and not to be noticed without close looking; but when I bore upon
the link this hair-line grew and widened, it needed but a sudden
wrench and I should be free.  This threw me into such a rapturous
transport that I had much ado to contain myself, howbeit after
some while I lifted my eyes to the heaven all flushed and rosy
with the young day, for it seemed that God had indeed heard my

Presently, along the gangway amidships, comes none other than
that accursed Portugal, Pedro the whip-master, who, espying the
drooping form of the Frenchman beside me, forthwith falls a-
cursing in his vile tongue and gives a prodigious flourish with
his whip.  Now by reason of much practice they do become very
expert with these same whips, insomuch that they shall (with a
certain cunning flick of the lash) gash you a man as it were with
a knife, the like of which none may bear and not cry out for the
exceeding pain of it.  "Ha, thou lazy dog!" cries he, "Think ye
to snore and take your ease whiles Pedro is aboard?"  And with
the word the long lash hissed and cracked upon the Frenchman's
naked back like a pistol-shot.

And lo! he (that meseemed was dead) stirred.  I felt the scarred
body leap and quiver, the swooning eyes opened, rolling dim and
sightless and the pallid face was twisted in sharp anguish; but,
even as I watched, the lines of agony were smoothed away, into
the wild eyes came a wondrous light, and uttering a great, glad
cry he sank forward across the oar-shaft and hung there. 
Hereupon this accursed Pedro betook him to his whip, smiting
right heartily, but, seeing the Frenchman stirred not and
perceiving, moreover, the blood to come but slow and in no great
quantity, he presently desisted and bade us cease rowing one and

This sudden respite from labour served but to teach me how stiff
and painful were my limbs, more especially my left wrist and
ankle where the fetters had worn great sores.

The wind was fallen light and there rose that hot, sickening
reek, that suffocating stench that is like unto nothing on earth
save one of these floating hells, and the which, if a man hath
but smelled it once, he shall nevermore forget.

After some while, back cometh Pedro with certain of the
armourers, and (having by divers methods learned the Frenchman
was in sooth dead) they struck off his fetters, hand and leg, in
the doing of which they must needs free me also (since we were
chained together, he and I) and, binding a great shot to his
feet, made ready to heave him overboard.

And now, seeing no man heeded me, I snapped asunder the cracked
link and was free, save for the heavy chain that cumbered my leg. 
Stooping, I lifted this chain and crouched to spring for the
bulwark; but now (even in this moment), remembering all that I
had suffered at the hands of this most accursed Pedro, I turned,
and wrapping the broken oar-chain about my fist, crept towards
where he stood to oversee the armourers.  His back was towards me
and I was within a yard of him when he turned, and, seeing me,
uttered a shout and raised his whip, but ere the blow could fall
I leapt and smote him.  My iron-bound fist took him full betwixt
the eyes, and looking down upon his crushed and spattered face as
he lay I knew that Pedro the whip-master would whip men no more
these many days.

Then (not minded to die by the whip or upon a pike-head) turned I
and sprang for the ship's side, but the chain about my leg
hampered me sorely, and ere I could mount the high bulwark I was
beset from behind.  So would I have faced them and died fighting
but fierce strokes battered me to my knees, fierce hands wrenched
and tore at me, and grown faint with blows I was overborne, my
hands lashed behind me, and thus helpless I was dragged along the
gangway and so up the ladder to the poop where, plain to all
men's sight, a whipping-post had been set up.  Yet even so I
struggled still, panting out curses on them, French and Spanish
and English, drawing upon all the vile abuse of the rowing-bench
and lazarette since fain would I have them slay me out of hand
the rather than endure the miseries and anguish of my lot.  Yet
this might not be (since slaves were hard to come by and I was
mighty and strong) wherefore I struggled no more, but suffered
them to strike off my broken fetters and bind me to the whipping-
post as they listed.  Yet scarce had they made an end when there
comes a loud hail from the masthead, whereupon was sudden mighty
to-do of men running hither and yon, laughing and shouting one to
another, some buckling on armour as they ran, some casting loose
the great ordnance, while eyes turned and hands pointed in the
one direction; but turn and twist me how I might I could see
nought of any strange sail by reason of the high bulkhead beside

Of a sudden all voices were hushed as up the poop-ladder comes
the commander Don Miguel in his black armour, who, looking long
and steadily to windward, gives a sign with his gauntleted hand,
whereon divers of the officers go off hot-foot, some to muster
the long files of arquebusiers, others to overlook the setting of
more sail and the like.  And now was a prodigious cracking of
whips followed by groans and cries and screaming curses, and
straightway the long oars began to swing with a swifter beat. 
From where I stood in my bonds I could look down upon the poor,
naked wretches as they rose and fell, each and all at the same
moment, in time to the stroke.

For maybe half an hour the chase was kept up and then all at once
the decks quivered 'neath the discharge of one of the forward
culverins; and presently, as the great galleass altered her
course, obedient to the motion of Don Miguel's hand, I beheld,
some half-league to windward, the towering stern of the ship we
were pursuing, whose length gradually grew upon me as we
overhauled her until she was fairly in view.  She was a small
ship, and by her build I did not doubt but that she was English;
even as I watched, up to her mizzen-peak fluttered the English
flag.  And hereupon a great yearning came upon me, insomuch that
of a sudden her high, weatherbeaten sides, her towering masts and
patched canvas grew all blurred and indistinct.

Thrice already our guns had roared, yet (though she was now so
close that I made out her very rope and spar) she made no sign. 
In a little our guns fell silent also, wherefore, looking about,
I beheld Don Miguel standing beside the tiller yet with his
impassive gaze ever bent upon the foe; and, as I watched, I read
his deadly purpose, and a great fear for the English ship came
upon me, and I fell a-praying beneath my breath, for we carried a
weapon more terrible than any culverin that was ever cast, the
long, sharp ram below the water.

The English ship was now so near that I could see the yawning
muzzles of her guns, while her high, curving sides seemed to
tower over us.  As I gazed, with my heart full of a pitiful fear
for her, I saw a head appear above her quarter-railing, a very
round head whereon was a mariner's red cap.  Came a puff of
smoke, the sharp crack of a caliver, and one of the officers
beside Don Miguel threw up his hands and, twisting on his heels,
fell clashing in his armour.  When I looked again for the red
cap, it was gone.  But Don Miguel waited, silent and impassive as
ever.  Suddenly he gestured with his hand, I saw the heave of the
steersmen's shoulders as they obeyed, while the air rang with
shouts of command as, the starboard oars holding water, the
larboard thrashed and churned amain and the great "Esmeralda"
galleass (turning thus well-nigh in her own length) drove
straight for the side of her foe.

Never had I seen it better done, and I set my teeth, waiting for
the grinding crash that was to send the English ship to the
bottom, but lo! her creaking yards were braced round, and, paying
off before the wind (which now blew strongly) she stood away upon
a course at right angles to her old, whereby both vessels were
running parallel as before.  Yet it had been close, so very close
indeed that as we drove past her I heard the sickening crack of
our oars as they snapped off one after the other against her
side, tossing those that manned them in bloody, struggling heaps.

And now from every English gun leaped roaring flame; the air was
full of shrieks and groans and the crash of splintering wood, and
through the eddying smoke I could see many of our soldiery that
lay in strange, contorted attitudes while others crawled, sobbing
on hands and knees; but on the scarlet-dropping rowing-benches I
dared not look.

Hotter waxed the fight, louder swelled the din and tumult with
the never-ceasing thunder of the guns; and amid it all Don Miguel
paced to and fro, impassive as always, the blade of his long
rapier gleaming here and there as he directed the fire.

Up rolled the smoke thicker and denser, but, ever and anon,
through some rift I might catch a glimpse of the scarred,
blackened side of the English ship, or the litter and confusion
of our decks.  Twice shots ploughed up the planking hard by me,
and once my post itself was struck, so that for a moment I had
some hope of winning free of my bonds, yet struggle how I would I
could not move; the which filled me with a keen despair, for I
made no doubt (what with the smoke and tumult) I might have
plunged overboard unnoticed and belike have gained the English

Slowly and by degrees our fire slackened, one by one the guns
fell silent and in their place rose the more hateful sounds of
anguish.  Now as I stood thus, my eyes smarting with burnt
powder, my ears yet ringing with the din, I grew aware how the
deck sloped in strange fashion; at first I paid small heed, yet
with every minute this slope became steeper, and with this
certainty came the knowledge that we were sinking and, moreover
(judging by the angle of the deck) sinking by the stern.

Hereupon, impelled by that lust of life the which is implanted in
each one of us, I fell to a wild struggling against my bonds,
until, seeing in a little the hopelessness of this, I grew
resigned to despair, and, ceasing my passionate efforts, looked
about me, for the smoke was thinned away.  And truly an evil
sight was this great galleass, with its shot-torn decks and
huddled heaps of dead, its litter of broken spars and dismantled
guns, and with everywhere great gouts and pools of blood, while
below and beyond were the shattered rowing-benches cumbered now
with awful red heaps, silent for the most part, yet some there
were who screamed high and shrill.

Save for myself and divers of the dead the poop lay deserted, but
forward such of the soldiers and mariners who yet lived were
fighting for the boats, and all was riot and confusion.

As I stared about me thus I espied Don Miguel lying among the
wreckage of a dismantled gun; his face was towards me and looked
as I had seen it an hundred times, save for a smear of blood upon
his cheek.  Even as I gazed his eyes met mine full and square. 
For a moment he lay without motion, then (his face a-twitch with
the effort) he came slowly to his elbow, gazed about him and so
back to me again.  Then I saw his hand creep down to the dagger
at his hip, to fumble weakly there--howbeit, at the third essay
he drew the blade and began to creep towards me.  Very slowly and
painfully he dragged himself along, and once I heard him groan,

Next Page > >

Other sites: