A Mainsail Haul/A Deal of Cards
A DEAL OF CARDS
A company of seamen sat round a cabin table, and pledged each other in a brew of punch. They sat upon locker tops, on cushions of green velvet gone rusty at the seams. The stern-ports were open at their backs, for it was hot, and the room between decks was foul with the reek of their tobacco. You could tell that the ship was under way by glancing astern at the dull track, like a great snail's track, which she had drawn upon the blue water as she dragged in the light wind. She rolled slightly now and again, making a creaking in her gear, and trembling the silver lamp upon the cabin bulkhead. She was an old ship, you could see by the rot upon the beams. She was foul with a long passage, and the cabin reeked of bilge. The blue arras on the cabin door was wormy with age. The parquetting in her deck was dirty with the marks of sea-boots. It was heaped here and there with a sort of loot, such as clothes with lace upon them, and small arms, cheap jewellery, buckles, and the like, for the cruise had been lucky in a way. Two of the seamen at the rum were dicing each other, for some uncut stones in a packet from the mines of Esmeralda.
The drinkers were silent for the most part, puffing out their tobacco like a gang of Spaniards, only speaking to call a health, such as, "A fair slant," or "Dollars," or to mark the throw of the dice. They were a rough lot of fellows, some of them branded in the cheeks. Most of them had scars about their faces, and not one of them but carried arms—pistols, or a dirk, or a seaman's hanger—in a belt of coloured leather, plaited by the wearer. One of the number had his head in a rag, and swore thickly from time to time, as though his wound were painful. He had been hurt with a knife by a mate that morning, since when he had been at the rum. His head was singing like a kettle, what with the cut, the drink, and the heat of the between decks. His name was Joe; he was a runaway from a king's ship, once a sailor trading out of Bristol.
Perhaps he was a little touched with fever, for of a sudden he refilled his pannikin and drank it dry. He rose unsteadily, clutching at the table, and at the shirts of his companions. He leaned his head through the window, flinging his empty can far astern into the still, blue sea.
"A rot on all salt water," he shouted. Then he collapsed over a Newgate man, who had long hoed tobacco in the Indies. Blood was trickling from under his rag, for the wound was broken out again. A little blood came from between his lips: he seemed in a bad way. He had had some sort of a stroke.
"Joe's got the shakes," said the Newgate man. "Help us hold of him, Bill; lay him among them prettiments."
He pointed to the loot on the deck. One of the dicers took hold of Joe's boots, and dragged him clear of the table. They dropped him roughly among the clutter, with his head on some lace. The Newgate man went through his pockets. There were only two copper charms, some tobacco plug, a steel for striking a light, and a ball of twine.
"He diced it all," said Bill, "that time we stuck him with the Greeks."
"I'll throw you for the plug," replied the Newgate man. "He'll do now. He's only in some sort of a fit."
They then returned to the rum.
When Joe fell across the convict his eyes were burning in a mist of blood, which seemed to shoot and shake in front of him. His ears were drumming, as though a bird were beating his head with wings, and he felt that he was dropping from a height into some deep, empty well. In a little time the red mist cleared away; the drumming hushed; the feeling of dropping changed. He was in a little dark room, before a fire of embers, which made a red glow upon the chimney bricks. It was a lonely little room, darker than the night, but for the coals, and so still it might have been below the ground, below the graves even, beneath the dead with their glazed eyes. So utterly silent it was, he was glad to hear his heart beat. It beat steadily, like a menace, like the continual tapping of a drum. It was beating, not like a heart, but like a clock. Like some clock in hell ticking to the souls among the fire. It was ticking like the march of time through the dim roads of eternity. It was a thing horrible, inexorable, that continual ticking. In the blackness, the utter silence, that beating music became terrible. It seemed to fill the room. It seemed to roar about his body like a crowd of spirits about a corpse. He tried to shake himself, but could not stir. He tried to cry aloud, but could not speak. He tried to arrest his heart, to stop that ticking. But it beat on, rhythmical, steady, terrible. It seemed that the darkness, the noise, the glowing coals, were laughing at him.
And then, with a great burst, the ticking ceased and the room became quite light—as light, he thought, as a summer day at noon. Where the fire had burned a woman squatted, a black woman, black as coal, in a plain gown of scarlet. Her eyes burned in an intense and baleful brightness. Her lips were apart, showing white teeth in a grin. In her hand she held cards.
He looked at these cards. Indeed, she held them towards him for him to see, turning them over that he might see both sides of them. They were three in number, and each of them had a black back, as black as a piece of ebony. The faces were coloured in intense colours, one of gold, which seemed to burn, one of crimson, which glowed, one of black, which seemed angry like the smoke of hell. The colours of them seemed to be the tokens of a beauty, a fierceness and a horror, beyond any words that he could fashion.
The black woman grinned at him as she thrust the cards together. She crouched down upon the hearth, purring like a cat, cackling, whining. Her eyes gleamed as she began to shuffle the cards, tossing them in the air, passing, re-passing, whirling them about, till they seemed like three arrows of red and gold and black fire. At last she flung them all into the air, caught them in one hand as they fell, bowed very low, her lips grinning, her eyes intensely bright, and held them out, face downwards, for him to make his choice. All that he could see were three black cards, spread out before him like the sticks of a fan. Yet he knew that upon his choice of a card depended his life, his life hereafter, the life of his soul between the lives.
"No," he tried to gasp. "No, I will not choose."
The little black hag laughed. She whirled the cards into the air, and watched them fly away, like birds, crying strange words as they flew. The room burst into a million fragments, flinging Joe into the night. The light grew very violent of a sudden, and there he was, feeling mortal sick, lying in the sunlight, in the cabin, with an Indian splashing water on him.
They made the three Points the next morning, and were at anchor in the bay beyond them before noon. It was broiling hot. The sea lay like a mass of hot grease. The dark green feathers on the palms seemed drooped for the lack of freshness. One heard nothing save the roaring of the surf, the birds screaming in the wood, and the perpetual groaning of the ship. She rolled heavily, banging her gear in a continual clatter. Her blocks were whining like dogs. The noise of her was like a hammer on the brain.
Joe volunteered for the boat, and went ashore with the water-casks the moment the anchor held. He had been fuddled ever since the day before, and the ship had such terrors for him, drunk as he was, there was no staying aboard her. On the beach he met Willy Crackers, an old English sailor, who lived in the huts above the surf line. He was a bronzed, ear-ringed man, was Willy, with a bright eye to him and a tongue of silver. He had been in that land many years now, and owned several slaves. He used to get gold dust and ivory from the inland, to trade with the ships which touched the coast. He was a friend to the pirates, and they used to water there before dropping down to leeward. He returned to England in time a rich man, and died in Salcombe the keeper of a sailor's tavern. He greeted Joe kindly, and the two stayed together all day, in the blazing heat, watching the natives fill the water-casks and stow them in the jolly boat. But at sunset, when the jolly boat went off, when the beach struck cold, and the mists rose whitely, Willy bade Joe come up to the hut for a bite of supper and a smoke.
The house was a ramshackle affair, built in one storey alongside the huts. It swung some three hammocks, all draped with netting. It had a table much eaten by the ants, a bench or two, some casks of ship's provisions (which might have sailed with Hawkins), a pipe of rum, a few teeth, most of them a little yellow, and some weapons, beautifully bright, in a trophy rack upon the wall. Towards midnight, Willy got up to fetch his mate a curio.
"Some heathen idol," he said, "them blacks give it to me for a whittle."
It had been placed behind some barrels, and what with the rum, what with a long spell of laziness, Willy was unable to shift them. Joe came to his assistance, canted the casks, and rolled them away upon their chines.
"Thankee, mate," said Willy, "I'm not so limber as I was. I been ashore too long. Me joints is gone in the slings." He paused awhile. Then he piped out, "Mate, matey, supposin' you was to stop ashore with me. There ain't no call for you to go a-cruising. I'd be proud to have you. Hell," he continued, "I can't rastle them blacks. I want some one spryer'n myself. Some one as'll flay their hides, by Davy."
There was a pause for a moment, while Joe's heart leaped with pleasure. He had been taken with so great a horror of the ship, since the vision of the hag that his muddled brain had planned suicide, or a life in the scrub among the blacks, rather than another day between decks. The words of Willy Crackers lit up his brain. They showed him the ease, the grandeur of the life of nigger driver. The joyful nights over the jorum; the English ship; the thronged quays of Bristol. He took the offer with a curse.
"Billy," he said, "it'll be meat and drink to me. I ain't been feeling good these last days. Going to sea ain't right for me. It's the air or something. A spell ashore is what I want: just what I want—that, and sleep. I'll get my chest ashore when the cutter comes in for the casks tomorrow."
"Why, right then," said his friend, "you look pretty green in the gills with it. And now let's liquor on it."
He poured out two more noggins from the pan, and the two drank to each other.
"There's a song I mind me," said Joe, "I'll sing it to ye."
He began to sing in a voice a little muffled with the rum. He dwelt upon each word, singing it with gusto.
O, the bold Lollonais, so gall-ant and free,
He sailed from Saint James in the Jane chasse-marree,
Oh, there's rum and there's wine
And tobacco so fine
For all the bold sailors what sails on the sea.
He sang the refrain twice over, hammering on the table with his can. He was reaching out for another tot of rum when he fell forward gasping. His pannikin fell from the table and rolled away among the gear. Willy blinked at him for a moment, beating out the chorus with his pipe. He thought his mate was merely overcome with the spirit. He made a childish attempt to reach the jorum for another taste, and fell asleep in his chair, his pipe's ash spilling sparks upon the table. The lamp flared up a moment to show the couple to the night, and then guttered out, leaving them to their quiet.
It seemed to Joe that he was bound upon the rim of a whirlpool of flame. He was being spun about a vortex, helpless as a straw; gradually the spinning became swifter, as though he had been whirled nearer to the centre. Then tiny hands seemed to pluck him down into a pit of utter silence, a light broke upon him, and there, in front of him, was the malevolent woman of the cards. She grinned at him with her brilliant teeth, and held out two cards—one black, the other crimson. Soon she began to shuffle with them, tossing them from one hand to the other, throwing them at her victim, then snatching them away. At last she caught them, whirled them round her, bowed very low, and held them forward, face downwards, watching him intently with a malignant smile.
"No," he gasped: "No, I will not choose."
Instantly she screamed in her high, mocking laugh. She tossed the cards from her, and they whirled away, crying like gulls. The whirlpool spun him upward, flinging him upon a sea alive with sharks. He leaped from them, screaming, running violently upon the air; but they rose after him, flapping their fins, gnashing their teeth. They were barking at him like dogs, snapping at his very feet. Then he fell, fell, fell, till he was as a drop of water gaped at by all the damned among the fire.
He awoke upon the hut floor, in plain day, the blood beating on his brain, the surf roaring. A boat was pulling in from the ship, the oars keeping time to an old hauling tune. Willy Crackers was snoring in his chair, and after trying to rouse him, Joe helped himself to about a pint of rum and staggered out upon the beach. The terror of his sleep was strong upon him. The palm leaves, dangling green and heavy, were a horror to him. The surf terrified him. In every creeper of the jungle he saw the eyes of the devil with the cards. Not for a sack of minted gold would he have stayed in that place. So when the boat made the landing he tumbled into her, and fell asleep, in a drunkard's doze, among the breakers in the stern sheets. He did not rouse from where he lay until rough hands beat him with stretchers, and fierce voices bade him out of that. For the boat was alongside the ship, dragging to a tackle, and the ship was under a jib and topsail, forging slowly forward, while the hands were singing at the bows, heaving in the cable. They were under way.
He scrambled aboard, and went below to his hammock. He swung there all that day, hot with a violent fever, and now and again an Indian brought him drink. Just forward of where he lay, two fiddlers made music between the guns, and men sang and danced there till they were too drunk to stir. The ship picked up her consort that afternoon. They cruised together till the sunset, when they made the Gabone River. They anchored at about ten that night in the anchorage by Parrot Island.
In the morning of the second day, Joe sat between two cannon on a lashed sea chest, which had his initials, J. P., burnt deeply upon the lid. He had a canvas sack in front of him, for he was busy packing, and he had been dicing for the loot due to him ever since his morning draught. He had made up his mind to quit that way of life and get ashore to the island. There were folk living on the island—a sort of traders. He could stay with them, he thought, till a home-bound ship happened into the river. He had money enough. And, once in England, there was always work for a live one. Ever since he had had these visions, a terror of the sea and the ships had made his life a burden. Drink, even, had no comforts for him; for, from the hatchways, from the dark places behind the guns, from the hold where the casks lay, he would see peering that black hag of the tarot. So he had gathered his gear together, and was going ashore in ten minutes' time, to live among the traders till a ship came. He would live cleanly, too, without rum, except in the way of friendship. His head wasn't what it was. It was no use going on drinking when one saw things.
"You give me that knife, Jake Dawes," he said, "and I'll throw you in a quart of hard."
Jake tossed the knife to him, a long Spanish dirk, with a handle of twisted silver, like those you buy in Panama. There was a noise on deck, a confused babble of cries and clanking.
"What in hell are they at, Jake?" he asked.
A man in a red shirt, a leather apron and sea boots made of cow-hide, came past them with a bucketful of wads.
"There's a fat merchant on the coast," he said "we're going out for her. They're getting under way. The Fortune's men are giving us a tow."
"I'm off ashore," said Joe. "To blazes with this dicing. Give us a lift there, Billy, with these duds."
"Oh, that be twisted, Joe," said Jake, as he knocked off the neck of a bottle. "Stop and drink fair."
The mulatto grinned at him and handed him the spirits; Joe took a large swig.
"That's better, Jake," he said; "have you got a quid upon you?"
They spent the next twenty minutes drinking in turn, and chewing meditatively upon the quid. The ship was under way, with her topsails set, dropping slowly down the stream. The Fortune's men, very drunk, had cast the ropes off and gone splashing back to moorings. Through an open gun-port Joe caught a glimpse of moving palms.
"Hell!" he cried, "I'm off ashore. We're moving, Jakey."
"The boats are gone by this," said the mulatto, "it's unchancy swimming. You'd better stay for the play."
But Joe sprang to his feet, "I'll swim it," he cried, as he made a rush for the hatchway. As he passed the midship cannon, his foot caught in a ring bolt. He stumbled on a pace, flung up his hands and crashed heavily over the ranged port cable. He had been "overtaken," as the saying is. A man in a fine red coat, with laced cuffs, and buttons of gold pieces, came along the gun deck swearing. He was followed by another man brandishing a pistol.
"Get to your guns there, you swine!" the two were shouting. "Cast loose them lower deck cannon! What corpse is this? What in hell corpse is this? Hey there, you, get the guns run out. We're going out for some yellow boys!"
They kicked at Joe's body in turn and passed over him to the groups of drunkards further forward. Away aft a gang of wits had cast loose a gun and were busy firing at the sky. On deck a seaman, bawling an obscene song, was running up the banner of the trade—a black banner, stolen from an undertaker, with two rude crimson figures roughly sewn upon its face. The chase was under all plain sail, some two miles distant, her decks full of men busy trimming her yards. The sailing master, watching her through a telescope from the fo'c's'le, declared her to be a French Guineaman, swimming deep. Another swore that she was out of Lisbon, a sugar ship bound home. The men hauled the spritsail yard alongships, crying out that they would have sweet punch for supper. The wind freshened. The men aloft loosed the topgallant sails. The helmsman stood smoking at the tiller. On deck was nothing but a babble of cries, drowned every two or three minutes by the cannon.
But Joe lay where he had fallen, heedless of everything. When some men came to man the cannon at his side, they picked him up by the heels and lifted him below to the sail-locker. They flung him down upon a mainsail, and went back to their firing. They were all drunk and careless. And though, when the chase ran her guns out and hung out the King's colours, they made some sort of a battle of it, they were too drunk to do much. In a very few minutes their decks were being swept, their guns knocked over, their ports beaten from the side, and their men driven from their posts. The powder barrels exploded almost at each discharge, for the powder was in tubs about the deck, littered anyhow, and she was on fire in twenty places long before the crew surrendered.
It seemed to Joe that he was adrift in a torrent, flying down stream. It was all black about him, a blackness full of roaring; and water whirled in his mouth and nostrils till he choked. The roaring grew louder. He felt himself pitched downwards. A vast weight of water beat upon him, and then he was suddenly flung ashore in a cave, with pebbles at his feet and a great dread shaking him. It was dark enough, but not positively black, in the cave, for the low roof glittered with a metal, and the water was bright, in spangles, as it hurried past into the darkness. As he arose to his feet it grew lighter, and there was the little black hag again, in her red dress, with the bitter smile upon her lips. She burst into a harsh chattering laugh, like the rapid whirring of a cog-wheel. She spun round him once or twice gibbering with her lips. Then she stooped before him, plucked out a card, and thrust it into his hand with a mocking bow. He stared at it stupidly for a moment before he turned it over. It was a black card, black on both sides, of a black like the black of swirling smoke, and its blackness made him shudder. The hag watched his face a moment, and broke into a violent and mirthless merriment. Her face wrinkled in her laugh, and sharpened till she looked like a vulture rocking with some uncanny joy. Then she screamed in a long, shrill, wailing scream like the scream of night birds flying in a company. She tossed her hands upward, and it seemed to her victim that the wicked figure vanished through his eyes, and as though the skinny fingers clutched at his heart from inside him. In another second the cave had torn apart and flung him upward. He gave a gasp and a cry and awoke in the darkness of the sail-locker, in a silence only broken by scurrying rats and the dull gurgling of the bilge.
He picked himself up and went on deck, his head throbbing like a drum. He saw that the deck had been ripped with shot. Many bodies were lying on the planks. There was a smell of blood, of burning, of burnt linen, and powder smoke. The ship was unusually still, for the lower deck was empty save for the killed. He pushed up the hatchway in terror.
As he gained the upper deck he saw at once what had happened, for a big blue banner was flapping at the peak, and a few marines in red coats were watching the last gang of his comrades into a jolly boat alongside. They had been stripped already. Their silks and laces were dangling from their captors' pockets. A little lieutenant in a long red coat was superintending the embarkation, tapping his breeches with a cane to mark the number of them. Joe drew his hanger from its sheath.
"Taken!" he screamed, "taken!" and he rushed at the lieutenant to cut him down.
A burly mariner in an apron bounded upon him from behind. Joe felt a blow upon the sconce, and collapsed upon the deck like a sack of flour.
"One hundred and three," counted the lieutenant; "that was a good crack you gave him. Shove him down among the others."
Late in the afternoon Joe woke from his fever. He was lying chained hand and foot in a dark prison lit only by a battle lamp. One side of him was pressed against the bulkhead of the prison; the other was riveted to a wounded man, a man in high fever, who babbled in his pain. He could distinguish other bodies lying near him.
"Where am I?" he cried.
"Hold your jaw!" said a hoarse voice, through the grating. "Hold your jaw. You're aboard the frigate Swallow, if you want to know. And you'll be hanged for a damned rogue to-morrow dawn."