Don Diego Valdez
Don Diego Valdez
A Tale of the Brethren of the Main
by RAFAEL SABATINI
Author of “The Pretender,” “Rebels Convict,” etc.
DON DIEGO VALDEZ awoke, and with languid eyes in aching head he looked around the sunlit cabin. Then he closed his eyes again, and endeavored to think. But between the pain in his head and the confusion that he discovered in his mind, he found thought almost impossible.
An indefinite sense of alarm drove him to consider his surroundings yet again. There could be no doubt that he lay in the round house of his own ship, the Cinco Llagas, so that his disquiet must be ill-founded.
And yet stirrings of memory coming now to the assistance of reflection compelled him uneasily to insist that here something was not as it should be. The position of the sun, flooding the cabin with golden light from the square window astern, suggested that it was early morning, unless indeed they were sailing eastward, in which case it would be late afternoon.
That they were sailing he could feel from the gentle forward heave of the vessel under him. And how did they come to be sailing, and he, the master, not to knew whether their course lay east or west, not to be able to recollect whither they were bound?
His mind went back over the adventure of yesterday, if of yesterday it was. He was clear on the matter of the easily successful raid upon the Island of Barbados; every detail of it stood vividly in his memory up to the moment at which, returning aboard, he had stepped on to the deck.
He had brought the ransom of a hundred thousand pieces of eight, wrung from the defeated islanders, and his men had been following in eight boats that were laden also with plunder and provisions. That much he clearly remembered. But there memory abruptly ceased. It was as if he had fallen asleep at the moment of stepping from the ladder to the deck.
He was beginning to torture his mind with conjecture when the door opened, and to Don Diego’s increasing mystification he beheld his best suit of clothes step into the cabin. It was a singularly elegant and characteristically Spanish suit of black taffeta with silver lace that had been made for him a year ago in Cadiz, and he knew each detail of it so well that it was impossible he could be mistaken.
The suit paused to close the door, then advanced toward the couch on which Don Diego was extended; and inside the suit came Mr. Peter Blood, a tall, slender gentleman of about Don Diego’s own height and shape. Seeing the wide, startled eyes of the Spaniard upon him, Mr. Blood lengthened his stride.
“Awake, eh?” said he in Spanish.
The recumbent man looked up, bewildered, into a pair of light-blue eyes that regarded him out of a tawny, sardonic face set in a cluster of black ringlets.
Mr. Blood’s fingers touched the top of Don Diego’s head, whereupon Don Diego winced and cried out in pain.
“Tender, eh?” said Mr. Bloods.
He took Don Diego’s wrist between thumb and second finger. And then at last the Spaniard spoke.
“Are you a doctor?”
“Among other things,” was the cryptic answer.
Mr. Blood continued his study of the patient’s pulse.
“A trifle intermittent,” said he, and dropped the wrist.
Don Diego struggled up into a sitting position on the red-velvet couch.
“Who the —— are you?” he asked. “And what the —— are you doing in my clothes and aboard my ship?”
The level, black eyebrows went up.
“You are still delirious, I fear. This is not your ship. This is my ship, and these are my clothes.”
“Your ship?” quoth the other, aghast; and, still more aghast, he added:
“Your clothes? But— Then——”
He stared, his eyes wild. Then he looked round the cabin once again, scrutinizing each familiar object.
“Am I mad?” he asked at last. “Surely this ship is the Cinco Llagas?"
“The Cinco Llagas it is.”
The Spaniard broke off. His glance grew still more troubled.
“Volga me Dios!" he cried out like a man in anguish. “Will you tell me also that you are Don Diego Valdez?”
“Oh, no; my name is Blood—Captain Peter Blood. This ship, like this handsome suit of clothes, is mine by right of conquest. Just as you, Don Diego, are my prisoner.”
STARTLING as was the explanation, yet it soothed Don Diego, being so much less startling than the things he was beginning to imagine.
“But—are you not Spanish, then?”
“You flatter my Castilian accent. I have the honor to be Irish. You were thinking that a miracle had happened. So it has—a miracle wrought by my genius, which is considerable.”
And very succinctly now Captain Blood elucidated the mystery. Last night what time the two hundred and fifty Spaniards commanded by Don Diego were making merry in conquered Bridgetown Mr. Blood and some thirty forgotten plantation slaves—rebels convict all, who had been out with Monmouth in the West Country and as a consequence suffered transportation—had quietly slipped aboard the Cinco Llagas, overpowered the slight contingent which was guarding her with characteristic Spanish carelessness, and so possessed themselves of the ship.
“When you came aboard this morning with the ransom of a hundred thousand pieces of eight we tapped you over the head to keep you quiet. After that we hauled the treasure-chests aboard, and then proceeded to sink by gunfire the boats containing your marauding followers. That much successfully accomplished, and having no desire to return into slavery, we put to sea.”
The Spaniard’s countenance had gone red and white by turns during that brief narration. He had put a hand to the back of his head, and there discovered, in confirmation of the story, a lump as large as a pigeon’s egg.
“And my son? What of my son?” he cried out. “He was with the gunner left on guard aboard.”
“Your son is safe; he and the gunner and his crew—ten of them in all—are snugly in irons under hatches.”
Don Diego sank back on the couch, his glittering, dark eyes fixed upon the tawny face of Captain Blood, and silently composed himself. After all, he had the stoicism proper to his desperate trade.
With the utmost composure he inquired—
“And now, Señor Capitán?”
“And now,” said Captain Blood, “being a humane man, I am sorry to find that ye’re not dead from the tap we gave you. For it means that you’ll be put to the trouble of dying all over again.”
“Is that necessary?” asked Don Diego without apparent perturbation.
Captain Blood’s light-blue eyes approved his bearing.
“Ask yourself,” said he. “Tell me, as an experienced and bloody pirate, what in my place should you do yourself?”
“Ah, but there is a difference.”
Don Diego sat up to argue the matter.
“It lies in the fact that you boast yourself a humane man.”
Captain Blood perched himself on the edge of the long oak table.
“But I am not a fool,” said he, “and I’ll not allow a natural Irish sentimentality to stand in the way of my doing what is necessary and proper. You and your ten surviving scoundrels are a menace on this ship. More than that, she is none so well found in water and provisions.
“True, we are fortunately a small number, but you and your party inconveniently increase it. So that on every hand, you see, prudence suggests to us that we should deny ourselves the pleasure of your company, and, steeling our soft hearts to the inevitable, invite you to take a walk along a plank.”
“I see,” said the Spaniard pensively.
He swung his legs from the couch, and sat now upon the edge, of it, his elbows on his knees. He had taken the measure of his man, and met him now with a mock urbanity and a suave detachment that matched his own.
“I confess,” he admitted, “that there is much force in what you say.”
“You take a load from my mind,” said Captain Blood. “I would not appear unnecessarily harsh, especially since I and my friends owe you so very much. For, what ever it may have been to others, to us your raid upon Barbados was most opportune. I am glad therefore that you agree that I have no choice.”
“But, my friend, I did not agree so much.”
“If there is any alternative that you can suggest I shall be most happy to consider it.”
In thought Don Diego stroked his pointed black beard.
“Can you give me until morning for reflection? My head aches so damnably that I am incapable of thought. And this, you will admit, is a matter that asks for serious thought.”
Captain Blood stood up. From a shelf he took a half-hour glass, reversed it so that the bulb containing the red sand was uppermost, and stood it on the table.
“I am sorry to press you in such a matter, Don Diego, but one glass is all that I can give you. If by the time those sands have run out you can propose no acceptable alternative I shall most reluctantly be driven to ask you to go over the side with your friends.”
Captain Blood went out and locked the door.
Elbows on his knees and face in his hands, Don Diego sat watching the rusty sands run from the upper to the lower bulb. And as he watched, the lines in his lean, broad face grew deeper. Punctually as the last grains filtered through the door reopened.
THE Spaniard sighed and sat upright to face the returning Captain Blood with the answer for which he came.
“I have thought of an alternative, sir captain; but it depends upon your charity. It is that you put us ashore on one of the islands of this pestilent archipelago, and leave us to shift for ourselves.”
Captain Blood pursed his lips.
“It has its difficulties,” he said slowly.
“I feared it would be so.”
Don Diego sighed again, and stood up.
“Let us say no more.”
The light-blue eyes of Captain Blood played over him like points of steel.
“You are not afraid to die, Don Diego?”
The Spaniard threw back his head, a frown between his eyes.
“The question is offensive, sir.”
“It is not so intended. Let me put it in another way, perhaps more happily—
“You do not desire to live?”
“Ah, that I can answer. I do desire to live; and even more do I desire that my son may live. But the desire shall not make a coward of me for your amusement, master mocker.”
It was the first sign he had shown of the least heat or resentment.
Captain Blood did not directly answer. As before he perched himself on the corner of the table.
“Would you be willing, sir, to earn life and liberty—for yourself, your son and the other Spaniards who are on board?”
“To earn it?” said Don Diego; and the watchful Captain Blood did not miss the quiver that ran through him. “To earn it, do you say? Why, if the service you would propose is one that can not hurt my honor——”
“Could I be guilty of that?” cried the captain. “For I realize that even a pirate has his honor.”
And he forthwith propounded his offer.
“If you will look from those windows, Don Diego, you will see what appears to be a faint cloud on the horizon. That is the island of Barbados well astern. All day we have been sailing east before the wind with but one intent—to set as great a distance between Barbados and ourselves as possible.
“But now, almost out of sight of land, we are in a difficulty. The only man among us schooled in the art of navigation is fevered, delirious in fact, as a consequence of certain ill-treatment he received ashore before we carried him away with us. I can handle a ship tolerably well in action, and there are one or two men of Devon aboard who can assist me; but in the higher mysteries of seamanship and of the art of finding our way over trackless wastes of the ocean we know nothing. To hug the land, and go blundering about what you so aptly call this pestilent archipelago is for us to court disaster, as you can perhaps conceive.
“And so it comes to this: We desire to make for the Dutch settlement of Curaçao as straightly as possible, there to victual our ship and invite adventurers to join us so as to make up a proper complement. Will you pledge me your honor if I release you upon parole that you will navigate us thither? If so we will either restore you and your surviving men to liberty upon arrival there, or if you prefer it carry you off again to put you ashore as you have suggested on one of the lesser isles.”
Don Diego bowed his head upon his breast, and strode away in thought to the stern windows. There he stood looking out upon the sunlit sea and the dead water in the great ship’s wake—his ship that these English dogs had wrested from him; his ship that he was asked to bring safely into a port where she would be completely lost to him and refitted to make war upon his kin. That was in one scale; in the other were the lives of eleven men, his own included.
He turned at length; and, his back being to the light, the captain could not see how pale his face had grown.
“I accept,” he said.
Thus was the bargain made, and thereafter Don Diego enjoyed the freedom of the ship that had been his, and the navigation of her was left entirely in his hands. And because those who manned her were new to the seas of the Spanish Main, and had not yet learned to see in every Spaniard a treacherous, cruel dog to be slain at sight, they used him with the civility which his own suave urbanity invited.
He took his meals in the great cabin with Blood and the half-dozen officers elected to support him. Of these were Hagthorpe, a slight, fair man of thirty; Wolverstone, a swarthy giant who had lost an eye at Sedgemoor; and Ogle the gunner, a burly man who had seen a deal of fighting in his time and whose ignorance of ships was equaled only by his knowledge of guns and all that appertained to them.
They found Don Diego an agreeable, even an amusing companion, and their friendly feeling toward him was fostered by his fortitude and brave equanimity in this adversity.
That Don Diego was not playing fair it was impossible to suspect. Moreover there was no conceivable reason why he should not. And he had been of the utmost frankness with them.
He had denounced their mistake in sailing before the wind upon leaving Barbados. They should have left the island to leeward, heading into the Caribbean and away from the archipelago.
As it was, they would now be forced to pass through it again so as to make Curaçao, and this passage was not to be accomplished without some measure of risk to themselves. At any point between the islands they might come upon an equal or superior craft; whether she were Spanish or English would be equally bad for them, and being undermanned they were in no case to fight. To lessen this risk as far as possible Don Diego directed at first a southerly and then a westerly course; and so, taking a line midway between the islands of Tobago and Grenada, they won safely through the danger zone and came into the comparative security of the Caribbean Sea.
“If this wind holds,” he told them that night at supper after he had announced to them their position, “we should reach Curaçao inside three days.”
FOR three days the wind held—indeed it freshened a little on the second—and yet on the evening of the third day the Cinco Llagas was plowing through a sea contained on every side by the blue bowl of heaven. Captain Blood uneasily mentioned it to Don Diego.
“It will be for tomorrow morning,” he was answered with calm conviction.
“By the saints, it is always ‘tomorrow morning’ with you Spaniards; and tomorrow never comes, my friend.”
“But this tomorrow is coming, rest assured. However early you may be astir you shall see land ahead, Don Pedro.”
Captain Blood passed on, content, and went to visit Jerry Pitt, his patient, to whose condition Don Diego owed his chance of life. For twenty-four hours now the young navigator had been rid of fever, and so far indeed was he recovered that he complained of his confinement, of the heat in his cabin.
To indulge him Captain Blood consented that he should take the air on deck; and so as the last of the daylight was fading from the sky Jerry Pitt came forth upon the captain’s arm.
Seated on the hatch-coamings, the Somerset lad gratefully filled his lungs with the cool night air, and professed himself revived thereby. Then his eye wandered to the darkling vault of heaven, spangled already with a myriad golden points of light. A while he scanned it idly, vacantly; and then his attention became sharply fixed. He looked round and up at Captain Blood, who stood beside him.
“D’ye know anything of astronomy, Peter?” quoth he.
“Astronomy, is it? Faith now, I couldn’t tell the Belt of Orion from the Girdle of Venus.”
“Ah! And I suppose the rest of this lubberly crew share your ignorance.”
“It would be more amiable of you to suppose that they exceed it.”
Jerry pointed ahead to a spot of light in the heavens over the starboard bow.
“That is the North Star,” said he.
“Is it now? Glory be, I wonder ye can pick it out from the rest.”
“And the North Star ahead almost over your starboard bow means that we’re steering a course north-northwest, or indeed north by west, for I doubt if we are standing more than ten degrees westward.”
“And why shouldn’t we?”
“Ye told me, I think, that we came west of the archipelago between Tobago and Grenada with Curaçao for our destination. If that were our present course we should have the North Star abeam, out yonder.”
On the instant Captain Blood shed his laziness. He was about to answer when a shaft of light clove the gloom above their heads, coming from the round-house door which had just been opened. It closed again, and presently there was a step on the companion. Don Diego was approaching.
Captain Blood’s fingers pressed Jerry’s shoulder with significance. Then he called the Don, and spoke to him in English, as had become his custom when others were present.
“Will ye settle a slight dispute for us, Don Diego?” said he lightly. “We are arguing, Mr. Pitt and I, as to which is the North Star.”
The Spaniard’s tone was easy; there was almost a suggestion that laughter lurked behind it, and the reason for this was explained by his next sentence.
“But you tell me, Mr. Pitt he is your navigator?”
“For lack of a better,” laughed the captain, good-humoredly contemptuous. “Now I am ready to wager him a hundred pieces of eight that that is the North Star.”
And he flung out an arm toward a point of light in the heavens straight abeam. He afterward told Pitt that had Don Diego confirmed him he would have run him through upon the instant. Far from that, however, the Spaniard freely expressed his scorn.
“You have the assurance that is of the ignorance, Don Pedro; and you lose. The North Star is this one.”
And he indicated it.
“You are sure?”
“But, my dear Don Pedro!”
The Spaniard’s tone was one of amused protest.
“But could I be mistaken? Besides, there is the compass. Step into the steering-room and see what is our course.”
His utter frankness, and the easy manner of one who has nothing to conceal resolved at once the doubt that had leaped so suddenly in the mind of Captain Blood. But Jerry Pitt was satisfied less easily.
“In that case, Don Diego, will you tell me, since Curaçao is our destination, why our course is what it is?”
Again there was no faintest hesitation on Don Diego’s part.
“Well may you ask,” said he, and sighed. “I had hope it would not be observe’. I have been of a carelessness—oh,, of a carelessness of the most culpable. I neglect observations. It is my way. I am too sure of myself. I depend too much upon dead reckoning.
“The result is that I find today when at last I take out the quadrant that we do come by a half-degree too much south, so that Curaçao is now almost due north of us. That is what cause the delay. But we will be there tomorrow.”
The explanation, so completely satisfactory and so readily and candidly forthcoming, left no room for further doubt. Considering it afterward, Captain Blood confessed to Pitt that it was absurd to have suspected Don Diego. Pirate though he was, he had proved his quality when he had announced himself ready to die sooner than enter into any undertaking that could hurt his honor.
New to the sea and to the ways of adventurers who sailed it, Captain Blood still entertained illusions. But the next dawn was to shatter them rudely and forever.
COMING on deck before the sun was up, he saw land ahead, as the Spaniard had promised them last night. Some ten miles ahead it lay, a long coast-line filling the horizon east and west, with a massive headland jutting forward straight before them.
Staring at it, he frowned. He had not conceived that Curaçao was of such considerable dimensions. Indeed, this looked less like an island than the main itself.
Beating out against the gentle landward breeze he beheld a great ship on their starboard bow, that he conceived to be some four or five miles off, and—as well as he could judge her at that distance—of a tonnage equal if not superior to their own. Even as he watched her she altered her course, and, going about, came heading toward them close-hauled.
A score of his fellows were astir on the forecastle, looking eagerly ahead, and the sound of their voices and laughter reached him across the length of the stately Cinco Llagas.
“There,” said a soft voice behind him in liquid Spanish, “is the Promised Land, Don Pedro.”
It was something in that voice, a muffled note of exultation, that awoke his suspicion and made whole the half-doubt that he had been entertaining. He turned sharply to face Don Diego, so sharply that the sly smile was not effaced from the Spaniard’s countenance before Captain Blood’s eyes had flashed upon it.
“You find an odd satisfaction in the sight of it—all things considered.”
The Spaniard rubbed his hands, and Captain Blood observed that they were unsteady.
“The satisfaction of a mariner.”
“Or of a traitor—which?” snapped the Irishman.
And as the Spaniard fell back before him with suddenly altered countenance that confirmed his every suspicion he flung an arm out in the direction of the distant shore.
“What land is that?” he blazed at him. “Will you have the effrontery to tell me that is the coast of Curaçao?” He advanced upon Don Diego furiously, and Don Diego, step by step, fell back.
“Shall I tell you what land it is? Shall I tell you?”
His fierce assumption of knowledge seemed to dazzle and daze the Spaniard. For still he made no answer. And then Captain Blood drew a bow at a venture—or not quite at a venture. Such a coast-line as that, if not of the main itself—and the main he knew it could not be—must be long to either Cuba or Hispaniola. Now, knowing Cuba to lie farther north and west of the two, it followed, he reasoned swiftly, that if Don Diego meant betrayal he would steer for the nearer of these Spanish territories.
“That land, you treacherous, forsworn Spanish dog, is the island of Hispaniola.”
Having said it, he closely watched that swarthy face, now overspread with pallor, to see the truth or falsehood of his guess reflected there. But now the retreating Spaniard had come to the middle of the quarter-deck, where the mizzen-sail made a screen to shut them off from the eyes of the Englishmen below. His lips writhed in a snarling smile.
“Ah, perro inglez! You know too much,” he said under his breath, and sprang for the captain’s throat.
Tight-locked in each other’s arms, they swayed a moment, then together went down upon the deck, the Spaniard’s feet jerked from under him by the Irishman’s crooked right leg. Don Diego had confidently thought to choke the life out of Captain Blood, and so gain the half-hour that might be necessary to bring up that fine ship that was beating toward them—a Spanish ship perforce, he assumed, since none other would be so boldly cruising in these Spanish waters off Hispaniola. But all that he had accomplished was completest self-betrayal, as he realized when he found himself upon his back with his opponent kneeling on his chest, whilst the men, summoned by their leader’s shout, came clattering up the companionway to his assistance.
“Will I say a prayer for your dirty soul now whilst I am in this attitude of prayer?”
Captain Blood was furiously mocking him.
But the Spaniard, though defeated now beyond hope for himself, forced his lips to smile and gave back mockery for mockery.
“Who will pray for your soul, I wonder, when that frigate comes to he board and board with you?”
“That frigate!” echoed Captain Blood, suddenly realizing the assumption upon which his prisoner had acted, and perceiving that already it was too late to avoid the consequences of Don Diego’s betrayal of them.
There was no trace of humor or urbanity about him now. His light eyes blazed; his face was livid with suppressed fury.
HE ROSE, relinquishing the Spaniard to his men.
“Make him fast,” he bade them. “Truss him, wrist and heel, but don’t hurt him—not so much as a hair of his precious head.”
The injunction was very necessary. Frenzied by the thought that they were likely to exchange the slavery from which they had so lately escaped for a slavery still worse, they would have torn the Spaniard limb from limb upon the spot. And if they now obeyed their captain and refrained, it was only because the sudden steely note in his voice promised for Don Diego Valdez something far more exquisite than death.
“You scum! You dirty pirate! You ‘man of honor!’” Captain Blood apostrophized his prisoner.
But Don Diego looked up at him and laughed.
“You underrated me.”
He spoke English so that all might hear.
“I tell you that I was not fear death, and I show you that I was not fear it. You no understand. You just an English dog.”
“Irish, if you please.”
Captain Blood insisted upon that even at such a moment.
“And your parole, you gentleman of Spain?”
“You think I give my parole to leave such filth as you in possession of this my so beautiful ship, to go and make war upon other Spaniards! Ha!”
Don Diego laughed in his throat.
“You fool! You can kill me. Pish! What is it to die? I die with my work well done. In less than an hour you will be the prisoners of Spain, and the Cinco Llagas will fly the flag of Spain again.”
White-faced, Captain Blood continued to regard him, fury blunting his wits and choking his power of thought.
“Wait,” he bade his men at last; and, turning on his heel, he went aside to the rail.
There he was joined by Hagthorpe, Wolverstone and Ogle, the gunner. In silence they stared with him across the water at that other ship. She had veered a point away from the wind, and was running now on a line that must in the end converge with that of the Cinco Llagas.
“In less than half an hour,” said the captain presently, “we shall have her across our hawse, sweeping our decks with her guns.”
“We can fight,” said the one-eyed giant, Wolverstone, with an oath.
“Fight!” sneered Blood. “Undermanned as we are, mustering a bare thirty men, in what case are we to fight? It’s just suicide, so it is. Our only chance would be to persuade her that we are Spaniards so that she may leave us to go our ways.”
“And how is that possible?” quoth Ogle.
“It isn’t possible,” said Blood. “If it were——”
And then he broke off and stood musing, his eyes upon the green water. Ogle, with a bent for sarcasm, interposed a suggestion bitterly.
“We might send Don Diego Valdez in a boat manned by his Spaniards to assure her that we are all loyal subjects of his Catholic Majesty.”
The Captain looked as if he would have struck him. Then another light, the light of inspiration, flashed in his glance.
“Bedad, ye’ve pointed the way!” said he.
He swung on his heel abruptly and strode back to the knot of men about Don Diego.
“Below, and fetch up the Spanish prisoners,” he commanded. “And you, Hagthorpe, set the flag of Spain aloft, where they can see it.”
When presently the ten sullen, manacled Spaniards were paraded before him on the quarter-deck Captain Blood briefly and coldly recited to them the treachery of which Don Diego had been guilty and the peril in which they consequently stood.
“This peril,” he announced to them, “you share with us. For if we must perish you shall perish with us. But there is one chance—one slender chance—of life for us and for you if you will agree to do as I shall bid you.”
Behind him Don Diego laughed aloud, the exaltation of martyrdom on his white face.
“There is no way,” he cried in a vibrant voice. “Provide none for him. Let us die rather, and long live Spain!”
Captain Blood did not heed him; his attention was entirely given to those ten prisoners, and on the sullen faces of those hinds he saw the light of no such exaltation as their captain sought to kindle in them. He turned to those who guarded Don Diego.
“Lash him across the mouth of that cannon,” he commanded, pointing to the nearest stern-chaser.
THE order quenched some of that Roman spirit that Captain Blood observed and secretly admired in his prisoner. A man may not fear death itself, and yet be appalled by the manner of it.
Don Diego glared maniacally, his eyeballs rolling in his head, and then he fell to struggling in the arms that held him whilst from his lips poured blasphemy and insult whose source was horror. But for all his vain struggles his body was swiftly and relentlessly stretched in an arc across the mouth of the gun, and his legs and arms lashed to the carriage on either side of it. Thence he addressed his tormentor in a tone of frenzy.
“You foul barbarian heretic! You inhuman savage! Will it not content you to kill me in some Christian fashion?”
“Gag him,” said Captain Blood.
And in this he had a certain subtle purpose. In a moment, surprize being spent, the Spaniard might recover his intrepidity of spirit, and seek again to instil firmness into his followers.
To these the Irishman now turned, observing with satisfaction the horror stamped on every face of the ten. He commanded the gunner, who was a personable fellow with an air of authority, to stand forward from the rest, and then very deliberately he explained himself in the excellent Castilian of which he was master.
“That ship,” he said, “will presently be opening fire upon us unless meanwhile we can take measures to avert it. Now, we are in no case to fight, as your captain well knew when he abused his parole to steer us into this trap.
“But if we are not in case to fight, neither are we in case to surrender, which would mean our death or worse. If die we must, we wall die fighting. And if we are driven to fight, it is this gun that will open fire on our side.”
And his hand touched the stern-chaser that bore Don Diego stretched across its jaws.
“I trust that you understand me.”
Esteban, the gunner, stared white-faced into those pitiless light eyes.
“If I understand?” he cried. “But, nombre de Dios! How should I understand? You speak of averting a fight. But how?”
“A fight might be averted; escape might be possible,” he was answered, “if Don Diego were to go aboard that frigate and by his presence properly accredited satisfy her that the Cinco Llagas is indeed a ship of Spain as her flag announces.”
He pointed aloft to the gold-and-crimson banner of Castile that floated from her masthead.
“But since Don Diego is otherwise engaged he can not go in person. He must be represented. You might go as his lieutenant in a boat manned by these countrymen of yours to complete the illusion.
“Should you return without accident, having so played your part that we shall be free to continue on our voyage, Don Diego shall have his life, as shall every one of you. But if there is the least hitch through treachery or misadventure the battle will be opened on our side by this gun, which will be trained upon your boat.”
He paused, then asked—
“What have you to say to that?”
A silence followed, broken at last by the Spaniards behind the gunner.
“But accept!” they exhorted him, several speaking at once. “Accept, and do it, name of ——!”
Captain Blood smiled.
“You hear,” he said, and added, “Believe me, it is good advice.”
Esteban moistened his dry lips, and with the back of his hand mopped the beads of sweat from his brow. His eyes were upon the figure of his captain, and he saw the man’s muscles heaving as he attempted to writhe in his bonds.
“But . . . but, how is it to be done? What am I to say to the captain of that ship?”
“You shall be dressed to suit your rank of lieutenant to Don Diego, and you shall bear a letter, which I shall furnish you, which Don Diego is most anxious should be conveyed at once to Cadiz. He has sent you with it in the hope that she may be homeward bound for Spain.”
And now those behind Esteban, who saw in this their only chance of life, hoarsely cried out to him to do as was required. To this clamor and to his own terrors the gunner yielded.
Captain Blood’s manner became brisk. Time enough had been lost already, and the two ships running ever along their converging lines stood now scarcely more than a mile apart. He ordered the bilboes to be struck off the prisoners) and the long-boat to be got ready for launching.
Esteban meanwhile he carried off to the round-house with him, and what time the gunner donned the garments supplied him Captain Blood was very busy with pens and papers amid the effects of Don Diego. His task was accomplished by the time that Esteban was ready, and he presented to the gunner a package bearing as a superscription a name and address in Cadiz which the captain had found among Don Diego’s letters. This package was sealed with the arms of Valdez, and none could have suspected from its eminently correct exterior that it contained nothing but some sheets of blank paper.
WHEN they came forth again upon the quarter-deck the other vessel was within half a mile of them. Blood issued an order, and a blank shot was fired from the prow; instantly the helm was put over, and the Cinco Llagas was lying to, her sails flapping idly in the breeze, whilst the Spanish seamen went about launching the boat.
Meanwhile the other vessel, veering a point or two, crept on until she had halved the distance separating them. Not until then did she also heave to in answer to the signal to stand awaiting the boat that was speeding toward her across the sunlit waters. To have held her course so long, and even now to refrain from showing her flag, argued suspicion on her part, and for a moment Captain Blood had almost feared that it was her intention to come on until she lay board and board with them. He drew a breath of relief, when at last he saw her pause.
He was standing with Wolverstone, Hagthorpe and Ogle by the stern-chaser that bore the still writhing Don Diego. Ogle kept the gun trained on the long-boat, whilst his mate swung a spluttering fuse, ready to apply it to the touch-hole at the word of command.
Anxious and watchful were the eyes that followed the boat across the intervening waters until it brought up against the black hull of the frigate, and they could make out Esteban going briskly up the ladder.
After that followed some five minutes of intensest, almost agonizing suspense for all, and then across the water floated the note of a trumpet, to be drowned the next moment in the roar of eight guns that belched fire and metal. The broadside was aimed high, with intent no doubt to sweep the decks of the Cinco Llagas since she was standing almost bow on to the enemy.
Fortunately the aim was a thought too high, and the shot hummed and tore through Captain Blood’s shrouds, doing little real damage beyond slight wounds to two men who were struck by flying splinters. But if the broadside did not deal the death it was intended to deal, it dealt a consternation almost as fatal.
“We are betrayed! The Spanish dog has betrayed us!” was the cry that went up.
With an oath muttered through clenched teeth Ogle swung to his mate.
“Fire!” he cried, and obediently the man stooped to touch off the gun.
Don Diego writhed again, and then stiffened in his bonds, turning his eyes to sea as the man moved to obey the gunner.
But before the match could touch the powder Blood bad torn it from the fellow’s hand and set his foot upon it, spinning round as he did so, a wild excitement on his swarthy face.
“Strike that flag!” he roared. “We are not betrayed. It is because the Spaniards have been loyal that this has happened.”
And he flung out an arm to point to the other ship’s mainmast, to the head of which the English ensign was swiftly soaring, to disclose at last her true identity now that the moment to deliver battle was arrived.
The fact was quickly grasped by every man aboard. Eager hands tore at the halyard, and before the Pride of Bristol—as the other vessel was named—could begin to go about the flag of Spain was down and the English flag afloat on the breeze above the Cinco Llagas.
That, and the extraordinary tale which by now Esteban was relating—confirmed in part by the blank contents of the package he carried—was enough to give the Pride of Bristol pause. The Spaniards were ordered aboard and temporarily detained, whilst an English crew in charge of the mate took possession of the long-boat and put off to visit the Cinco llagas.
Captain Blood received the mate of the Pride of Bristol with a tale in which there were perforce certain reservations. It proved not only fully satisfying, but it excited the hilarity of the mate to such a degree that Blood was sorely tempted to kick him overboard.
When at last he recovered from his tempestuous hilarity he announced that Captain Blood should have back his Spanish prisoners, but advised that Don Diego Valdez be hanged out of hand for a treacherous pirate.
“Sure now, I disagree with you entirely,” he was answered. “He may be a pirate and a Spaniard and a traitor, but he’s a man of Roman spirit. And I’ve passed my word that if his men kept faith with me he should have his life.”
HE TURNED to those about him and pointed to the gun, where Don Diego still hung in his bonds.
“Release him,” he commanded. “I keep faith, Don Diego. Your life is spared you. Do you hear?”
Something flickered in his face as he asked the question. He stepped close up to the Spaniard, and then he caught his breath. Don Diego Valdez was dead.
He stood by in silence whilst his men lowered the limp form to the deck. Then the surgeon in him awoke, and he went down on one knee beside the body. No wound or slightest hurt was visible.
It was as he supposed. Don Diego had been slain by the anticipation of death when the other vessel fired her broadside.
Captain Blood rose, and as he turned again, there was an odd wistfulness in his eyes.
“He was a man of a spirit greater than his poor body could contain,” he said. “His immortal soul was stouter than his poor mortal heart. Be that his epitaph!”