Read CHAPTER XII of The Rose of Paradise, free online book, by Howard Pyle, on ReadCentral.com.

I could not at that minute see that anything stood between me and death, for the pirates were so bent upon my immediate destruction that they set about getting ready a line to hang me up without more ado.

Yet though I had cause to apprehend that the very next moment would be my last upon earth, the dread of death was in no wise keen upon me, for in my half-swoon I lay as one in a dream, and neither saw nor heard very clearly the preparations they were making for my destruction, and so was mercifully spared that pain. But God in His great mercy determined it otherwise than was the intention of these wicked men, for just at that moment some one forward began bawling out, in a great hoarse voice, Where is Jack Mackra? Where is he, I say? Show him to me! ye! out of my way, and let me get at him!”

As I might turn my head, I looked whence my voice came, and there saw, as in a dream, a great, tall, lantern-jawed man, with a patch over one eye and a crutch under his left arm. In his right hand he held a long sharp knife, with which he jabbed at those who stood in his way, so that they were glad enough to make room for him, one or two of them cursing him, the others grinning and laughing as though it were all a fine piece of sport. As those around me drew aside I beheld him more plainly; his left leg had been cut off at the knee, he was loose-jointed and ungainly, and he had one of the most villanous countenances that it was ever my fortune to look into. I could also see that he, like many of the others, had been drinking. It was very plain that he was a great favorite amongst the rest, for they made room for him and took all his curses and many blows, which he gave with his crutch, without either answering him or striving to defend themselves. Even the fellow who had spoken so boldly to the captain’s face, and whom I afterwards found to be the chief of the “lords,” as they are pleased to call those in authority amongst them, grinned and stood aside as the villanous cripple came and leaned over me.

“D n you,” says he, “and is it you, Jack Mackra? Then I have a score to pay you that has stood on the slate for this many a day.”

He turned me over upon my face with his crutch, and the next moment I felt the cords that tied my hands give way, and knew that they had been cut, then my legs and feet were loosened from their lashings, and I was a free man. I heard the fellow say, “Get up!” whereupon I stood upon my feet and gazed about me, though my brain still swam, and all things appeared blurred and distorted to my sight, the sky and the sea and the faces around me being all strangely mingled together. Then presently, as my confusion began to fade away from me, I heard the one-legged man speaking to me.

“And do you know who I am?” said he.

“No,” says I, at last gathering my wits to speak; “I cannot bring you to mind.”

“Why,” says he, “don’t you remember Jimmy Ward, the cook aboard the Pembroke Castle him as you saved from five drunken Spanish devils over at Honduras? Hey? don’t you mind how they had me down under the table, jabbing at me with their d d snickershees and swearing that they would cut the living heart out of me? If it hadn’t been for you, it would have been all over with Jimmy Ward at that time.” He waited for an answer, but as yet I could say nothing. “Well, I haven’t forgot it if you have,” he continued; “I owe you a good turn, and I’ll pay it if I have to bleed for it.”

Just then up steps the fellow who had faced England so boldly a moment or two before. “Come, come, Jimmy,” says he, “a joke’s a joke, and I can laugh as loud as any; but here’s a man has done us more damage than anybody we’ve fell in with since we ran foul of the Eagle.”

“Hang him up!” Hang him up!” sang out several of those who stood around, and I verily believe the business would have gone against me, after all, only for Captain England, who must have been near for all this time, and who came to the aid of the cripple. Both together, they contrived so to argue and talk and threaten the others that the end of the matter was they led me off to the captain’s cabin, the one on one side of me and the other on the other, whilst the crowd followed behind, though they came no further than the door, which was clapped to in their faces.

“You’ve had a narrow miss of it,” says England, so soon as we were come fairly within and had sat down, “and you’ve nobody to thank for it but yourself, for if you’d minded what I told you you’d have staid where you were and let your bad luck sail her own craft without putting your hand to the helm. Even yet I don’t know if we’ll be able to get you off, for Tom Burke is hot for your blood, and will get it if he’s able.”

“That he will,” says Ward; “for he’s not the man to give up what he’s laid his hand to.”

“Have you had anything to eat?” said England, presently.

“Not since five o’clock this morning,” said I.

“Why,” said he, “you’ll have to be fed, whether they hang you or no.” Whereupon he fetched out from a locker a great lot of biscuit and a decanter of the very port-wine with which I had entertained Mr. Longways when he came aboard the Cassandra with The Rose of Paradise; nor have I ever tasted food that was more refreshing than that which I then ate, for I was wellnigh exhausted with hunger.

No one spoke for a while, and England walked up and down the cabin with his hands clasped behind his back. During all this time I had been looking around me, and of a sudden my heart seemed to leap into my throat, for in the corner of the cabin, lying amongst a lot of litter, where it seemed to have been flung as of no account, I saw the iron despatch-box.

My danger had been so great and my mind in such a maze for all this time that there had been no room in my brain for other matters, the very objects of my adventure having been forgotten for a while; but with the sight of this everything came back to me with a rush, and I wondered for the first time that I had not yet seen my betrayer.

“Where is Captain Leach?” said I to England.

He stopped short in his walk, and regarded me with a very strange expression, which at the time I could in no wise understand.

“Why,” says he, presently, “he was shot shot by accident when we first came aboard of this here craft after you left her.”

I sat silent for a great long time after this, nor could I think of one word to say, for of all the things which my mind had forecasted, this was the very furthest from my imaginings. So I sat staring at the pirate captain, who, upon his part, sat gazing back again at me, answering my look with a grin. I had been well assured that Captain Leach had stolen the jewel, but was it possible that I had misjudged him in suspecting that he had betrayed us to the pirates, and that they, finding him alive upon the vessel, whence he had not had sufficient time to escape, had thereupon instantly murthered him, as is their custom upon such occasions? “And tell me this,” said I at last, “was it through Captain Leach’s machinations that we were betrayed into your hands?”

“Why,” says he, “I may tell you plain, if I had never met Captain Leach I should never have ventured into this harbor in the face of three armed vessels lying across the channel.”

“Then I was not mistaken,” said I. But I dared ask no more questions, lest the pirate captain’s suspicions should be aroused, for, from the appearance of the despatch-box, which did not yet seem to have been tampered with, but rather held as of no account whatever, I did not believe that Captain Leach had betrayed the presence of the jewel to the pirate, but rather had reserved the secret for his own advantage, which, indeed, was the most likely supposition that could be imagined. If now I could but by some means or other contrive to find opportunity to examine the box, I could very speedily tell whether the lock had been forced; which would, in my estimation, decide whether or not the jewel was still safe and undiscovered.

Presently Ward spoke. “And how,” said he, “did you come to get into such a pickle as I found you, sir?”

I told him the main reason for my visit in as few words and with as little circumlocution as possible; how I had entertained hopes of procuring a promise of safety for my passengers and ship’s crew, and even possibly of obtaining some means of transportation from the place where they now were to one of greater ease and security. Both men listened without a word to what I said, and when I had ended Ward pursed his mouth up in a most comical fashion, and gave a great long whistle, half under his breath, regarding me the while with his one eye as round as a saucer.

“And do you mean to say,” says he, “that you, a sick man, have gone and travelled ten leagues all for to give yourself up to such a gang of bloody cutthroats as we be?”

“Why, yes,” says I; “sure ten leagues is not such a long journey that one need make much of a stir about it.”

“Ten leagues be blowed!” says he. “Suppose they had shot you dead when they had found out who you were; what then?”

“But they did not shoot me,” said I.

“But perhaps they may kill you yet,” put in England.

“That matter is neither in your hands nor mine,” said I.

Ward looked in a very droll manner, first at England and then at me. “Well, I’m blowed!” he said at last.

At this Captain England burst into a great loud laugh. “Why,” says he, “it would be a vast pity to let a man of such spirit lose his life after all. What d’ye say, Ward?”

“I say yes,” said Ward, and he thumped his fist down on the table; “and by the Eternal he shall get what he wants in reason Tom Burke and the devil notwithstanding!”

“Come,” says England; “come, Ward, we’ll go and fetch Burke in, and see if we can’t drink him into a good humor.” And so saying both men went out of the cabin, shutting the door behind them. As soon as their backs were turned I sprang to where the despatch-box lay, snatched it up, and began eagerly examining it. It was still securely locked; the lid had not been forced, and I could see no marks of violence upon it. But I had just then but short time for such an examination, for in a little while I heard footsteps outside, whereupon I replaced the box where I had found it and resumed my chair, composing my countenance as far as I was able to do. Presently I heard voices at the door, and from their tones I could gather that Captain England and the crippled cook were trying to persuade Burke to come into the cabin, he being mightily unwilling to do so. For a while they held the door ajar, and I could hear Burke cursing and swearing at a great rate, and calling Heaven to witness that he would have my life before he was done with me. Meantime the others were busied in talking to him, and soothing him, and reasoning with him, but all to no purpose. No; he would come in and drink a glass of grog with them, if that was what they were after, but he would have my life yes, he would; and he was not to be wheedled out of his purpose by soft words either. So they, after a while, all came into the cabin and sat down to the table, though Burke never so much as turned his eyes in my direction.

Captain England brought out a bottle of Jamaica, which he set upon the board, and each of the three pirates mixed himself a glass of grog. Burke drank three or four glasses of the stuff without its seeming in the least to smooth his ill-temper. The cripple kept pace with him in his drinking, at which I was mightily anxious, for when such bloody wretches as they become heated with liquor, it is a toss of a farthing whether they murder a man in their sport or lavish caresses upon him. However, I was glad to see that Captain England drank but sparingly, wherefore I entertained great hopes that he would remain sufficiently cool to prevent any violence being used against me.

But I greatly doubt that my life would have been in danger under any circumstances, for after a while, as Burke became more warmed in his cups, his displeasure against me became more and more softened. At first, without speaking directly to me, he began, with many imprecations upon his own head, to say that though he was a bloody sea-pirate, and a murderer, and a thief, he knew a man of courage when he saw him, and loved him as his brother. By-and-by he insisted upon shaking hands with me across the table, swearing that if harm had happened to me through him he would have repented it to the very last day of his life. I now perceived that the time had come for me to act; accordingly I began, first by hints and afterwards by direct appeals, to beseech them that they would give me the smaller of their two crafts, which had been so injured in the late engagement that it was still lying upon the beach where they had run it aground, and from which position they had made no efforts to rescue it. I had noticed the craft as I came down the beach, and though I observed that she had been very much shattered by the broadsides which we had fired into her, I yet had hopes that if I could get possession of her I might be able to patch her up sufficiently to transport my passengers and crew to some place of greater security than the island offered, even perhaps to Bombay, weather permitting. I had thought that the pirates would have made some objection, and I believe that even England himself was startled at the boldness of my request, for he looked anxiously at the others, but ventured nothing. However, I think that that very boldness recommended itself to these reckless spirits, for they granted what I desired with hardly a word of objection. Emboldened by this, I went still further, and besought them to give me back some of the cargo which they had captured along with the Cassandra.

At this, though he said nothing, Captain England grinned as though vastly amused. Nor was I wrong in venturing such a seemingly foolhardy request, for not only did they promise to give me back one hundred and twenty-nine bales of the Company’s goods, but also gave me a written agreement to that effect, which they each of them signed, Captain England first of all.

I may say here that though it might seem absurd to set any value upon a mere written agreement signed by such bloody and lawless men, it was really of very great moment, for these fellows have a vast respect and regard for any instrument to which they set their hand, wherefore I knew that the chances were many to one that they would do as they promised, after once having superscribed to it.

Then, with my heart beating so that I could hardly speak, I turned to Captain England. “And you, sir,” said I, “will you grant me one small favor?”

“That depends upon what it is,” says he.

I looked at him steadily for a moment or two whilst I was collecting myself; then I spoke with all the coolness I could command, although I felt that I could scarcely forbear trembling at this trying moment. “Why, sir,” says I, “if my despatches are lost, I can make but a poor sort of a report to the Honorable Company.”

“Well, John Mackra, and how can I help you in that?” said he, very coolly.

“Easily enough,” said I. “Yonder is my despatch-box in the corner, which can be of but little use to you, and yet it is of great import to me.”

“And you want it?” says he.

“Indeed yes,” said I, “though of course that is as you please.”

He regarded me for a while in silence, his head upon one side, and his face twisted up into a most droll, quizzical, cunning expression, of which I could make nothing whatever.

“And is that all that you want of me?” said he.

I nodded my head, for I could not trust myself to speak.

Upon this he burst suddenly into a great loud laugh, and gave the table a thump with his fist which made the glasses jingle. I sat regarding him, not knowing what to make of it all; but his next words were a vast relief to me.

“Why,” says he, “I thought you were going to ask me for something of some account. If that is all you want, it is yours, and welcome to it.”

Finding all three of the pirates to be in such a complacent mood, I asked them for some of my clothes, for those that I had hung in tatters about me, and, as said before, I was in my bare feet. But this they would not do, Master Burke asking me whether they had not granted enough already, without giving me togs to cover my bloody carcass. Upon this I perceived that I had gotten all that I was likely to obtain, and so had to go without my clothes.

The pirates were for keeping me on board all night, that they might, as they were pleased to say, entertain me in a decent fashion. But I, having gained possession of the precious despatch-box, and trembling with anxiety lest by some sudden shift of luck it should be taken away from me again, was most eagerly anxious to take myself away. England himself urged my departure. So about seven o’clock I was put ashore, with the despatch-box in my possession, giving thanks that I had come off from my adventure with such exceeding good fortune, for I felt that I had not only recovered the most precious prize of all, but England had promised to do his uttermost to hold the others to their written agreement, saying that if he were successful he would depart in two days, leaving the bales of goods behind upon the shore.