a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: The Duel on the Beach Author: Rafael Sabatini * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305371h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2013 Most recent update: September 2013 This eBook was produced by: Ruth Heredia Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
Immediately before he wrote the short novel, The Black Swan, Rafael Sabatini wrote a long story which was published by Ladies' Home Journal in September 1931, with an illustration by Lyle Justis across two inner pages, but a famous colour painting by N.C. Wyeth on the first page. This painting was commissioned and painted long before Sabatini even thought of his story. Having obtained permission to reproduce it, the magazine borrowed the painting's title for the story, replacing Sabatini's gory title, The Head of Tom Leach. Sabatini's publishers then used the Wyeth painting in the book, The Black Swan.
WHEN Major Sands left Barbados after the death of the governor, Sir John Harradine, he had every reason to congratulate himself that the fortune which he had gone overseas to seek was at last within his reach. For homing with him on the fine ship Centaur was the late governor's daughter, sole heiress to the considerable wealth which Sir John had amassed during his term of office. Major Sands, if no longer in the first flush of youth, was a very personable fellow of a ripe experience, and of dainty Miss Priscilla Harradine's regard for him he found gratifying evidence in her dependent attitude. The long voyage before them with its constant association must afford him opportunities of contriving that the lady and her fortune should be contracted to him by the time they reached Plymouth.
The advent of Monsieur de Bernis, who came aboard at Antigua to make a third passenger on the Centaur, supplied the first check to the major's confidence. A tall, swarthy fellow this De Bernis, who dressed with a sombre richness scarcely suitable to the tropics and bore a startling resemblance to his sardonic majesty King Charles II. Nor was the resemblance merely superficial. He had something of the Merry Monarch's bantering spirit and ready laughter, and something, too, of his majesty's insatiable gallantry. At least, so, to his infinite vexation, Major Sands surmised from the attentions which the gentleman without loss of time devoted to Miss Priscilla.
In private Major Sands desired the lady to observe that there was something rather raffish about this Frenchman; he pointed out the lack of dignity, the excessive freedom with which he bore himself not merely toward the master but also toward the men; and he invited her to conclude that despite his finery, his half-caste servant and the particle in his name, Monsieur de Bernis was a fellow of no birth and probably an adventurer without fortune. An argument of some acrimony resulted, and the end of it was a coolness on the lady's part which went to increase the anxieties of the gallant major.
He sought comfort in the reflection that Monsieur de Bernis was
travelling with them no further than Guadeloupe. Once left behind
on that French settlement, he would be quickly forgotten. They were
making, however, no such speed toward Guadeloupe as the major
desired. The wind seemed to have entered into this conspiracy to
exasperate him, and the fine yellow ship crept imperceptibly, if
she crept at all, over the smooth, jade-green waters of the
Caribbean Sea. The heat in this windlessness was overpowering. It
drove them below, to the fairly spacious coach, where, with windows
wide open to the stern gallery, they lounged through hours that
would have been dreary to Miss Priscilla but for the liveliness
with which Monsieur de Bernis applied himself to beguiling them. He
had produced a guitar from his baggage, and sang to them little
songs of his native Provence and queerly moving Spanish airs set in
the minor key, of the kind that were freely composed in Malaga.
Rendered by his mellow baritone voice they had power to leave Miss
Priscilla with stinging eyes and an ache at the heart; and even the
major was moved patronisingly to admit that Monsieur de Bernis had
a prodigious fine gift of song.
SOMETIMES they would be joined by Bransome, the master, a burly Devonian, red and freckled, who seldom wore more than a shirt and a pair of short calico drawers, but who never allowed any man to forget that he commanded aboard the Centaur. His presence would bring the talk round to seafaring matters, for he had no other topic, and it was in the course of these talks that Monsieur de Bernis' extraordinarily intimate acquaintance with the Caribbean was revealed.
Once when this drew surprise from Major Sands, Monsieur de Bernis' explanation was readily and startlingly forthcoming.
"My faith! How else should it be? Did I not sail these waters for six years with Morgan?"
The major's prominent blue eyes became more prominent and fishlike. "With Morgan?" he exclaimed. "D'ye mean Henry Morgan?"
Monsieur de Bernis, lounging on the cushioned locker under the stern ports, assented easily. "Sir Henry Morgan. Yes. Him that is now governor of Jamaica."
"And ye sailed with him?" There was horror in the question.
"But yes. And marched across Darien with him. At Panama it was I who commanded the French contingent of his forces."
Captain Bransome smacked his thigh.
"I've been wondering where I heard your name afore. Now I mind me."
"Then—then—" The major hesitated. He looked at Miss Priscilla, so slim and virginal and golden, her blue eyes turned in admiring wonder upon the long-limbed, graceful Frenchman. He looked at Captain Bransome, and saw the smiling interest on his ruddy-bearded face. They could not have understood, he thought; and on the thought he exploded.
"Gadslife! Ye're just a damned pirate then. And ye make a boast of it?"
"Boast!" Momentarily Monsieur de Bernis frowned. Then he displayed in a broad smile the strong white teeth under his little black moustache. His was an engaging smile that lighted up the habitual weariness of a face too deeply lined for one still young.
"Ah, no. I state. I never boast, I hope. A vulgarity that." He spoke a fluent nimble English, and was given to short, sharp sentences. "And never a pirate. Ah, no. A filibuster, please. A buccaneer."
The major curled his heavy lip. "And the difference?"
"The difference? Oh, but all the difference in the world."
Captain Bransome advanced the explanation which Monsieur de Bernis disdained to offer. The buccaneers had a sort of charter behind them. They were encouraged by the governments of both England and France, because they kept in check the rapacity of Spain, confining their raids to Spanish ships and Spanish settlements.
But the major desired that Miss Priscilla should think otherwise; no doubt he thought otherwise himself. "They're just thieving scoundrels, whatever they call themselves. 'A rose by any other name...' as the line runs in the play. You take me."
But Monsieur de Bernis merely laughed. "By my faith, that is almost treason, major. For your King does not share your so sensitive honesty. Else he had not given the accolade to Sir Henry Morgan and made him deputy-governor of Jamaica."
The major grew hot. "That was but so as to set a thief to catch a thief, so as to clear the seas of these pestilent buccaneers. And, thank God, it's been done."
"Ye give thanks too soon," the captain objected. "Tom Leach and his men are still afloat."
"That is not a buccaneer," said Monsieur de Bernis. "That is just a nasty pirate."
"Like you, he sailed with Morgan," said the major with malice.
"And soon Morgan will sail him into Execution Dock. Five hundred pounds are offered for the head of this scoundrel Leach."
"God send the money be soon earned," prayed Captain Bransome. "Such a cutthroat has never been loose on the Caribbean since Montbars the Exterminator. An inhuman beast, without honour and without pity." And he fell to relating horrors of Leach's performance until De Bernis checked him by a wave of one of his long graceful hands. "You nauseate mademoiselle."
Thus made aware of her pallor, Bransome begged her pardon, then ended with a renewal of his prayer: "God send the seas may soon be clear of that filthy wolf."
The prayer, however, was not answered soon enough to profit Captain Bransome and the yellow ship he sailed. For the dread encounter followed on the morrow.
The wind had sprung up that night, and by dawn they were listing to a breeze from the southwest. It swept the ship refreshingly and revived spirits that had been drooping in the heat, particularly the major's, who saw a prospect of Guadeloupe being reached next day.
Going on deck some two hours after daybreak, Monsieur de Bernis found the captain standing at the break of the poop levelling a telescope at a ship that was some three miles off on the weather quarter. He offered the glass to De Bernis. His expression was perturbed.
"What should ye say she is?"
Through the telescope Monsieur de Bernis surveyed the tall black
hull and the mountain of bulging canvas above. He scanned the
beakhead carved in the shape of a swan, and counted the gun ports
revealed by the course she was steering.
HIS long dark eyes were solemn when they met the Captain's uneasy stare.
"I think you've guessed. She's Tom Leach's ship. The Black Swan."
"As certain as that she's steering to cross your course. What will you do? Fight or run?"
"How can I run? She has twice my canvas."
"How can you fight? She has twice your armament. She carries forty guns."
"With his back to the wall, what else is there for a man?"
Bransome was grim. In the waist some of the hands were gathered, idly surveying the great black ship without suspicion yet of her identity.
De Bernis resumed his study of her through the telescope. "She's been overlong at sea. Her bottom's foul. Her sailing's laboured." He lowered the glass again. "In your place, captain, I should go about. You'd beat up against the wind more nimbly. At present she has the weather gauge of you."
Undecided, Bransome turned and surveyed the hazy coastline on his starboard quarter. "If I were to run for Dominica?" he wondered. "It's less than twenty miles away."
"But it's down wind. And down wind she'll outsail you for all her foulness."
Bransome was obstinate. He ordered the helm to be put down. With a sudden plunge the Centaur luffed alee, then came even on her keel.
With a sudden plunge the Centaur luffed alee, then came even on her keel.
Almost at once the other vessel was seen to swing in pursuit, thus proclaiming her object. Alarm spread through the crew of the Centaur.
Monsieur de Bernis became brisk and authoritative.
"Best send the hands to their stations, and prepare for action. It will not be long in coming."
In the scurry that followed, he preserved his calm. His mind was devoted entirely to the measures to be taken and excluded concern for the issue. Rightly attributing this to the instinct of the experienced fighting seaman, Captain Bransome was glad to avail himself of the Frenchman's offer to go below and take command on the gun deck.
"Give me the chance of planting a broadside," was De Bernis' parting recommendation. "No matter the risk. Who gambles must set a stake upon the board. We stake all upon a lucky shot or two between wind and water. Give me the chance of it. The rest will be my affair."
Below, naked to the waist, with a meagre gun crew of six to obey him, De Bernis made ready. But he would have been better employed on deck where a fighting seaman was required to handle the Centaur. Captain Bransome, from lack not of courage but of experience and of trust in himself in an emergency demanding great tactical skill, was intent only upon running. In his down-wind course he was so rapidly overhauled by the pursuing pirate that within an hour the Black Swan was not more than half a mile astern.
From below the pirate's beakhead the watchers on the Centaur suddenly beheld a white cloud of smoke; an instant later came the boom of a gun, and a shower of spray was flung up by a round shot, taking the water fifty yards to leeward. From the Black Swan's maintruck fluttered signals to heave to.
Monsieur de Bernis hurled an ineffective defiance from the
Centaur's stern chasers. The din alarmed Miss Priscilla and
Major Sands in their respective cabins. It brought them half clad
and fully scared to the deck to seek the reason. As they reached it
a second shot from the Black Swan—a charge of
langrel—swept through the Centaur's shrouds. In a
tangle of rigging a couple of spars came crashing to the deck.
MISS PRISCILLA screamed and clutched the pallid major, who brave enough ashore was daunted by his sense of helplessness on an element foreign to him.
Bransome in a bellow ordered them below. Below they went, to sit in the great cabin and await events, the major manfully striving to quiet the alarm of Miss Priscilla by assurances in which he had no faith.
More gunfire followed, with thuddings, rattlings, stamp of feet over their heads and shudderings of the deck beneath them. Last and most terrifying of all their experiences, a grimy, half-naked figure with a close-cropped black head came clambering over the rail of the stern gallery.
The major sprang for his sword before recognising Monsieur de Bernis. With the agility of an acrobat the Frenchman had clambered from the wardroom ports below, daringly taking this shortest way to reach his own cabin. His aspect was terrifying, his face and hands and naked torso befouled by sweat and powder. His voice was harsh in angry scorn.
"The fight is fought. The lubberly Bransome waited to go about until his rigging was too crippled to let him attempt it. I never had a chance with the guns, save those so useless popguns in the stern. Leach is saving gunpowder because he wants the ship. That's plain. He's going to board her."
Thus they were left to surmise the part which the momentarily forgotten Frenchman had played in the action.
Miss Priscilla assuming that her last resource lay in the help of heaven, fell on her knees to pray. The major looked on helplessly and foolishly fierce. Fortunately Monsieur de Bernis displayed neither fear nor helplessness. "Compose yourself, mademoiselle. It may be that you are in no danger. It may be. I can do things sometimes. Have faith in me. A little faith."
He flung away on that into his own quarters, leaving Miss Priscilla to question the major. The major was reluctant to admit or even to suppose that the Frenchman was anything but vainly boastful. He made, however, vague talk to comfort her. From what they had heard as lately as last night of the ways of Tom Leach, he could only pray for a swift death. He thought that it was very likely to be his portion. But beholding Miss Priscilla so sweet and lovely, he feared for her the worse fate of being allowed to live, and the reflection added yet a horror to his overburdened mind.
He was still offering cheerlessly vague words of comfort when Monsieur de Bernis reappeared, cleansed of his grime and restored to his normal courtly habit. He had resumed his black periwig and had donned a dark violet doublet that was handsomely laced with silver. He was booted, armed with a long rapier, and he carried a pair of pistols slung before him, after the fashion of the buccaneers, in the ends of a stole that was of fine purple leather stiff with silver bullion.
They stared at him in wonder. That he should have been at such pains with his toilet was surprising enough; but his imperturbable calm at such a moment was more surprising still.
As he advanced the deck under their feet shuddered to a crashing impact, accompanied by rending of timbers, the ringing clank of grapnels, snapping of spars, and the rattle of musketry.
Monsieur de Bernis gripped the table to steady himself. The major hurtled to his knees, whilst Miss Priscilla, flung across the cabin, found refuge in the Frenchman's arms.
"Save me!" she gasped. "Save me!"
The man's tight lips softened into a smile. One of his long shapely hands stroked the little golden head that lay against his breast, and it may be that the firm calm touch of him soothed her more than his actual words.
"I hope to do so. It may well be possible."
The major, gathering himself up, glared at him. "What can you do?"
"We shall see. But it must be that you obey me. Contradict nothing that I may say, or you will destroy us all."
Overhead there was a rolling thunder of feet across the deck. Shouts, screams, pistol shots and musketry fire made up the hideous din of battle.
"It will not last," said Monsieur de Bernis. "Leach has four hundred men; the Centaur no more than twenty. You will obey me? It is important."
Miss Priscilla clung yet more closely in her panic.
"Yes, yes. Whatever you may say."
Gloomily the major added his own promise when De Bernis pressed him. He had scarcely uttered it when the cabin was noisily invaded by half a score of ruffians, half-naked, bearded, their heads gaudily swathed. They came with weapons in their hands, murder in their eyes and foulness on their lips.
There was a hideous view halloo at sight of the girl so white and dainty in a gown of shimmering green taffeta. It was toward her that they were advancing when De Bernis, calm to the point of being contemptuous, interposed himself. His hands were on the butts of the pistols in his stole; but the fact that he did not trouble to draw them lent him an added authority.
"Hold! Come no farther in here. I am de Bernis. Fetch your Tom
WHETHER because they knew the name of this man who once had sailed with Morgan, or whether because his manner alone gave them pause, they stood arrested, at gaze. Thus for a dozen silent heartbeats. Then, as they were beginning to mutter, Tom Leach himself came thrusting through them, a man of middle height, whose body and movements held something of the lithe strength of the panther. He was breeched in red, and his blood-smeared shirt hung open from neck to waist, the sleeves rolled high to display muscles that were like whipcord. Black curls clustered about a low, animal brow; his nose, a thin, cruel beak, was set close between a pair of quick-moving eyes that were almost black. Instead of the cutlass more generally favoured on these occasions by such men, Leach was armed with a rapier, a weapon with which to his abiding pride he was accounted of a deadly skill.
"What in hell's here?" he cried, as he advanced. Then he checked, as his men had done, before the elegant figure, so straight and tall, confronting him. In his coppery face the little eyes seemed to flash and then narrow like a cat's.
"De Bernis!" he ejaculated, and he added an obscene oath to express an amazement that was blended with suspicion.
Monsieur de Bernis advanced. He removed a hand from its pistol butt and proffered it.
"Well met, my friend. You were ever opportune. But never more opportune than now. You come just as I am on my way to seek you. On my way to Guadeloupe, for a ship and men to sail to find you. And behold! You have the complacency to drop from the skies on to our deck. C'est charmant."
Eyes still narrowed, his attitude crouching, as if his muscles were gathered for a spring, the ruffian disregarded the proffered hand.
"Will ye cozen me, De Bernis? You was always a sly rogue, you was. But not sly enough for Tom Leach. I last heard tell of ye wi' Morgan. Morgan's right-hand man ye was when ye quit the brotherhood along of him."
Monsieur de Bernis was amused by this absurdity. "My choice was between that and Execution Dock. As long as I am in Morgan's hands, I must dance to the tune he pipes. So I dance and wait for my chance to slip away to you."
"Why to me? I never knew as ye loved me."
"To you because I need you. You're the only leader left with men enough and spirit enough for the enterprise I'm set on. There's fortune in it, Tom. Something better than poor merchantmen like this, laden with hides and logwood."
Leach advanced a step, and set his arms akimbo. "What's the enterprise?"
"A plate fleet, Tom. To sail in a month from now. I have the information."
There was the faintest kindling of interest blending with the suspicion in the little eyes. "Sailing whence?"
The Frenchman shook his head. "Nay, now We'll leave that until
THE pirate's view of Miss Priscilla, partly screened hitherto by Sands' bulk, was cleared now by a movement of the major's. His eyes quickened evilly.
"Who be these? Who's the doxy?" He would have advanced, but De Bernis got in his way.
"My wife and her brother. I was to leave them at Guadeloupe until our return."
The foolish major would have repudiated the relationship but for the lady's warning clutch upon his arm.
"Your wife?" The pirate's manner was daunted, crestfallen. "I never heard tell you was married."
"How should you? It happened lately. In Jamaica." Airily he dismissed the matter. "It's not important. We have this other business to settle, now that we're met, so oddly opportune."
"Mark you well. I'll need a deal of convincing of your honesty, De Bernis."
"Reflect that I should be a fool not to be honest with you when I'm in your hands."
Thoughtfully pondering him, Leach stroked his thin nose.
Abruptly taking his resolve, he ordered his men away to clear and
swab the decks of which their beastliness had made a shambles. He
even suffered De Bernis to usher the major and the lady into one of
the lesser cabins, before sitting down with him at table, over the
rum which the Frenchman fetched from the cupboard, and disposing
himself to hear the details of the enterprise to which he was
THESE details were disappointing in their paucity. Monsieur de Bernis claimed positive knowledge of a plate fleet that was due to sail for Spain in just one month's time. It consisted of three ships, a thirty-gun galleon with the enormously rich cargo, and two lesser vessels of twenty guns apiece as escort. The aggregate of the crews could not number above two hundred and fifty. So much Monsieur de Bernis freely announced; but whence the fleet came and whether to be looked for north, south, east or west—details without which the rest of the information was of little value—he would not disclose.
Greed and vexation conflicted in the eyes of Tom Leach. "I've ways to make men talk, De Bernis," he threatened.
But Monsieur de Bernis, across the table, laughed in his face. "Not men like me, Tom. So leave that." He paused, and resumed: "I've told you I was on my way to Guadeloupe to find another ship for you. But since you've captured the Centaur, you've all you need. All but a man to command her. I am that man. You'll confess I've not my equal in the Caribbean at fighting a ship. So there it is. Will you take this chance of a fortune upon which to quit? Or will you wait until the Jamaica Squadron hunts you from the seas, or until Morgan sinks you, as sink you he surely will if you wait long enough?"
Captain Leach may have thought that once the plate fleet was seized the matter of keeping faith with De Bernis could be reconsidered. Anyway, he yielded now. Pen, ink, and paper were fetched, and Leach sent for Hogan, the mate of the Black Swan, and for three of the men, as representatives of the crew, to come and settle the terms of the articles.
When all was agreed, Monsieur de Bernis gave evidence of the practised seamanship he boasted. "You'll need to careen before you come into action with these Spaniards."
Under his veneer of cunning, Leach was a stupid man and, like all stupid men, quick to resent dictation.
"Careen?" he challenged, scowling.
"You're foul. I observed it as you sailed today. In a running fight the Black Swan would never handle to advantage. Had I commanded the Centaur I would have outsailed you by beating to windward. Against the Spaniards we shall be two ships to three and we may not increase the odds. There's too much at stake."
"But the time—"
"Time and to spare. We have a month. The Albuquerque Keys are convenient as a waiting station. I know a cove there on Maldita Key, where you can be well concealed whilst careened."
Masterfully, by such arguments, Monsieur de Bernis came to
prevail, and thereafter went on deck with his new associates.
THE Centaur was being cleared of the mess of battle. The dead had been flung overboard, and they included not only the unfortunate Bransome but every man of his crew. It was not the way of Tom Leach to cumber himself with prisoners unless they could be held to ransom.
The shrouds of the captured ship were already under repair, and by evening the two vessels were able to go about. They headed south, Monsieur de Bernis now in command of the Centaur with a hundred men put aboard her from the Black Swan.
In the cabin below, Major Sands voiced his bitterness at the turn of events: "You know now the man you've believed in, Priscilla. Another time perhaps you'll heed my judgement."
"There may not be another time," she reminded him.
"Indeed, I fear that there may not."
"If there is, it will be thanks to him."
"To him! To him! Thanks to him?" The major was scandalised. "You
can still put trust in him? In this pirate rogue?"
"I CAN put my trust in no one else at present."
Major Sands would have given years of his life to have been able to reproach her with her lack of trust in himself. Since the circumstances denied him this consolation, he grew increasingly bitter.
"You can say that, after all that we have overheard? Knowing the devilry now afoot? Knowing this rascal is making common cause with those other scoundrels? You can say that when he had the impudence to pass you off as his wife?"
"In what case should we be if he had not? That was done to save me."
"You are sure of that? Faith, then ye're singularly trusting."
Her pallor deepened before the implication of his sneer. But she flashed defiance of his mistrust. "If his motives were base why did he spare you? Why did he pass you off as his brother-in-law?"
Although startled by this, the major obstinately refused to admit any explanation favourable to De Bernis. "Can I guess his base intentions?"
"Why guess them base then? If he had let them cut your throat, you could not now be speaking evil of him."
"Gadslife, madam!" He grew almost apoplectic. "For obstinacy commend me to a woman. I hope the sequel may justify this stubborn belief in a scoundrel. I hope it may, although I cannot hold the hope with confidence."
"Now that is brave in you, Major Sands. Brave, is it not, to feed the anxieties of a woman in my case?"
He was stung to penitence. "Oh, forgive me. It is my anxiety for you that goads me. I would give my life for you, my dear..."
"So much may not be required, my dear major."
THUS Monsieur de Bernis entering and interrupting. He stood within the cabin doorway, smiling. "You are now my guests. Let my sense of hospitality reassure you both. Here you are in danger only of a little delay and inconvenience."
To recover some lost prestige in the lady's eyes the major adopted a blustering tone: "Do you assure us of that?"
Monsieur de Bernis preserved his urbanity. "As far as lies within my power." He turned aside to summon his half-caste servant, who had been overlooked in the general slaughter until his master could protect him. "Sam will lay supper for us if it is your pleasure."
It proved a gloomy meal. The major, mistrustful, vexed and baffled, on several grounds was disposed to sullenness. Miss Priscilla, overcome by the horrors of the day, secretly racked by fears, sat listless and silent, scarcely touching the food that was placed before her. Monsieur de Bernis, observing the mood of his guests, was tactfully silent, beyond an odd casual observation.
On some such footing their relations continued until, three days later, wafted south by gentle summer breezes, they made the Albuquerque Keys, and the Centaur led the way into a sheltered lagoon on the northern side of Maldita.
Feverish activity followed, felling timber which grew almost down to the water's edge, and building log huts with palmetto thatches and frames for the sailcloth pavilions that were to shelter the men ashore.
When these were ready Captain Leach landed the crew of the
Black Swan, and insisted that all those aboard the
Centaur should also land. It was no part of the captain's
intentions that whilst himself immobilised ashore by the careening
of the Black Swan, Monsieur de Bernis should remain afloat
and mobile. If De Bernis was disposed to tricks, he had arts that
would easily seduce the gang of scoundrels left to man the
GUESSING this to be the trend of Leach's reasoning, Monsieur de Bernis, whilst contemptuously criticising the measure as futile, submitted to it. He had special quarters prepared for Miss Priscilla in the shelter of a cluster of palmettos at the head of the beach—a tent consisting of a sailcloth spread over a frame of timber.
The buccaneers gave little heed to her or to her supposed brother. They were fully engaged by now in the laborious operation of careening their dismantled ship. And when at last the Black Swan was high and dry upon that silvery beach they set about the business of removing the barnacles and weeds that befouled her hull. At this season of the year the heat made work difficult. Consequently progress was slow, to the vexation of Leach and the utter indifference of Monsieur de Bernis. Before his calm assurances that there was plenty of time the captain's vile temper flashed out.
"Plenty of time, you fool? Time for what?"
"Before the plate fleet sails."
"And what of others, then? Is the plate fleet the only fleet at sea?"
"You are afraid of being found here? You want to laugh. Be at ease. None will come prowling into this lost cove."
"Maybe not. But if any did...hell, man! I'm not comfortable
here, with the ship ashore."
HE was not the only one to be uncomfortable on Maldita. The general situation was all the more intolerable to Major Sands because he was forced to tolerate it. It was assumed by all that Monsieur de Bernis shared the quarters prepared for the supposed Madame de Bernis. The major spent sleepless nights in assuring himself that the Frenchman did not presume upon this, and that he slept in a cloak upon the sands before the entrance to her tent. As a result of these pernoctations, the major's days were days of drowsy, sullen dejection, deepened by the spirit of apparently easy resignation in which Miss Priscilla accepted the situation. At moments his ill humour would find utterance.
"Will you tell me, sir," he asked one noontide when the three of them sat in the shelter of her tent, "what you intend by us when you sail away on your thieving cruise against this Spanish fleet?"
Monsieur de Bernis smiled his queer, slow smile. "Ah, Major! Are you very brave, I wonder, or just very stupid? Sometimes you baffle me by the fanfaronade behind your foolish words."
"By gad, sir," spluttered the major, "I'll not take that from any man."
"A wiser man would know that he must take whatever I choose to give him. Therefore he would study not to be provocative." He pointed to a branch overhead "There are easy ways of disposing of one who makes himself too inconvenient or aggressive. You should practice courtesy, major. It leads to longevity."
By the time the major found his tongue, De Bernis was twenty yards away.
"It's not be borne. Stab me, it's not to be borne."
"Then why provoke it? Why not practise courtesy, as he bids you?" By this she added fuel to his rage.
"You defend the knave! It is all that was wanting. What is
he—in the name of heaven, I ask it—what is he to you,
this swaggering pirate cur?"
MISS PRISCILLA was now as cool as if she had taken Monsieur de Bernis for her model in deportment.
"That is not at all the question. The question is what he may be to you. Don't you see that if he were what you insist upon supposing him, he would already have disposed of your inconvenient and ungracious person?"
"Fan me, ye winds!" cried Major Sands, and stamped off before he should utter in the presence of a lady that which a gentleman might afterward regret.
To Miss Priscilla seated there alone came presently Tom Leach. His very presence and the leer with which he stood before her served to shatter the sense of security which had lately been growing out of her confidence in De Bernis and his chivalrous reticences. She strove to control the sudden alarmed flutter in her breast. If her eyes dilated a little, at least her voice was calm.
"You seek my husband sir? He is not here."
The leer broadened. "I know he's not. So, ye see, it's not him I'm seeking." On that he paused. His eyes glowed as they pondered her, so white and slim and golden. He knew no way of wooing that was not rough, direct, and brutal, like all else that he did. Yet instinct informed him that here something different was demanded. He attempted gallantries of speech.
"Sink me, but you're a rare beauty. You 'mind me of a lily, so you does."
She remained frozen in her false composure. "I'll tell my
husband that you think so."
HE SNARLED at this. "Ye're well matched with him in pertness, my girl. But that's naught against you. I love a lass o' spirit. I hate your mealy mouthed sickly doxies." He flung himself down on the ground at her feet. "Now, where's the harm o' praising the beauty of you? Don't ye like a man to speak his mind?"
"That depends upon what's in it." She was discovering that safety lay in betraying no fear. Therefore it was in simulated boldness that she now fenced with him.
And whilst Captain Leach was engaged in this disloyalty toward De Bernis, the Frenchman was engaged in a more insidious, because less apparent, form of disloyalty to Captain Leach. He stood watching the labours of the men on the careened ship; and he enheartened them. It might be cruel to toil in this blistering furnace, but soon there would be a golden unguent for their roasted backs. Within a week now they should be putting to sea, and within a fortnight every man of them would be master of more gold and silver than he could carry. He pictured to them the coarse delights which so much wealth would buy. They listened avidly, and in their evil anticipation laughed with the glee of the monstrous, wicked children that they were. Shrewdly were they led by Monsieur de Bernis to account themselves fortunate that he should have sought them so as to bring these gross delights within their reach.
He was still at his stimulating talk when Major Sands, breathing
hard and bathed in sweat, came hurrying to interrupt him with a
muttered gasping. For once and for an instant the Frenchman was
startled out of his nonchalance. With a wave he dismissed himself
from the toilers and was off at speed, the major panting at his
CAPTAIN LEACH had reached a point of ardour which had brought him to his knees before the lady. Clutching one of her hands, he was seeking to draw her into an embrace. She, still desperately playing her part, attempted to laugh whilst warding him off. Her white face was distorted into a grin, stark terror was staring from her eyes, until over the captain's shoulder she beheld the approach of De Bernis.
He came up in long swift strides that made no sound upon the sand. He tapped the absorbed captain sharply upon the shoulder.
"You are at your prayers, I think, my captain. I am desolated to disturb you. But Madame de Bernis is not an idol for your worship."
Tom Leach leapt up and round with a snarl, his hand going by instinct to his belt.
"By all means continue in your worship. But at a distance, if you please, in the future. Worship her as if she were a saint in heaven."
"Avaunt, you grinning mountebank, d'ye know what happens to them as gets pert with Cap'n Leach? Hellfire! I admire your boldness! But don't carry it too far. Ye may be a tall fine figure of a man in your laced coat. But a word from me'll make carrion of you."
"I'll remember it." Monsieur de Bernis was grim. "But there are things you, too, should remember. After all, the plate fleet's whereabouts is my secret, as your men well know, my captain."
That gave the pirate pause. It brought him to an attempt at jocular bluster.
"Ye've as much need for threats as for jealousy, De Bernis. Jealousy! Faith, I ain't likely to waste a thought on your whey-faced doxy. Pish, man. Ye're just a silly laughingstock." And to prove it he went off laughing, looking over his shoulder ever and anon to gather fresh impetus for his mirth from the spectacle of the uxorious Frenchman.
The girl sank back, pale and limp now that the strain was at an end. Monsieur de Bernis leaned over her. "I trust that animal did not unduly frighten you."
"Thank God you came when you did." She clutched his arm. "Do not leave me alone again while we are here. Promise me."
"Be sure that I shall always be near. But I do not think that dog will recommence. He has had his warning."
Monsieur de Bernis took too sanguine a view. Tom Leach was not the man to accept defeat in anything. Vanity, stupidity and brutality combined to swell his resentment. Such natures when vindictive will sacrifice all to that emotion. And so, in the few days that followed, whenever he met De Bernis—which was as rarely as De Bernis could make it—the captain would goad him with vile allusions. But the Frenchman met derision and insult with a jest until the captain gathered conviction that Monsieur de Bernis went rightly in dread of him.
Thus four days passed in which the crew toiled at the completion
of their task upon the hull of the Black Swan.
ON THE morning of the fifth day something happened. Monsieur de Bernis was sitting with the major before Miss Priscilla's tent, when his half-caste servant came through the palmetto trees that fringed the beach, in quest of him. He carried a telescope under his arm, and he came from a bluff on the northern side of the island, on the summit of which Sam had of late been daily unobtrusively stationed. As he stooped and muttered in his master's ear, the Frenchman's glance grew instantly keen. Silently he rose, took the telescope from his servant, and quietly departed toward the bluff.
He was absent for a couple of hours. When he returned he paused merely to bestow the telescope within the tent, then sauntered away toward the general encampment where the men were assembled for their midday meal.
Leach observed his approach with a lowering glance. He had been drinking as usual that morning and the rum inflamed his viciousness.
"Here's our French kite taking his ease, whiles we sweat and toil in the sun. I vow the sight of him turns my stomach."
Hogan at his side laid a restraining hand upon the captain's brown muscular arm. "Quiet now, captain! Quiet! Let him have his head until he's brought us to the plate fleet. Then ye may have your will o' him and of his doxy too."
There was an approving growl from the men about them, which might have served him as a warning. But Leach was never an easy man to curb. He could not guess that this morning Monsieur de Bernis was no longer disposed to meekness.
"He shall bare his back to the sun and lend a hand wi' the rest
of us." The captain got up on that. "Hi, you!" he greeted De
Bernis. "Peel off that coat, and take your share o' the work, same
as us. We want no fine gentlemen here. Time's getting short."
MONSIEUR DE BERNIS came to a halt within six paces of the pirate. His left hand rested easily on the pommel of his long rapier. His face in the shadow of his broad plumed hat was like a mask.
"Yes. Time is getting short. Your time in particular, captain. I marvel you don't suspect it."
Something ominous in his cold sneering tone took Leach aback. "What d'ye mean?" he growled. "Be plain, man."
"Mean?" De Bernis made a long pause like a man considering his course. "Pardieu! I mean that I've had too much insolence from a dirty, drunken cutthroat. Is that plain, you son of a dog? Or shall I make it plainer?"
Not in years had any man so dared to address Tom Leach. He went pale in amazement. When, after a gasping, choking pause he found his tongue, it was to loose a volley of bloodcurdling obscenity in the trail of which came menaces.
"You French swine! It's not only the coat shall come off you now. I'll have the very hide off your mangy bones." He waved his men on. "Make the dog fast."
There was a sluggish reluctant stir to obey him, instantly checked by Monsieur de Bernis.
"Wait!" What he had to say would never have restrained them had
he not prepared them for it by his earlier schooling. "Remember
that the secret of the plate fleet is mine; that I am the only man
who can lead you to that wealth of plate. Which of us is worthier
following now? I, or this poor rat?"
THEY did remember. These ruffians cared too much for the delights which Monsieur de Bernis had made them taste in imagination, prematurely to destroy the man who was to lead them to the gold that should procure them. The captain, scarcely understanding their disobedience, and moved by it to a greater rage, whipped out his sword and leaped, fierce as a wildcat and as agile, upon Monsieur de Bernis.
But Monsieur de Bernis displayed a speed to match the captain's. His rapier flashed forth to parry the murderous lunge, and his swift counter drove the captain back on guard. At the same moment his voice rang out.
"Give us air! Let him have what he seeks. I warned him that his time was short."
Spitting and snarling in fury, Leach crouched, measuring his opponent with his beady, blood-injected eyes. Poised thus, he grew calm by instinct and from confidence in the skill with which it had thrilled him in the past to send many a tall fellow to his account. This rash fool should now be added to their number.
In exultation he sprang forward to lunge again. The blades ground together for a moment, then the captain found himself pressed and retreating before a dazzling, glittering point that seemed to be everywhere at once. In a queer surprised dismay he realised that he had met his master and he tasted the bitter cup of that knowledge which he had thrust upon so many. Too late he recalled fabulous stories of the swordsmanship of De Bernis.
His only hope now was that his men would intervene. But partly
from indecision about the future, partly because their coarse
fierce natures loved the spectacle of such a combat, they stood
looking on with relish, leaving the issue to Fate and the
ANOTHER spectator of whom the captain became aware in one of the pauses he made for breath, was the lady who was the true if unacknowledged source of this conflict. She stood in fascinated horror, compelled to look on by anxiety for the issue, which might be to leave her at the mercy of these savages.
She may have taken heart from the easy confidence which Monsieur de Bernis displayed. Seeing his opponent pause out of reach, he laughed at him. "Will you fight, captain? Or must I chase you round the island in this heat?"
It was enough to goad the other to resume. Realising that no intervention was to be expected, he flung desperately forward for a last supreme effort. He fought fiercely, savagely, his coppery face paling under its tan, the cold sweat gathering on his brow. And Monsieur de Bernis, as if to madden him utterly, laughed as he put aside a more than ordinarily hard-driven lunge. All the while he spared himself, scarcely moving from the spot on which he had taken his first stand, until the captain's strength, recklessly spent, began visibly to fail.
"Allons!" said De Bernis. "It is time to make an end. So." He parried. "So." He encircled the opposing blade. "And so." He drove home his point well above the captain's guard, passing the blade through him from side to side.
Standing over Tom Leach as he lay coughing out his evil life upon the sands, Monsieur de Bernis shook his head.
"Too fine an end for such as you, my captain."
And then as he looked up and straight ahead at the crowd of rough men who faced him, the expression of his countenance was suddenly changed by something that he beheld beyond them.
"What are these?" he cried, on a sharp note, and pointed with
THE ruffians swung round to his indication, and there was a general outcry, followed by a confused, excited chattering. Three tall ships were coming into view at the mouth of the cove. They were taking in sail as they advanced, and across the water came the creak of windlass and the clatter of anchor chains. From each maintruck floated the Union Jack.
"Pardieu!" swore Monsieur de Bernis. "Ships of the Jamaica squadron! We've Morgan on our hands."
Terror and fury spread in the souls of those men caught there with their ship careened, immobile and helpless. Seeking a scapegoat they turned on De Bernis. It was he who had brought them to this place where they were now trapped.
"You fools," flung back De Bernis contemptuously, "was I in command of you? Was I your master here? It is this dead cutthroat who has betrayed you by his improvidence. He should have built a fort on the headland and emplaced his guns to command the entrance. But the fool had no thought for anything but rum."
A gun boomed. There was a white cauliflower of smoke on the flank of one of the ships, and splinters flew from the bulwarks of the Centaur where she rode at anchor.
And while Morgan's ships were engaged in sinking her as a preliminary, hell was raging about De Bernis. It raged until at last he found a way to calm those ruffians.
"Listen, now. If we can't fight, we can bargain. It's Tom Leach, Morgan wants. Hasn't he offered five hundred pounds for his head? He may have that head now, in exchange for our own lives and freedom to depart. That is our offer. Leave this to me. Trust De Bernis. He'll bring you off with the honours of war."
First astonishment struck them silent. Then followed cheers to hail this heaven-sent inspiration.
"But who's to carry the offer?" wondered Hogan. "Which of us would be safe in Morgan's hands?"
"Ah!" Momentarily De Bernis was at fault. Then the fertility of
his invention asserted itself. "Madame de Bernis," he cried in a
flash of genius. "They'll respect a woman's life. Her brother there
can pull her out to the flagship."
WHETHER they believed or not that the woman and her brother would be respected, they were glad enough to adopt the proposal, and so Miss Priscilla and the major found themselves abruptly and unexpectedly on their way to safety in the cockboat under a flag of truce, as the emissaries of the pirate crew.
Miss Priscilla's eyes were moist. "It was noble of him so to contrive for me. It justifies all my steady faith in him."
But the major, toiling and sweating at the oars, shared none of her emotion.
"His nobility is rooted in concern for his own skin," he grumbled.
Aboard the trim deck of the Royal Charles, they were received by
a middle-aged, overdressed man of an almost obese habit of body.
His yellow fleshy face, adorned by a pair of long drooping
moustaches, was coarse and unprepossessing. He scowled astonishment
to behold a lady climbing the accommodation ladder. When he had
heard her story, breathlessly delivered, his lips writhed under
those drooping moustaches.
"YOU are well delivered, madam," he said curtly, in a gruff voice. Without more he beckoned an officer to his side, and rapped out an order. "Sharples, take a dozen men and go ashore under a white flag. Tell them that before I'll discuss terms with them, I demand that in addition to Tom Leach they deliver up to me this fellow De Bernis."
Miss Priscilla went white. "Sir—sir—" she stammered.
The stout gentleman waved the officer away peremptorily, and turned to hear her.
"I—I owe so much Monsieur de Bernis," she pleaded. "He has behaved so gallantly—so gallantly—"
The gentleman laughed a deep, throaty laugh that made her shudder.
"Oh, ah! To be sure! He can always be depended upon for that. Vastly gallant fellows, these Frenchmen." He turned his back upon her, and strode off, bawling for boatswain and gunner.
She dared not follow him. She must postpone her pleading until Monsieur de Bernis was brought aboard, if indeed the buccaneers were so cowardly as to surrender him. Surrender him they did as she beheld to her dismay from the bulwarks, whence with the major beside her she watched events.
The returning cockboat came alongside, and up the accommodation ladder climbed Monsieur de Bernis, followed by his half-caste servant, who carried something wrapped in sailcloth.
She was almost afraid to look into Monsieur de Bernis' face when he stepped on board. Yet when she did look, she beheld him smiling and debonair as ever.
"How brave he is! How gallantly he meets his fate!" she sighed
to the major.
THE large gaudy man who commanded there rolled forward on his thick legs to receive this prisoner. He was scowling.
"Where is Leach?" he trumpeted.
Monsieur de Bernis took the bundle from the hands of Sam, and cast it at the other's feet.
"There's his head. That was all I promised you, Sir Henry. All that you asked for."
Sir Henry Morgan touched the grim bundle with his foot.
"You've been as good as your word, De Bernis."
"It is my habit. It needs a thief to catch a thief, as Major Sands thinks they knew who made you governor of Jamaica. And Fate has helped me. It was not even necessary to seek Leach out as I intended. He just blundered across my path. The rest was easy. But you are three days late at the rendezvous, and for three days, until you hove in sight this morning, I've been in mortal anxiety and forced to endure that dog's abominable insults."
Morgan, his feet wide and his arms akimbo, stood regarding him. "Ye'd be in mortal anxiety now, I should say, but for my stratagem to bring you off: my demand that they should give you up. What's to be done with those ruffians?"
"Bid them haul their guns to the bluff there and drop them into the sea," said De Bernis. "When that's done, without leader and without arms, there's an end to them as filibusters."
He turned to meet the round, staring eyes of Miss Priscilla and Major Sands. He doffed his hat to them and bowed.
"Alas!" he said. "You are not yet for home. You will first have to endure a voyage to Jamaica. But the circumstances will be happier, and in these I trust our acquaintance will improve."
It did. But the outcome was not at all to the liking or advantage of Major Sands.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia