Dead Men Tell No Tales
3. To The Water's Edge
It was not the new panic amidships that froze my marrow; it was not that the
pinnace hung perpendicularly by the fore-tackle, and had shot out those who had
swarmed aboard her before she was lowered, as a cart shoots a load of bricks. It
was bad enough to see the whole boat-load struggling, floundering, sinking in the
sea; for selfish eyes (and which of us is all unselfish at such a time?) there was a
worse sight yet; for I saw all this across an impassable gulf of fire.
The quarter-deck had caught: it was in flames to port and starboard of the
flaming hatch; only fore and aft of it was the deck sound to the lips of that
hideous mouth, with the hundred tongues shooting out and up.
Could I jump it there? I sprang down and looked. It was only a few feet across;
but to leap through that living fire was to leap into eternity. I drew back instantly,
less because my heart failed me, I may truly say, than because my common
sense did not.
Some were watching me, it seemed, across this hell. "The bulwarks!" they
screamed. "Walk along the bulwarks!" I held up my hand in token that I heard
and understood and meant to act. And as I did their bidding I noticed what indeed
had long been apparent to idler eyes: the wind was not; we had lost our
southeast trades; the doomed ship was rolling in a dead calm.
Rolling, rolling, rolling so that it seemed minutes before I dared to move an inch.
Then I tried it on my hands and knees, but the scorched bulwarks burned me to
the bone. And then I leapt up, desperate with the pain; and, with my tortured
hands spread wide to balance me, I walked those few yards, between rising sea
and falling fire, and falling sea and rising fire, as an acrobat walks a rope, and by
God's grace without mishap.
There was no time to think twice about my feat, or, indeed, about anything else
that befell upon a night when each moment was more pregnant than the last.
And yet I did think that those who had encouraged me to attempt so perilous a
trick might have welcomed me alive among them; they were looking at something
else already; and this was what it was.
One of the cabin stewards had presented himself on the poop; he had a bottle in
one hand, a glass in the other; in the red glare we saw him dancing in front of the
captain like an unruly marionette. Harris appeared to threaten him. What he said
we could not hear for the deep-drawn blast and the high staccato crackle of the
blazing hold. But we saw the staggering steward offering him a drink; saw the
glass flung next instant in the captain's face, the blood running, a pistol drawn,
fired without effect, and snatched away by the drunken mutineer. Next instant a
smooth black cane was raining blow after blow on the man's head. He dropped;
the blows fell thick and heavy as before. He lay wriggling; the Portuguese struck
and struck until he lay quite still; then we saw Joaquin Santos kneel, and rub his
stick carefully on the still thing's clothes, as a man might wipe his boots.
Curses burst from our throats; yet the fellow deserved to die. Nor, as I say, had
we time to waste two thoughts upon any one incident. This last had begun and