Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The negro's revenge

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III  (1860) 
The negro's revenge (From an unacted drama)
by Alfred Bate Richards

Illustrated by John Tenniel


[Antonio, surnamed El Matador, a sea-captain, and in reality a pirate from the Spanish Main, having excited the admiration of a company of actors and actresses, in Italy, by a sudden passionate outburst, is requested by them to narrate a story, in order to elicit from him a specimen of his natural aptitude for the stage.]

Antonio. The shark had followed us for a week. Night and day, day and night, his back-fin glistened in our wake—fifty fathom astern, it was always there. We had none sick on board; but we had been too long cruising in the tropics not to know that at least one of us would lose the number of his mess ere the creature parted company with the ship.

The weather being very sultry the sailors became irritable, until if a man but chanced to look at another it gave offence, as if each thought his neighbour wished him to glut the monster’s ravening maw, and so solve the doom which threatened all alike. At length, on the seventh day, the third mate, a scowling Portingallo, quarrelled with the black cook Zanga, who, he swore, put cockroaches purposely in the dishes that underwent the sable preparation of his most greasy hands. Now this Zanga was a tall Ashantee, who had been a king in his native land—a laughing, merry-hearted fellow, but proud as the Prince of Darkness after his own fashion. I did not hear all that was said between them; but the negro turned the laugh against the Portingallo, who was jeered at for his unsavoury complaint. That evening, Zanga’s son, a boy about twelve years old, a child in arms when his father was taken captive, was seen on the forecastle playing, as was his wont, with the captain’s favourite bloodhound, which it was his sole charge to feed. It had fallen a dead calm, and the shark had come some twenty fathoms nearer, and its huge sides gleamed ghastly with phosphoric light. We had some thought of shooting at it with a falconet; but the captain was in a surly mood, and would brook no waste of powder to gratify our desire. The next day the boy was missing, and when we looked astern for the shark, it was no longer there (pauses).

An actress. Nay, continue, I pray you. Had the poor child fallen overboard?

Antonio. I kiss your fingers, Señorita. During the morning the dog became furious, and twice flew at the Portingallo’s throat, so that we were forced to chain the animal to the capstan, being alarmed at his sudden frenzy. Had the Portingallo dared to brave the captain’s wrath, he would have slain the hound with a boarding-pike as he lay there securely fastened, by turns growling and whining, his head couched motionless between his paws, his tail ever and anon beating the deck with quick impatient knocks, and the fiery glitter of his deep-sunk, blood-shot eyes following every movement of him whom he had so strangely assailed. During the evening there was a hot and noisy altercation forward as to whether or not the dog had capsized the boy overboard in anger or boisterous sport. Some, among whom the Portingallo was most vehement, swore with oaths and curses that it was so. Two or three declared that the dog had been shut up aft in the sail-room a full hour before they last saw the missing lad busy with his fishing lines close to the open porthole of a culverin. As for Zanga, he spoke to none, answered none, and none cared to question his grief. Have any of you ever chanced to see a negro’s face turn ashen pale—all the villanous ink of his complexion precipitated from the dry parchment of his skin by the deep inward chemistry of an agonising breast? That night, about eight bells, being toward the end of the Portingallo’s watch on deck, a cry from the still surface of the ocean but a little way off, which seemed to vibrate through the ship’s timbers, roused us from sleep.

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We tumbled up from our hammocks and looked anxiously around. Scarce a stone’s throw distant, on the starboard side, in the very track of the moonlight, we saw the jollyboat adrift, and in it the gigantic figure of the negro stooping over something which lay prostrate at his feet. It was the Portingallo, naked to the waist, gagged and bound hand and foot. As we gazed, the negro attached a second rope to one of those by which the Portingallo was already fastened. In the thrilling light of the moonbeams every detail shone distinct and clear as in the picture of a martyrdom lighted by a thousand tapers at high mass. (Crosses himself.) We shuddered as we saw the negro make this rope well fast, while the Portingallo lay writhing in the boat before him. We saw his white teeth glisten again as he grinned in his revenge, and the metallic shine of agony on the Portingallo’s face, and the sweat pouring down him, and the wrinkled anguish of his brow, and the bristling of his hair in the extremity of his terror; and then, last of all, we heard the gentle plashing of the water as the boat swayed with their movement, and the fretting of the rope, and each touch of their naked limbs, and the gurgle in the victim’s throat, and the breathing of the avenger and the doomed. Your stage-lamps, ladies, do not cast so fair and true a light as that beautiful tropic moonshine on the face. Then the negro carefully lifted his victim over the boat’s side, payed out his rope, and paddled a little distance off. His purpose flashed simultaneously upon us. He was fishing with a human live-bait for sharks.

An Actor. Saints of mercy! and did none of you interfere?

Antonio. An Imperial lady at a bull-fight could not be more entranced than we were. Presently a dark shadow rose from the water near the boat, and then another and another, until a dozen sharks, small and large, slowly moving their rudder-like tails, were poised in full sight beneath. When the Portingallo saw them, he leapt half out of the water with a convulsive effort that nearly bent him double, as ye may have seen a fish on dry land jerk itself spasmodically towards ocean. The largest shark quickly turned over underneath; but Zanga twitched his line, and then a second and a third essayed to seize that living bait. Then the gag got loose, and the doomed man yelled to Heaven and to the ship for aid, and shrieked a brief and piteous tale, how the boy overbalanced fell into the sea, and how but for the shark he would himself have saved him. But Zanga yelled with triumph, and they both yelled together, until you could scarcely distinguish between their cries, and untwist the sacred harmony of revenge from the howling discord of despair. Oh! revenge, I tell you, is the gift of the gods, the only joy that the grudging immortals freely share! So the black cried in his fury, and the white man in his agony, until the ship’s crew suddenly found their sweet voices, and raised a chorus to them both; and the dog, who had got loose, bayed in fierce answer to all; and the sharks made a bubbling and commotion, that you would have thought hell itself had risen from the deep. But Zanga pulled his line no longer; and, like hounds in at the death, the sharks closed upon their prey, and the boat rocked to and fro, and the black danced screeching and howling; and by the time we had lowered the gig and long-boat—both of which we found staved full of holes, as a woman’s reputation when handled by a score of her own sex—we saw nothing save a few shivered planks, and a dark-red stain on the placid water, to tell us of the scene that had been there. Within an hour a breeze sprung up, within two it had freshened to a gale, within three we were scudding under bare poles. During four days the hurricane raged, on the fifth the ship struck and foundered, and I alone escaped to tell the story of the Negro’s Revenge. Methinks you look pale, ladies—there is nothing for the complexion, believe me, like sea-air.

Alfred B. Richards.