The Mystery of the Sea/Chapter 52
Iwhispered to Marjory and Don Bernardino:
"If they once get away we are lost! We must stop them at all hazards!" The Spaniard nodded and Marjory squeezed my hands; there was no need of speech. Then I fixed the order of battle. I was to fire first, then the Spaniard, then Marjory, each saving his fire till we knew whether another shot was required. This precaution was necessary, as we had no reserve ammunition. We took it for granted that the chambers of the revolvers were full; my one shot had been satisfactory in this respect. When the sails were set and we began rushing through the water I saw that even at the risk of betraying ourselves to our enemies we must give warning again, and so fired. There was an answering cheer from the Keystone through the fog; and then a sudden rush forward of those on our own deck. When they were close to us, the seamen hung back; but the men of the gang kept on firing as they came. Fortunately we were in a line behind cover, for I could hear the 'ping' and the tearing wood as the bullets struck the mast. I fired a shot just to show that we were armed; and heard a sharp cry. Then they fell back. In a moment or two they also had formed their plan of battle. These were men used to such encounters; and as they knew that at such times a quick rush may mean everything, they did not let the grass grow under their feet. I could see one of the seamen remonstrating with them, and hear the quick, angry tones of his voice, though I could not distinguish the words.
He pointed out into the fog, where now there was distinctly a luminous patch of light: the searchlight was moving towards us. The Keystone was coming down on us.
The blackmailer shook off the seaman and then gave some directions to his comrades; they spread out right and left of us, and tried to find some kind of cover. I lifted Marjory and put her standing on the barrel fastened behind the mast, for I thought that as the flash of my pistol had come from the deck they would not expect any one to be raised so high. Don Bernardino and I curled down on the deck, and our opponents began to fire. In the thickening fog, and with the motion of the ship which threw us all about like ninepins, their aim was vague; fortunately no one was hit. When I thought I had a chance I fired, but there was no response; the Don got a shot and Marjory another, but there was no sound, save that of the bullets striking on wood or iron. Then Marjory, whose traditional instinct was coming into play, fired twice in rapid succession; there was a quick exclamation and then a flood of horrible profanity, the man was only winged. Again and again they fired, and I heard a groan behind me from the Don.
"What's that?" I whispered, not daring to stop or even to look back:
"My arm! Take my pistol, I cannot shoot with my left hand." I put my hand back, and he placed the revolver in it. I saw a dark form rush across the deck and fired—and missed. I tried another shot; but the weapon only answered with a click; the chambers were exhausted. So I used the other revolver. And so for a few minutes a furious fight went on. Marjory seldom fired, she was holding herself in reserve; but before I knew what was happening my second revolver was empty. Our antagonists were no chickens at their work; there was little to teach any of them in such a method of contest as this. Some one had evidently been counting the shots, for he suddenly called out:
"Not yet boys! They've at least three shots still!" With a sudden simultaneous rush they ran back into shelter.
During this time we had been tearing through the water at our full speed. But behind us on the port quarter was the sound of a great ship steaming on. The roar of the furnaces could be heard in the trumpeting of the funnels. The boatswain's whistles were piping, and there were voices of command cutting hoarsely through the fog. The searchlight too was at work; we could see its rays high up on the mist, though they did not at the moment penetrate sufficiently to expose us to the lookout of the Keystone. Closer on our starboard quarter was another sound which came on the trailing wind, the rush of a small vessel running fast. We could hear down the wind the sharp 'slap slap' of the waves on the bows, and the roaring of the wind among the cordage. This must be the Sporran following us close with grim disregard of danger. The commander of the whaler, recognising the possibility of discovery, put his helm hard to starboard. I could myself not see through the darkness; but the seaman did and took his chance of grounding in Cruden Bay. When we had run in a little way the helm was jammed hard down again, and we ran on the other tack; for the moment we were lost to both the war ship and the yacht. Marjory looked at me appealingly and I nodded; the situation was not one to be risked. She fired another shot from her pistol. There was an immediate reply from far out on our port side in the shape of more directions spoken with the trumpet and answering piping from the boatswains. Several shots were fired towards us by the gang; they were manifestly on chance, for they went wildly wide of us. Then we could hear an angry remonstrance from the whaler captain, and a threat that if there were any more firing, he would down with his sails and take chance of being captured. One of the gang answered him:
"That packet can't capture you within the three-mile limit; it's a cruiser of Uncle Sam's and they won't risk having to lie up in harbour here till the war is over." To which the other surlily replied:
"I wouldn't put money on it. Anyhow someone will! You keep quiet if you can. There's enough against us already if we should be caught!" The reply of the blackmailer was at least practical. I could not see what he did, but I took it that he put his pistol to the captain's head as he said with a frightful oath:
"You'll go on as you arranged with me; or I'll blow your brains out where you stand. There's quite enough against any of us, you included; so your one chance anyhow is to get out of this hole. See?" The captain accepted the position and gave his orders with a quiet delivery, to the effect that we ran first shorewards and then to starboard again till we were running back on our tracks like a hare.
Suddenly, however, this course was brought to an end by our almost running into a small vessel which as we passed I could see by its trim appearance was a yacht. We were so close for a few seconds, whilst we ran across her stern, that I shouted out:
"All right, MacRae. All safe as yet. She's trying to run out to sea. Try to tell the Keystone." The answer was a cheer from all aboard.
As our ship swept into the fog, several of our enemies ran at us. I handed Don Bernardino his own dagger and took the bowie knife myself. Then we stood ready in case our foes should get to close quarters. They got nearly up to us, firing as they came; but we were just then sheltering behind the mast and no injury was done. They hesitated to come on, not seeing us; and we waited. As we stood with beating hearts the ship began to come to starboard again. We must have been sheltered in some way, for we did not seem to feel either wind or tide so much as before. Suddenly one of the seamen said:
"Whist! I hear breakers!" The rest paused and listened, and the captain called out:
"Hard to starboard; we are running on shore!" The ship answered at once, and we began to run across the wind, feeling the tide at the same time. But as we went, a searchlight flashed on the fog before us. We could not stop or change quick enough to quite avoid the ship from which it came, but the helm was put hard to starboard again and we ran close along side a great war ship. I could see her tower with protruding cannon as we ran by. A voice came through a speaking trumpet, and I could just catch the first words as the vessel swept by us:
"Rocks ahead!" The instinct of the seaman spoke, even at such a time, to keep another vessel from harm. The answer from our vessel was a volley of curses. Then the searchlight swept our deck, and we could see all our enemies. They were round us in a great ring and closing in upon us. They saw us, too, and with a shout began to run in. I took Marjory by the waist and ran with her to the bow of the ship; I flung her up on the bulwark and jumped up beside her. Don Bernardino joined us in a moment, and we saw the searchlight as it passed us and pierced into the fog ahead. Already the bulk of the battleship was almost lost in the mist; there was only a faint indication of her presence in a monstrous mass behind the searchlight, and the end of a spar rising above the fog. In front of us there was a great roaring of water and that sharp rushing sound which comes from the back sweep of a broken wave. Our skipper saw the danger, and in a voice like a trumpet gave his orders.
But it was too late to do anything. As the searchlight again swept our deck, I saw the ring of men break up and scatter; almost at the same moment the rays passing beyond us, fell on a low rock rising from the sea up whose sides great waves were dashing. We were rushing to it, borne by wind and tide in a terrible haste.
At that instant we struck a rock below the water. With the shock we three were thrown forward into the sea. I heard a despairing shout behind us; and then the water closed over my head.
When I rose it was in a wild agony of fear for Marjory. She had been sitting to my left on the bulwark and must therefore have fallen to seaward of me. I raised myself as well as I could and looked around; and, by God's grace, saw two hands rising above the water a few yards from me. With all my might I struggled towards them, and was able to drag my wife up to the surface. When I had her with me, though my terror and anxiety increased, I could think. At such moments the mind acts with lightning speed, and in a second or two I came to the conclusion that the rock we had struck must be amongst the Skares. If so, the only chance was to edge in with the tide and try to avoid striking any of the underlying rocks which I knew well were so deadly. Had not I seen Lauchlane Macleod come to his death through them.
It was a desperate struggle before us. The tide was racing amongst the rocks, and even were there no waves it would have been a difficult task to have won through it into shore. For myself I was a strong enough swimmer to have found my way in, even if I had had to round the outer rock and keep up to the harbour of Whinnyfold. But with Marjory to care for, too—Marjory who had only lately learned to swim. . . . The prospect was indeed a terrible one. We must not lose a chance, and so I made my wife loose her skirts which fell away in the drag of the water; she could then swim more freely and to the best of her power.
The wind beat fiercely, and the tops of the breaking waves nearly choked us as they flew. There was just light enough down on the water level to see rocks a few yards ahead; the line of the shore rose like one dim opaque mass. In the darkness and the stress of the tide race there was little I could do, save keep Marjory's head and my own above the water and let the current bear us on. I must avoid the rocks as well as I could, and let all my efforts tend to bring us shorewards. There was not time for fears or doubting, or hoping; the moments must pass and the struggle be made, never-ending though it seemed to be.
After a few minutes I began to tire; the strain of the last few days and my late effort in reaching the whaler had begun to tell on me. I had now and again a passing thought of Don Bernardino and the friends who had been helping us; but they were all far off. The Spaniard I should probably never seen again; the others might never see us. . . . I was relapsing into the lethargy of despair.
With a violent effort I woke to the task before me, and kept sternly on my way. Marjory was striving her utmost; but her strength was failing. Her weight was becoming deader. . . . That nerved me to further effort, and I swam on so frantically that I drew closer to the mainland. Here there was shelter of a kind; the waves broken by the outer rocks were less forceful. The crested tops which the wind had driven on us were weakening also. There was hope in this and it kept me up. On I fought—on—on—on. Oh! would the struggle never end! I shut my teeth, and forged on fiercely. I could feel that we were going with the rush of the waves through a gully between sunken rocks.
Joy! there was shore beneath my feet, rough pebbles which rolled and worked against each other. The wave pulled us back. But my heart was renewed again. I made one more frantic effort, and swam closer to the land. Then as I saw the wave began to recoil I put down my feet, and with the last of my strength lifting Marjory in my arms I fought fiercely with the retreating wave. Staggering over the screaming pebbles, exhausted to the point of death, I bore her high up on the beach and laid her down. Then I sank lifeless beside her cold body.
The last thing I remember was the faint light of the coming dawn, falling on her marble-white face as she lay on the shore.