My condition then seemed forlorn, indeed; but my salvation came from what to many would have appeared an untoward circumstance: to wit, my yielding to a passion that suddenly possessed me. For, when the pirate that was nearest to me laid hands upon my shoulder, he loosened from the chain by which it hung about my neck a portrait of my mother, which burst from the leathern case in which it was contained and fell upon the deck. I had promised her to always carry it about me and to look upon it at least once each day, lest, as she said, I might forget her. It was a miniature, painted by one Van Dyck, a famous Fleming who was once attached to the court of King Charles. I have understood that he was ranked as among the great masters of the world of art, but of that I know not. Only this I know: that he had met my mother when she was a maiden, for she was a friend of his English wife, Mistress Ruthven, granddaughter of the Earl of Gowrie, whom the painter married but a few years before his death. Be this as it may, he painted the miniature of my mother on ivory, from very love of her beauty, he most gallantly said to her, and then gave it to her as a gift. Meeting my father soon after, she was married, and, of course, bade farewell to the gay life of courts. It was the most precious of her keepsakes, and she had given it to me more as such than (as she had said in playful jest) to remind me of her existence.
From all this may not appear the reason why I burst into a passion. But heed: as it fell to the deck, the coarse fellow sprang and seized it before I could reclaim it, and then held it up for those other villains to see. And, as if that were not enough of insult to bestow upon the fair countenance of my dear mother, he passed a ribald jest as to its great beauty, and said that I was full young to carry a woman's portrait concealed about me. It may be supposed that I was at first struck dumb with rage and anguish, that this should have happened to my most prized possession. It seemed, in sooth, a sacrilege most great that my mother's face should have been even gazed upon by those wretches, much the more that it should have provoked unseemly remark.
Perhaps it was wrong; but who knows? I reasoned not as to the consequences, only took notice of the great offence. In my wrath, I saw naught but that precious portrait and the one who held it at arm's length for the jeering pirates to gaze at withal. Yes, I saw one thing else: I saw the hilt of Mansvelt's cimitar hanging loose from his belt, and, snatching it with almost lightning-like rapidity from its scabbard, I sprang upon the one who had ravished me of my keepsake. He was, of course, taken by surprise, and well it was perchance for me, as he was a lusty sailor, broad of shoulder and powerful of limb. But of his build I took scant notice, only seeing him, as it were, in a mist; that dearest face in all the world gazing at me appealingly as he held it in his uncouth fingers.
Well, again, was it that his first motion was to pass the portrait to a comrade before rallying to my attack, by the which I caught him a gash on the shoulder ere he could parry my swift blow. He howled with rage and pain, but, when the blood gushed forth, was quick enough to see that though a mere youth I had strength enough in my wrist. He pulled his cutlass forth and was not slow to get back at me with a swinging blow, which I fortunately evaded by stepping to one side.
I really believe I was mad, with a madness of devils, perhaps, but at the same time in my senses sufficiently to make my madness profit me. Never was my sense more keen; never my strength more concentrated in my arms and at points where it would best avail me in this crisis of my life. As the clumsy cutlass swept by me I made another thrust, and this time pricked him in the side, so that he yelled again, and with more pain than rage. For it was plain that he had not the courage that suffices for mortal combat, or, if he had, it was fast oozing out. My desperate onslaught had, in the first place, disconcerted him, and, in the second, it had driven him to bay.
Such a brute as he should have taken the offensive; and this I knew instinctively, though reasoning not upon it. And more, I saw that I had the advantage of him in skill, e'en if he had more advantage over me in bulk; and, in my heart, I blessed my good father for inculcating in me this facility with the blade. It was his custom, even when I was a lad—since he died before I was twelve—to cultivate in me a love for the gentleman's weapon, as he called the sword.
"Thou mayest use it some time," he oft said, "either for thy king or in defense of some lady's honor. Then up and at me, child!" The bouts my revered father and myself had together were, so to say, innumerable, for I had a tiny sword as soon as I could toddle, and to thrust and parry were, as I have said, instinctive in me. To learn the sword play is like learning a language: a year in youth is better far than many years in after life.
These, then, were the reasons why I had the man at an advantage. God knows, I do not arrogate aught to myself; nor am I of a quarrelsome disposition. This was the first fight of my life; but, as it went on, I could feel the thirst for conquest take possession of me, the blood rush to my brain, the tightening of the skin of my neck at the roots of the hair, and all those signs that my whole nature was aroused. So, ascribe it not to me or to my prowess, that I gave the poor villain more than he could return.
The fight was not of my seeking, but it soon became evident that it was my fight—as the sailors say. It became so evident to the pirate chieftain that he fain would have called a halt, though the signs were not wanting that he exceedingly enjoyed it all the same—as I was afterward told. He called to me, but I was deaf. He yelled to my opponent, but he was unable to evade my blows and cuts. I followed him about the deck; whenever he would fain strike at me I cut him sore, either an upper thrust or straight out or down, as it seemed to me the best thing at the time to do. Ever before my eyes, through it all, was the hand that had held my mother's portrait: the only stranger hand that had ever enclosed it within its fingers. And in my ears sang the words, in my heart surged the impulse: "Strike off that hand! Strike off that hand!"
Blame me not—whoever may read these words of mine now written many years after that event—that I followed the impulse until I had accomplished my dire purpose.
For I did it. Yes. May the good Lord, who alone avengeth, who alone dealeth rewards and punishments, forgive me for my intention! But it was not my sane self that did the deed. However, it was done, at the last, and—but I anticipate.
It soon appeared, as I have said, that he had no stomach for the fight, and would have evaded me were it possible. Urged on, however, by the cries of his shipmates, who jibed him that he should allow but a stripling to maltreat him thus, he exerted all his strength to beat me down. But my cimitar played ever and anon about him merrily, first taking him at this side, then the other, then pricking him in front and then—ah, then there came treachery, as I might have expected—in Booth, did expect, and was in a measure prepared for.
As he was beating wildly about me with his cutlass, striving to cut me about the head, and I was warding the blows looking for a chance to sever his arm, I felt more than heard stealthy footsteps behind me, and knew what was in store for me unless I acted quickly. I knew my desperate circumstance—that was in my favor, as it gave me a forlorn hope. I warded his last downward blow with the hilt of my cimitar, and then, completing the curve of the upward stroke by describing a circle, I brought the blade's keen edge across his wrist.
Waiting not to see what had been accomplished, but knowing it nevertheless, I spun around upon my heel and met a burly pirate full in the throat with the sword's edge. He had his left hand extended to grasp me by the back of the neck, and in his right a needle-pointed poniard. Of a truth, it would have gone hard with me had he accomplished his fell design. But he never knew that he did or did not, I trow, for he fell to the deck with a groan and lay there, the while his life-blood flowing forth.
For all this may God forgive me. But—as I hope for salvation—this act was not of my own seeking. My life was given me of God. Was it not my duty to defend it? Not that I would be the judge as between the worth of my life and that of the man whom I brought low; but such as my life was, and is, I still hold it as my duty to defend it. At all events, I had taken into my own hands—rather, into my hands it had been thrust, without my seeking—that which it hath been forbidden man to do. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord!"
I do not say but that this saying haunteth me now.
But, look at me after I had vanquished both my opponents: him who had insulted my mother, and him who had sought to slay me stealthily. I was told afterward that I gazed about me fiercely, yet as if stupefied, and still held my cimitar as if to meet any other who might assail me. But none other came. Prone upon the deck lay the twain; the one apparently beyond all recall, the other clasping with his left hand the dissevered wrist of his right, and groaning mightily.
Hitherto I had said no word, and when reason seemed to return to me I was also silent. But I shuddered when the circle of men about me opened their mouths and gave forth great shouts, as if of acclaim to a victor. And not alone were these shouts from some of our own men, but all the pirates seemed to join in them as well. Then, of a truth, was I confused yet more than before, and wondered.
The first face that appeared plainly to me out of the mist was that of the pirate leader, Mansvelt. He came forward then, and, bowing low to me, said, with affected humbleness: "If the vainquer pleaseth, I will now reclaim my cimitar. Faith! it hath never before received such brave usage; and I, Mansvelt, who have worn it many years, say so!"
I yielded him his blade, almost without wit of what I did, for I was still in maze. But I had still that instinctive sense of what was due the one who took the cimitar from me—be he pirate or be he gentleman—to take it by the blade and hand him the hilt. And the first words I spake were to ask his pardon if I had misused it, pleading my emergency as the sole excuse; also begging him to let me wipe the blood away ere he took it from me.
"Nay, nay," he said. "Wipe it not away. Give me the blade as it is. These were two good men of mine whom thou hast placed out of fight; but thou didst it bravely, and it shall not be held against thee."
There was some muttering at this, especially from the group that had gathered about the fallen ones; but, again, there was a shout of approval from the majority of those on board, both of the "Nancy's" crew and the invaders.
"Yes, hear me, all," Mansvelt went on, having noted what was said. "This lad is not to be baited for this. He is now one of us. I hold him of our crew; and if any one trouble him henceforth he shall not alone answer to him—and he seems able to care for himself—but to me! Hear ye, all! Now, tumble down below and seek out the treasure. Sooth, we have wasted more than time enough this morning. Below, all!"
It must be said that a cold turn seized me when I heard the pirate say I was henceforth to be one of his crew, and made as if to protest. But, most strange it is to say so, I felt not for him the aversion that had at first possessed me. I saw—as well as I could see then, in my dazed condition—that he was, above all else, and if nothing else, eminently fair. For he might easily have caused me to be slain for this misadventure, laying it to rashness or to a spirit of bravado. But, instead, he had generously granted me full absolution, and not only this, but had seemed to take joy in what I had done. Whatever there may have been in me that gave me courage I recognized in him another with a kindred quality, and I felt ashamed, then, of having by my manner cast contempt upon him by refusing his hand when offered me in seeming friendship.
I looked into his eyes, and he met my gaze squarely and frankly. The same impulse must have moved us both, for the next moment he held out his hand, which I grasped, as it had been the hand of a friend. And indeed, though I may be scoffed for saying it, so it seemed to me then; nor was my native perception far wrong—then.
"Here, lad," he said, extending the other hand in which was the portrait, that one of his men had brought him; "here is thy picture. May I ask who is the fair lady?"
"My mother, captain. And I thank thee for returning me the treasure."
"Thy mother, lad? Ah, let me look at it, prithee. Truly a sweet face, a beauteous face. Thou wert right to fight for her, and couldst not have done less. It touched thy heart to see her misused. I understand. I, too, once had a loving mother. But now—alas!"