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Chapter 6 "EL NORTE"

Another moment and el Norte had come in strength. First a sudden rush of wind struck the vessel, causing her to shiver, and with a sharp report rending from its fastenings the jib, which had not been furled. This gust went howling by, and after it rolled the storm.

To us it seemed that the Santa Maria dived head first into a huge wave, a level line of white illumined with lightnings and swept forward by the hurricane, for in an instant a foot of foaming water tore along her deck from stem to stem, sweeping away everything movable upon it, including two Indian sailors. We should have gone with the rest had we not clung with all our strength to the rope coiled about the foremast, but as it was we escaped with a wetting.

For a while the ship stood quite still, and it seemed as though she were being pressed into the deep by the weight of water on her decks, but as this fell from her in cataracts, she rose again and ploughed forward. Fortunately the first burst of the tempest was also the most terrible, and it had not taken her broadside on, for one or two more such waves would have swamped us.

After it had passed shorewards, driven by the hurricane wind, for a little space there was what by comparison might be called a lull, then the Santa Maria met the full weight of the norther. For a while she forged again against the shrieking wind and vast succeeding seas, shipping such a quantity of water that presently the captain found it necessary to reduce her engines to half speed, which it was hoped would suffice to give her way without filling her.

Now less water came aboard, but on the other hand, as was soon evident, the vessel began to drift towards the Point Xicalango, and from this moment it became clear that only a miracle could save her. For an hour or more the Santa Maria kept up a gallant and unequal fight, being constantly pressed backwards by the might of the storm, till at length we could see in the glare of the lightning that the breakers of the Point were raging not two hundred paces from her stern. The captain saw them also and made a last effort. Shifting the vessel's bow a little, so that the seas struck her on the port quarter, he gave the order of "Full steam ahead," and once more we drove forward.

Before and since that day I have made many voyages across the Gulf of Mexico in all weathers, but never have I met with such an experience as that which followed. The ship plunged and strained and rocked, lifting now her bow and now her stern high above the waves, till it seemed as though she must fall to pieces, while water in tons rushed aboard of her at every dip, which, as she righted herself, streamed through the broken bulwarks.

Slowly, very slowly, we were forging away from the Point and out into the channel which lies between it and Carmen Island, but the effort was too fierce to last. Presently, after a succession of terrible pitchings, one paddle-wheel suddenly ceased to thrash the water, while the other broke to pieces, and a faint cry from below told those on deck that the worn-out machinery had collapsed.

Now we were in the mid-race or channel, through which the boiling current, driven by the fury of the gale and the push of the tide, tore at a speed of fifteen or sixteen knots, carrying the Santa Maria along with it as a chip of wood is carried down a flooded gutter. Twice she whirled right round, for now that her machinery had gone there was no power to keep her head to the waves, and on the second occasion, as she lay broadside to them, a green sea came aboard of her that swept her decks almost clean, taking away with it every boat except the cutter, which fortunately was slung upon davits to starboard and out of its reach.

Crouching under shelter of the mast, again the three of us clung to our ropes, nor did we leave go although the water ground us against the deck, covering us for so long that before our heads were clear of it we felt as though our lungs must burst. As it chanced, what remained of the starboard bulwarks was carried away by the rush, allowing the sea to escape, or the ship must have foundered at once. But it had done its work, for the engine-room hatchway and the cabin light were stove in, and the Santa Maria was half full of water.

Before a second sea could strike her, her nose swung round, and in this position she was washed along the race, her deck not standing more than four feet above the level of the waves.

Now from time to time the moon shone out between rifts in the storm clouds, revealing a dreadful scene. Fragments of the little bridge still remained, and to them was lashed the large body of the captain in an upright position, though, as he neither spoke nor stirred, we never learned whether he was only paralysed by terror, or had been killed by a blow from the funnel as it fell.

You will remember, my friend, that he had ordered the passengers to be battened down, and there in the cabin they remained, twenty or more of them, until the hatchways were stove in. Then, with the exception of one or two, who were drowned by the water that poured down upon them, they rushed up the companion, men and women together, for they could no longer stay below, and, shrieking, praying, and blaspheming, clung to fragments of the bulwarks, shrouds of the mast, or anything which they thought could give them protection against the pitiless waves.

Awful were the wails of the women, who, clad only in their night-dresses, now quitted their bunks for the first time since they entered them in the harbour of Vera Cruz. Overcome by fear, and having no knowledge of the dangers of the deep, these poor creatures flung themselves at full length upon the deck, striving to keep a hold of the slippery boards, whence one by one they rolled into the ocean as the vessel lurched, or were carried away by the seas that pooped her.

Some of the men followed them to their watery grave, others, more self-possessed, crept forward, attempting to escape the waves that broke over the stern, but none made any effort to save them, and indeed it would have been impossible so to do.

Among those who crawled forward to where we and some of the Indian sailors were clinging to the rope that was coiled round the stump of the broken foremast, was Don José Moreno. Even in his terror, which was great, this man could still be ferocious, for, recognising the señor, he yelled:

"Ah! maldonado—evil-gifted one—you called down the norther upon us. Well, at least you shall die with the rest," and, suddenly drawing his long knife, he rose to his knees, and, holding the rope with one hand, attempted to drive it into the señor's body with the other. Doubtless he would have succeeded in his wickedness had not an Indian boatswain, who was near, bent forward and struck him so sharply on the arm with his clenched fist that the knife flew from his hand. In trying to recover it Don José fell face downwards on the deck, where he lay making no further effort at aggression.

Afterwards the señor told me, such was the horror and confusion of the scene, that, at the time, he scarcely noticed this incident, though every detail came back to him on the morrow, and with it a great wonder that even when death was staring them in the face, the Indians did not forget their promise to watch over our safety.

Meanwhile, swept onward by the tide and gale, the Santa Maria, waterlogged and sinking, rushed swiftly to her doom. Our last hour was upon us, and for a space this knowledge seemed to benumb the mind of the Señor Strickland, who crouched at my side, as the wet and cold had benumbed his body. Nor was this strange, for it seemed terrible to perish thus.

"Can we do nothing?" he said to me at length. "Ask the Indians if there is any hope."

Putting my face close to the ear of the boatswain, I spoke to him, then shouted back:

"He says that the current is taking us round the point of the island, and if the ship weathers it, we shall come presently into calmer water, where a boat might live, if there is one left and it can be launched. He thinks, however, that we must sink."

When the señor heard this he hid his face in his hands, and doubtless began to say his prayers, as I did also. Soon, however, we ceased even from that effort, for we were rounding the point and once more the seas were breaking on and over the vessel's side.

For a few minutes there was a turmoil that cannot be described; then, although the wind still shrieked overhead, we felt that we were in water which seemed almost calm to us. The ship no longer pitched and rolled, she only rocked as she settled before sinking, while the moon, shining out between the clouds, showed that what had been her bulwarks were not more than two or three feet above the level of the sea.

Six Indians, our three selves, Don José, who seemed to be senseless, and the body of the captain lashed to the broken bridge, alone remained of the crew and passengers of the Santa Maria. The rest had been swept away, but there close to us the cutter still hung upon the davits.

The señor saw it, and I think that he remembered his saying of a few hours before, that he would die fighting; at least he cried:

"The ship is sinking. To the boat, quick!" and, running to the cutter, he climbed into her, as did I, Molas, and the six Indian sailors.

She was full of water almost to the thwarts, which could only be got rid of by pulling out the wooden plug in her bottom.

Happily the boatswain, that same man who had struck the knife from the hand of Don José, knew where to look for this plug, and, being a sailor of courage and resource, he was able to loose it, so that presently the water was pouring from her in a stream thick as a hawser. Meanwhile, urged to it by the hope of escape, the other Indians were employed in getting out the oars, and in loosening the tackles before slipping them altogether when enough water had run out to allow the boat to swim.

"Get the plug back," said the señor, "the vessel is sinking, you must bale the rest."

Half a minute more and it was done; then, at a word from the boatswain, the sailors lowered away—they had not far to go—and we were afloat, and, better still, quite clear of the ship.

Scarcely had they brought the head of the cutter round and pulled three or four strokes, when from the deck of the Santa Maria there came the sound of a man's voice crying for help, and by the light of the moon we discovered the figure of Don José Moreno clinging to the broken bulwarks, that now were almost awash.

"For the love of God, come back to me!" he screamed.

The oarsmen hesitated, but the boatswain said, with an Indian oath:

"Pull on and let the dog drown."

It seemed as if Don José heard him, at least he raised so piteous a wailing that the señor's heart, which was always over-tender, was touched by it.

"We cannot desert the man," he answered, "put back for him."

"He tried to murder you just now," shouted the boatswain, "and if we go near the ship, she will take us down with her."

Then he turned to me and asked, "Do you command us to put back, lord?"

"Since the señor wills it, I command you," I answered. "We must save the man and take our chance."

"He commands whom we must obey," shouted the boatswain again; "put back, my brothers."

Sullenly, but submissively, the Indians backed water till we lay almost beneath the counter of the vessel, that wallowed in the trough of the swell before she went down. On the deck, clinging to the stays of the mast, stood Don José—his straight oiled hair beat about his face, his gorgeous dress was soaked and disordered.

"Save me!" he yelled hoarsely, "save me!"

"Throw yourself into the sea, señor, and we will pick you up."

"I dare not," was the answer; "come aboard and fetch me."

"Does the señor still wish us to stay?" asked the boatswain, calmly.

"Listen, you cur," shouted the señor, "the ship is sinking and will take us with it. At the word 'three,' give way, men. Now will you come, or not? One, two——"

"I come," said the Mexican, and, driven to it by desperation, he cast himself into the sea.

With difficulty the señor, assisted by an Indian with a boathook, succeeded in getting hold of him as he was washed past on the swell. I confess that I would have no hand in the affair, since—may I be forgiven the sin—my charity was not true enough to make me wish to save this villain. There, however, the matter rested for the present, as they could not stop to pull him into the boat, for just then the deck of the Santa Maria burst with a rending sound, and she began to go down bodily.

"Row for your lives," shouted the boatswain, and they rowed, dragging Don José in the wake of the cutter.

Down went the Santa Maria, bow first, making a hollow in the sea that sucked us back towards her. For a moment the issue hung doubtful, for the whirlpool caused by the vanished vessel was strong and almost engulfed us, but in the end the stout arms of the Indians conquered and drew our boat clear.

So soon as this great danger had gone by, the sailors with much labour lifted Don José into the cutter, where he lay gasping but unharmed.

Then arose the question of what we could possibly do to save our lives.

We were lying under the lee of Carmen Island, which sheltered us somewhat from the fury of the norther, and we might either try to land upon this island, or to put about and run for the mouth of the Usumacinto river. There was a third course: to keep the boat's head to the seas, if that were possible, and let her drift till daylight. In the end this was what we determined to do.

Indeed, while we were discussing the question it was settled for us, for suddenly the rain began to fall in torrents, blotting out such moonlight as there was; and to land in this darkness would have been impossible, even if the nature of the beach allowed of it. Therefore we lay to and gave our thoughts and strength to the task of preventing the waves, which became more and more formidable as we drifted beyond the shelter of the island, from swamping or oversetting us.

It was a great struggle, and had it not been that the heavy rain beat down the seas, we could never have lived till morning. As it was we must have been swamped many times over but for the staunchness of the boat, which, fortunately, was a new one, and the seamanship and ceaseless vigilance of the Indian boatswain who commanded her. For hour after hour he crouched in the bow of the cutter, staring through the sheets of rain and the darkness with his hawk-like eyes, and shouting directions to the crew as he heard or caught sight of a white-crested billow rolling down upon us, that presently would fling us upwards to sink deep into the trough on its further side, sometimes half filling the boat with water, which must be baled out before the next sea overtook us.

Afterwards the señor told me that, knowing it to be the nature of Indians to submit to evil rather than to struggle against it, he wondered how it came about that these men faced the fight so gallantly, instead of throwing down their oars and suffering themselves to be drowned. I also was somewhat astonished till presently the matter was explained, for once, when a larger sea than those that went before had almost filled us, the boatswain called out to his companions:

"Be brave, my brothers, and fear nothing. The Keeper of the Heart is with us, and death will flee him."

To the señor, however, this comfort seemed cold, since he did not believe that any talisman could save us from the powers of the sky and sea, nor indeed did I. Wet and half frozen as he was, his nerve broken by the terrible scenes that we had witnessed upon the lost ship, and by thoughts of the many who had gone down with her, his spirit, so he told me, failed him at last.

He gave no outward sign of his inward state indeed; he did not follow the example of the Mexican, who lay in the water at the bottom of the boat, groaning, weeping, and confessing his sins, which seemed to be many. Only he sat still and silent and surrendered himself to destiny, till by degrees his forces, mental and bodily, deserted him and he sank into a torpor. It was little wonder, for rarely have shipwrecked men been in a more hopeless position. The blinding rain, the bewildering darkness, the roaring wind and sea, all combined to destroy us while we drifted in our frail craft we knew not whither.

As minute after minute of that endless night went by, our escape seemed to become more impossible, for each took with it something of the strength and mental energy of those who fought so bravely against the doom that overshadowed us. For my part, I was sure that my hour had come, but this did not trouble me overmuch, since my life had not been so happy or successful that I grieved at the thought of losing it. Moreover, ever since I became a man it has been my daily endeavour to prepare my mind for Death, and so to live that I should not have to fear the hour of his coming.

In truth it seems to me that without such preparation the life of any man who thinks must be one long wretchedness, seeing that at the last, strive as he may, fate will overtake him, and that there is no event in our lives which can compare in importance with the inevitable end. We live not to escape from death, but in order that we may die; this is the great issue and object of our existence. Still, Death is terrible, more especially when we are called upon to await him hour after hour amid the horror and turmoil of a shipwreck.

Therefore I was very thankful when, having flung my serape about the form of my friend, at length I also was overcome by cold and exhaustion, and after a space of time, in which the present seemed to fade from me, taking with it all fears and hopes of the future, and the past alone possessed me, peopled by the dead, I sank into unconsciousness or swoon.

How long I remained in this merciful state of oblivion I do not know, but I was roused from it by Molas, who shook me and called into my ear with a voice that trembled with cold or joy, or both:

"Awake, awake, we are saved!"

"Saved?" I said, confusedly. "What from?"

"From death in the sea. Look, lord."

Then with much pain, for the salt spray had congealed upon my face like frost, I opened my eyes to find that the morning was an hour old, and though the skies were still leaden we were no longer at sea, but floated on the waters of a river, whereof the bar roared behind us.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"In the Usumacinto river, thanks be to God!" answered Molas. "We have been driven across the bay in the dark, and at the dawn found ourselves just outside the breakers. Somehow we passed them safely, and there before us is the blessed land."

I looked at the bank of the river clothed with reeds and grasses, and the noble palm-trees that grew among them. Then I looked at my companions. The Señor Strickland lay as though he were dead beneath the serape that I had thrown over him, his head resting on the thwarts, but the Mexican, Don José, was sitting up in the bottom of the boat and staring wildly at the shore.

As for the Indians, the men to whom we owed our lives, they were utterly worn out. Two of them appeared to have swooned where they sat, and I saw that their hands were bleeding from the friction of the oars. Three others lay gasping beneath the seats, but Molas held the tiller at my side, and the boatswain still sat upright in the bow where he had faced death for so many dreadful hours.

"Say, lord," he asked, turning his face that was hollow with suspense and suffering, and white with encrusted salt, to speak to me, "can you row? If so, take the oars and pull us to the bank while Molas steers, for our arms will work no more."

Then I struggled from my seat, and with great efforts, for every moment caused me pain, I pulled the cutter to the bank, and as her bows struck against it, the sun broke through the thinning clouds.

So soon as the boat was made fast, Molas and I lifted the señor from her, and, laying him on the bank, we removed his clothes so that the sun might play upon his limbs, which were blue with cold. As the clouds melted and the warmth increased, I saw the blood begin to creep beneath the whiteness of his skin, which was drawn with the wet and wind, and rejoiced, for now I knew that he did but sleep, and that the tide of life was rising in his veins again, as in my own.

Whilst we sat thus warming ourselves in the sunlight, some Indians appeared, belonging to a rancho, or village, half a league away. On learning our misfortunes and who we were, these men hurried home to bring us food, having first pointed out to us a pool of sweet rain-water, of which we stood in great need, for our throats were dry. When they had been gone nearly an hour, the señor awoke and asked for drink, which I gave him in the baling-bowl. Next he inquired where we were and what had happened to us. When I had told him he hid his face in his hands for a while, then lifted it and said:

"I am a fool and a boaster, Ignatio. I said that I would die fighting, and it is these men who have fought and saved my life while I swooned like a child."

"I did the same, señor," I answered; "only those who were working at the oars could keep their senses, for labour warmed them somewhat. Come to the river and wash, for now your clothes are dry again," and throwing the serape over his shoulders, I led him to the water.

As we climbed down the bank we met the boatswain, and the señor said, holding out his hand to him:

"You are a brave man and you have saved all our lives."

"No, señor, not I," answered the Indian. "You forget that with us was the Keeper of the Heart, and the Heart that has endured so long, cannot be lost. This we knew, and therefore we laboured on, well assured that our toil would not be in vain."

"I shall soon begin to believe in that talisman of yours myself, Ignatio," said the señor shrugging his shoulders; "certainly it did us good service last night."

Then he washed, and by the time he had dressed himself, women arrived from the rancho bearing with them baskets laden with tortillas or meal cakes, frijole beans, a roast kid, and a bottle of good agua ardiente, the brandy of this country. On these provisions we fell to thankfully, and, before we had finished our meal, the alcalde, or head man of the village, presented himself to pay his respects and to invite us to his house.

Now I whispered to Molas, who had some acquaintance with this man, to take him apart and discover my rank to him, and to learn if perchance he had any tidings of that stranger whom we came to visit, the doctor Zibalbay. He nodded and obeyed, and after a while I rose and followed him behind some trees, where the alcalde, who was of our brotherhood, greeted me with reverence.

"I have news, my lord," said Molas. "This man says that he has heard of the old Indian and his daughter, and that but this morning one who has travelled down the river told him how some five or six days ago they were both of them seized by Don Pedro Moreno, the father of Don José yonder, and imprisoned at the hacienda of Santa Cruz, where, dead or alive, they remain."

Now I thought a while, then, sending for the Señor James, I told him what we had learnt.

"But what can this villain want to do with an old Indian and his daughter?" he asked.

"The señor forgets," said Molas, "that Don Pedro robbed me of the gold which the doctor gave me, and that in my folly I told him from whom it came. Doubtless he thinks to win the secret of the mine whence it was dug, and of the mint where it was stamped with the sign of the Heart. Also there is the daughter, whom some men might value above all the gold in Mexico. Now, lord, I fear that your journey is fruitless, since those who become Don Pedro's guests are apt to stay with him for ever."

"That, I think, we must take the risk of," said the señor.

"Yes," I answered: "having come so far to find this stranger, we cannot turn back now. At least we have lived through worse dangers than those which await us at Santa Cruz."