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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 11. The Captain Follows His Ship
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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 11. The Captain Follows His Ship Post by :bandit1030 Category :Long Stories Author :Bret Harte Date :May 2012 Read :1060

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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 11. The Captain Follows His Ship

PART I. IN BONDS
CHAPTER XI. THE CAPTAIN FOLLOWS HIS SHIP

When Padre Esteban had finished reading the document he laid it down and fixed his eyes on the young man. Hurlstone met his look with a glance of impatient disdain.

"What have you to say to this?" asked the ecclesiastic, a little impressed by his manner.

"That as far as it concerns myself it is a farrago of absurdity. If I were the person described there, why should I have sought you with what you call a lie of 'sentimental passion,' when I could have claimed protection openly with my SISTER PATRIOT," he added, with a bitter laugh.

"Because you did not know THEN the sympathy of the people nor the decision of the Council," said the priest.

"But I know it NOW, and I refuse to accept it."

"You refuse--to--to accept it?" echoed the priest.

"I do." He walked towards the door. "Before I go, let me thank you for the few hours' rest and security that you have given to one who may be a cursed man, yet is no impostor. But I do not blame you for doubting one who talks like a desperate man, yet lacks the courage of desperation. Good-by!"

"Where are you going?"

"What matters? There is a safer protection and security to be found than even that offered by the Council of Todos Santos."

His eyes were averted, but not before the priest had seen them glaze again with the same gloomy absorption that had horrified him in the church the evening before. Father Esteban stepped forward and placed his soft hand on Hurlstone's shoulder.

"Look at me. Don't turn your face aside, but hear me; for I believe your story."

Without raising his eyes, the young man lifted Father Esteban's hand from his shoulder, pressed it lightly, and put it quietly aside.

"I thank you," he said, "for keeping at least that unstained memory of me. But it matters little now. Good-by!"

He had his hand upon the door, but the priest again withheld him.

"When I tell you I believe your story, it is only to tell you more. I believe that God has directed your wayward, wandering feet here to His house, that you may lay down the burden of your weak and suffering manhood before His altar, and become once more a child of His. I stand here to offer you, not a refuge of a day or a night, but for all time; not a hiding-place from man or woman, but from yourself, my son--yourself, your weak and mortal self, more fatal to you than all. I stand here to open for you not only the door of this humble cell, but that of His yonder blessed mansion. You shall share my life with me; you shall be one of my disciples; you shall help me strive for other souls as I have striven for yours; the protection of the Church, which is all-powerful, shall be around you if you wish to be known; you shall hide yourself in its mysteries if you wish to be forgotten. You shall be my child, my companion, my friend; all that my age can give you shall be yours while I live, and it shall be your place one day to take up my unfinished work when it falls from these palsied hands forever."

"You are mistaken," said the young man coldly. "I came to you for human aid, and thank you for what you have granted me: I have not been presumptuous enough to ask more, nor to believe myself a fitting subject for conversion. I am weak, but not weak enough to take advantage of the mistaken kindness of either the temporal Council of Todos Santos or its spiritual head." He opened the door leading into the garden. "Forget and forgive me, Father Esteban, and let me say farewell."

"Stop!" said the ecclesiastic, raising himself to his full height and stepping before Hurlstone. "Then if you will not hear me in the name of your Father who lives, in the name of your father who is dead I command you to stay! I stand here to-day in the place of that man I never knew--to hold back his son from madness and crime. Think of me as of him whom you loved, and grant to an old man who might have had a son as old as you the right of throwing a father's protecting arm around you."

There was a moment's silence.

"What do you want me to do?" said Hurlstone, suddenly lifting his now moist and glistening eyes upon the old man.

"Give me your word of honor that for twenty-four hours you will remain as you are--pledging yourself to nothing--only promising to commit no act, take no step, without consulting me. You will not be sought here, nor yet need you keep yourself a prisoner in these gloomy walls--except that, by exposing yourself to the people now, you might be compromised to some course that you are not ready to take."

"I promise," said Hurlstone.

He turned and held out both his hands; but Father Esteban anticipated him with a paternal gesture of uplifted and opened arms, and for an instant the young man's forehead was bowed on the priest's shoulder.

Father Esteban gently raised the young man's head.

"You will take a pasear in the garden until the Angelus rings, my son, while the air is sweet and wholesome, and think this over. Remember that you may accept the hospitality of the Council without sin of deception. You were not in sympathy with either the captors of the Excelsior or their defeated party; for you would have flown from both. You, of all your party now in Todos Santos, are most in sympathy with us. You have no cause to love your own people; you have abandoned them for us. Go, my son; and meditate upon my words. I will fetch you from yonder slope in time for the evening refection."

Hurlstone bowed his head and turned his irresolute feet towards the upper extremity of the garden, indicated by the priest, which seemed to offer more seclusion and security than the avenue of pear-trees. He was dazed and benumbed. The old dogged impulses of self-destruction--revived by the priest's reproaches, but checked by the vision of his dead and forgotten father, which the priest's words had called up--gave way, in turn, to his former despair. With it came a craving for peace and rest so insidious that in some vague fear of yielding to it he quickened his pace, as if to increase his distance from the church and its apostle. He was almost out of breath when he reached the summit, and turned to look back upon the Mission buildings and the straggling street of the pueblo, which now for the first time he saw skirted the wall of the garden in its descent towards the sea. He had not known the full extent of Todos Santos before; when he swam ashore he had landed under a crumbling outwork of the fort; he gazed now with curious interest over the hamlet that might have been his home. He looked over the red-tiled roofs, and further on to the shining bay, shut in by the impenetrable rampart of fog. He might have found rest and oblivion here but for the intrusion of those fellow-passengers to share his exile and make it intolerable. How he hated and loathed them all! Yet the next moment he found himself scrutinizing the street and plaza below him for a glimpse of his countrywomen, whom he knew were still in the town or vainly endeavoring to locate their habitation among the red-tiled roofs. And that frank, clear-eyed girl--Miss Keene!--she who had seemed to vaguely pity him--she was somewhere here too--selected by the irony of fate to be his confederate! He could not help thinking of her beauty and kindness now, with a vague curiosity that was half an uneasiness. It had not struck him before, but if he were to accept the ridiculous attitude forced upon him by Todos Santos, its absurdity, as well as its responsibility, would become less odious by sharing it with another. Perhaps it might be to HER advantage--and if so, would he be justified in exposing its absurdity? He would have to see her first--and if he did, how would he explain his real position? A returning wave of bitterness threw him back into his old despair.

The twilight had slowly gathered over the view as he gazed--or, rather a luminous concentration above the pueblo and bay had left the outer circle of fog denser and darker. Emboldened by the apparent desertion of the Embarcadero, he began to retrace his steps down the slope, keeping close to the wall so as to avoid passing before the church again, or a closer contact with the gardener among the vines. In this way he reached the path he had skirted the night before, and stopped almost under the shadow of the Alcalde's house. It was here he had rested and hidden,--here he had tasted the first sweets of isolation and oblivion in the dreamy garden,--here he had looked forward to peace with the passing of the ship,--and now? The sound of voices and laughter suddenly grated upon his ear. He had heard those voices before. Their distinctness startled him until he became aware that he was standing before a broken, half-rotting door that permitted a glimpse of the courtyard of the neighboring house. He glided quickly past it without pausing, but in that glimpse beheld Mrs. Brimmer and Miss Chubb half reclining in the corridor--in the attitude he had often seen them on the deck of the ship--talking and laughing with a group of Mexican gallants. A feeling of inconceivable loathing and aversion took possession of him. Was it to THIS he was returning after his despairing search for oblivion? Their empty, idle laughter seemed to ring mockingly in his ears as he hurried on, scarce knowing whither, until he paused before the broken cactus hedge and crumbling wall that faced the Embarcadero. A glance over the hedge showed him that the strip of beach was deserted. He looked up the narrow street; it was empty. A few rapid strides across it gained him the shadow of the sea-wall of the Presidio, unchecked and unhindered. The ebbing tide had left a foot or two of narrow shingle between the sea and the wall. He crept along this until, a hundred yards distant, the sea-wall reentered inland around a bastion at the entrance of a moat half filled at high tide by the waters of the bay, but now a ditch of shallow pools, sand, and debris. He leaned against the bastion, and looked over the softly darkening water.

How quiet it looked, and, under that vaporous veil, how profound and inscrutable! How easy to slip into its all-embracing arms, and sink into its yielding bosom, leaving behind no stain, trace, or record! A surer oblivion than the Church, which could not absolve memory, grant forgetfulness, nor even hide the ghastly footprints of its occupants. Here was obliteration. But was he sure of that? He thought of the body of the murdered Peruvian, laid out at the feet of the Council by this same fickle and uncertain sea; he thought of his own distorted face subjected to the cold curiosity of these aliens or the contemptuous pity of his countrymen. But that could be avoided. It was easy for him--a good swimmer--to reach a point far enough out in the channel for the ebbing tides to carry him past that barrier of fog into the open and obliterating ocean. And then, at least, it might seem as if he had attempted to ESCAPE--indeed, if he cared, he might be able to keep afloat until he was picked up by some passing vessel, bound to a distant land! The self-delusion pleased him, and seemed to add the clinching argument to his resolution. It was not suicide; it was escape--certainly no more than escape--he intended! And this miserable sophism of self-apology, the last flashes of expiring conscience, helped to light up his pale, determined face with satisfaction. He began coolly to divest himself of his coat.

What was that?--the sound of some dislodged stones splashing in one of the pools further up! He glanced hurriedly round the wall of the bastion. A figure crouching against the side of the ditch, as if concealing itself from observation on the glacis above, was slowly approaching the sea. Suddenly, when within a hundred yards of Hurlstone, it turned, crossed the ditch, rapidly mounted its crumbling sides, and disappeared over the crest. But in that hurried glimpse he had recognized Captain Bunker!

The sudden and mysterious apparition of this man produced on Hurlstone an effect that the most violent opposition could not have created. Without a thought of the terrible purpose it had interrupted, and obeying some stronger instinct that had seized him, he dashed down into the ditch and up to the crest again after Captain Bunker. But he had completely disappeared. A little lagoon, making in from the bay, on which a small fishing-boat was riding, and a solitary fisherman mending his nets on the muddy shore a few feet from it, were all that was to be seen.

He was turning back, when he saw the object of his search creeping from some reeds, on all fours, with a stealthy, panther-like movement towards the unconscious fisherman. Before Hurlstone could utter a cry, Bunker had sprung upon the unfortunate man, thrown him to the earth, rapidly rolled him over and over, enwrapping him hand and foot in his own net, and involving him hopelessly in its meshes. Tossing the helpless victim--who was apparently too stupefied to call out--to one side, he was rushing towards the boat when, with a single bound, Hurlstone reached his side and laid his hand upon his shoulder.

"Captain Bunker, for God's sake! what are you doing?"

Captain Bunker turned slowly and without apparent concern towards his captor. Hurlstone fell back before the vacant, lack-lustre eyes that were fixed upon him.

"Captain Bunker's my name," said the madman, in a whisper. "Lemuel Bunker, of Nantucket! Hush! don't waken him," pointing to the prostrate fisherman; "I've put him to sleep. I'm Captain Bunker--old drunken Bunker--who stole one ship from her owners, and disgraced himself, and now is going to steal another--ha, ha! Let me go."

"Captain Bunker," said Hurlstone, recovering himself in time to prevent the maniac from dashing into the water. "Look at me. Don't you know me?"

"Yes, yes; you're one of old Bunker's dogs kicked overboard by Perkins. I'm one of Perkins' dogs gone mad, and locked up by Perkins! Ha, ha! But I got out! Hush! SHE let me out. SHE thought I was going to see the boys at San Antonio. But I'm going off to see the old barque out there in the fog. I'm going to chuck Perkins overboard and the two mates. Let me go."

He struggled violently. Hurlstone, fearful of quitting his hold to release the fisherman, whom Captain Bunker no longer noticed, and not daring to increase the Captain's fury by openly calling to him, beckoned the pinioned man to make an effort. But, paralyzed by fear, the wretched captive remained immovable, staring at the struggling men. With the strength of desperation Hurlstone at last forced the Captain down upon his knees.

"Listen, Captain! We'll go together--you understand. I'll help you--but we must get a larger boat first--you know."

"But they won't give it," said Captain Bunker mysteriously. "Didn't you hear the Council--the owners--the underwriters say: 'He lost his ship, he's ruined and disgraced, for rum, all for rum!' And we want rum, you know, and it's all over there, in the Excelsior's locker!"

"Yes, yes," said Hurlstone soothingly; "but there's more in the bigger boat. Come with me. We'll let the man loose, and we'll make him show us his bigger boat."

It was an unfortunate suggestion; for the Captain, who had listened with an insane chuckle, and allowed himself to be taken lightly by the hand, again caught sight of the prostrate fisherman. A yell broke from him--his former frenzy returned. With a cry of "Treachery! all hands on deck!" he threw off Hurlstone and rushed into the water.

"Help!" cried the young man, springing after him, "It is madness. He will kill himself!"

The water was shallow, they were both wading, they both reached the boat at the same time; but the Captain had scrambled into the stern-sheets, and cast loose the painter, as Hurlstone once more threw his arms about him.

"Hear me, Captain. I'll go with you. Listen! I know the way through the fog. You understand: I'll pilot you!" He was desperate, but no longer from despair of himself, but of another; he was reckless, but only to save a madman from the fate that but a moment before he had chosen for himself.

Captain Bunker seemed to soften. "Get in for'ard," he said, in a lower voice. Hurlstone released his grasp, but still clinging to the boat, which had now drifted into deeper water, made his way to the bow. He was climbing over the thwarts when a horrified cry from the fisherman ashore and a jarring laugh in his ear caused him to look up. But not in time to save himself! The treacherous maniac had suddenly launched a blow from an oar at the unsuspecting man as he was rising to his knees. It missed his head, but fell upon his arm and shoulder, precipitating him violently into the sea.

Stunned by the shock, he sank at first like lead to the bottom. When he rose again, with his returning consciousness, he could see that Captain Bunker had already hoisted sail, and, with the assistance of his oars, was rapidly increasing his distance from the shore. With his returning desperation he turned to strike out after him, but groaned as his one arm sank powerless to his side. A few strokes showed him the madness of the attempt; a few more convinced him that he himself could barely return to the shore. A sudden torpor had taken possession of him--he was sinking!

With this thought, a struggle for life began; and this man who had just now sought death so eagerly--with no feeling of inconsistency, with no physical fear of dissolution, with only a vague, blind, dogged determination to live for some unknown purpose--a determination as vague and dogged as his former ideas of self-destruction--summoned all his energies to reach the shore. He struck out wildly, desperately; once or twice he thought he felt his feet touch the bottom, only to find himself powerlessly dragged back towards the sea. With a final superhuman effort he gained at last a foothold on the muddy strand, and, half scrambling, half crawling, sank exhaustedly beside the fisherman's net. But the fisherman was gone! He attempted again to rise to his feet, but a strange dizziness attacked him. The darkening landscape, with its contracting wall of fog; the gloomy flat; the still, pale sea, as yet unruffled by the faint land breeze that was slowly wafting the escaping boat into the shadowy offing--all swam round him! Through the roaring in his ears he thought he heard drumbeats, and the fanfare of a trumpet, and voices. The next moment he had lost all consciousness.

When he came to, he was lying in the guard-room of the Presidio. Among the group of people who surrounded him he recognized the gaunt features of the Commander, the sympathetic eyes of Father Esteban, and the fisherman who had disappeared. When he rose on his elbow, and attempted to lift himself feebly, the fisherman, with a cry of gratitude, threw himself on his knees, and kissed his helpless hand.

"He lives, he lives! your Excellencies! Saints be praised, he lives! The hero--the brave Americano--the noble caballero who delivered me from the madman."

"Who are you? and whence come you?" demanded the Commander of Hurlstone, with grave austerity.

Hurlstone hesitated; the priest leaned forward with a half anxious, half warning gesture. There was a sudden rustle in the passage; the crowd gave way as Miss Keene, followed by Mrs. Markham, entered. The young girl's eyes caught those of the prostrate man. With an impulsive cry she ran towards him.

"Mr. Hurlstone!"

"Hurlstone," echoed the group, pressing nearer the astonished man.

The Comandante lifted his hand gravely with a gesture of silence, and then slowly removed his plumed hat. Every head was instantly uncovered.

"Long live our brave and noble ally, Don Diego! Long live the beautiful Dona Leonor!"

A faint shade of sadness passed over the priest's face. He glanced from Hurlstone to Miss Keene.

"Then you have consented?" he whispered.

Hurlstone cast a rapid glance at Eleanor Keene.

"I consent!"

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