• Victoria Reeve

Chapter 26: IDA HANDS

Treasure Island Pirated

The wind, serving us to a desire, now hauled into the west. We could run so much easier from the north-east corner of the island to the mouth of the North Inlet. Only, as we had no power to anchor and dared not beach him till the tide had flowed a good deal farther, time hung on our hands. The coxswain told me how to lay the ship to; after a good many trials I succeeded, and we both sat in silence over another meal.

“Cap’n,” said she at length with that same uncomfortable smile, “here’s my old shipmate, Mary O’Brien; s’pose you was to heave her overboard. I ain’t partic’lar as a rule, and I take no blame for settling her hash, but I don’t reckon her ornamental now, do you?”

“I’m not strong enough, and I don’t like the job; and there she lies, for me,” said I.

“This here’s an unlucky ship, this HISPANIOLO, Jem,” she went on, blinking. “There’s a power of women been killed in this HISPANIOLO—a sight o’ poor seawomen dead and gone since you and me took ship to Bristol. I never seen sich dirty luck, not I. There was this here Mary O’Brien now—she’s dead, ain’t she? Well now, I’m no scholar, and you’re a lass as can read and figure, and to put it straight, do you take it as a dead woman is dead for good, or do she come alive again?”

“You can kill the body, Mrs Hands, but not the spirit; you must know that already,” I replied. “Mary O’Brien there is in another world, and may be watching us.”

“Ah!” says she. “Well, that’s unfort’nate—appears as if killing parties was a waste of time. Howsomever, sperrits don’t reckon for much, by what I’ve seen. I’ll chance it with the sperrits, Jem. And now, you’ve spoke up free, and I’ll take it kind if you’d step down into that there cabin and get me a—well, a—shiver my timbers! I can’t hit the name on ‘t; well, you get me a bottle of wine, Jem—this here brandy’s too strong for my head.”

Now, the coxswain’s hesitation seemed to be unnatural, and as for the notion of her preferring wine to brandy, I entirely disbelieved it. The whole story was a pretext. She wanted me to leave the deck—so much was plain; but with what purpose I could in no way imagine. Her eyes never met mine; they kept wandering to and fro, up and down, now with a look to the sky, now with a flitting glance upon the dead Mary O’Brien. All the time she kept smiling and putting her tongue out in the most guilty, embarrassed manner, so that a child could have told that she was bent on some deception. I was prompt with my answer, however, for I saw where my advantage lay and that with a woman so densely stupid I could easily conceal my suspicions to the end.

“Some wine?” I said. “Far better. Will you have white or red?”

“Well, I reckon it’s about the blessed same to me, shipmate,” she replied; “so it’s strong, and plenty of it, what’s the odds?”

“All right,” I answered. “I’ll bring you port, Mrs Hands. But I’ll have to dig for it.”

With that I scuttled down the companion with all the noise I could, slipped off my shoes, ran quietly along the sparred gallery, mounted the forecastle ladder, and popped my head out of the fore companion. I knew she would not expect to see me there, yet I took every precaution possible, and certainly the worst of my suspicions proved too true.

She had risen from her position to her hands and knees, and though her leg obviously hurt her pretty sharply when she moved—for I could hear her stifle a groan—yet it was at a good, rattling rate that she trailed herself across the deck. In half a minute she had reached the port scuppers and picked, out of a coil of rope, a long knife, or rather a short dirk, discoloured to the hilt with blood. She looked upon it for a moment, thrusting forth her under jaw, tried the point upon her hand, and then, hastily concealing it in the bosom of her jacket, trundled back again into her old place against the bulwark.

This was all that I required to know. Ida could move about, she was now armed, and if she had been at so much trouble to get rid of me, it was plain that I was meant to be the victim. What she would do afterwards—whether she would try to crawl right across the island from North Inlet to the camp among the swamps or whether she would fire Long Tom, trusting that her own comrades might come first to help her—was, of course, more than I could say.

Yet I felt sure that I could trust her in one point, since that our interest jumped together, and that was in the disposition of the schooner. We both desired to have him stranded safe enough, in a sheltered place, and so that, when the time came, he could be got off again with as little labour and danger as might be; and until that was done I considered that my life would certainly be spared.

While I was thus turning the business over in my mind, I had not been idle with my body. I had stolen back to the cabin, slipped once more into my shoes, and laid my hand on a random bottle of wine, and now, with this for an excuse, I made my reappearance on the deck.

Ida Hands lay as I had left her, all fallen together in a bundle and with her eyelids lowered as though she were too weak to bear the light. She looked up, however, at my coming, knocked the neck off the bottle like a woman who had done the same thing often, and took a good swig, with her favourite toast of “Here’s luck!” Then she lay quiet for a little, and then, pulling out a stick of tobacco, begged me to cut her a quid.

“Cut me a junk o’ that,” says she, “for I haven’t no knife and hardly strength enough, so be as I had. Ah, Jem, Jem, I reckon I’ve missed stays! Cut me a quid, as’ll likely be the last, lass, for I’m for my long home, and no mistake.”

“Well,” said I, “I’ll cut you some tobacco, but if I was you and thought myself so badly, I would go to my prayers like a Christian woman.”

“Why?” said she. “Now, you tell me why.”

“Why?” I cried. “You were asking me just now about the dead. You’ve broken your trust; you’ve lived in sin and lies and blood; there’s a woman you killed lying at your feet this moment, and you ask me why! For God’s mercy, Mrs Hands, that’s why.”

I spoke with a little heat, thinking of the bloody dirk she had hidden in her pocket and designed, in her ill thoughts, to end me with. She, for her part, took a great draught of the wine and spoke with the most unusual solemnity.

“For thirty years,” she said, “I’ve sailed the seas and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet. Her as strikes first is my fancy; dead women don’t bite; them’s my views—amen, so be it. And now, you look here,” she added, suddenly changing her tone, “we’ve had about enough of this foolery. The tide’s made good enough by now. You just take my orders, Cap’n Hawkins, and we’ll sail slap in and be done with it.”

All told, we had scarce two miles to run; but the navigation was delicate, the entrance to this northern anchorage was not only narrow and shoal, but lay east and west, so that the schooner must be nicely handled to be got in. I think I was a good, prompt subaltern, and I am very sure that Ida Hands was an excellent pilot, for we went about and about and dodged in, shaving the banks, with a certainty and a neatness that were a pleasure to behold.

Scarcely had we passed the heads before the land closed around us. The shores of North Inlet were as thickly wooded as those of the southern anchorage, but the space was longer and narrower and more like, what in truth it was, the estuary of a river. Right before us, at the southern end, we saw the wreck of a ship in the last stages of dilapidation. It had been a great vessel of three masts but had lain so long exposed to the injuries of the weather that it was hung about with great webs of dripping seaweed, and on the deck of it shore bushes had taken root and now flourished thick with flowers. It was a sad sight, but now it showed us that the anchorage was calm.

“Now,” said Mrs Hands, “look there; there’s a pet bit for to beach a ship in. Fine flat sand, never a cat’s paw, trees all around of it, and flowers a-blowing like a garding on that old ship.”

“And once beached,” I inquired, “how shall we get him off again?”

“Why, so,” she replied: “you take a line ashore there on the other side at low water, take a turn about one of them big pines; bring it back, take a turn around the capstan, and lie to for the tide. Come high water, all hands take a pull upon the line, and off she comes as sweet as natur’. And now, girl, you stand by. We’re near the bit now, and he’s too much on his way. Starboard a little—so—steady—starboard—larboard a little—steady—steady!”

So she issued her commands, which I breathlessly obeyed, till, all of a sudden, she cried, “Now, my hearty, luff!” and I put the helm hard up, and the HISPANIOLO swung round rapidly and ran stem on for the low, wooded shore.

The excitement at these last manoeuvres had somewhat interfered with the watch I had kept hitherto, sharply enough, upon the coxswain. Even then I was still so much interested, waiting for the ship to touch, that I had quite forgot the peril that hung over my head and stood craning over the starboard bulwarks and watching the ripples spreading wide before the bows. I might have fallen without a struggle for my life had not a sudden disquietude seized upon me and made me turn my head. Perhaps I had heard a creak or seen her shadow moving with the tail of my eye; perhaps it was an instinct like a cat’s; but, sure enough, when I looked round, there was Ida Hands, already half-way towards me, with the dirk in her right hand.

We must both have cried out aloud when our eyes met, but while mine was the shrill cry of terror, hers was a roar of fury like a charging bully’s. At the same instant, she threw herself forward and I leapt sideways towards the bows. As I did so, I let go of the tiller, which sprang sharp to leeward, and I think this saved my life, for it struck Mrs Hands across the chest and stopped her, for the moment, dead.

Before she could recover, I was safe out of the corner where she had me trapped, with all the deck to dodge about. Just forward of the mainmast I stopped, drew a pistol from my pocket, took a cool aim, though she had already turned and was once more coming directly after me, and drew the trigger. The hammer fell, but there followed neither flash nor sound; the priming was useless with sea-water. I cursed myself for my neglect. Why had not I, long before, reprimed and reloaded my only weapons? Then I should not have been as now, a mere fleeing sheep before this butcher.

Wounded as she was, it was wonderful how fast she could move, her grizzled hair tumbling over her face, and her face itself as red as a red ensign with her haste and fury. I had no time to try my other pistol, nor indeed much inclination, for I was sure it would be useless. One thing I saw plainly: I must not simply retreat before her, or she would speedily hold me boxed into the bows, as a moment since she had so nearly boxed me in the stern. Once so caught, and nine or ten inches of the blood-stained dirk would be my last experience on this side of eternity. I placed my palms against the mainmast, which was of a goodish bigness, every nerve upon the stretch.

Seeing that I meant to dodge, she also paused; and a moment or two passed in feints on her part and corresponding movements upon mine. It was such a game as I had often played at home about the rocks of Black Hill Cove, but never before, you may be sure, with such a wildly beating heart as now. Still, as I say, it was a girl’s game, and I thought I could hold my own at it against an elderly seawoman with a wounded thigh. Indeed my courage had begun to rise so high that I allowed myself a few darting thoughts on what would be the end of the affair, and while I saw certainly that I could spin it out for long, I saw no hope of any ultimate escape.

Well, while things stood thus, suddenly the HISPANIOLO struck, staggered, ground for an instant in the sand, and then, swift as a blow, canted over to the port side till the deck stood at an angle of forty-five degrees and about a puncheon of water splashed into the scupper holes and lay, in a pool, between the deck and the bulwark.

We were both of us capsized in a second, and both of us rolled, almost together, into the scuppers, the dead red-cap, with her arms still spread out, tumbling stiffly after us. So near were we, indeed, that my head came against the coxswain’s foot with a crack that made my teeth rattle. Blow and all, I was the first afoot again, for Ida Hands had got involved with the dead body. The sudden canting of the ship had made the deck no place for running on; I had to find some new way of escape, and that upon the instant, for my foe was almost touching me. Quick as thought, I sprang into the mizzen shrouds, rattled up hand over hand, and did not draw a breath till I was seated on the cross-trees.

I had been saved by being prompt; the dirk had struck not half a foot below me as I pursued my upward flight; and there stood Ida Hands with her mouth open and her face upturned to mine, a perfect statue of surprise and disappointment.

Now that I had a moment to myself, I lost no time in changing the priming of my pistol, and then, having one ready for service, and to make assurance doubly sure, I proceeded to draw the load of the other and recharge it afresh from the beginning.

My new employment struck Ida Hands all of a heap; she began to see the dice going against her, and after an obvious hesitation, she also hauled herself heavily into the shrouds, and with the dirk in her teeth, began slowly and painfully to mount. It cost her no end of time and groans to haul her wounded leg behind her, and I had quietly finished my arrangements before she was much more than a third of the way up. Then, with a pistol in either hand, I addressed her.

“One more step, Mrs Hands,” said I, “and I’ll blow your brains out! Dead women don’t bite, you know,” I added with a chuckle.

She stopped instantly. I could see by the working of her face that she was trying to think, and the process was so slow and laborious that, in my new-found security, I laughed aloud. At last, with a swallow or two, she spoke, her face still wearing the same expression of extreme perplexity. In order to speak she had to take the dagger from her mouth, but in all else she remained unmoved.

“Jem,” says she, “I reckon we’re fouled, you and me, and we’ll have to sign articles. I’d have had you but for that lurch, but I don’t have no luck, not I; and I reckon I’ll have to strike, which comes hard, you see, for a mistress mariner to a ship’s younker like you, Jem.”

I was drinking in her words and smiling away, as conceited as a hen upon a wall, when, all in a breath, back went her right hand over her shoulder. Something sang like an arrow through the air; I felt a blow and then a sharp pang, and there I was pinned by the shoulder to the mast. In the horrid pain and surprise of the moment—I scarce can say it was by my own volition, and I am sure it was without a conscious aim—both my pistols went off, and both escaped out of my hands. They did not fall alone; with a chocked cry, the coxswain loosed her grasp upon the shrouds and plunged head first into the water.

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