D’arfet’s Vengeance by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

The Story is Told by Dom Bartholomew Perestrello, Governor of the Island of Porto Santo.

It was on the fifteenth day of August, 1428, and about six o’clock in the morning, that while taking the air on the seaward side of my house at Porto Santo, as my custom was after breaking fast, I caught sight of a pinnace about two leagues distant, and making for the island.

I dare say it is commonly known how I came to the governance of Porto Santo, to hold it and pass it on to my son Bartholomew; how I sailed to it in the year 1420 in company with the two honourable captains John Gonsalvez Zarco and Tristram Vaz; and what the compact was which we made between us, whereby on reaching Porto Santo these two left me behind and passed on to discover the greater island of Madeira. And many can tell with greater or less certainty of our old pilot, the Spaniard Morales, and how he learned of such an island in his captivity on the Barbary coast. Of all this you shall hear, and perhaps more accurately, when I come to my meeting with the Englishman. But I shall tell first of the island itself, and what were my hopes of it on the morning when I sighted his pinnace.

In the first warmth of discovering them we never doubted that these were the Purple Islands of King Juba, the very Garden of the Hesperides, found anew by us after so many hundreds of years; or that we had aught to do but sit still in our governments and grow rich while we feasted. But that was in the year 1420, and the eight years between had made us more than eight years sadder. In the other island the great yield of timber had quickly come to an end: for Count Zarco, returning thither with wife and children in the month of May, 1421, and purposing to build a city, had set fire to the woods behind the fennel-fields on the south coast, with intent to clear a way up to the hills in the centre: and this fire quickly took such hold on the mass of forest that not ten times the inhabitants could have mastered it. And so the whole island burned for seven years, at times with a heat which drove the settlers to their boats. For seven years as surely as night fell could we in Porto Santo count on the glare of it across the sea to the south-west, and for seven years the caravels of our prince and master, Dom Henry, sighted the flame of it on their way southward to Cape Bojador.

In all this while Count Zarco never lost heart; but, when the timber began to fail, planted his sugar-canes on the scarcely cooled ashes, and his young plants of the Malmsey vine–the one sent from Sicily, the other from Candia, and both by the care of Dom Henry. While he lives it will never be possible to defeat my friend and old comrade: and he and I have both lived to see his island made threefold richer by that visitation which in all men’s belief had clean destroyed it.

This planting of vines and sugar-canes began in 1425, the same year in which the Infante gave me colonists for Porto Santo. But if I had little of Count Zarco’s merit, it is certain I had none of his luck: for on my small island nothing would thrive but dragon-trees; and we had cut these in our haste before learning how to propagate them, so that we had at the same moment overfilled the market with their gum, or “dragon’s blood,” and left but a few for a time of better prices. And, what was far worse, at the suggestion surely of Satan I had turned three tame rabbits loose upon the island; and from the one doe were bred in two or three years so many thousands of these pestilent creatures that when in 1425 we came to plant the vines and canes, not one green shoot in a million escaped. Thus it happened that by 1428 my kingdom had become but a barren rock, dependent for its revenues upon the moss called the orchilla weed of which the darker and better kind could be gathered only by painful journeys inland.

You may see, therefore, that I had little to comfort me as I paced before my house that morning. I was Governor of an impoverished rock on which I had wasted the toil and thought of eight good years of my prime: my title was hereditary, but I had in those days no son to inherit it. And when I considered the fortune I had exchanged for this, and my pleasant days in Dom Henry’s service at Sagres, I accused myself for the most miserable among men.

Now, at the north-western angle of my house, and a little below the terrace where I walked, there grew a plantation of dragon-trees, one of the few left upon the island. Each time this sentry-walk of mine brought me back to the angle I would halt before turning and eye the trees, sourly pondering on our incredible folly. For, on my first coming they had grown everywhere, and some with trunks great enough to make a boat for half a dozen men: but we had cut them down for all kinds of uses, whenever a man had wanted wood for a shield or a bushel for his corn, and now they scarce grew fruit enough to fatten the hogs. It was standing there and eyeing my dragon-trees that over the tops of them I caught sight of the pinnace plying towards the island. I remember clearly what manner of day it was; clear and fresh, the sea scarce heaving, but ruffled under a southerly breeze. The small vessel, though well enough handled, made a sorry leeway by reason of her over-tall sides, and lost so much time at every board through the labour of lowering and rehoisting her great lateen yard that I judged it would take her three good hours before she came to anchor in the port below.

I could not find that she had any hostile appearance, yet–as my duty was–sent down word to the guard to challenge her business before admitting her; and a little before nine o’clock I put on my coat and walked down to the haven to look after this with my own eyes. I arrived almost at the moment when she entered and her crew, with sail partly lowered, rounded her very cleverly up in the wind.

The guard-boat put off at once and boarded her; and by-and-by came back with word that the pinnace was English (which by this time I had guessed), by name the George of Bristol, and owned by an Englishman of quality, who, by reason of his extreme age, desired of my courtesy that I would come on board and confer with him. This at first I was unwilling to risk: but seeing her moored well under the five guns of our fort, and her men so far advanced with the furling of her big sail that no sudden stroke of treachery could be attempted except to her destruction, I sent word to the gunners to keep a brisk look-out, and stepping into the boat was pulled alongside.

At the head of the ladder there met me an aged gentleman, lean and bald and wrinkled, with narrow eyes and a skin like clear vellum. For all the heat of the day he wore a furred cloak which reached to his knees; also a thin gold chain around his neck: and this scrag neck and the bald head above it stood out from his fur collar as if they had been a vulture’s. By his dress and the embroidered bag at his girdle, and the clasps of his furred shoes, I made no doubt he was a rich man; and he leaned on an ebony staff or wand capped with a pretty device of ivory and gold.

He stood thus, greeting me with as many bobs of the head as a bird makes when pecking an apple; and at first he poured out a string of salutations (I suppose) in English, a language with which I have no familiarity. This he perceived after a moment, and seemed not a little vexed; but covering himself and turning his back shuffled off to a door under the poop.

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“Martin!” he called in a high broken voice. “Martin!”

A little man of my own country, very yellow and foxy, came running out, and the pair talked together for a moment before advancing towards me.

“Your Excellency,” the interpreter began, “this is a gentleman of England who desires that you will dine with him to-day. His name is Master Thomas d’Arfet, and he has some questions to put to you, of your country, in private.”

“D’Arfet?” I mused: and as my brows went up at the name I caught the old gentleman watching me with an eye which was sharp enough within its dulled rim. “Will you answer that I am at his service, but on the one condition that he comes ashore and dines with me.”

When this was reported at first Master d’Arfet would have none of it, but rapped his staff on the desk and raised a score of objections in his scolding voice. Since I could understand none of them, I added very firmly that it was my rule; that he could be carried up to my house on a litter without an ache of his bones; and, in short, that I must either have his promise or leave the ship.

He would have persisted, I doubt not; but it is ill disputing through an interpreter, and he ended by giving way with a very poor grace. So ashore we rowed him with the man Martin, and two of my guard conveyed him up the hill in a litter, on which he sat for all the world like a peevish cross’d child. In my great airy dining-room he seemed to cool down and pick up his better humour by degrees. He spoke but little during the meal, and that little was mainly addressed to Martin, who stood behind his chair: but I saw his eyes travelling around the panelled walls and studying the portraits, the furniture, the neat table, the many comforts which it clearly astonished him to find on this forsaken island. Also he as clearly approved of the food and of my wine of Malmsey. Now and then he would steal a look at my wife Beatrix, or at one or the other of my three daughters, and again gaze out at the sea beyond the open window, as though trying to piece it all together into one picture.

But it was not until the womenfolk had risen and retired that he unlocked his thoughts to me. And I hold even now that his first question was a curious one.

“Dom Bartholomew Perestrello, are you a happy man?”

Had it come from his own lips it might have found me better prepared: but popped at me through the mouth of an interpreter, a servant who (for all his face told) might have been handing it on a dish, his question threw me out of my bearings.

“Well, Sir,” I found myself answering, “I hope you see that I have much to thank God for.” And while this was being reported to him I recalled with a twinge my dejected thoughts of the morning. “I have made many mistakes,” I began again.

But without seeming to hear, Master d’Arfet began to dictate to Martin, who, after a polite pause to give me time to finish if I cared to, translated in his turn.

“I have told you my name. It is Thomas d’Arfet, and I come from Bristol. You have heard my name before?”

I nodded, keeping my eyes on his.

“I also have heard of you, and of the two captains in whose company you discovered these islands.”

I nodded again. “Their names,” said I, “are John Gonsalvez Zarco and Tristram Vaz. You may visit them, if you please, on the greater island, which they govern between them.”

He bent his head. “The fame of your discovery, Sir, reached England some years ago. I heard at the time, and paid it just so much heed as one does pay to the like news–just so much and no more. The manner of your discovery of the greater island came to my ears less than a twelvemonth ago, and then but in rumours and broken hints. Yet here am I, close on my eightieth year, voyaging more than half across the world to put those broken hints together and resolve my doubts. Tell me”–he leaned forward over the table, peering eagerly into my eyes–“there was a tale concerning the island–concerning a former discovery–“

“Yes,” said I, as he broke off, his eyes still searching mine, “there was a tale concerning the island.”

“Brought to you by a Spanish pilot, who had picked it up on the Barbary coast?”

“You have heard correctly,” said I. “The pilot’s name was Morales.”

“Well, it is to hear that tale that I have travelled across the world to visit you.”

“Ah, but forgive me, Sir!” I poured out another glassful of wine, drew up my chair, rested both elbows on the table, and looked at him over my folded hands. “You must first satisfy me what reason you have for asking.”

“My name is Thomas d’Arfet,” he said.

“I do not forget it: but maybe I should rather have said–What aim you have in asking. I ought first to know that, methinks.”

In his impatience he would have leapt from his chair had his old limbs allowed. Pressing the table with white finger-tips, he sputtered some angry words of English, and then fell back on the interpreter Martin, who from first to last wore a countenance fixed like a mask.

“Mother of Heaven, Sir! You see me here, a man of eighty, broken of wind and limb, palsied, with one foot in the grave: you know what it costs to fit out and victual a ship for a voyage: you know as well as any man, and far better than I, the perils of these infernal seas. I brave those perils, undergo those charges, drag my old limbs these thousands of miles from the vault where they are due to rest–and you ask me if I have any reason for coming!”

“Not at all,” I answered. “I perceive rather that you must have an extraordinarily strong reason–a reason or a purpose clean beyond my power of guessing. And that is just why I wish to hear it.”

“Men of my age–” he began, but I stopped Martin’s translation midway.

“Men of your age, Sir, do not threaten the peace of such islands as these. Men of your age do not commonly nurse dangerous schemes. All that I can well believe. Men of your age, as you say, do not chase a wild goose so far from their chimney-side. But men of your age are also wise enough to know that governors of colonies–ay,” for my words were being interpreted to him a dozen at a time and I saw the sneer grow on his face, “even of so poor a colony as this–do not give up even a small secret to the very first questioner.”

“But the secret is one no longer. Even in England I had word of it.”

“And your presence here,” said I, “is proof enough that you learned less than you wanted.”

He drew his brows together over his narrow eyes. I think what first set me against the man was the look of those eyes, at once malevolent and petty. You may see the like in any man completely ungenerous. Also the bald skin upon his skull was drawn extremely tight, while the flesh dropped in folds about his neck and under his lean chaps, and the longer I pondered this the more distasteful I found him.

“You forget, Sir,” said he–and while Martin translated he still seemed to chew the words–“the story is not known to you only. I can yet seek out the pilot himself.”

“Morales? He is dead these three years.”

“Your friends, then, upon the greater island. Failing them, I can yet put back to Lagos and appeal to the Infante himself–for doubtless he knows. Time is nothing to me now.” He sat his chin obstinately, and then, not without nobility, pushed his glass from him and stood up. “Sir,” said he, “I began by asking if you were a happy man. I am a most unhappy one, and (I will confess) the unhappier since you have made it clear that you cannot or will not understand me. In my youth a great wrong was done me. You know my name, and you guess what that wrong was: but you ask yourself, ‘Is it possible this old man remembers, after sixty years?’ Sir, it is possible, nay, certain; because I have never for an hour forgotten. You tell yourself, ‘It cannot be this only: there must be something behind.’ There is nothing behind; nothing. I am the Thomas d’Arfet whose wife betrayed him just sixty years ago; that, and no more. I come on no State errand, I! I have no son, no daughter; I never, to my knowledge, possessed a friend. I trusted a woman, and she poisoned the world for me. I acknowledge in return a duty to no man but myself; I have voyaged thus far out of that duty. You, Sir, have thought it fitter to baffle than to aid me–well and good. But by the Christ above us I will follow that duty out; and, at the worst, death, when it comes, shall find me pursuing it!”

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He spoke this with a passion of voice which I admired before his man began to interpret: and even when I heard it repeated in level Portuguese, and had time to digest it and extract its monstrous selfishness, I could look at him with compassion, almost with respect. His cheeks had lost their flush almost as rapidly as they had taken it on, and he stood awkwardly pulling at his long bony fingers until the joints cracked.

“Be seated, Sir,” said I. “It is clear to me that I must be a far happier man than I considered myself only this morning, since I find nothing in myself which, under any usage of God, could drive me on such a pursuit as yours would seem to be. I may perhaps, without hypocrisy, thank God that I cannot understand you. But this, at any rate, is clear–that you seek only a private satisfaction: and although I cannot tell you the story here and now, something I will promise. As soon as you please I will sail with you to the greater island, and we will call together on Count Zarco. In his keeping lies one of the two copies of Morales’ story as we took it down from his lips at Sagres, or, rather, compiled it after much questioning. It shall be for the Count to produce or withhold it, as he may decide. He is a just man, and neither one way nor the other will I attempt to sway him.”

Master d’Arfet considered for a while. Then said he, “I thank you: but will you sail with me in my pinnace or in your own?”

“In my own,” said I, “as I suspect you will choose to go in yours. I promise we shall outsail you; but I promise also to await your arriving, and give the Count his free choice. If you knew him,” I added, “you would know such a promise to be superfluous.”


My own pinnace arrived in sight of Funchal two mornings later, and a little after sunrise. We had outsailed the Englishman, as I promised, and lay off-and-on for more than two hours before he came up with us. I knew that Count Zarco would be sitting at this time in the sunshine before his house and above the fennel plain, hearing complaints and administering justice: I knew, moreover, that he would recognise my pinnace at once: and from time to time I laughed to myself to think how this behaviour of ours must be puzzling my old friend.

Therefore I was not surprised to find him already arrived at the quay when we landed; with a groom at a little distance holding his magnificent black stallion. For I must tell you that my friend was ever, and is to this day, a big man in all his ways–big of stature, big of voice, big of heart, and big to lordliness in his notions of becoming display. None but Zarco would have chosen for his title, “Count of the Chamber of the Wolves,” deriving it from a cave where his men had started a herd of sea-calves on his first landing and taking seizin of the island. And the black stallion he rode when another would have been content with a mule; and the spray of fennel in his hat; and the ribbon, without which he never appeared among his dependents; were all a part of his large nature, which was guileless and simple withal as any child’s.

Now, for all my dislike, I had found the old Englishman a person of some dignity and command: but it was wonderful how, in Zarco’s presence, he shrank to a withered creature, a mere applejack without juice or savour. The man (I could see) was eager to get to business at once, and could well have done without the ceremony of which Zarco would not omit the smallest trifle. After the first salutations came the formal escort to the Governor’s house; and after that a meal which lasted us two hours; and then the Count must have us visit his new sugar-mills and inspect the Candia vines freshly pegged out, and discuss them. On all manner of trifles he would invite Master d’Arfet’s opinion: but to show any curiosity or to allow his guests to satisfy any, did not belong to his part of host–a part he played with a thoroughness which diverted me while it drove the Englishman well-nigh mad.

But late in the afternoon, and after we had worked our way through a second prodigious meal, I had compassion on the poor man, and taking (as we say) the bull by both horns, announced the business which had brought us. At once Zarco became grave.

“My dear Bartholomew,” said he, “you did right, of course, to bring Master d’Arfet to me. But why did you show any hesitation?” Before I could answer he went on: “Clearly, as the lady’s husband, he has a right to know what he seeks. She left him: but her act cannot annul any rights of his which the Holy Church gave him, and of which, until he dies, only the Holy Church can deprive him. He shall see Morales’ statement as we took it down in writing: but he should have the story from the beginning: and since it is a long one, will you begin and tell so much as you know?”

“If it please you,” said I, and this being conveyed to Master d’Arfet, while Zarco sent a servant with his keys for the roll of parchment, we drew up our chairs to the table, and I began.

“It was in September, 1419,” said I, “when the two captains, John Gonsalvez Zarco and Tristram Vaz, returned to Lagos from their first adventure in these seas. I was an equerry of our master, the Infante Henry, at that time, and busy with him in rebuilding and enlarging the old arsenal on the neck of Cape Sagres; whence, by his wisdom, so many expeditions have been sent forth since to magnify God and increase the knowledge of mankind.

“We had built already the chapel and the library, with its map-room, and the Prince and I were busy there together on the plans for his observatory in the late afternoon when the caravels were sighted: and the news being brought, his Highness left me at work while he rode down to the port to receive his captains. I was still working by lamplight in the map-room when he returned, bringing them and a third man, the old Spaniard Morales.

“Seating himself at the table, he bade me leave my plans, draw my chair over, and take notes in writing of the captains’ report. Zarco told the story–he being first in command, and Tristram Vaz a silent man, then and always: and save for a question here and there, the Prince listened without comment, deferring to examine it until the whole had been related.

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“Now, in one way, the expedition had failed, for the caravels had been sent to explore the African coast beyond Cape Bojador, and as far south as might be; whereas they had scarcely put to sea before a tempest drove them to the westward, and far from any coast at all. Indeed, they had no hope left, nor any expectation but to founder, when they sighted the island; and so came by God’s blessing to the harbour which, in their joy, they named Porto Santo. There, finding their caravels strained beyond their means to repair for a long voyage, and deeming that this discovery well outweighed their first purpose, they stayed but a sufficient time to explore the island, and so put back for Lagos. But their good fortune was not yet at an end: for off the Barbary coasts they fell in with and captured a Spaniard containing much merchandise and two score of poor souls ransomed out of captivity with the Barbary corsairs. ‘And among them,’ said my friend Gonsalvez, ‘your Highness will find this one old man, if I mistake not, to be worth the charges of two such expeditions as ours.’

“Upon this we all turned our eyes upon the Spaniard, who had been shrinking back as if to avoid the lamplight. He must have been a tall, up-standing man in his prime; but now, as Tristram Vaz drew him forward, his knees bowed as if he cringed for some punishment. ‘Twas a shock, this fawning carriage of a figure so venerable: but when Tristram Vaz drew off the decent doublet he wore and displayed his back, we wondered no longer. Zarco pushed him into a chair and held a lamp while the Prince examined the man’s right foot, where an ankle-ring had bitten it so that to his death (although it scarcely hindered his walking) the very bone showed itself naked between the healed edges of the wound.

“Moreover, when Zarco persuaded him to talk in Spanish it was some while before we could understand more than a word or two here and there. The man had spent close upon thirty years in captivity, and his native speech had all but dried up within him. Also he had no longer any thought of difference between his own country and another: it was enough to be among Christians again: nor could we for awhile disengage that which was of moment from the rambling nonsense with which he wrapped it about. He, poor man! was concerned chiefly with his own sufferings, while we were listening for our advantage: yet as Christians we forbore while he muttered on, and when a word or two fell from him which might be of service, we recalled him to them (I believe) as gently as we could.

“Well, the chaff being sifted away, the grain came to this: His name was Morales, his birthplace Cadiz, his calling that of pilot: he had fallen (as I have said) into the hands of the Moors about thirty years before: and at Azamor, or a little inland, he had made acquaintance with a fellow-prisoner, an Englishman, by name Roger Prince, or Prance. This man had spent the best part of his life in captivity, and at one time had changed his faith to get better usage: but his first master dying at a great age, he passed to another, who cruelly ill-treated him, and under whose abominable punishments he quickly sank. He lay, indeed, at the point of death when Morales happened upon him. Upon some small act of kindness such as one slave may do for another, the two had made friends: and thus Morales came to hear the poor Englishman’s story.”

Here I broke off and nodded to the Count, who called for a lamp. And so for a few minutes we all sat without speech in the twilight, the room silent save for the cracking of Master d’Arfet’s knuckles. When at length the lamp arrived, Zarco trimmed it carefully, unfolded his parchment, spread it on the table, and began to read very deliberately in his rolling voice, pausing and looking up between the sentences while the man Martin translated–

This is the statement made to me by Roger Prance, the Englishman, Anno MCCCCIX., at various times in the month before he died.

“He said: My name is Roger Prance. I come from St. Lawrence on the River Jo,[A] in England. From a boy I followed the sea in the ships of Master Canynge,[B] of Bristol, sailing always from that port with cargoes of wool, and mostly to the Baltic, where we filled with stock-fish: but once we went south to your own city of Cadiz, and returned with wines and a little spice purchased of a Levantine merchant in the port. My last three voyages were taken in the Mary Radclyf or Redcliffe. One afternoon” [the year he could not remember, but it may have been 1373 or 1374] “I was idle on the Quay near Vyell’s tower, when there comes to me Gervase Hankock, master, and draws me aside, and says he: ‘The vessel will be ready sooner than you think,’ and named the time–to wit, by the night next following. Now I, knowing that she had yet not any cargo on board, thought him out of his mind: but said he, ‘It is a secret business, and double pay for you if you are ready and hold your tongue between this and then.’

[Footnote A: Wick St. Lawrence on the Yeo, in Somerset.]

[Footnote B: Grandfather of the famous merchant, William Canynge.]

“So at the time he named I was ready with the most of our old crew, and all wondering; with the ship but half ballasted as she came from the Baltic and her rigging not seen to, but moored down between the marshes at the opening of the River Avon.

“At ten o’clock then comes a whistle from the shore, and anon in a shore-boat our master with a young man and woman well wrapped, and presently cuts the light hawser we rode by; and so we dropped down upon the tide and were out to sea by morning.

“All this time we knew nothing of our two passengers; nor until we were past the Land’s End did they come on deck. But when they did, it was hand in hand and as lovers; the man a mere youngster, straight, and gentle in feature and dress, but she the loveliest lady your eyes ever looked upon. One of our company, Will Tamblyn, knew her at once–as who would not that had once seen her?–and he cried out with an oath that she was Mistress d’Arfet, but newly married to a rich man a little to the north of Bristol. Afterwards, when Master Gervase found that we knew so much, he made no difficulty to tell us more; as that the name of her lover was Robert Machin or Macham, a youth of good family, and that she it was who had hired the ship, being an heiress in her own right.

“We held southward after clearing the land; with intent, as I suppose, to make one of the Breton ports. But about six leagues from the French coast a tempest overtook us from the north-east and drove us beyond Channel, and lasted with fury for twelve days, all of which time we ran before it, until on the fourteenth day we sighted land where never we looked to find any, and came to a large island, thickly wooded, with high mountains in the midst of it.

“Coasting this island we soon arrived off a pretty deep bay, lined with cedar-trees: and here Master Machin had the boat lowered and bore his mistress to land: for the voyage had crazed her, and plainly her time for this world was not long. Six of us went with them in the boat, the rest staying by the ship, which was anchored not a mile from shore. There we made for the poor lady a couch of cedar-boughs with a spare sail for awning, and her lover sat beside her for two nights and a day, holding of her hand and talking with her, and wiping her lips or holding the cup to them when she moaned in her thirst. But at dawn of the second day she died.

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“Then we, who slept on the beach at a little distance, being waked by his terrible cry, looked up and supposed he had called out for the loss of the ship. Because the traitors on board of her, considering how that they had the lady’s wealth, had weighed or slipped anchor in the night (for certainly there was not wind enough to drag by), and now the ship was nowhere in sight. But when we came to Master Machin he took no account of our news: only he sat like a statue and stared at the sea, and then at his dead lady, and ‘Well,’ he said; ‘is she gone?’ We knew not whether he meant the lady or the ship: nor would he taste any food though we offered it, but turned his face away.

“So that evening we buried the body, and five days later we buried Master Machin beside her, with a wooden cross at their heads. Then, not willing to perish on the island, we caught and killed four of the sheep which ran wild thereon, and having stored the boat with their flesh (and it was bitter to taste), and launched it, steered, as well as we could contrive, due east. And so on the eleventh day we were cast on the coast near to Mogador: but two had died on the way. Here (for we were starving and could offer no fight) some Moors took us, and carrying us into the town, sold us into that slavery in which I have passed all my miserable life since. What became of the Mary Radclyf I have never heard: nor of the three who came ashore with me have I had tidings since the day we were sold.”

Here Zarco came to the end of his reading: and facing again on Master d’Arfet (who sat pulling his fingers while his mouth worked as if he chewed something) I took up the tale.

“All this, Sir, by little and little the pilot Morales told us, there in the Prince’s map-room: and you may be sure we kept it to ourselves. But the next spring our royal master must fit out two caravels to colonise Porto Santo; with corn and honey on board, and sugar-canes and vines and (that ever I should say it!) rabbits. Gonsalvez was leader, of course, with Tristram Vaz: and to my great joy the Prince appointed me third in command.

“We sailed from Lagos in June and reached Porto Santo without mishap. Here Gonsalvez found all well with the colonists he had left behind on his former visit. But of one thing they were as eager to tell as of their prosperity: and we had not arrived many hours before they led us to the top of the island and pointed to a dark line of cloud (as it seemed) lying low in the south-west. They had kept watch on this (they said) day by day, until they had made certain it could not be a cloud, for it never altered its shape. While we gazed at it I heard the pilot’s voice say suddenly at my shoulder, ‘That will be the island, Captain–the Englishman’s island!’ and I turned and saw that he was trembling. But Gonsalvez, who had been musing, looked up at him sharply. ‘All my life’ said he, ‘I have been sailing the seas, yet never saw landfall like yonder. That which we look upon is cloud and not land.’ ‘But who,’ I asked, ‘ever saw a fixed cloud?’ ‘Marry, I for one,’ he answered, ‘and every seaman who has sailed beside Sicily! But say nothing to the men; for if they believe a volcano lies yonder we shall hardly get them to cross.’ ‘Yet,’ said Morales, ‘by your leave, Captain, that is no volcano, but such a cloud as might well rest over the thick moist woodlands of which the Englishman told me.’ ‘Well, that we shall discover by God’s grace,’ Gonsalvez made answer. ‘You will cross thither?’ I asked. ‘Why to be sure,’ said he cheerfully, with a look at Tristram Vaz; and Tristram Vaz nodded, saying nothing.

“Yet he had no easy business with his sailors, who had quickly made up their own minds about this cloud and that it hung over a pit of fire. One or two had heard tell of Cipango, and allowed this might be that lost wandering land. ‘But how can we tell what perils await us there?’ ‘Marry, by going and finding out,’ growled Tristram Vaz, and this was all the opinion he uttered. As for Morales, they would have it he was a Castilian, a foreigner, and only too eager to injure us Portuguese.

“But Gonsalvez had enough courage for all: and on the ninth morning he and Tristram set sail, with their crews as near mutiny as might be. Me they left to rule Porto Santo. ‘And if we never come back,’ said Gonsalvez, ‘you will tell the Prince that something lies yonder which we would have found, but our men murdered us on the way–‘”

“My dear brother Bartholomew,” Gonsalvez broke in, “you are wearying Master d’Arfet, who has no wish to hear about me.” And taking up the tale he went on: “We sailed, Sir, after six hours into as thick a fog as I have met even on these seas, and anon into a noise of breakers which seemed to be all about us. So I prayed to the Mother of Heaven and kept the lead busy, and always found deep water: and more by God’s guidance than our management we missed the Desertas, where a tall bare rock sprang out of the fog so close on our larboard quarter that the men cried out it was a giant in black armour rising out of the waves. So we left it and the noises behind, and by-and-by I shifted the helm and steered towards the east of the bank, which seemed to me not so thick thereabouts: and so the fog rolled up and we saw red cliffs and a low black cape, which I named the Cape of St. Lawrence. And beyond this, where all appeared to be marshland, we came to a forest shore with trees growing to the water’s edge and filling the chasms between the cliffs. We were now creeping along the south of the island, and in clearer weather, but saw no good landing until Morales shouted aft to me that we were opening the Gulf of Cedars. Now I, perceiving some recess in the cliffs which seemed likely to give a fair landing, let him have his way: for albeit we could never win it out of him in words, I knew that the Englishman must have given him some particular description of the place, from the confidence he had always used in speaking of it. So now we had cast anchor, and were well on our way shoreward in the boat before I could be certain what manner of trees clothed this Gulf: but Morales never showed doubt or hesitancy; and being landed, led us straight up the beach and above the tide-mark to the foot of a low cliff, where was a small pebbled mound and a plain cross of wood. And kneeling beside them I prayed for the souls’ rest of that lamentable pair, and so took seizin of the island in the names of our King John, Prince Henry, and the Order of Christ. That, Sir, is the story, and I will not weary you by telling how we embarked again and came to this plain which lies at our feet. So much as I believe will concern you you have heard: and the grave you shall look upon to-morrow.”

Master d’Arfet had left off cracking his joints, and for a while after the end of the story sat drumming with his finger-tips on the table. At length he looked up, and says he–

See also  Conviction

“I may suppose, Count Zarco, that as governor of this island you have power to allot and sell estates upon it on behalf of the King of Portugal?”

“Why, yes,” answered Gonsalvez; “any new settler in Funchal must make his purchase through me: the northern province of Machico I leave to Tristram Vaz.”

“I speak of your southern province, and indeed of its foreshore, the possession of which I suppose to be claimed by the crown of Portugal.”

“That is so.”

“To be precise I speak of this Gulf of Cedars, as you call it. You will understand that I have not seen it: I count on your promise to take me thither to-morrow. But it may save time, and I shall take it as a favour if–without binding yourself or me to any immediate bargain–you can give me some notion of the price you would want for it. But perhaps”–here he lifted his eyes from the table and glanced at Gonsalvez cunningly–“you have already conveyed that parcel of land, and I must deal with another.”

Now Gonsalvez had opened his mouth to say something, but here compressed his lips for a moment before answering.

“No: it is still in my power to allot.”

“In England just now,” went on Master d’Arfet “we should call ten shillings an acre good rent for unstocked land. We take it at sixpence per annum rent and twenty years’ purchase. I am speaking of reasonably fertile land, and hardly need to point out that in offering any such price for mere barren foreshore I invite you to believe me half-witted. But, as we say at home, he who keeps a fancy must pay a tax for it: and a man of my age with no heir of his body can afford to spend as he pleases.”

Gonsalvez stared at him, and from him to me, with a puzzled frown.

“Bartholomew,” said he, “I cannot understand this gentleman. What can he want to purchase in the Gulf of Cedars but his wife’s grave? And yet of such a bargain how can he speak as he has spoken?”

I shook my head. “It must be that he is a merchant, and is too old to speak but as a haggler. Yet I am sure his mind works deeper than this haggling.” I paused, with my eyes upon Master d’Arfet’s hands, which were hooked now like claws over the table which his fingers still pressed: and this gesture of his put a sudden abominable thought in my mind. “Yes, he wishes to buy his wife’s grave. Ask him–” I cried, and with that I broke off.

But Gonsalvez nodded. “I know,” said he softly, and turned to the Englishman. “Your desire Sir, is to buy the grave I spoke of?”

Master d’Arfet nodded.

“With what purpose? Come, Sir, your one chance is to be plain with us. It may be the difference in our race hinders my understanding you: it may be I am a simple captain and unused to the ways and language of the market. In any case put aside the question of price, for were that all between us I would say to you as Ephron the Hittite said to Abraham. ‘Hear me, my lord,’ I would say, ‘what is four hundred shekels of silver betwixt me and thee? Bury therefore thy dead.’ But between you and me is more than this: something I cannot fathom. Yet I must know it before consenting. I demand, therefore, what is your purpose?”

Master d’Arfet met him straightly enough with those narrow eyes of his, and said he, “My purpose, Count, is as simple as you describe your mind to be. Honest seaman, I desire that grave only that I may be buried in it.”

“Then my thought did you wrong, Master d’Arfet, and I crave your pardon. The grave is yours without price. You shall rest in the end beside the man and woman who wronged you, and at the Last Day, when you rise together, may God forgive you as you forgave them!”

The Englishman did not answer for near a minute. His fingers had begun to drum on the table again and his eyes were bent upon them. At length he raised his head, and this time to speak slowly and with effort–

“In my country, Count, a bargain is a bargain. When I seek a parcel of ground, my purpose with it is my affair only: my neighbour fixes his price, and if it suit me I buy, and there’s an end. Now I have passed my days in buying and selling and you count me a huckster. Yet we merchants have our rules of honour as well as you nobles: and if in England I bargain as I have described, it is because between me and the other man the rules are understood. But I perceive that between you and me the bargain must be different, since you sell on condition of knowing my purpose, and would not sell if my purpose offended you. Therefore to leave you in error concerning my purpose would be cheating: and, Sir, I have never cheated in my life. At the risk then, or the certainty, of losing my dearest wish I must tell you this–I do not forgive my wife Anne or Robert Machin: and though I would be buried in their grave, it shall not be beside them.”

“How then?” cried Gonsalvez and I in one voice.

“I would be buried, Sirs, not beside but between them. Ah? Your eyes were moist, I make no doubt, when you first listened to the pretty affecting tale of their love and misfortune? Not yet has it struck either of you to what a hell they left me. And I have been living in it ever since! Think! I loved that woman. She wronged me hatefully, meanly: yet she and he died together, feeling no remorse. It is I who keep the knowledge of their vileness which shall push them asunder as I stretch myself at length in my cool dead ease, content, with my long purpose achieved, with the vengeance prepared, and nothing to do but wait securely for the Day of Judgment. Pardon me, Sirs, that I say ‘this shall be,’ whereas I read in your faces that you refuse me. I have cheered an unhappy life by this one promise, which at the end I have thrown away upon a little scruple.” He passed a hand over his eyes and stood up. “It is curious,” he said, and stood musing. “It is curious,” he repeated, and turning to Gonsalvez said in a voice empty of passion, “You refuse me, I understand?”

“Yes,” Gonsalvez answered. “I salute you for an honest gentleman; but I may not grant your wish.”

“It is curious,” Master d’Arfet repeated once more, and looked at us queerly, as if seeking to excuse his weakness in our judgment. “So small a difficulty!”

Gonsalvez bowed. “You have taught us this, Sir, that the world speaks at random, but in the end a man’s honour rests in no hands but his own.”

Master d’Arfet waited while Martin translated; then he put out a hand for his staff, found it, turned on his heel and tottered from the room, the interpreter following with a face which had altered nothing during our whole discourse.

* * * * *

Master d’Arfet sailed at daybreak, having declined Gonsalvez’ offer to show him the grave. My old friend insisted that I must stay a week with him, and from the terrace before his house we watched the English pinnace till she rounded the point to eastward and disappeared.

“After all,” said I, “we treated him hardly.”

But Gonsalvez said: “A husk of a man! All the blood in him sour! And yet,” he mused, “the husk kept him noble after a sort.”

And he led me away to the warm slopes to see how his young vines were doing.

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