Synopsis: "The Prison in the Woods," Part One.
In the first part of his contribution to Charles Dickens's story The Perils of Certain English Prisoners, and Their Treasure in Women, Children, Silver, and Jewels in the 1857 "extra-Christmas number" of the weekly journal Household Words, Wilkie Collins has taken the scenario provided him by his great collaborator and heightened the suspense while developing a suitable backdrop for the action. In "The Prison in the Woods," the narrator, a Royal Marine named Gill Davis, continues his account of how Guatemalan pirates overwhelmed the skeleton garrison of the British island-colony of Silver-Store and abducted the surviving defenders together with the colony's women and children to the Mosquito Coast. The wily pirate captain, Pedro Mendez, a diminutive Portuguese with grandiose schemes but obvious leadership and administrative skills, is using the British hostages as guarantees that the British fleet will neither attack his men nor attempt to regain possession of the silver and other valuables he and his buccaneers have stolen from the colony. To secure his prisoners, Mendez, his men, their aboriginal allies, and the "Sambos" or Black workers from Silver-Store, have marched them inland for days through the ominous tropical forest, arriving at last at the magnificent stone ruins of a mysterious Mayan city, whose architectural scale dwarfs and intimidates the exhausted captives.
In this concluding part of the second chapter, Collins's narrator, Gill Davis, describes how, using a stratagem devised by Miss Maryon, the British prisoners escape from their pirate captors. Doping the evening meal of tortillas with narcotic berries that grow abundantly in the immediate vicinity of the Mayan ruins in which they have been held captive by the Guatemalan pirates under the leadership of Captain Pedro Mendez, the stalwart British survivors of the attack on the island of Silver Store near Belize escape through the jungle. They then hastily construct rafts out of the timbers that were to be used to roof the Great Hall for the pirates, and begin their journey down the unknown river towards the Caribbean.
The Text of Part 2 or "The Prison in the Woods" (pp. 23-30)
[The Pirate Captain, Pedro Mendez, addresses his first mate regarding his intention to have the male prisoners construct a roof for the "Great Hall" of the Mayan "palace" that he intends to make his interior headquarters.] he continues, turning to us, and pointing to the doorway behind him, [The prisoners] "will file in, that way, and will find two rooms for them, with the ceilings on the floor, and the trees in their places. I myself, because my soul is big, shall live alone in this grand hall. My bed shall be there in the sheltered corner; and I shall eat, and drink, and smoke, and sing, and enjoy myself, with one eye always on my prisoners, and the other eye always on my guard outside."
Having delivered this piece of eloquence, he pointed with his sword to the prisoners' doorway. We all passed through it quickly, glad to be out of the sight and hearing of him.
The two rooms set apart for us, communicated with each other. The inner one of the two had a second doorway, leading, as I supposed, further into the building, but so choked up by rubbish, as to be impassable, except by climbing, and that must have been skilful climbing too. Seeing that this accident cut off all easy means of approach to the room from the Pirates' side, we determined, supposing nobody meddled with us, to establish the women and children here; and to take the room nearest to the Pirate Captain and his guard for ourselves.
The first thing to be done was to clear away the rubbish in the women's room. The ceiling was, indeed, as the Pirate Captain had told us, all on the floor; and the growth of trees, shrubs, weeds, and flowers, springing up everywhere among the fragments of stone, was so prodigious in this part of the Palace, that, but for the walls with their barbarous sculptures all round, we should certainly have believed ourselves to be encamped in the forest, without a building near us. All the lighter parts of the rubbish in the women's room we disposed of, cleverly, by piling it in the door-way on the Pirates' side, so as to make any approach from that direction all but it impossible, even by climbing. The heavy blocks of stone — and. it took two men to lift some of them that were not the heaviest — we piled up in the middle of the floor. Having by this means cleared away plenty of space round the walls, we gathered up all the litter of young branches, bushes, and leaves which the Indians had chopped away; added to them as much as was required of the underwood still standing; and laid the whole smooth and even, to make beds. I noticed, while we were at this work, that the ship's boy — whose name was Robert — was particularly helpful and considerate with the children, when it became necessary to quiet them and to get them to lie clown. He was a rough boy to look at, and not very sharp; but he managed better, and was more naturally tender-hearted with the little ones than any of the rest of us. This may seem a small thing to mention; but Robert's attentive ways with the children, attached them to him; and that attachment, as will be here- [bottom of left-hand column, page 23] after shown, turned out to be of great benefit to us, at a very dangerous and very important time.
Our next piece of work was to clear our own room. It was close at the side of the Palace; and a break in the outward wall looked down over the sheer precipice on which the building stood. We stopped this up, breast high, in case of accidents, with the rubbish on the floor; we then made our beds, just as we had made the women's beds already.
A little later, we heard the Pirate Captain in the hall, which he kept to himself for his big soul and his little body, giving orders to the American mate about the guard. On mustering the Pirates, it turned out that two of them, who had been wounded in the fight on the Island, were unfit for duty. Twenty-eight, therefore, remained. These, the Pirate Captain divided into companies of seven, who were to mount guard, in turn, for a spell of six hours each company; the relief coming round, as a matter of course, four times in the twenty-four hours. Of the guard of seven, two were stationed under the portico; one was placed as a look-out, on the top landing of the great flight of steps; and two were appointed to patrol the ground below, in front of the Palace. This left only two men to watch the three remaining sides of the building. So far as any risks of attack were concerned, the precipices at the back and sides of the Palace were a sufficient defence for it, if a good watch was kept on the weak side. But what the Pirate Captain dreaded was the chance of our escaping; and he would not trust the precipices to keep us, knowing we had sailors in our company, and suspecting that they might hit on some substitute for ropes, and lower themselves and their fellow-prisoners down from the back or the sides of the Palace, in the dark. Accordingly, the Pirate Captain settled it that two men out of each company should do double duty, after nightfall: the choice of them to be decided by casting dice. This gave four men to patrol round the sides and the back of the building: a sufficient number to keep a bright look-out. The Pirates murmured a little at the prospect of double duty; but, there was no remedy for it. The Indians, having a superstitious horror of remaining in the ruined city after dark, had bargained to be allowed to go back to their village, every afternoon. And, as for the Sambos, the Pirate Captain knew them better than the English had known them at Silver-Store, and would have nothing to do with them in any matter of importance.
The setting of the watch was completed without much delay. If any of us had felt the slightest hope of escaping, up to this time, the position of our prison and tie number of sentinels appointed to guard it, would have been more than enough to extinguish that hope for ever.
An hour before sunset, the Indians—whose [23/24] only business at the Palace was to supply us with food from the village, and to prepare the food for eating — made their last batch of Tortillas, and then left the ruins in a body, at the usual trot of those savages when they are travelling in a hurry.
When the sun had set, the darkness came down upon us, I might almost say, with a rush. Bats whizzed about, and the low warning hum of Mosquitos sounded close to our ears. Flying beetles, with lights in their heads, each light as bright as the light of a dozen glowworms, sparkled through the darkness, in a wonderful manner, all night long. When one of them settled on the walls, he lighted up the hideous sculptures for a yard all round him, at the very least. Outside, in the forest, the dreadful stillness seemed to be drawing its breath, from time to time, when the night-wind swept lightly through the million-million leaves. Sometimes, the surge of monkeys travelling through the boughs, burst out with a sound like waves on a sandy shore; sometimes, the noise of falling branches and trunks rang out suddenly with a crash, as if the great ruins about us were splitting into pieces; sometimes, when the silence was at its deepest — when even the tread of the watch outside had ceased — the quick rustle of a lizard or a snake, sounded treacherously close at our ears. It was long before the children in the women's room were all quieted and hushed to sleep — longer still before we, their elders, could compose our spirits for the night. After all sounds died away among us, and when I thought that I was the only one still awake, I heard Miss Maryon's voice saying, softly, "God help and deliver us!" A man in our room, moving on his bed of leaves, repeated the words alter her; and the ship boy, Robert, half-asleep, half-awake, whispered to himself sleepily, "Amen!" After that, the silence returned upon us, and was broken no more. So the night passed — the first night in our Prison in the Woods.
With the morning, came the discovery of a new project of the Pirate Captain's, for which none of us had been prepared.
Soon after sunrise, the Pirate Captain looked into our room, and ordered all the men in it out into the large hall, where he lived with his big soul and his little body. After eyeing us narrowly, he directed three of the sailors, myself and two of my comrades, to step apart from the rest. When we had obeyed, the bundle of axes which had troubled my mind so much, was brought into the hall; and four men of the guard, then on duty, armed with muskets and pistols, were marched in afterwards. Six of the axes were chosen and put into our hands, the Pirate Captain pointing warningly, as we took them, to the men with fire-arms in the front of us. He and his mate, both armed to the teeth, then led the way out to the steps; we followed; the other four Pirates came after [bottom of left-hand column, page 24] us. We were formed, down the steps, in single file; the Pirate Captain at the head; I myself next to him; a Pirate next to me; and so on to the end, in such order as to keep a man with a loaded musket between each one or two of us prisoners. I looked behind me as we started, and saw two of the Sambos — that Christian George King was one of them — following us We marched round the back of the Palace, and over the ruins beyond it, till we came to a track through the forest, the first I had seen. After a quarter of an hour's walking, I saw the sunlight, bright beyond the trees in front of us. In another minute or two, we stood under the clear sky, and beheld at our feet a broad river, running with a swift silent current, and overshadowed by the forest, rising as thick as ever on the bank that was opposite to us.
On the bank where we stood, the trees were young; some great tempest of past years having made havoc in this part of the forest, and torn away the old growth to make room for the new. The young trees grew up, mostly, straight and slender, — that is to say, slender for South America, the slightest of them being, certainly, as thick as my leg. After peeping and peering about at the timber, with the look of a man who owned it all, the Pirate Captain sat himself down cross-legged on the grass, and did us the honor to address us.
"Aha! you English, what do yon think I have kept you alive for?" says he. "Because I am fond of you? Bah! Because I don't like to kill you? Bah! What for, then? Because I want the use of your arms to work for me. See those trees!"
He waved his hand backwards and forwards, over the whole prospect. "Cut them all down — lop off the branches — smooth them into poles — shape them into beams — chop them into planks. "Camarado!" he went on, turning to the mate, "I mean to roof in the Palace again, and to lay new floors over the rubbish of stones. I will make the big house good and dry to live in, in the rainy weather — I will barricade the steps of it for defence against an army, — I will make it my strong castle of retreat for me and my men, and our treasure, and our prisoners, and all that we have, when the English cruisers of the devil get too many for us along the coast. To work, you six! Look at those four men of mine, — their muskets are loaded. Look at these two Sambos who will stop here to fetch help if they want it. Remember the women ad children you have left at the Palace — and at your peril and at their peril, turn those axes in your hands from their proper work! You understand? You English fools?"
With those words he jumped to his feet, and ordered the niggers to remain and place themselves at the orders of our guard. Having given these last directions, and having taken his mate's opinion as to whether [24/25] three of the Buccaniers would not be enough to watch the Palace in the day, when the six stoutest men of the prisoners were away from it, the Pirate Captain offered his little weazen arm to the American, and strutted back to his castle, on better terms with himself than ever.
As soon as he and the mate were gone, Christian George King tumbled himself down on the grass, and kicked up his ugly heels in convulsions of delight.
"Oh, golly, golly, golly!" says he. "You dam English do work, and Christian George King look on. Yup, Sojeer! Whack at them tree!"
I paid no attention to the brute, being better occupied in noticing my next comrade, Short. I had remarked that all the while the Pirate Captain was speaking, he was looking hard at the river, as if the sight of a large sheet of water did his sailorly eyes good. When we began to use the axes, greatly to my astonishment, he buckled to at his work like a man who had his whole heart in it: chuckling to himself at every chop, and wagging his head as if he was in the forecastle again telling his best yarns.
"You seem to be in spirits, Short?" I says, setting to on a tree close by him.
"The river's put a notion in my head," says he. "Chop away, Gill, as hard as you can, or they may hear us talking."
"What notion has the river put in your head?" I. asked that man, following his directions.
"You don't know where that river runs to, I suppose?" says Short. "No more don't I. But, did it say anything particular to you, Gill, when you first set eyes on it? It said to me, as plain as words could speak, 'I'm the road out of this. Come and try me!' — Steady! Don't stop to look at the water. Chop away, man, chop away."
"The road out of this?" says I. "A road without any coaches, Short. I don't see so much as the ruins of one old canoe lying about anywhere."
Short chuckles again, and buries his axe in his tree.
"What are we cutting down these trees for?" says he.
"Roofs and floors for the Pirate Captain's castle," says I.
"Rafts for ourselves" says he, with another tremendous chop at the tree, which brought it to the ground — the fist that had fallen.
His words struck through me as if I had been shot. For the first time since our imprisonment I now saw, clear as daylight, a chance of escape. Only a chance, but, still a chance.
Although the guard stood several paces away from us, and could by no possibility hear a word that we said, through the noise of the axes, Short was too cautious to talk any more.
"Wait till night," he said, lopping the [bottom of left-hand column, p. 25] branches off the tree. "Pass the word on in a whisper to the nearest of our men to work with a will; and say, with a wink of your eye, there's a good reason for it. "
After we had been allowed to knock off for that day, the Pirates had no cause to complain of the work we had done; and they reported us to the Pirate Captain as obedient and industrious, so far. When we lay down at night, I took the next place on the leaves to Short. We waited till the rest were asleep, and till we heard the Pirate Captain snoring in the great hall, before we began to talk again about the river and the rafts. This is the amount of what Short whispered in my ear on that occasion:
He told me he had calculated that it would take two large rafts to hear all our company, and that timber enough to make such two rafts might be cut down by SIX men in ten days, or, at most, in a fortnight. As for the means of fastening the rafts — the lashings, he called them — the stout vines and creepers supplied them abundantly; and the timbers of both rafts might be connected together, in this way, firmly enough for river navigation, in about five hours. That was the very shortest time the job would take, done by the willing lands of men who knew that they were working for their lives, said Short.
These were the means of escape. How to turn them to account was the next question. Short could not answer it; and though I tried all that night, neither could I.
The difficulty was one which, I think, might have puzzled wiser heads than ours. How were six-and-thirty living souls (being the number of us prisoners, including the children) to be got out of the Palace safely, in the face of the guard that watched it? And, even if that was accomplished, when could we count on gaining five hours all to ourselves for the business of making the rafts? The compassing of either of these two designs, absolutely necessary as they both were to our escape, seemed to be nothing more or less than a rank impossibility. Towards morning, I got a wild notion into my head, about letting ourselves down from the back of the Palace, in the dark, and taking our chance of being able to seize the sentinels at that part of the building, unawares, and gag them before they could give the alarm to the Pirates in front. But, Short, when I mentioned my plan to him, would not hear of it. He said that men by themselves — provided they had not got a madman, like Drooce, and a maundering old gentleman, like Mr. Pordage, among them — might, perhaps, run some such desperate risk a I proposed; but, that letting women and children, to say nothing of Drooce and Pordage, down a precipice in the dark, with make-shift ropes which might give way at a moment's notice, was out of the question. It was impossible, on further reflection, not to see that Short's view of the matter was the right [25/26] one. I acknowledged as much, and then put it to Short whether our wisest course would not be to let one or two of the sharpest of our fellow-prisoners into our secret, and see what they said. Short asked me which two I had in my mind when I made that proposal?
"Mr. Macey," says I, "because he is naturally quick, and has improved his gifts by learning, and Miss Maryon — "
"How can a woman help us?" says Short, breaking in on me.
"A woman with a clear head and a high courage and a patient resolution — all of which Miss Maryon has got, above all the world — may do more to help us, in our present strait, than any man of our company," says I.
"Well," says Short, "I daresay you're right. Speak to anybody you please, Gill; but, whatever you do, man, stick to it at the trees. Let's get the timber down—that's the first thing to be done, anyhow."
Before we were mustered for work, I took an opportunity of privately mentioning to Miss Maryon and Mr. Macey what had passed between Short and me. They were both thunderstruck at the notion of the rafts. Miss Maryon, as I had expected, made lighter of the terrible difficulties in the way of carrying out our scheme than Mr. Macey did.
"We are left here to watch and think, all day," she whispered — and I could almost hear the quick beating of her heart. "While you are making the best of your time among the trees, we will make best of ours in the Palace. I can say no more, now — I can barely speak for thinking of what you have told me. Bless you, bless you, for making me hope once more! Go now — we must not risk the consequences of being seen together. When you come back at night, look at me. If I close my eyes, it is a sign that nothing has been thought of yet. If I keep them open, take the first safe opportunity of speaking secretly to me or to Mr. Macey."
She turned away; and I went back to my comrades. Half an hour afterwards, we were off for our second day's work among the trees.
When we came back, I looked at Miss Maryon. She closed her eyes. So, nothing had been thought of, yet.
Six more days we worked at cutting down the trees, always meriting the same good character for industry from our Pirate-guard. Six more evenings I looked at Miss Maryon; and six times her closed eyes gave me the same disheartening answer. On the ninth day of our work, Short whispered to me, that if we plied our axes for three days longer, he considered we should have more than enough down, to make the rafts. He had thought of nothing, I had thought of nothing, Miss Maryon and Mr. Macey had thought of nothing, I was beginning to get low [bottom of left-hand column, page 26] in spirits; but, Short was just as cool and easy as ever. "Chop away, Davis," was all he said. "The river won't run dry yet awhile. Chop away!"
We knocked off earlier than usual that day, the Pirates having a feast in prospect, off a wild hog. It was stilt broad daylight (out of the forest) when we came back, and when I looked once more in Miss Maryon's face.
I saw a flush in her cheeks; and her eyes met mine brightly. My heart beat quicker at the glance of them; for I saw that the time had come, and that the difficulty was conquered.
We waited till the light was fading, and the Pirates were in the midst of their feast. Then, she beckoned me into the inner room, and I sat down by her in the dimmest corner of it.
"You have thought of something, at last, Miss?"
"I have. But the merit of the thought is not all mine. Chance — no! Providence — suggested the design; and the instrument with which its merciful Wisdom has worked, is — a child."
She stopped, and looked all round her anxiously, before she went on.
This afternoon," she says, "I was sitting against the trunk of that tree, thinking of what has been the subject of my thoughts ever since you spoke to me. My sister's little girl was whiling away the tedious time by asking Mr. Kitten to tell her the names of the different plants which are still left growing about the room. You know he is a learned man in such matters?"
I knew that; and have, I believe, formerly given that out, for my Lady to take in writing.
"I was too much occupied," she went on, "to pay attention to them, till they came close to the tree against which I was sitting. Under it and about it, there grew a plant with very elegantly-shaped leaves, and with a kind of berry on it. The child showed it to Mr. Kitten; and saying, 'Those berries look good to eat,' stretched out her hand towards them. Mr. Kitten stopped her. ‘You must never touch that, 'he said. 'Why not?' the child asked. 'Because if you eat much of it, it would poison you.' 'And if I only eat a little?' said the child, laughing. 'If you only eat a little,' said Mr. Kitten, 'it would throw you into a deep sleep — a sleep that none of us could wake you from, when it was time for break-fast — a sleep that would make your mama think you were dead.' Those words were hardly spoken, when the thought that I have now to tell you of, flashed across my mind. But, before I say anything more, answer me one question. Am right in supposing that our attempt at escape must be made in the night?"
"At night, certainly," says I, "because we can be most sure, then, that the Pirates off guard are all in this building, and not likely to leave it." [26/27]
"I understand. Now, Davis, hear what I have observed of the habits of the men who keep us imprisoned in this place. The first change of guard at night, is at nine o'clock. At that time, seven men come in from watching, and nine men (the extra night-guard) go out to replace them; each party being on duty, as you know, for six hours. I have observed, at the nine o'clock change of guard, that the seven men who come off duty, and the nine who go on, have a supply of baked cakes of Indian corn, reserved expressly for their use. They divide the food between them; the Captain (who is always astir at the change of guard) generally taking a cake for himself when the rest of the men take theirs. This makes altogether, seventeen men who partake of food especially reserved for them, at nine o'clock. So far you understand me?"
"The next thing I have noticed the manner in which that food is prepared. About two hours before sunset, Captain walks out to smoke, after he has eaten the meal which he calls his dinner. In his absence from the hall, the Indians light their fire on the unsheltered side of it, and prepare the last batch of food before they leave us for the night. They knead up two separate masses of dough. The largest is the first which is into cakes and baked. That is taken for the use of us prisoners and of the men who are off duty all the night. The second and smaller piece of dough is then prepared the nine o'clock change of guard. On that food — come nearer, Davis, I must say it in a whisper — on that food all our escape now turn. If we can drug it unobserved, the Pirates who go off duty, the Pirates who go on duty, and the Captain, who is more to be feared than all the rest, will be as absolutely insensible to our leaving the Palace, as if they were every of them dead men."
I was unable to speak — I was unable even to fetch my breath at those words.
"I have taken Mr. Kitten, as a necessity, into our confidence," she said. "I have learnt from him a simple way of obtaining the juice of that plant which he forbade the child to eat. I have also made myself acquainted with the quantity which it is necessary to use for our purpose; and I have resolved that no hands but mine shall be charged with the work of kneading it into the dough."
"Not you, Miss — not you. Let one of us — let me — run that risk."
"You have work enough and risk enough already," said Miss Maryon. "It is time that the women, for whom you have suffered and ventured so much, should take their share. Besides, the risk is not great, where the Indians only are concerned. They are idle and curious. I have seen, with my own [bottom of left-hand column, page 27] eyes, that they are as easily tempted from their occupation by any chance sight or chance noise as if they were children; and I have already arranged with Mr. Macey that he is to excite their curiosity by suddenly pulling down one of the loose stones in doorway, when the right time comes. The Indians are certain to run in here to find out what is the matter. Mr. Macey will tell them that he has seen a snake, — they will hunt for the creature (as I have seen them hunt, over arid over again, in this ruined place) — and while they are so engaged, the opportunity that I want, the two minutes to myself, which are all I require, will be mine. Dread the Pirate Captain, Davis, for the slightest caprice of his may ruin all our hopes, — but never dread the Indians, and never doubt me."
Nobody, who had looked in her face at that moment — or at any moment that ever I knew of — could have doubted her.
"There is one thing more," she went on. "When is the attempt to be made?"
"In three days' time," I answered; "there will be timber enough down to make the rafts."
"In three days' time, then, let us decide the question of our freedom or our death." She spoke those words with a firmness that amazed me. "Rest now," she said. "Rest and hope."
The third day was the hottest we had yet experienced; we were kept longer at work than usual; and when we had done; we left on the bank enough, and more than enough, of timber and poles, to make both the rafts.
The Indians had gone when we got back to the Palace, and the Pirate Captain was still smoking on the flight of steps. As we crossed the hall, I looked on one side and saw the Tortillas set up in a pile, waiting for the men who came in and went out at nine o'clock.
At the door which opened between our room and the women's room, Miss Maryon was waiting for us.
"Is it done?" I asked in a whisper.
"It is done," she answered.
It was, then, by Mr. Macey's watch (which he had kept hidden about him throughout our imprisonment), seven o'clock. We had two hours to wait: hours of suspense, but hours of rest also for the overworked men who had been cutting the wood. Before I lay down, I looked into the inner room. The women were all sitting together; and I saw by the looks they cast on me that Miss Maryon had told them of what was coining with the night. The children were much as usual, playing quiet games among themselves. In the men's room, I noticed that Mr. Macey had posted himself along with Tom Packer, close to Serjeant Drooce, and that Mr. Fischer seemed to be taking great pains to make himself agreeable to Mr. Pordage. I was glad to see that the two gentlemen of the [27/28] company, who were quick-witted and experienced in most things, were already taking in hand the two unreasonable men.
The evening brought no coolness with it. The heat was so oppressive that we all panted under it. The stillness in the forest was awful. We could almost hear the falling of the leaves.
Half-past seven, eight, half-past eight, a quarter to nine — Nine. The tramp of feet came up the steps on one side, and the tramp of feet came into the hall, on the other. There was a confusion of voices, — then, the voice of the Pirate Captain, speaking in his own language, — then, the voice of the American mate, ordering out the guard, — then silence.
I crawled to the door of our room, and laid myself down behind it, where I could see a strip of the hall, being that part of it in which the way out was situated. Here, also, the Pirate Captain's tent had been set up, about twelve or fourteen feet from the door. Two torches were burning before it. By their light, I saw the guard on duty file out, each man munching his Tortilla, and each man grumbling over it. At the same time, in the part of the hall which I could not see, I heard the men off duty grumbling also. The Pirate Captain, who had entered his tent the minute before, came out of it, and calling to the American mate, at the far end of the hall, asked sharply in English, what that murmuring meant.
"The men complain of the Tortillas," the mate tells him. "They say, they are nastier than ever to-night."
"Bring me one, and let me taste it," said the Captain. I had often before heard people talk of their hearts being in their mouths, but I never really knew what the sensation was, till I heard that order given.
The Tortilla was brought to him. He nibbled a bit off it, spat the morsel out, with disgust, and threw the rest of the cake away."Those Indian beasts have burnt the Tortillas," he said, "and their dirty hides shall suffer for it to-morrow morning." With those words, he whisked round on his heel, and went hack into his tent.
Some of the men had crept up behind me, and, looking over my head, had seen what I saw. They passed the account of it in whispers to those who could not see; and they, in their turn, repeated it to women. In five minutes everybody in the two rooms knew that the scheme had failed with the very man whose sleep it was most important to secure. I heard no stifled crying among the women or stifled cursing among the men. The despair of that time was too deep for tears, and too deep for words.
I myself could not take my eyes off the tent. In a little while he came out of it again, puffing and panting with the heat. He lighted a cigar at one of the torches, and laid [bottom of left-hand column, page 28] himself down on his cloak just inside the doorway leading into the portico, so that all the air from outside might blow over him. Little as he was, he was big enough to lie right across the narrow way out.
He smoked and he smoked, slowly and more slowly, for, what seemed to me to be, hours, but for what, by the watch, was little more than ten minutes after all. Then, the cigar dropped out of his mouth — his hand sought for it, and sank lazily by his side — his head turned over a little towards the door — and he fell off: not into the drugged sleep that there was safety in, but into his light, natural sleep which a touch on his body might have disturbed.
"Now's the time to gag him," says Short, creeping up close to me, and taking off his jacket and shoes.
"Steady," says I. "Don't let's try that till we can try nothing else. There are men asleep near us who have not eaten the drugged cakes — the Pirate Captain is light and active — and if the gag slips on his mouth, we are all done for. I'll go to his head, Short, with my jacket ready in my hands. When I'm there, do you lead the way with your mates, and step gently into the portico, over his body. Every minute of your time is precious on account of making the rafts. Leave the rest of the men to get the women and children over; and leave me to gag him if he stirs while we are getting out."
"Shake hands on it, Davis," says Short, getting to his feet. "A team of horses wouldn't have dragged me out first, if you hadn't said that about the rafts."
"Wait a bit," says I, "till I speak to Mr. Kitten."
I crawled back into the room, taking care to keep out of the way of the stones in the middle of it, and asked Mr. Kitten how long it would be before the drugged cakes acted on the men outside who had eaten them? He said we ought to wait another quarter of an hour, to make quite sure. At the same time, Mr. Macey whispered in my ear to let him pass over the Pirate Captain's body, alone with the dangerous man of our company — Serjeant Drooce. "I know how to deal with mad people," says he. "I have persuaded the Sergeant that if he is quiet, and if he steps carefully, I can help him to escape from Tom Packer, whom he is beginning look on as his keeper. He has been as stealthy and quiet as a cat ever since — and I will answer for him till we get to the river side."
What a relief it was to hear that! I was turning round to get back to Short, when a hand touched me lightly.
"I have heard you talking," whispered Miss Maryon; "and I will prepare all in my room for the risk we must now run. Robert, the ship's boy, whom the children are so fond of, shall help us to persuade them, once more, that we are going to play a game. If you can get one of the torches from the tent, and [28/29] pass it in here, it may prevent from stumbling. Don't be afraid of the women and children, Davis. They shall not endanger the brave men who are saving them."
I left her at once to get the torch. The Pirate Captain was still fast asleep as I stole on tiptoe, into the hall, and took it from the tent. When I returned, and gave it to Miss Maryon, her sister's little deaf and dumb boy saw me, and, slipping between us, caught tight hold of one of my hands. Having been used to riding on my shoulders for so many days, he had taken a fancy to me; and, when I tried to put him away, he only clung the tighter, and began to murmur in his helpless dumb way. Slight as the noise was which the poor little fellow could make, we all dreaded it. His mother wrung her hands in despair when she heard him; and Mr. Fisher whispered to me for Heaven's sake to quiet the child, and humour him at any cost. I immediately took him up in my arms, and went back to Short.
"Sling him on my back," says I, "as you slung the little girl on your own the first day of the march. I want both my hands, and the child won't be quiet away from me."
Short did as I asked him in two minutes. As soon as he had finished, Mr. Macey passed the word on to me, that the quarter of an hour was up; that it was time to try the experiment with Drooce; and that it was necessary for us all to humour him by feigning sleep. We obeyed. Looking out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Macey take the mad Serjeant's arm, point round to us all, and then lead him out. Holding tight by Mr. Macey, Drooce stepped as lightly as a woman, with as bright and wicked a look as ever I saw in any human eyes. They crossed the hall — Mr. Macey pointed to the Pirate Captain, and whispered, "Hush!" — the Serjeant imitated the action and repeated the word — then the two stepped over his body (Drooce cautiously raising his feet the highest), and disappeared through the portico. We waited to hear if there was any noise or confusion. Not a sound.
I got up, and Short handed me his jacket for the gag. The child, having been startled from his sleep by the light of the torch, when I brought it in, had fallen off again, already, on my shoulder. "Now for it," says I, and stole out into the hall.
I stopped at the tent, went in, and took the first knife I could find there. With the weapon between my teeth, with the little innocent asleep on my shoulder, with the jacket held ready in both hands, I kneeled down on one knee at the Pirate Captain's head, and fixed my eyes steadily on his ugly sleeping face.
The sailors came out first, with in their shoes in their hands. No sound of footsteps from any one of them. No movement in the ugly face as they passed over it. [bottom of left-hand column, page 29]
The women and children were ready [;] next Robert, the ship's boy, lifted the children over: most of them holding their little hands over their mouths to keep from laughing — so well had Robert persuaded them the were only playing a game. The women passed next, all as light as air; after them, in obedience to a sign from me, my comrades of the Marines, holding their in their hands, as the sailors had done before them. So far, not a word had been spoken, not a mistake had been made — so far, not a change of any sort had passed over Pirate Captain's face.
There were left now in the hall, besides myself and the child on may back, only Mr. Fisher and Mr. Pordage. Mr. Pordage! Up to that moment, in the risk and excitement of the time, I had not once thought of him.
I was forced to think of him now, though; and with anything but a friendly feeling.
At the sight of the Pirate Captain, asleep across the way out, the unfortunate, mischievous old simpleton tossed up his head, and folded his arms, and was on the point of breaking out loud into a spoken document of some kind, when Mr. Fisher wisely quickly clapped a hand over his mouth.
"Government despatches outside," whispers Mr. Fisher, in an agony. "Secret service. Forty-nine reports from head-quarters, all waiting fur you half a mile off. I'll show you the way, sir. Don't wake that man there, who is asleep: he must know nothing about it — he represents the Public."
Mr. Pordage suddenly looked very knowing and hugely satisfied with himself. He followed Mr. Fisher to within a foot of the Pirate Captain's body — then stopped short.
"How many reports?" he asked, anxiously.
"Forty-nine," said Mr. Fisher. "Come along, sir, — and step clean over the Public, whatever you do."
Mr. Pordage instantly stepped over, as jauntily as if he was going to dance. At the moment of his crossing, a hanging rag of his cursed, useless, unfortunate, limp Diplomatic coat touched the Pirate Captain's forehead, and woke him.
I drew back softly, with the child asleep on may shoulder, into the black shadow of the wall behind me. At the instant when the Pirate Captain awoke, I had been looking at Mr. Pordage, and had be consequently lost the chance of applying the gag to his mouth suddenly, at the right time.
On rousing up, he turned his face inwards, towards the prisoners' room. If he had turned it outwards, he must to a dead certainty have seen the tail of Mr. Pordage's coat, disappearing in the portico.
Though he was awake enough to move, he was not awake enough to have the full possession of his sharp senses. The drowsiness of his sleep still hung about him. He [29/30] yawned, stretched himself; spat wearily, sat up, spat again, got on his legs, and stood up, within three feet of the shadow in which I was hiding behind him.
I forgot the knife in my teeth, — I declare solemnly, in the frightful suspense of the moment, I forgot it — and doubled my fist if I was an unarmed man, with the purpose of stunning him by a blow on the head if he came any nearer. I suppose I waited, with my fist clenched, nearly a minute, while he waited, yawning end spitting. At the end that time, he made for his tent, and I heard him (with what thankfulness no words can tell!) roll himself down, with another yawn, on his bed inside.
I waited — in the interest of us all — to make quite sure, before I left, that he was asleep again. In what I reckoned as a five minutes' time, I heard him snoring, and felt free to take myself and my little sleeping comrade out of the prison, at last.
The drugged guards in the portico were sitting together, dead asleep, with their haul against the wall. The third man was lying flat, on the landing of the steps. Their arms and ammunition were gone: wisely taken by our men — to defend us, if we were meddled with before we escaped, and to kill food for us when we committed ourselves to the river.
At the bottom of the steps I was startled by seeing two women standing together. They were Mrs. Marcy and Miss Maryon: the first, waiting to see her child safe; the second (God bless her for it!) waiting I see me safe.
In a quarter of an hour we were by the river-side, and saw the work bravely begun: the sailors and the marines under their orders, labouring at the rafts in the shallow water by the bank; Mr. Macey and Mr. Fisher rolling down fresh timber as it was wanted; the women cutting the vines, creepers, and withies for the lashings. W brought with us three more pair of hands to help; and all worked with such a will, that, in four hours and twenty minutes, by Mr. Macey's watch, the rafts, though not finished as they ought to have been, were still strong enough to float us away.
Short, another seaman, and the ship's boy, got aboard the first raft, carrying with them poles and spare timber. Miss Maryon, Mrs. Fisher and her husband, Mrs. Macey and her husband and three children, Mr. and Mrs. Pordage, Mr. Kitten, myself, and women and children besides, to make up eighteen, were the passengers on the leading raft. The second raft, under the guidance of the two other sailors, held Serjeant Drooce (gagged, for he now threatened to be noisy again), Tom Packer, the two Marines, Mrs. Belltott, and the rest of the women and children. We all got on board silently and quickly, with a fine moonlight over our heads, and without accidents or delays of any kind.
It was a good half-hour before the time would come for the change of guard at the prison, when the lashings which tied us to the bank were cast off, and we floated away, a company of free people, on the current of an unknown river.
[This concludes Wilkie Collins's chapter, "The Prison in the Woods," for The Perils of Certain English Prisoners (1857), a novella in three chapters, especially written for the extra-Christmas Number of Household Words. Charles Dickens now picks up the narrative with "THE RAFTS ON THE RIVER." The description of the Mayan ruins and the surrounding jungle seems to have been derived from Henry Morley's 22 February 1851 Household Words article "Our Phantom Ship. Central America," Vol. 2. 22, page 518.]
Last modified 15 December 2005
Last modified 8 June 2007