Synopsis of Part 1 of "The Prison in the Woods"
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 Gil 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.
The Text of Part 1 of "The Prison in the Woods" (pages 14-22)
HERE we all stood, huddled up on the beach under the burning sun, with the pirates closing us in on every side — as forlorn company any of helpless men, women, and children as ever was gathered together out of any nation in the world. I kept my thoughts to myself; but I did not in my heart believe that any one of our lives was worth five minutes' purchase.
The man on whose will our safety or our destruction depended was the Pirate Captain. All our eyes, by a kind of instinct, fixed themselves on him — excepting in the case of the poor children, who, too frightened to cry, stood hiding their faces against their mothers' gowns. The ruler who held all the ruffians about us in subjection, was, judging by appearances, the very last man I should have picked out as likely to fill a place of power among any body of men, good or bad, under heaven. By nation, he was a Portuguese; and, by name, he was generally spoken of among his men as The Don. He was a little, active, weazen, monkey-faced man, dressed in the brightest colours and finest-made clothes I ever saw. His three-cornered hat was smartly cocked on one side. His coat-skirts were stiffened and stuck out, like the skirts of the dandies in the Mall in London. When the dance was given at the Island, I saw no such lace on any lady's dress there as I saw on his cravat aid ruffles. Round his neck he wore a thick gold chain, with a diamond cross hanging from it. His lean, wiry, brown fingers were covered with rings. Over his shoulders, and falling down in front to below his waist, he wore a sort of sling of broad scarlet cloth, embroidered with beads and little feathers, and holding, at the lower part, four loaded pistols, two on a side, lying ready to either hand. His face was mere skin and bone, and one of his wrinkled cheeks had a blue scar running all across it, which drew up that part of his face, and showed his white shining teeth on that side of his mouth. An uglier, meaner, weaker, man-monkey to look at, I never saw; and yet there was not one of his crew, from his mate to his cabin-boy, who did not obey him as if be had been the greatest monarch in the world. As for the Sambos, including especially that evil-minded scoundrel, Christian George King, (they never went near him without seeming to want to roll before him on the ground, for the sake of winning [bottom of left column, page 14] the honour of having one of his little dancing-master's feet set on their black bullock bodies.
There this fellow stood, while we were looking at him, with his hands in his pockets, smoking a cigar. His mate (the one-eyed Englishman), stood by him; a big, hulking fellow he was, who might have eaten the Captain up, pistols and all, and looked about for more afterwards. The Don himself seemed, to an ignorant man like me, to have a gift of speaking in any tongue he liked. I can testify that his English rattled out of his crooked lips as fast as if it was natural to them; making allowance, of course, for his foreign way of clipping his words.
"Now, Captain," says the big mate, running his eye over us as if we were a herd of cattle, "here they are. What's to be done with them?"
"Are they all off the Island?" says the Pirate Captain.
"All of them that are alive," says the mate.
"Good, and very good," says the captain. "Now, Giant-Georgy, some paper, a pen, and a horn of ink."
Those things were brought immediately.
Something to write on," says the Pirate Captain. "What? Ha! why not a broad nigger back?"
He pointed with the end of his cigar one of the Sambos. The man was pulled forward, and set down on his knees with his shoulders rounded. The Pirate Captain laid the paper on them, and took a dip of ink — then suddenly turned up his snub-nose with a look of disgust, and, removing the paper again, took front his pocket a fine cambric handkerchief edged with lace, smelt the scent on it, and afterwards laid it delicately over the Sambo's shoulders.
"A table of black man's back, with the sun on it, close under my noseŅah, Giant-Georgy, pah! pah!" says the Pirate Captain, putting the paper on the handkerchief, with another grimace expressive of great disgust.
He began to write immediately, waiting from time to time to consider a little with himself; and once stopping, apparently, to count our numbers as we stood before him. To think of that villain knowing how to write, and of my not being able to make so much as a decent pothook, if it had been to save my life!
When he had done, he signed to one of his men to take the scented handkerchief off the Sambo's back, and told the sailor he might keep it for his trouble. Then, holding the written paper open in his hand, lie came forward a step or two closer to us, and said, with a grin, and a mock bow, which made my fingers itch with wanting to be at him:
"I have the honour of addressing myself to the ladies. According to my reckoning they are fifteen ladies in all. Does any one of them belong to the chief officer of the sloop?" [14/15] There was a momentary silence.
"You don't answer me," says the Pirate Captain. "Now, I mean to be answered. Look here, women." He drew one of his four pistols out of his gay scarlet sling, and walked up to Tom Packer, who happened to be standing nearest to him of the men prisoners. "This is a pistol, and it is loaded. I put the barrel to the head of this man with my right hand, and I take out my watch with my left. I wait five minutes for an answer. If I don't get it in five minutes, I blow this man's brains out. I wait five minutes again, and if I don't get an answer, I blow the next man's brains out. And so I go on, if you are obstinate, and your nerves are strong, till not one of your soldiers or your sailors is left. On my word of honour, as a gentleman-buccanier, I promise you that. Ask my men if I ever broke my word."
He rested the barrel of the pistol against Tom Packer's head, and looked at his watch, as perfectly composed, in his cat-like cruelty, as if he was waiting for the boiling of an egg.
"If you think it best not to answer him, ladies," says Tom, "never mind me. It's my trade to risk my life; and I shall lose it in a good cause."
"A brave man," said the Pirate Captain, lightly, "Well, ladies, are you going to sacrifice the brave man?"
"We are going to save him, " said Miss Maryon, "as he has striven to save us. I belong to the captain of the sloop. I am his sister." She stopped, and whispered anxiously to Mrs. Macey, who was standing with her. "Don't acknowledge yourself, as I have done — you have children."
"Good!" said the Pirate Captain. "The answer is given, and the brains may stop in the brave man's head." He put his watch and pistol back, and took two or three quick puffs at his cigar to keep it alight — then handed the paper he had written on, and his penfull of ink, to Miss Maryon.
"Read that over," he said, "and sign it for yourself, and the women and children with you."
Saying those words, he turned round briskly on his heel, and began talking, in a whisper, to Giant Georgy, the big mate. What he was talking about, of course, I could not hear; but I noticed that he motioned several times straight into the interior of the country.
"Davis," said Miss Maryon, "look at this."
She crossed before her sister, as she spoke, and held the paper which the Pirate Captain had given to her, under my eyes — my bound arms not allowing me to take it myself. Never to my dying day shall I forget the shame I felt, when I was obliged to acknowledge to Miss Maryon that I could not read a word of it!
"There are better men than me, ma'am," [bottom of right-hand column of p. 15] I said, with a sinking heart, "who can read it, and advise you for the best."
"None better," she answered, quietly. "None, whose advice I would so willingly take. I have seen enough, to feel sure of that. Listen, Davis, while I read. "
Her pale face turned paler still, as she fixed her eyes on the paper. Lowering her voice to a whisper, so that the women and children near might not hear, she read me these lines:
"To the Captains of English men-of-war, and to the commanders of vessels of other nations, cruising in the Caribbean Seas.
"The precious metal and the jewels laid up in the English Island of Silver-Store, are in the possession of the Buccaniers, at sea.
"The women and children of the Island of Silver-Store, to the number of Twenty-Two, are in the possession of the Buccaniers, on land.
""They will be taken up the country with fourteen men prisoners (whose lives the Buccaniers have private reasons of their own for preserving), to a place of confinement, which is unapproachable by strangers. They will be kept there until a certain day, previously agreed between the Buccaniers at sea, and the Buccaniers on land.
""If, by that time, no news from the party at sea, reaches the party on land, it will be taken for granted that the expedition which conveys away the silver and jewels has been met, engaged, and conquered by superior force; that the Treasure has been taken from its present owners; and that the Buccaniers guarding it, have been made prisoners, to be dealt with according to the law.
""The absence of the expected news at the appointed time, being interpreted in this way, it will be the next object of the Buccaniers on land to take reprisals for the loss and the injury it inflicted on their companions at sea. The lives of the women and children of the Island of Silver-Store are absolutely at their mercy and those lives will pay the forfeit, if the Treasure is taken away, and if the men in possession of it come to harm.
""This paper will be nailed to the lid of the largest chest taken from the Island. Any officer whom the chances of war may bring within reading distance of it, is warned to pause and consider, before his conduct net signs the death-warrant of the women and children of all English colony.
""Signed, under the Black Flag,
""Commander of the Buccaniers, and Chief of the Guard over the English prisoners."
""The statement above written, in so far as it regards the situation we use now placed in, may be depended on as the truth.
""Signed, on behalf of the imprisoned women and children of the Island of Silver-Store."
"Beneath it is last line," said Miss Maryon, pointing to it, "is a blank space, in which I am expected to sign my name "
"And in five minutes' time, "added the Pirate Captain, who had stolen close up to us, "or the same consequences will follow which I had the pleasure of explaining to you a few minutes ago." [15/16]
He again drew out his watch and pistol but, this time, it was my head that he touched with the barrel.
"When Tom Packer spoke for himself, miss, a little while ago," I said, "please to consider that he spoke for me."
"Another brave man!" said the Pirate Captain, with his ape's grin. "Am I to fire my pistol this time, or am I to put it back again is I did before?"
Miss Maryon did not seem to hear him. Her kind eyes rested for a moment on my face, and then looked up to the bright Heaven above us.
"Whether I sign, or whether I do not sign," she said, "we are in the hands of God, and the future which his wisdom has appointed will not the less surely come. "
With those words she placed the paper on my breast, signed it, and handed it back to the Pirate Captain.
"This our secret, Davis," she whispered. "Let us, keep the dreadful knowledge of it to ourselves as long as we can."
I have another singular confession to make — I hardly expect anybody to believe me when I mention the circumstance — but it is not the less the plain truth that, even in the midst of that frightful situation, I felt, for a few moments, a sensation of happiness while Miss Maryon's hand was holding the paper on my breast, and while her lips were telling me that there was a secret between us which we were to keep together.
The Pirate Captain carried the signed paper at once to his mate.
"Go Lack to the Island," he says, "and nail that with your own hands on the lid of the largest chest. There is no occasion to hurry the business of shipping the Treasure, because there is nobody on the Island to make signals that may draw attention to it from the sea. I have provided for that; and I have provided for the chance of your being outmanoeuvred afterwards, by English, or other cruisers. Here are your sailing orders" (he look them front his pocket while he spoke), "your directions for the disposal of the Treasure, and your appointment of the day and the place for communicating again with me and my prisoners. I have done my part — go you, now, and do yours."
Hearing the clearness with which he gave his orders; knowing what the devilish scheme was that he had in vented was for preventing the recovery of the Treasure, even if our ships happened to meet and capture the pirates at sea; remembering what the look and the speech of him had been, when he had put his pistol to my head and Tom Packer's; I began to understand how it was that this little, weak, weazen, wicked spider had I got the first place and kept it among the villains abut him.
The mate moved off, with his orders, towards the sea. Before he got there, the Pirate Captain beckoned another of the crew [bottom of left-hand column, page 16] to come to him; and spoke a few words in his own, or in some other foreign language. I guessed what they meant, when I saw thirty of the pirates told off together, and set in a circle all round us. The rest were marched away after the mate. In the same manner the Sambos were divided next. Ten, including Christian George King, were left with us; and the others were sent down to the canoes. When this had been done, the Pirate Captain looked at his watch; pointed to some trees, about a mile off, which fringed the land as it rose from the beach; said to an American among the pirates round us, who seemed to hold the place of second mate, "In two hours from this time;" and then walked away briskly, with one of his men after him, to some baggage piled up below us on the beach.
We were marched off at once to the shady Place under the trees, and allowed to sit down there, in the cool, with our guard in a ring round us. Feeling certain from what I saw, and from what I knew to be contained in the written paper signed by Miss Maryon, that we were on the point of under-taking a long journey up the country, I anxiously examined my fellow prisoners to see how fit they looked for encountering bodily hardship and fatigue: to say nothing of mental suspense and terror, over and above.
With all possible respect for an official gentleman, I must admit that Mr. Commissioner Pordage struck me as being, beyond any comparison, the most helpless individual in our unfortunate company. What with the fright he had suffered, the danger he had gone through, and the bewilderment of finding himself torn clean away from his safe Government moorings, his poor unfortunate brains seemed to be as completely discomposed as his diplomatic coat. He was perfectly harmless and quiet, but also perfectly light-headed — as anybody could discover who looked at his dazed eyes or listened to his maundering talk. I tried him with it word or two about our miserable situation; thinking that, if any subject would get a trifle of sense out of him, it must surely be that.
You will observe," said Mr. Pordage, looking at the torn cuffs of his Diplomatic coat instead if at me, "that I cannot take cognisance of our situation. No memorandum of it has been drawn up; no report in connexion with it has been presented to me. I cannot possibly recognise it until the necessary minutes and memorandums and reports have reached me through the proper channels. When our miserable situation presents itself to me, on paper, I shall bring it under the notice of Government; and Government, after a proper interval, will bring it back again under my notice; and then I shall have something to say about it. Not a minute before, — no, my man, not a minute before!" [16/17]
Speaking of Mr. Pordage's wanderings of mind, reminds me that, it is necessary to say a word next, about the much more serious case of Serjeant Drooce. The cut on his head, acted on by the heat of the climate, had driven him, to all appearance, stark mad. Besides the danger to himself, if he broke out before the Pirates, there was the danger to the women and children, of trusting him among them — a misfortune which, in our captive condition, it was impossible to avoid. Most providentially, however (as I found on inquiry) Tom Packer, who had saved his life, had a power of controlling him, which none of the rest of us possessed. Some shattered recollection of the manner in which he had been preserved from death, seemed to be still left in a corner of his memory. Whenever he showed symptoms of breaking out, Tom looked at him, and repeated with his hand and arm the action of cutting out right and left which had been the means of his saving the sergeant. On seeing that, Drooce always huddled himself up close to Tom, and fell silent. We, — that is, Packer and IŅarranged it together that he was always to keep near Drooce, whatever happened, and however far we might be marched before we reached the place of our imprisonment.
The rest of us men — meaning Mr. Macey, Mr. Fisher, two of my comrades of the Marines, and five of the sloop's crew — were, making allowance for a little smarting in our wounds, in tolerable health, and not half so much broken in spirit by troubles, past, present, and to come, as some persons might be apt to imagine. As for the seamen, especially, no stranger who looked at their jolly brown faces would ever have imagined that they were prisoners, and in peril of their lives. They sat together, chewing their quids and looking out good humouredly at the sea, like a gang of liberty-men resting themselves on shore. "Take it easy, soldier, " says one of the six, seeing me looking at him. "And, if you can't do that, take it as easy as you can." I thought, at the time, that many a wiser man might have given me less sensible advice than this, though it was only offered by a boatswain's mate.
A movement among the Pirates attracted my notice to the beach below us, and I saw their Captain approaching our halting-place, having changed his flue clothes for garments that were tit to travel in.
His coming back to us had the effect of producing unmistakable signs of preparation for a long journey. Shortly after he appeared, three Indians came up, leading three loaded mules; and. these were followed, in a few minutes, by two of the Sambos, carrying between them a copper full of smoking meat and broth. After having been shared among the Pirates, this mess was set down before us, with some wooden bowls floating about [bottom of left-hand column, page 17] in it, to dip out the food with. Seeing that we hesitated before touching it, the Pirate Captain recommended us not to he too mealy-mouthed, as that was meat from our own stores on the Island, and the last we were likely to taste for a long time to come. The sailors, without any more ado about it, professed their readiness to follow this advice, muttering among themselves that good meat was a good thing, though the devil himself had cooked it. The Pirate Captain then, observing that we were all ready to accept the food, ordered the bonds that confined the hands of us men to be loosened and cast off, so that we might help ourselves. After we had served the women and children, we fell to. It was a good meal — though I can't say that I myself had much appetite for it. Jack, to use his own I phrase, stowed away a double allowance. The jolly faces of the seamen lengthened a good heal, however, when they found there was nothing to drink afterwards but plain water. One of them, a fat man, named Short, went so far as to say that, in the turn things seemed to have taken, he should like to make his will before we started, as the stoppage of his grog and the stoppage of his life were two events that would occur uncommonly close together.
When we had done, we were all ordered to stand up. The pirates approached me and the other men, to bind our arms again; but the Captain stopped them.
"No," says he. "I want them to get on at a good pace; and they will do that best with their arms free. Now, prisoners," he continued, addressing us, "I don't mean to have any lagging on the road. I have fed you up with good meat, and you have no excuse for not stepping out briskly — women, children, and all. You men are without weapons and without food, and you know nothing of the country you are going to travel through. If you are mad enough, in this helpless condition, to attempt escaping on the march, you will be shot, as sure as you all stand there, — and if the bullet misses, you will starve to death in forests that have no path and no end."
Having addressed us in those words, be turned again to his men. I wondered then, as I had wondered once or twice already, what those private reasons might be, which lie had mentioned in his written paper, for sparing the lives of us male prisoners. I hoped he would refer to them now — but I was disappointed.
"While the country allows it," he went on, addressing his crew, "march in a square, and keep the prisoners inside. Whether it is man, woman, or child, shoot any one of them who tries to escape, on peril of being shot yourselves if you miss. Put the Indians and males in front, and the Sambos next to them. Draw up the prisoners all together. Tell off seven men to march before them, [17/18] and seven more for each side; and leave the other nine for the rear-guard. A fourth mule for me, when I get tired, and another Indian to carry my guitar."
His guitar! To think of the murderous thief having a turn for strumming tunes, and wanting to cultivate it on such an expedition as ours! I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the guitar brought forward in a neat green case, with the piratical skull and cross-bones and the Pirate Captain's initials painted on it in white.
"I can stand a good deal," whispers Tom Packer to me, looking hard at the guitar; but con-found me, Davis, if it's not a trifle too much to be taken prisoner by such a fellow as that!"
The Pirate Captain lights another cigar.
"March!" says he, with a screech like a cat, and a flourish with his sword, of the sort that a stage-player would give at the head of a mock army.
We all moved off, leaving the clump of trees to the right, going, we knew not whither, to unknown sufferings and an unknown fate. The land that lay before us was wild and open, without fences or habitations. Here and there, cattle wandered about over it, and a few stray Indians. Beyond, in the distance, as far as we could see, rose a prospect of mountains and forests. Above us, was the pitiless sun, in a sky that was too brightly blue to look at. Behind us, was the calm murmuring ocean, with the dear island home which the women and children had lost, rising in the distance like a little green garden on the bosom of the sea. After half-an-hour's walking, we began to descend into the plain, and the last glimpse of the Island of Silver-Store disappeared from our view.
The order of march which we prisoners now maintained among ourselves, being the order which, with certain occasional variations, we observed for the next three days, I may as well give some description of it in this place, before I get occupied with other things, and forget it.
I myself, and the sailor I have mentioned under the name of Short, led the march. After us came Miss Maryon, and Mr. and Mrs. Macey. They were followed by two of my comrades of the Marines, with Mrs. Pordage, Mrs. Belltott, and two of the strongest of the ladies to look after them. Mr. Fisher, the ship's boy, and the three remaining men of the sloop's crew, with the rest of the women and children came next; Tom Packer, taking care of Serjeant Drooce, brought up the rear. So long as we got on quickly enough, the pirates showed no disposition to interfere with our order of march; but, if there were any signs of lagging — and God knows it was hard enough work for a man to walk under that burning sun! — the villains threatened this weakest of our company with the points of their swords. The younger among the children gave out, [the left-hand column of page 18 ends here] as might have been expected, poor things, very early on the march. Short and I set the example of taking two of them up, pick-a-back, which was followed directly by the rest of the men. Two of Mrs. Macey's three children fell to our share; the eldest, travelling behind us on his father's back. Short hoisted the next in age, a girl, on his broad shoulders. I see him now as if it was yesterday, with the perspiration pouring down his fat face and bushy whiskers, rolling along as if he was on the deck of a ship, and making a sling of his neck-handkerchief, with his clever sailor's fingers, to support the little girl on his back. "I expect you to marry me, my d rung, when you grow up," says he, in his oily, joking voice. And the poor child, in her innocence, laid her weary head down on his shoulder, and gravely and faithfully promised that she would.
A lighter weight fell to my share. I had the youngest of time children, the pretty little boy, already mentioned, who had been deaf and dumb from his birth. His mother's voice trembled sadly, as she thanked me for taking him up, and tenderly put his little dress right while she walked behind me, "He is very little and light of his age," says the poor lady, trying hard to speak steady. "He won't give you much trouble, Davis — he has always been a very patient child from the first." The boy's little frail arms clasped themselves round my neck while she was speaking; and something or other seemed to stop in my throat the cheerful answer that I wanted to make. I walked on with what must have looked, I'm afraid, like a gruff silence; the poor child humming softly on my back, in his unchanging, dumb way, till he hummed himself to sleep. Often and often, since that time, in dreams, I have felt those small arms round my neck again, and have heard that dumb murmuring song in my ear, dying away fainter and fainter, till nothing was left but the light breath rising and falling regularly on my cheek, telling me that my little fellow-prisoner had forgotten his troubles in sleep.
We marched, as well as I could guess, somewhere about seven miles that day — a short spell enough, judging by distance, but a terrible long one judging by heat. Our halting place was by the banks of a stream, across which, at a little distance, sonic wild pigs were swimming is we came up. Beyond us, was the same view of forests and mountains that I have already mentioned; and all round us, was a perfect wilderness of flowers. The shrubs, the bushes, the ground, all blazed again with magnificent colours, under the evening sun. When we were ordered to halt, wherever we set a child down, there that child had laps and laps lull of flowers growing within reach of its hand. We sat on flowers, eat [ate] on flowers, slept at night on flowers — any chance handful of which would have been well worth a golden guinea among [18/19] the gentlefolks in England. It was a sight not easily described, to see niggers, savages, and Pirates, hideous, filthy, and ferocious in the last degree to look at, squatting about grimly upon a natural carpet of beauty, of the sort that is painted in pictures with pretty fairies dancing on it.
The mules were unloaded, and left to roll among the flowers to their hearts' content. A neat tent was set up for the Pirate Captain, at the door of which, after eating a good meal, he laid himself down in a languishing attitude, with a nosegay in the bosom of his waistcoat, and his guitar on his knees, and jingled away at the strings, singing foreign songs, with a shrill voice and with his hose conceitedly turned up in the air. I was obliged to caution Short and the sailors — or they would, to a dead certainty, have put all our lives in peril by openly laughing at him.
We had but a poor supper that night. The Pirates now kept the provisions they had brought from the Island, for their own use; and we had to share the miserable starvation diet of the country, with the Indians and the Sambos. This consisted of black beans fried, and of things they call Tortillas, meaning, in plain English, flat cakes made of crushed Indian corn, and baked on a clay griddle. Not only was this food insipid, but the dirty manner in which the Indians prepared it, was disgusting. However, complaint was useless; for we could see for ourselves that no other provision had been brought for the prisoners. I heard some grumbling among our men, and some little fretfulness among the children, which their mothers soon quieted. I myself was indifferent enough to the quality of the food; for I had noticed a circumstance, just before it was brought to us, which occupied my mind with more serious considerations. One of the mules was unloaded near us, and I observed among the baggage a large bundle of new axes, doubtless taken from some ship. After puzzling my brains for some time to know what they could be wanted for, I came to the conclusion that they were to be employed in cutting our way through, when we came to the forests. To think of the kind of travelling which these preparations promised — if the view I took of them was the right one — and then to look at the women and children, exhausted by the first day's march, was sufficient to make any man uneasy. It weighed heavily enough on my mind, I know, when I woke up among the flowers, from time to time, that night.
Our sleeping arrangements, though we had not a single civilised comfort, were, thanks to the flowers, simple and easy enough. For the first time in their lives, the women and children laid down together, with the sky for a roof, and the kind earth for a bed. We men shook ourselves down, as well as we could, all round them; and the Pirates, relieving guard regularly, ranged themselves [bottom of left-hand column, page 19] outside of all. In that tropical climate, and at that hot time, the night was only pleasantly cool. Tire bubbling of the stream, and, now and then, the course of the breeze through the flowers, was all we heard. During the hours of darkness, it occurred to me — and I have no doubt the same idea struck my comrades — that a body of determined men, making a dash for it, might now have stood a fair chance of escaping. We were still near enough to the sea-shore to be certain of not losing our way; and the plain was almost as smooth, for, a good long run, as a natural race-course. However, the mere act of dwelling on such a notion, was waste of time and thought, situated as we were with regard to time women and children. They were, so to speak, the hostages who insured our submission to captivity, or to any other hardship that might be inflicted on us; a result which I have no doubt the Pirate Captain had foreseen, when he made us all prisoners together on taking possession of the island.
We were roused up at four in the morning, to travel on before the heat set in; our march under yesterday's broiling sun having been only undertaken for the purpose of getting us away from the sea-shore, and from possible help in that quarter, without loss of time. We forded the stream, wading through it waist-deep: except the children, who crossed on our shoulders. An hour before noon, we halted under two immense wild cotton-trees, about half a mile from a little brook, which probably ran into the stream we had passed in the morning. Late in the afternoon we were on foot again, and encamped for the night at three deserted huts, built of mud and poles. There were the remains of an enclosure here, intended, as I thought, for cattle; and there was an old well, from which our supply of water was got. The greater part of the women were very tired and sorrowful that night; but Miss Maryon did wonders in cheering them up.
On the third morning, we began to skirt the edge of a mountain, carrying our store of water with us from the well. We men prisoners had our full share of the burden. What with that, what with the way being all up-hill, and what with the necessity of helping on the weaker members of our company, that day's march was the hardest I remember to have ever got through. Towards evening, after resting again in the middle of the day, we stopped for the night on the verge of the forest. A dim, lowering, awful sight it was, to look up at time mighty wall of trees, stretching in front, and on either side of us without a limit and without it break. Through the night, though there was no wind blowing over our encampment, we heard deep moaning, rushing sounds rolling about, at intervals, in the great inner wilderness of leaves; and, now and then, those among us who slept, were [19/20] startled up by distant crashes in the depths of the forest — the death-knells of falling trees. We kept fires alight, in case of wild animals stealing out on us in the darkness; and the flaring red light, and the thick, winding smoke, alternately showed and hid the forest-prospect in a strangely treacherous and ghostly way. The children shuddered with fear; even the Pirate Captain forgot, for the first time, to jingle his eternal guitar.
When we were mustered in the morning for the march; I fully expected to see the axes unpacked. To my surprise they were not disturbed. The Indians drew their long clopping-knives (called machetes in the language of that country); made for a place among the trees where I could see no signs of a path; and began cutting at the bushes and shrubs, and at the wild vines and creepers, twirling down together in all sorts of fantastic forms, from the lofty branches. After clearing a few dozen yards inwards they came out to us again, whooping and showing their wicked teeth, as they laid hold of the mules' halters to lead them on. The Pirate Captain, before we moved after, took out a pocket compass, set it, pondered over it for some time, shrugged his shoulders, and screeched out "March," as usual. We entered tine forest, leaving behind us the last chance of escape, and the last hope of ever getting back to the regions of humanity and civilisation. By this time, we had walked inland, as nearly as I could estimate, about thirty miles.
The order of our march was now, of necessity somewhat changed. We all followed each other in a long line, shut in, however, as before, in front and in rear, by the Indians, the Sambos, and the pirates. Though none of us could see a vestige of any path, it was clear that our guides knew where they were going; for, we were never stopped by any obstacles, except the shrubs and wild-vines which they could cut through with their chopping-knives. Sometimes, we marched under great bunches which met like arches high over our heads. Sometimes, the boughs were so low that we had to stoop to pass under them. Sometimes, we wound in and out among mighty trunks of trees, with their gnarled roots twisting up far above the ground, amid with creepers in full flower twining down in hundreds from their lofty branches. The size of the leaves and the countless multitude of the trees shut out the sun, and made a solemn darkness which it was awful and without hope to walk through. Hours would pass without our hearing a sound but the dreary rustle of our own feet over the leafy ground. At other times. whole troops of parrots, with feathers of all the colours of the rainbow, chattered and shrieked at us; and processions of monkeys, fifty or sixty at a time, followed our progress in the boughs over-head: passing through this thick leaves [bottom of left-hand column, page 20] with a sound like the rush of a steady wind. Every now and then, the children were startled by lizard-like creatures, three feet long, running up the trunks of the trees as we passed by them; more than once, swarms of locusts tormented us, startled out of their hiding-places by the monkeys in the boughs. For five days we marched incessantly through this dismal forest-region, only catching a clear glimpse of the sky above us, on three occasions in all that time. The distance we walked each day seemed to be regulated by the positions of springs and streams in the forest, which the Indians knew of. Sometimes those springs and streams lay near together; and our day's work was short. Sometimes they were far apart and the march was long and weary. On all occasions, two of the Indians followed by two of the Sambos, disappeared as soon as we encamped for the night; and returned, in a longer or shorter time, bringing water with them. Towards the latter part of the journey, weariness had so completely mastered the weakest among our corn any, that they ceased to take no ice of anything. They walked without looking to the right or to the left, and they eat their wretched food and lay down to sleep with a silent despair that was shocking. Mr. Pordage left off maundering now, and Serjeant Drooce was so quiet and biddable, that Tom Packer had an easy time of it with him at last. Those among us who still talked, began to get a habit of dropping our voices to a whisper. Short's jokes languished and dwindled ; Miss Maryon's voice, still kind and tender as ever, began to lose its clearness; and the poor children, when they got weary and cried, shed tears silently, like old people. It seemed as if the darkness and the hush of the endless forest had cast its shadow on our spirits, and had stolen drearily into our inmost hearts.
On the sixth day, we saw the blessed sunshine on the ground before us, once more. Prisoners as we were, there was a feeling of freedom on stepping into the light again, and on looking up, without interruption, into the clear blue Heaven, from which no human creature can keep any other human creature, when the time comes for rising to it. A turn in the path brought us out suddenly at an Indian village — a wretched place, made up of two rows of huts built with poles, the crevices between them stopped with mud, and the roofs thatched in the coarsest manner with palm-leaves. The savages squatted about, jumped to their feet in terror as we came in view; but, seeing the Indians at the head of our party, took heart, and began chattering and screeching, just like the parrots we had left in the forest. Our guides answered in their gibberish; some lean, half wild dogs yelped and howled incessantly; and the Pirates discharged their muskets and loaded them again, to make sure that their [20/21] powder had not got damp on the march. No want of muskets among them now! The noise and the light and the confusion, after the silence, darkness, and discipline that we had been used to for the last five days, so bewildered us all, that it was quite a relief to sit down on the ground and let the guard about us shut out our view on every side.
"Davis! Are we at the end of the march?" says Miss Maryon, touching my arm.
The other women looked anxiously at me, as she put the question. I got on my feet, and saw the Pirate Captain communicating with the Indians of the village His hands were making signs in the fussy foreign way, all the time he was speaking. Sometimes, they pointed away to where the forest began again beyond us; and sometimes they went up both together to his mouth, as if he was wishful of getting a fresh supply of the necessaries of life.
My eyes next turned towards the mules. Nobody was employed in unpacking the baggage; nobody went, near that bundle of axes which had weighed on my mind so much already, and the mystery of which still tormented me in secret. I came to the conclusion that we were not yet at the end of our journey; I communicated my opinion to Miss Maryon. She got up herself, with my help, and looked about her, and made the remark, very justly, that all the huts in the village would not suffice to hold us. At the same time, I pointed out to her that the mule which the Pirate Captain had ridden had been relieved of his saddle, and was being led away, at that moment, to a patch of grass behind one of the huts.
"That looks as if we were not going much farther on," says I.
"Heaven if it be so, for the sake of the poor children!" says Miss Maryon. "Davis, suppose something happened which gave us a chance of escaping? Do you think we could ever find our way back to the sea?"
"Not a hope of getting back, miss, if the Pirates were to let us go this very instant, those pathless forests would keep us in prison for ever."
"Too true! Too true!" she said, and said no more.
In another half-hour we were roused up, and marched away from the village (as I had thought we should be) into the forest again. This time, though there was by no means so much cutting through the underwood needed as in our previous experience, we were accompanied by at least a dozen Indians, who seemed to me to be following us out of sheer idleness and curiosity. We had walked, as well as I could calculate, more than an hour, and I was trudging along with the little deaf-and-dumb boy on my back, as usual, thinking, not very in hopefully, of our future prospects, when I was startled by a moan in my ear from the child. One of his arms was trembling round [bottom of left-hand column, page 21] my neck, and the other pointed away towards my right hand. I looked in that direction — and there, as if it had started up out of the ground to dispute our passage through the forest, was a hideous monster carved in stone twice my height at least. The thing loomed out of a ghostly white, against the dark curtain of trees all round it. Spots of rank moss stuck about over its great glaring stone-face; its stumpy hands were tucked up into its breast; its legs and feet were four times the size of any human limbs; its body and the flat space of spare stone which rose above its head, were all covered with mysterious devices — little grinning men's faces, heads of crocodiles and apes, twisting knots and twirling knobs, strangely shaped leaves, winding lattice-work; legs, arms, fingers, toes, skulls, bones, and such like. The monstrous statue leaned over on one side, and was only kept from falling to the ground by the roots of a great tree which had wound themselves all round the lower half or it. Altogether, it was as horrible and ghastly an object to conic upon suddenly, in the unknown depths of a great forest, as the mind (or, at all events, my mind) can conceive. When I say that the first meeting with the statue struck me speechless, nobody can wonder that the children actually screamed with terror at the sight of it.
"It's only a great big doll, my darling," says Short, at his wit's end how to quiet the little girl on his back. "We'll get a nice soft bit of wood soon, and show these nasty savages how to make a better one."
While he was speaking, Miss Maryon was close behind me, soothing the deaf-and-dumb boy by signs which I could not understand.
"I have heard of these things, Davis," she says. "They are idols, made by a lost race of people, who lived, no one can say how many hundred or how many thousand years ago. That hideous thing was carved and worshipped while the great tree that now supports it was yet a seed in the ground. We must get the children used to these stone monsters. I believe we are coming to many more of them. I believe we are close to the remains of one of those mysterious ruined cities which have long been supposed to exist in this part, of the world."
Before I could answer, the word of command from the rear drove us on again. In passing the idol, some of the Pirates fired their muskets at it. The echoes from the reports rang back on us with a sharp rattling sound. We pushed on a few paces, when the Indians ahead suddenly stopped, flourished their chopping-knives, and all screamed out together "El Palacio!" The Englishmen among the Pirates took up the cry, and, running forward through the trees on either side of us, roared out, "The Palace!" Other Voices joined theirs in other tongues; and, for a minute or two, there was a general confusion of everybody, — the first that had [21/22] occurred since we were marched away, prisoners, from the sea-shore.
I tightened my hold of the child on my I back; took Miss Maryon closer to me, to save her from being roughly jostled by the men about us; and marched up as near to the front as the press and the trees would let me. Looking over the heads of the Indians, and between the trunks, I beheld a sight which I shall never forget: no, not to my dying day.
A wilderness of ruins spread out before me, overrun by a forest of trees, in every direction, look where I would, a. frightful confusion of idols, pillars, blocks of stone, heavy walls, and flights of steps, met my eye; some, whole and upright; others, broken and scattered on the ground; and all, whatever their condition, overgrown and clasped about by roots, branches, and curling vines, that writhed round them like so many great snakes. Every here and there, strange buildings stood up, with walls on the tops of which three men might have in marched abreast — buildings with their roofs burst off or tumbled in, and with the trees springing up from inside, and waving their restless shadows mournfully over the ruins. High in the midst of this desolation, towered a broad platform of rocky earth, scarped away on three sides, so as to make it unapproachable except by scaling ladders. On the fourth side, the flat of the platform was reached by a flight of stone steps, of such mighty size and strength that they might have been made for the use of a race of giants. They led to a huge building girded all round with a row of thick pillars, long enough and broad enough to cover the whole fiat space of ground solid enough, as to the walls, to stand for ever; but broken in, at most places, as to, the roof; and overshadowed by the trees that sprang up from inside, like the smaller houses already mentioned, below it. This was the dismal ruin which was called the Palace; and this was the Prison in the Woods which was to be the place of our captivity.
The screeching voice of the Pirate Captain restored order in our ranks, and sent the Indians forward with their chopping-knives to the steps of the Palace. We were directed to follow them across the ruins, and in and out among the trees. Out of every ugly crevice crack in the great stairs, there sprouted up flowers, long grasses, and beautiful 1arge leaved plants and bushes. When we had toiled to the top of the flight, we could look back from the height over the dark waving top of die forest behind us. More than a glimpse of the magnificent sight, however, was not allowed: we were ordered still to follow the Indians. They had already disappeared in the inside of the Palace; and we went in after them.
We found ourselves, first, under a square portico, supported upon immense flat slabs of stone, which were carved all over, at top and bottom, with death's-heads set in the midst of [the left-hand column of page 22 ends here] circles of sculptured flowers. I guessed the length of the portico to be, at the very least, three hundred feet. In the inside wall of it, appeared four high gaping doorways; three of them were entirely choked up by fallen stones: so jammed together, and so girt about by roots and climbing plants, that no force short of a blast of gunpowder, could possibly have dislodged them. The fourth entrance had, at some former time, been kept just clear enough to allow of the passing of one man at once through the gap that had been made in the fallen stones. Through this, the only passage left into the Palace, or out of it, we followed the Indians into a great hall, nearly one half of which was still covered by the remains of the roof. In the unsheltered half: surrounded by broken stones and with a carved human head, five times the size of life, leaning against it: rose the straight, naked trunk of a beautiful tree that shot up high above the ruins, and dropped its enormous branches from the very top of it, bending down towards us, in curves like plumes of immense green feathers. In this hall, which was big enough to hold double our number, we were ordered to make a halt, while the Pirate Captain, accompanied by three of his crew, followed the Indians through a doorway, leading off to the: left hand, as we stood with our backs to the portico. In front of us, towards tire right, was another doorway, through which we could see some of the Indians, cutting away with their knives, right and left, at the overspreading underwood. Even the noise of the hacking, and tire hum and murmur of the people outside, who were unloading the mules, seemed to be sounds too faint and trifling to break the awful stillness of. the ruins. To my ears, at least, the unearthly silence was deepened rather than broken by the few feeble sounds which tried to disturb it. The wailings of the poor children were stifled within them. The whispers of the women, and the heavy breathing of tire overlaboured men, sank and sank gradually till they were heard no more. Looking back now, at tire whole curse of our troubles, I think I can safely say that nothing — not even the first discovery of the treachery on the Island — tried our courage and endurance like that interval of speechless waiting in the Palace, with the hush of tine ruined city, and the dimness of the endless forest, all about us.
When we next saw the Pirate Captain, he appeared at the doorway to the right, just as the Pirates began to crowd in from the portico, with the baggage they had taken from the mules.
"There is the way for the Buccaniers," squeaks the Pirate Captain, addressing the American mate, and pointing to the doorway on the left. "Three big rooms, that will hold you all, and that have more of the roof left on them than any of the others. The prisoners,"
[This concludes the first half of Wilkie Collins's chapter, "The Prison in the Woods." The description of the Mayan ruins and the jungles seems to have been derived from the Household Words article "Our Phantom Ship. Central America," page 518.]
Last modified November 25, 2005