Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Mouse in the Pirates Cage
By Henry Augustus Wise (18191869)
[Born in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1819. Died in Naples, Italy, 1869. Captain Brand of the Schooner Centipede. 1864.]
AS the powder vomited forth its dreadful thunder, and as the stones and timbers from the blasted den were hurled high in air, and scattered by the explosive whirlwind far and near, some of the splinters and fragments came down in dropping hail upon the red-tiled sheds and the doctors dwelling. At the first shock the lonely child started up in his little bed, and while the earth rocked and the stones came pelting and crashing on the roof, he screamed, Mamma! mamma! No loving echo came back to those innocent lips, and naught was heard save the crackling of the flame beyond, licking its tongue along the dry timber and roaring joyously as it was fed, Mamma! chère mamma!
Yet no answer, and still the savage flames came careering wildly on till the very stones of the court-yard cracked like slates, while the burning flakes and cinders loaded the air, and the eddying volumes of smoke reeled in dense clouds, and poured their suffocating breath into the room where the forsaken child was crying.
One more panting, helpless cry, and the little fellow instinctively flew through the open doorway, where, blinded and choking with the devastating element around him, he staggered feebly beyond its influence. Yet again a flurry of thick smoke lighted up the forked and vivid flames, and chased the child before it.
Oh, fond mother! in your poignant grief for the loss of your poor drowned boy, you were spared the agony of seeing him, even in imagination, struggling faintly before that tempest of fire and smoke, calling plaintively for her on whose tender bosom his head had rested, while his naked feet were cut and bruised by the sharp coral shingle beneath them. But onward and onward the boy wandered, and fortunately his footsteps took the path into a purer atmosphere which led toward the chapel. Here he looked timidly around at the lurid glare behind him, and then entered the church and sank down exhausted, his feverish, smarting eyes closing in slumber on the hard pavement beneath the image of the Virgin Mary.
Then came the close and sultry nightno murmur of a land-wind to drive the smoky canopy awaythe black cinders falling in burning rain on basin, thicket, and lagoon, till even the very lizards and scorpions hid themselves deep within the holes and crevices of the rocks. Midnight came. The dim and silent stars were obscured by a veil of heavy clouds, and with a low, muttering sound of thunder, the vapory masses unclosed their portals, and the rain fell in torrents. The flames, now nearly satisfied with their work, leaped out occasionally from the fallen ruins, but were quenched by the tropical deluge, and smouldered away amid the charred and saturated timbers. Then the thunder ceased, the lizards and scorpions came from their retreats, the teal fluttered over the lagoon, and the noise of the waves bursting over the reef came again to the ear. Still there was no breath of air; the atmosphere was thick and damp; and out from the mangrove thickets and wide expanse of cactus, swarms of insects, mosquitoes, and sand-flies in myriads went buzzing and singing in the sultry, murky night.
So dragged on the weary hours until day broke again, and the sea-birds floated off seaward for their mornings meal, and the flying-fish skipped with their silvery wings from wave to wave, as the dolphins glittered in gold and purple after them below the blue water. No bright and blazing sun came over the hills of Cuba to light up this picture, but all was blight and gloom, with murky masses of dead, still clouds hanging low down over the island.
The little suffering boy, lying there on the coral pavement, with his head resting on the thin, delicate arm, with pale, sweet face turned half upward toward the Virgin, gave a feeble cry and opened his eyes. He rose to a sitting posture, with his little hands resting on his lap and little ragged shirt. Then, with his dim hazel eyes fixed upon the painting, while the tears coursed slowly down his pallid cheeks, he put forth his hands in a childish movement of supplication, and murmured again his tearful prayer, Mamma! mamma!
Presently rising, he turned his feeble footsteps toward the doorway, and as his eye caught the stone bowl of holy water standing on its coral pedestal near the portal, he bent down his feverish head and slaked his parched lips. Revived by this, he timidly looked out from the chapel, and shuddering as he beheld the gloomy wilderness around, he once more screamed in a thin piercing cry, Mamma! oh, ma chère mamma!
Henri! came back like an echo in a clear shout to the shriek of the boy. Henri! Henri! was reiterated again and again, each time in a voice that seemed to split asunder the canopy of clouds above. The boy started and listened.
Now with the step of a fawn the child ran out upon the sharp sandy esplanade, and following the voice as he tripped lightly through the narrow pathway between the needle-pointed cactus, in a moment he stopped, with a look of horror, beside the trestle on which the bound and nearly naked man was stretched.
Ay, it was a sight to make a strong and stalwart man turn pale with sickness and horror, much less a baby boy of three or four years old. There lay the man, all through the dreadful night, with swarms on swarms and myriads upon myriads of stinging insects, biting and sipping, and sucking his life-blood with distracting agony away. Ah! think of the hellish torture often practised by those bloody pirates upon their victims in the West Indies! The bound mans eyes were closed, the lips and cheeks puffed and swollen out of all human proportions, and the inflamed body was one glowing red and angry surface. No needle could have been stuck where the venomous stings of a thousand sand-flies or mosquitoes had not already sucked blood. Ay, well might the child start back with horror!
Ah! Henri, see if you cannot slip that pretty silk rope over my head; yes, that is the waydoucementeasily, my child! Well, now, my Henri, you are weak and sick, my poor little boy; but listen to meyes, I feel your little hands on my eyes. Well, bite upon that cord that goes across my throat. Bite till it snaps asunder! I am nearly choking, little one; but dont cry.
True, the strips of raw-hide, which had partially slackened in the rain that had washed the body of the victim, now began to tauten again in the sultry heat of the morning, and lay half hidden in the swollen throat, stomach, and limbs of the tortured sufferer.
Again those sharp little teeth of a mouse had gnawed through the net; which bound the lion-hearted man; the ends of the raw-hide drew back and twisted into spiral curls, and the right arm, though numbed and four times its original size, was free.
Thanks be to God for all His mercies! exclaimed the doctor, as with difficulty he raised his released arm to his face and pushed back the swollen lids from his closed eyesand to you, my little friend, for saving this wretched life!
Waiting a few moments to recover his strength, the doctor made a mighty effort, and some of the coils whose strands had been cut by those little teeth yielded and gradually unrove, so as to leave the upper part of his body free. Then, while the child was once more cutting the lashings of his feet, he himself unfastened the knots of his left arm, and by a vigorous effort he tore the net from off him and sat upright. Clasping his numbed and swollen hands together, he turned his face and almost sightless eyes to heaven.
He paused, and laid his heavy arms around the child, while warm and grateful tears trickled down his cheeks. Slowly, and like a drunken man, his feet sought the sand, and then, weak, trembling, and faint, he staggered along the path, the boy tripping lightly before him, till he fell exhausted on the floor of the chapel.