“Yes,” said a third, “and how could she win through all the secret channels without a pilot?”
“What use would be a pilot,” said a fourth, “if there are none to work the rudder and shift the sails? Do I not know, who am of the trade?”
“At least she is coming straight to the quay,” exclaimed a fifth, “though what sends her Satan alone knows, for the tide is slack and this wind would scarce move a sponge boat. Stand by with the hawser, or she’ll swing round and stave herself against the pier.”
So they talked, and all the while the great galley drifted onward with a slow, majestic motion, her decks hid in shadow, for a sail cut off the light of the low moon from them. Presently, too, even this was gone, for the veil of cloud crept again over the moon’s face, obscuring everything.
Then of a sudden a meteor blazed out in the sky, such a meteor as no living man had ever seen in Venice, for the size of it was that of the sun. It seemed to rise out of the ocean to the east and to travel very slowly across the whole arc of the firmament till at last it burst with a terrible noise over the city and vanished. While it shone, the light it gave was that of mid-day, only pale blue in colour, turning all it touched to a livid and unnatural white.
It showed the placid sea and fish leaping on its silver face half-a-mile or more away. It showed the distant land with every rock and house and bush. It showed the wharf and the watchers on it; among them Hugh noted a man embracing his sweetheart, as he thought under cover of the cloud. But most of all it showed that galley down to her last rope and even the lines of caulking on her deck. Oh, and now they saw the rowers, for they lay in heaps about the oars. Some of them even hung over these limply, moving to and fro as they swung, while others were stretched upon the benches as though they slept. They were dead—all dead; the wind following the meteor and blowing straight on shore told them that they were certainly all dead. Three hundred men and more upon that great ship, and all dead!
Nay, not all, for now on the high poop stood a single figure who seemed to wear a strange red head-dress and about his shoulders a black robe. Straight and silent he stood, a very fearful figure, and in his hand a coil of rope. The sight of him sent those watchers mad. They ceased from their whisperings, they raved aloud.
“It is Satan!” they shouted, “Satan, who comes to drag the folk of Venice down to hell. Kill him ere he lands. Kill him!”
Even Grey Dick went mad like a dog when he meets a ghost. His pale hair rose upon his head, his cold, quiet eyes started. He set an arrow on the string of the black bow, drew it to his ear and loosed at the figure on the poop. But that arrow never left the string; it shattered to flinders where it was and fell tinkling to the marble floor. Only the barb of it turned and wounded Grey Dick in the chin, yes, and stuck there for a while, for his right arm was numbed so that he could not lift his hand to pull it forth.
“Truly, I have shot at the Fiend and hit that at which I did not aim,” muttered Grey Dick, and sat himself down on a post of the quay to consider the matter. Only, as it seemed to him, he who stood on the poop of the ship not ten yards away smiled a little.
Unheeding of the clamour, this man upon the poop suddenly lifted the coil of rope and threw it shoreward. It was a thick and heavy rope, with a noose at its end, so heavy that none would have believed that one mortal could handle it. Yet it shot from him till it stood out stiff as an iron bar. Yes, and the noose fell over one of the stone posts on the quay, and caught there. Now the rope grew straighter still, stretching and groaning like a thing in pain as it took the weight of the great, drifting ship. She stayed; she swung round slowly and ranged herself broadside on against the quay as a berthed ship does. Then down the ladder on her side came the Man. Deliberately he set his white-sandalled feet upon the quay, advanced a few paces into the full light of the bright moon and stood still as though to suffer himself to be seen of every eye.
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