Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 10


CHAPTER X
THE AVENGER

There was a small port above my bunk and I could see the green water running over it, as it were a cataract; and by this I judged that the cabin lay deep in the bowels of the ship and must be upon the lowest of its decks.

This was but an early impression; for I lay a long while, hardly conscious of my situation, and my memory clean gone concerning the events in the cavern. Once before had I opened my eyes in such a cabin as this—but that was upon the Nameless Ship and could be no more thought of.

I should tell you that the roof above me was arched as though the cabin had been built in a tunnel. Here in this dome there was a cluster of electric lights, and these showed me the elegant furniture of the place, which could hardly be matched for good taste on any ship afloat. Chiefly of polished Spanish mahogany, there were drawers and cupboards everywhere; a little library of books upon a shelf above the bed and a table for writing upon the opposite side. At my bed's head there stood a dial for calling the servants—as you may see in any modern hotel; and the number of things named upon it could not but set a man wondering.

As to the carpet, that was of skins; a fashion prevalent at Ice Haven and imitated here. I knew that there would be a bath below the rugs with which the floor was covered, and I was not at all surprised to see many of the panels of the woodwork covered with pictures of the French school; for that had been the practice upon the Nameless Ship and would be followed here. For the rest there was a greater elegance, but less space than in my former cabin; and even at the outset I could say both that the new vessel was faster than the old and very much smaller.

Why I had the latter impression I do not know. All my thoughts were vague enough; while my eyes were fascinated by the spectacle of the clear green water running over the thick glass of the porthole, and by the changing hues of it. These had been little varied at the beginning, but by and by there came a swift transition; from the purest greens to the most wonderful vivid colours of the spectrum, wherein one had the chromatic of the rainbow—the purest blues, the brightest yellows, and the deepest shade of purple.

There never was a more beautiful picture than this nor one more amazing. If I had guessed at hazard what it meant, I would have said that the sun shone down through the water; but this account seemed poor enough. It was not until I had a sudden vision of white ice, apparently so near the ship that a man might have touched it with outstretched hand, that I understood.

The boat was running between the bergs which float about Ice Haven—and she was running at so great a speed that her plates trembled visibly. All this, I say, occupied my mind while I lay upon my bed and tried to think about my situation and the events which had led up to it.

Whose ship was I upon, and how had I come there? I could distinctly remember my visit to the great cavern, but the more momentous events of the night were forgotten at the first. When they shaped themselves anew for me, I thought of them as of some dream of my sleep which it were idle to recall. Osbart himself remained in the background as a figure of the shadows which would melt away with the sun. And upon all this were the realities of the cabin and of the green seas flowing by my window. Surely that were true enough and might have spoken to me.

Such a mood will sometimes attend heavy sleep in a strange bed; and it is often followed by intervals of clear thought, when all that we have done and said is remembered to the minutest particular. So it was with me that day. Prom my troubled dreams, I awoke at last to recall the scene at supper, and the secrets of the room, and to hear Osbart telling me that Black still lived. Dwelling upon it I crossed the floor of the room and tried the door of my cabin. To my great wonder it was not locked, and I found myself peering down a narrow corridor brilliantly lit with electric lights. Then I returned to the bed and rang the bell.

Whose ship was I upon, and how had I come there? Was Osbart lying to me when he answered my question; was it the truth, as I had believed it might be, a truth passing all hope and expectation? Did the man who had ruled the high seas during the terrible years, the Master of the Nameless Ship, the enemy of the nations—did he live? Well, that was what I should learn before many hours had passed. And learning it—ah, what then?

Now, my bell was answered, not by the negro as I had expected, but by Osbart himself; and a man so changed I had never seen before. Not only had the quick excited way of speaking left him; but his manner was that of the old time, bright and witty and full of kindliness. Coming over to me as he had come the very first day I saw him, he sat by my bedside and gave me a cheery "Good morning."

"Do you know," he said, "that it is almost midday?"

"Midday—then I must have slept the clock round?"

"I shouldn't wonder. There's no medicine like it—and yet, my dear fellow, sleep is so near death that a man must look twice to tell the difference."

"Well," said I, "you begin with a jolly subject for the time of day. Midday or midnight, how am I to tell the difference down here?"

He raised his eyebrows.

"Down here! Come, that's gratitude. And we have given you the best quarters in the ship."

"The best quarters in the ship? Now you're joking, Osbart."

He smiled again and pointed to the window.

"Ice Haven is becoming as fashionable as Portsmouth, he said. "There's hardly a month in the year when one warship or the other does not cruise hereabouts. So, you see, we prefer deep waters. Black will bring her up when it's safe to do so. But not an hour before, believe me."

"Then she is a submarine?"

He appeared to be surprised that I should put the question.

"What else should she be? If the Captain is to stand against the world once more, will anything but a submarine serve him? We could have built the Nameless Ship anew, but the day for that has gone by. Let a tramp be taken, and the word will go round to every navy in the world. So Black is wise and lies where few will search for him. I'll tell you more. There was an American gunboat at Ice Haven last night when he steamed out. I dare say it wanted a word with your friend, Jo Mitchell. I hope the skipper will like it when he gets it."

He was much moved, and, walking to and fro, he ran on again before I could put in a word.

"Man, don't forget that it was Black they hunted. My God, the fools. To hunt down a man like that in his own seas; to think that he could be trapped at the Haven. They'll pay the price now as many another will know, and pay it before the year has run. You are the lucky one, Strong. You do what you please, and you know it."

I waited until the mood passed and then I asked him a question.

"Is it for my own pleasure, then, that I am caged down here, separated from my friends and carried God knows to what sea? Is it for my pleasure, Osbart?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"That is Black's affair. But for you the great ship would be afloat to-day. If he remembers it when you meet him, God help you. I'll say more: Your friends are lucky people. Don't make any complaint about them. They may thank God the Captain has some humanity in him and remembered your name. You know it, Strong; you know what Black would do for you."

He spoke with some kindliness now—and, indeed, it was an extraordinary thing that this man, who was stark mad ashore, had but to step upon a ship to become the gentlest of creatures so far as his speech judged him. I knew that he was a madman; knew that he had committed crimes at which a man's blood might run cold—and yet to quarrel with him was the most difficult thing in the world.

"Well," said I, in answer to his question, "Black saved my life from his crew as many days as I was on board with him. I shall never forget that—but for the others, why, if it lay in my power, I would sink this devil's craft and all on board her; and that's the solemn truth, Osbart."

He listened cynically and, as though unwilling to argue with me, he turned by another remark.

"You were wondering how the Captain escaped," he put it to me. I said that I must suppose he had been picked up at sea.

"And no writer's marvel about it at all, Strong. When the Nameless Ship went down, our tenders were cruising those latitudes on the look-out for her. The third of them sighted the boat in which Black and you got off and picked him up. He left you where you were, for I don't believe that even he could have saved your life from the men after what happened. But he got safe away to Greenland and then to the Brazils. There he lay in hiding more than nine months; when he faced the music once more, it was to visit his copper mines at Nevada. Your story of his death put the police off the scent and saved his life. He found his partners staunch to him, and I believe he would have given up the piracy then but for the madness of those who hunted down what was left of the old crew. He was in Italy nine months, and then at Brest. It was there that he met the French engineer Guichard, who built this submarine."

"Guichard—Guichard—the man who was so shamefully treated by his own people?"

"The very man, who would have made the French the first naval power in Europe if they had listened to him. But the gutter scum at Brest stoned him out of the town for nigger driving—and Black bought his ship."

"Why should he buy it, Osbart; what does he think he will do with it?"

"What will he do with it? Can you ask? Will he not hunt them down like vermin? It's true, by ——! He will sweep the seas before he has finished. I heard his oath to do it, and I am not thin-skinned. Well, it turned me cold. Black is the longest-armed enemy that ever lived, Strong. Remember that, when you begin to preach to him. And he has his treasure to salve—the treasure you went hunting! Why, the rocks might laugh to think of it."

His taunt stung me, and I answered hotly.

"I did not know that Black lived. Why should I not have gone? The whole world believes him to be dead."

"The whole world! Not so, surely? They were talking of his escape at Paris five months ago. The Government at Washington knows it for certain. I don't believe the English Admiralty is ignorant. And I'll tell you what, Strong. We are in for the prettiest time that ever was known in all this universe. There will not be a warship on any sea which will be out of the game presently. I doubt if we will find safe anchorage from China to Peru. And we can last but ten days afloat—ten days, and then we lie like a log for any gun to smash. That's what Black is doing now. Is there any other man afloat who would take the risk?"

"There certainly should not be. How many weeks do you give him, Osbart?"

He laughed and rose as the sound of an alarm echoed through the ship.

"How many weeks? Perhaps not one. You had better ask him yourself, for we are going up and may breathe again. That's the signal. Come out and see the sun—who knows, we may never see it again!"

And with that he was gone from the cabin; and, full of wonder, my hands a-tremble and my heart beating, I began to dress myself.

Was I not going to meet Captain Black once more?

The dead had risen, I said—and he who had ruled the seas had returned unto his kingdom.