Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 11

Captain Black (Pemberton) by Max Pemberton
XI. The Beginning of the Terror


I have told you that an alarm bell rang loudly through the ship, and immediately upon it we began to rise from the deep of the sea.

Presently, the water which had flowed over the glass of my port gave place to a rich flood of light as though the sun shone full upon a green wave and gave it a hue as of pure gold. At the same moment a delicious current of cool air flooded the cabin, and was like a breath of new life to all who breathed it. I heard the clanging of steel doors, and then the loud voices of men. The engines of the submarine had ceased to revolve, and we lay in the trough, rolling to a gentle swell and hardly lifting to the wash of it.

I had dressed myself by this time and was ready to go on deck. Notwithstanding Osbart's threat, I had no fear of Black, nor of his vengeance; while his men had never been more than a menace to me while he was in command. If I can tell you little of other thoughts, of an overwhelming sense of captivity and of a dire dread of the days which I must live through, you will understand my difficulty. Above all, there stood the curiosity to see the man and the ship. These would have taken me to the deck whatever the risk.

At the first, I had some difficulty to find my way to the companion ladder at all. The long corridor, into which my cabin opened, appeared to lead to the depths where the engines lay, and I was at a standstill, when Osbart suddenly called to me from a little door upon my right hand. I followed him to a circular iron stairway which carried us immediately to the open. We were now upon the platform of the Zero (for such was the name of Guichard's vessel), and the sea washed up almost to our feet.

Imagine a long fish-shaped craft, not unlike a monster torpedo; scale it with solid silver plates, gleaming in the sunshine; flatten its back so that twenty men might lie thereon, and you have my first impression of the Zero. When I had looked a little longer, I perceived that there was a kind of conning-tower forward, and that this had wide glass windows which could be sheathed with steel. Immediately aft of us, in a dome of steel with a heavy glass port,there glistened the barrel of a gun. The latter was the only evidence of armament anywhere upon the ship, which might have been the counterpart of the submarines I had seen at Portsmouth, saving only that she was very much longer, and that her upper plates were of this bright metal which shone like silver in the sunshine.

All this I perceived almost at a glance. The strange craft had that simplicity of design which a landsman associates with a submarine. Her secrets lay below, in the dark places of her engine-room, and could not even be guessed at by the inexpert; if, indeed (as I came to know afterward), the cleverest of engineers could have made anything of them. As to the men who lay about the platform, breathing the air as though it were life, I recognized four of them immediately, and they were the four who had come ashore to us at Ice Haven. A fifth wore better clothes, with fine brass buttons and was by all appearances a superior man, with a dark, cunning face and a black curl upon his forehead. I judged him to be about thirty years old, and could have said that he had spent some years in India. He was right forward, by the conning-tower, when we came up; and he turned and nodded to the Doctor in an affable way.

"Captain still in the arms of Morpheus, Doctor?" he asked. Osbart replied that he did not know.

"Well," the fellow ran on, "we ought to have an observation this morning if we're to pick up Number One to-night. But that's Black all over nowadays— he don't stir before the world is aired, and who's to blame him? I'd lie abed myself if you were making a wager about it, and win every time."

He laughed at his own humour as though so poor a thing pleased him mightily; and then, passing across his glass, he asked:

"Do your eyes make out anything on yonder sky-line, or do they not? I've been telling myself for the

last ten minutes that there's a pair of funnels there. Am I dreaming it or is the glass crooked? Perhaps Mr. Strong will say? His eyes are young, and I don't suppose the whiskey has spoiled them."

He offered me the glasses, and merely pausing to tell myself that he had my name, I looked where he pointed. Sure enough, I could espy the shapes of two black funnels on the distant sky-line, and I told him so—at which he spat into the sea and then looked again for himself.

"If it's Riotti out of Spezzia," he said, "God keep him on the other tack. He's the man the Captain took out of the gutter to help him build the great ship. I heard at Genoa in the winter that he was after getting his Government to fit up a cruiser for this job. I shouldn't wonder if it's true. Well, he'll get treasure enough if the skipper runs across him. I guess he'll be able to take a first floor in hell, sure and certain."

He looked toward us as though we would applaud, and the great brute, Red Roger, who had come up to ask a question, bellowed like a bull at the sally. Presently, the three went aft together, and I was left at the gunwale, with the green waters of the Atlantic at my feet. The submarine herself hardly stirred to the lazy swell; the crew seemed to sleep in the sunshine; the wash of the sea was as a lullaby.

I have tried to describe this scene with what fidelity I can that you may understand the meaning of what came after. For myself, I was still as one who dreams, yet knows that he is dreaming. The ship, the sea, the sleeping men, were all unreal to me. Osbart's story I flatly disbelieved. It seemed incredible that Black lived to command such a ship as this, and to begin again that career of lust and murder and robbery which the great tragedy of the Nameless Ship had ended. I could not realize where I stood. The distant funnels of the doomed gunboat seemed to mock me—the dark huddled figures were as shapes of my dreams.

I say that this was the truth, and yet, when awakening came it was swift enough. A soft foot-fall upon the platform caused me to turn about quickly. I saw a giant figure clad in a suit of blue overalls; I was conscious that a man stood beside me and looked out to sea. And then I knew; and as though the dead had risen suddenly from the heart of the sea, I cried out aloud that this was the great Captain; and I held my hand out to him.

Remember how this man and I had parted; recall the long hours I had spent with him, after the Nameless Ship went down, in an open boat on the broad Atlantic. Think of the days of terror through which I had lived with him, ashore and afloat; his piracies, robbery of great steamers, conquest of the sea as the pirate of old time never dreamed of conquest. Think of this and of the stupefaction which his deeds had caused in the maritime world, the panic among the seamen, the swift ordering of navies to take him; his flight from sea to sea; his defeat; his bruited death.

And now I stood beside him on the deck of the Zero, and could look upon a face stern set in anger, and understand that this was not the Captain Black who had saved me from the sea, but another whom I knew and feared exceedingly.

In truth, his greeting to me was little more than a nod. Tidings of the distant ship had come to him and held him engrossed. The dozing men, waked from their rest, watched him with covert glances. I saw the fellow in the smart clothes (he was engineer officer of the Zero, and the men called him Dingo) draw near and stand by expectantly. Osbart had come up, and his eyes were red and aflame. And then I heard the Captain's question:

"What do you make of her, Dingo?"

"Mighty little at present, sir—but I think she's Government."

"There was a German expedition to sail the third day of April. Would yon be a German ship?"

"I think not, sir. Dr. Schwartz, who sailed from Bremer Haven, took the old American liner Breslau. That's not the shape of it——"

"And the syndicate that was formed at Lisbon?"

"I believe that their ship has not yet sailed, sir."

"It would be Riotti out of Spezzia!"

"I was thinking as much, sir——"

"Then the Lord help him. The swine—that I lifted from the gutter! Him to hunt me! I'll tear his heart out of his body."

The man had always been terrible in anger, and was not less terrible now. Even his own crew shrank back from him when he turned about and cried,' "Hands, stand by." The lust of blood and crime was upon them all; a silence as of death fell upon the ship while she began to forge slowly ahead and to approach the steamer, now shaping more clearly upon the horizon. Had I been asked to find a simile, I would have said that these men were as wolves who had nosed their quarry, their eyes shining red, their lips rolled back to show their shining fangs. For a word they would have struck me dead where I stood. I knew it, and for very life I held my tongue.

Thus it stood for the third part of an hour, perhaps. The doomed steamer showed clearly by this time, and was to be described as a smaller type of Italian gunboat. I heard afterward that she was named the Vespa (or the Wasp), and had been fitted out by the Italian Government nominally to cruise in northern waters; but in effect to follow the others to Ice Haven and there get the treasure if she could. As we saw her, she had two black funnels of the smoke-stack order, long and fretted at the tops, and a stumpy mast forward with a maintop for the quick-firing guns. Her capacity would have been five thousand tons, I suppose, and she carried some hundred and fifty men. So they told me when I came afterward to speak to her; but for the time being I saw but a warship of a common class, and remembered Black's threat concerning her. How impotent it seemed; what a vain boasting. This puny submarine to destroy a warship on the broad of the ocean—I could have laughed aloud.

We were going full speed ahead for some while when next Black gave an order; and instantly upon his speaking the engines ceased to revolve and the ship did but glide through the water. I heard the clang of steel doors, then the hurrying footsteps of men upon the platform—but when I looked back there was no one there but Black and myself, and the doors of the conning-tower stood wide open. Motioning me to go down, the Captain entered the tower, and the steel plates closed behind us and shut us in beyond any hope if the ship were struck or sinking. But I thought little of that, for the spell of the descent and the place was upon me. We were going below the sea again; we were sinking down to the deep of the ocean to look upon a scene the eyes of man had never looked upon before. And the terror of it and the dread of it held me entranced; I forgot all else but the curtain of the waters and the world of the deep which lay behind them.

The ship sank slowly. It seemed an age before the seas closed over the cupola beneath which we sat; our eyes were down to the water-line, there was no longer anything to be seen but a waste of the swell and the frost of the spindrift upon the glasses—and now these vanished, and the waves surged round about until a man might have believed that they would run cold upon his face presently and draw him down to the embrace of death. This awful sensation followed me to the deep. I shuddered at the devouring waters, and could have put up my hand to keep them from my mouth. I closed my eyes that I might not see them break through the glass and envelop us. And then I heard the signal-bell again, and looking up, I saw that Black had seated himself before a round marble table beneath the centre of the periscope, and that the scene above was depicted there as clearly as though a camera had photographed it in colours.

This was something I had never dreamed of, though I came to know its meaning by and by. It seems that we had sunk but a little way below the water, and that the cap of the periscope still rested above the waves. Powerful lenses in this cap played the part of a camera obscura and cast the images of sea and sky and ship down upon the table, prepared to receive it and hid from the light.

Hereon I saw the Italian gunboat as clearly as ever I saw anything in my life. The ocean itself looked glorious in its freshness; the waves rolled in gentle sport; the sky was serenely blue. And this endured for many minutes until we appeared to come so close to the gunboat that she towered right above us—an optical illusion, for I learned from Osbart afterward that we were still the third of a mile from her. At last, however, the whole thing vanished in a flash; the glamour of the scene changed from sun and sea above to the sheen of the pellucid waters which had closed about us. I knew then that we had begun to sink below the gunboat, and the whole truth of it coming upon me in an instant, I turned and spoke to the Captain.

"Captain," I said, with what self-control I could, "you will let me speak—you heard me in the old days—for God's sake hear me now!"

He had been seated at the table and was still gazing upon the white marble as in the frenzy of a dream from which he would not awake. My words—and I would have spoken them if they had cost me my life—brought such a cry to his lips as I had never heard man utter before. All the passion, the madness, the agony of the dreadful years seemed to be expressed in it. For an instant he stood swaying as a man whose anger has blinded him utterly—I saw his hand go to the pistol in his pocket, and I wonder to this day that he did not blow out my brains. Another word of provocation and that would have been the end of it. But something, I may suppose, in my manner of speaking held him back. His hand fell impotently to his side; he looked me full in the face and answered me.

"So," he said, "you have known me, yet your lesson is not learned."

"It has been learned bitterly enough," I rejoined. "God knows I have paid the price. Has it given me no right to save you from yourself?"

I hoped to move him, but the words were ill-said. A passionate gust of anger swept upon him again; he smote the table with his clenched fist, his eyes blazed when he answered me:

"Have you paid the price of this man's life, then? Do your fine words make me forget that I took him from the gutter and made him as my own brother? There's the truth. I fed and clothed him and gave him money. He, who had been a beggar, became the first man in Spezzia. And what's his gratitude to me? Look at yon ship. Would I be safe if I stepped aboard her? By all that's holy, he'd shoot me like a dog. That's Giuseppe Riotti—that's the man who shall pay the last farthing if the sea runs blood; I swear it on the Book. There's no power in heaven or hell shall keep me from his throat to-day—to-day, when my work begins and they shall know that I live."

I saw that it would be stark madness to say another word. Once before, when the prisoners were killed at Ice Haven, had such awful fury of his madness come upon him; and then, as now, I had drawn back shuddering and helpless. An hour hence and he would awake to knowledge of his crime and its meaning; but what an hour must be lived before that! Already he had rung the signal-bell and begun to manipulate the brass keys upon the index before him. I felt the submarine rise and remain motionless beneath the water; the silence was profound when her engines had ceased to turn. We lay, it seemed, by the very keel of the Italian gunboat.

This was a wonderful moment, and I shall never forget it, though I was to live through many of the kind before my days upon the Zero were done with. Looking through the heavy glass of the tower, we could count every plate and bolt in the lower hull of the Vespa; or allowing her to pass us, we could see the whirl of the foam about her propellers, and say that she steamed straight ahead, unconscious of the danger. When she was lost to our view, the ebb of the foam gradually gave place to the green water again, and for all trace of her, the deep might have been void. So weird was the spectacle, so new, so unimaginable, that other thoughts were forgotten in its presence. I lived in a wonder world, profound in its suggestion of miracle. Nor did I remember until the bells rang out again and the Captain's face compelled me to listen.

Black had seated himself at the table once more, and appeared to listen as though for an answering signal. The massive brows, the deep-set eyes, reflected many emotions. Now the face would be wholly evil; then a little softened; then puckered up as though in agony. And through it all the man sat motionless; until, of a sudden, the vessel shot backward, as though a monster grappling had caught her and was dragging her upward. Then the whole water about the cupola began to surge and foam as if a tempest had struck the deeper sea; I heard a muffled roar as of some terrible explosion; we were lifted to the surface, and with a loud cry the Captain rolled the iron doors back, and the ocean gave up her secrets.