Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 12


CHAPTER XII
THE "VESPA" IS FIRED

I had followed Black to the platform, and thither came the most part of the crew almost as soon as the bell had ceased to reverberate. Hot and stifling as was the air below, here it was gloriously fresh and cool; and for an instant the delight of breathing it forbade a thought of the hither sea and its story. But only for an instant. The submarine had hardly ceased to run when a shout of savage exultation spoke of our victory, and, looking over at the warship, I learned the truth at a glance.

She lay no more than a cable's length from us, the smoke pouring from her decks. It seemed to me that the Zero had fired her below the water-line, though how she had fired her, or by what devilish contrivance of a madman's brain, I could make no pretence to say. Evil enough to know that the work was done beyond any hope of salvation; and there the gunboat lay, sagging to the swell and already in the vortex of the flame. From her decks there went up such a wail of doomed humanity as I pray never to hear again. We could see her crew fleeing madly to the scanty rigging, fighting amidships, and even cutting one another down at the very davits. Such officers as remained upon the quarter-deck stood motionless, as though paralyzed by swift catastrophe. The smoke, drifting to starboard, revealed the tongues of flame which drove the seamen headlong and already devoured the deck-houses and the bridge. And above it all were discordant voices, the oaths and curses and cries of men in their agony.

Such was the scene which I was called upon to witness as I stood upon the platform of the Zero. If I do not dwell upon it, I would say in excuse that there are pages of the human story which a man does well to turn quickly—and this was one of them. Far otherwise with the men who stood about me. I declare it beyond all compare horrible to have witnessed the frantic derision with which the monsters capered at the spectacle and scoffed at the agonies they had provoked. Not content with viewing their wretched victims at a distance, they must now drive the Zero toward the burning gunboat, and shout their obscenities almost into the very flames. For the poor souls, who flung themselves from the red-hot decks down into the trough of the cool sea, they had but scorn and contumely. I saw them draw revolvers and shoot one wretch whose beard still smoked and whose clothes had been burned from his shoulders. Another they beat off with an iron stanchion, and so much did the poor fellow suffer that he clung to the platform and implored them for God's sake to blow out his brains. This they had done with as little compunction as a man may kill an ox, when there came the crack of a revolver-shot from the blazing vessel, and the great Russian whom I had seen at Dolphin's Cove fell his length upon the platform. In his agony, for they had shot out his eyes, he clutched at my feet as though he had been an animal; but I drew back, nor would I have lifted a hand to save him if my life had been the hazard.

Now, here were the biters bitten; and you never saw such a turnabout in all your days. One of the officers of the Vespa feared death so little, it appeared, that he had drawn a revolver and fired at the wretches who assailed him. Black's fellows now began to roar like bulls; some that we should go astern, others that we should race ahead, but altogether as wild a crew of cowards as sailed the seas that day.

What would have befallen them but for the Captain I cannot tell you; but no sooner had Black realized what was happening than he waved to us to go below; and, catching two of the men, he hurled them down the iron ladder to the engine-room as though they had been children. Taken pell-mell with the others, I found myself presently in the corridor of my cabin, and thither I turned and tried to shut the horrid sights from my eyes. What happened either to us or to the gunboat in the hours that followed I neither cared to know nor to ask. We sank beneath the waves, I remember, and then rose again; I heard the trampling of feet above my head, and then silence fell, and we appeared to be going ahead, but at no great speed. Another hour and some one knocked upon my door, and, when I answered, the nigger Sambo told me that the Captain waited for me in the saloon.

This was an odd thing to hear, but so it had been often upon the Nameless Ship, where, after some awful scene of madness and of pillage, Black and his officers would sit to their dinners as though the day had been a common one and their own lives as grey as the seas they sailed. Such callousness had ceased to surprise me, and I followed the nigger down the corridor without protest. The saloon itself proved to be a fine domed apartment in the after-part of the vessel, gorgeously decorated with rare woods and gilding, but inoffensive because of the art of it.

Here, upon a round table of mahogany, places were laid for three, and, what with the wealth of the silver and the fine cut-glass and the dishes of solid gold, a man might have fancied himself in a palace and not upon a ship at all.

Black was very pale, but his manner was more suggestive of the old time than it had been from the beginning. Osbart, dangerous upon shore, was here the laughing philosopher, with a jest and a smile at every word; and the first thing he did, upon my sitting down, was to pour out a glass of wine and drink, as he put it, to the Mascot. By that I supposed that he meant me, and I took it up immediately.

"This Mascot has no wings," said I, "or he would have been overboard twelve hours ago. Don't drink my health, Osbart, for that's better ashore."

Black put down his glass and looked at me a tittle curiously.

"Boy," he said, quite in the old kindly way, "what good or evil destiny put you athwart my hawse, I wonder? That's a question I've asked myself a hundred times. Here's a lad does what the guns of his navies cannot do, and I tell myself that I could have crushed him with my two fingers any day these three years. And here he is—on the Zero: because the men won't sail while he's ashore. Is that what your world calls destiny, or what do you make of it?"

"Oh," said I, "precious little—if it's not the old fable of the lion and the mouse. But I doubt if that applies, Captain, for I'd give you up to-morrow if it lay with me. You know it, for I've never been afraid to tell you so; and I say again on this ship, as I said it on the old, I'm here because I must be, but God help you all if ever I get away."

Black shook his shaggy head: in truth he was just like a great lion (and I doubt not as strong), where he sat at the table's head and raised his glass to me. He knew that I spoke the truth, and had always liked me the better for it; but even he could not keep it from me that every hour I was his prisoner was a menace to my very life.

"Ah, well," he said jocularly, "there'll be fine news for your friends when you go ashore—if ever you do go ashore. But I wouldn't think overmuch about it, boy, for that day may be a long while off. And if I were you, I wouldn't be very ready to spout fine things before the crew. They're in no mood to hear tall talk now, and some of them are pretty quick with their side-arms. Just you lie to and bide your time. There's no sense in knocking out good brains against a baulk that hasn't got any brains at all; and that's the truth. You're fast on this ship, and there isn't an admiral afloat who could take you off. Remember it every minute, and don't forget it's Black who's speaking."

He lifted his glass again and swallowed a great draught of wine, as though that were the best end to the argument. None who saw him there would have guessed that the madness of a foul crime had held him in its grip a couple of hours ago, and that he had delivered himself up to the lust of murder and vengeance at the bidding of his pride. Yet such I knew to have been the case; and, because I had never believed that he was other than a madman in those terrible hours, I tried to forget them, and to see him as the memories of old time would have had him to be.

"Oh," said I, "my wits won't go wandering, I'm sure, Captain. But I'll say this, and you must hear me: If there's tall talk on my side, admit to some on yours. You say it will be a long while before we go ashore, and yet Osbart declares you can't keep at sea from more than ten days. How do you make those ends meet?"

He liked the question about his ship, and began to speak of her almost with the pride of a father in his son. The elegance of the cabin, the rich dishes served to us, the golden wine in the glasses—but, above all, the personal magnetism of the man—led the mind insensibly to confidence and to sympathy. Here was one who should have been a king among men, not an outcast upon the broad of the deep.

"Osbart is readier with the lancet than with good common sense," he began. "I'd sooner trust him with the outside of my body than the inside of my ship. You think you'll tell the world something about the Zero some day, just as you told them all about the other. Well, say that Guichard, who built her, has the best engineering brains in Europe, and that the Government which passed him by should be under lock and key. Why was the submarine not bought for France? Why, because of a parcel of lickspittles and pocket-slappers who ought to be in the morgue. He was a straight man, and he wouldn't pay blackmail. There's nothing like this boat afloat and there won't be unless Guichard builds it. She's driven by electricity, with accumulators compared with which Edison's are child's toys. We've electric projectors by which we can see nearly half a mile under water. If the air falls short, we've liquid oxygen aboard; and we use the gyroscopic compass for safety. I'll tell you more than that. When our batteries go down, we put them back to full strength by fire—and that's Guichard's doing. He's a man in a million, and he's made me Master of the Sea. One nation or ten, pile the fleets of the whole world against me to-morrow, and I'll sink 'em in twenty-four hours. That's Guichard's ship. Let the world know of it, cable your news to London or to Paris, as you please, and I'll snap my fingers at 'em. I tell you, he has made me their master, king of this sea or any other I choose to sail. And that's what the Nameless Ship never was. You know it, for you were on board her when the devil's own sent her down. They'll never do that with Black a second time, boy. By all that's in heaven and hell, I'll make them know my name and never forget it to the end of time."

He brought his fist down heavily on the table, and I could see how much this passion of a monstrous ambition had provoked the outburst. To rule the world from the great ocean; to have the nations at his feet; to set men trembling at his name—had not this been the secret of his wonderful life? Remember that his riches were fabulous, his resources unfathomed. He had friends in every city, hiding places on all the shores; and now this miracle of a ship, which the blind folly of an ignorant Government had put into his power. Who should dare to name the boundary of such ambitions as his, or to declare them insensate? Not I, who knew him, surely! In truth, both the Doctor and I fell under the spell of his words, and for many minutes after he had spoken there was silence in the cabin. Then we began to talk of the treasure; and I learned, not to my surprise, that the bulk of it was aboard the Zero.

"A man with three millions of money who dare not put a foot ashore is a study for a Greek philosopher," the Doctor remarked. I agreed with him, though the jest was not so welcome to Black.

"Name your shore to me," he said, "and I'll set foot on it to-morrow. But why should I stop their play-acting? Here, for as many months as I have fingers, have the fools been hunting Ice Haven for my money. It's been on this ship for five months now, and will stop there another fifty if I am of the mind to let it. When I choose to go different, and have a fancy for the land—why, then I'll ride in like a gentleman. There are new republics I could buy to-morrow—lock, stock, and barrel—if I had the fancy. But I've my work to do afloat first, and that's work to make the world talk. When that's done, I'll begin to tell you about the shore; but not before, not by an hour, not even to see you capering in Paris, Doctor, when, if I didn't know you better, I'd take you for a professor of dancing in a dime academy."

Osbart jibbed at this.

"Oh," says he, "to the devil with the dancing——"

"And a pretty warm floor for the feet," says the Captain, who knew where the shoe pinched. Osbart was hot in temper by this time, and he asked, almost with passion:

"Do you think I'm afraid——"

"I'm sure that you are. It's the warship and the drink, Doctor. Man, you see a hull on every skyline."

"There'll be more than one to see before the month has run——"

"One or twenty, what's that to me? Why, I'll tell you this: I'll be at Hull in ten days' time, and show you what a York ham is like. You shall board the guardship there and tip the Jack who shows you round a sovereign. I doubt not you'll see the dancing all right——"

We both looked up.

"Hull, Captain? You won't dare to go to Hull—Hull——"

"Aye, but I will. 'Hell, Hull and Halifax,' don't they say? Well, I'm going to No. 2 for a man I'm wanting badly. Why won't I go there?"

"That's rank madness," says Osbart.

Black roared with laughter.

"What goes so well in the world as rank madness? Answer me that. Would I leave Ned Jolly in the forts at the Humber's mouth when I can take him for the asking? Is it like me to do that? You know it isn't, Osbart. We'll just pick him up in the river, and then head south for the Bay. I've a mind to see the Mediterranean this time; and when I've the mind to do a thing it's as good as done. You'll be gleg at the prancing in Algiers, Doctor. By thunder, I see your feet shifting."

"And I see a man sailing as near the foot of the scaffold as ever he's likely to sail without catching his neck in a cord. It's stark insanity, Black; you would never have thought of it in the old days."

"I never think of what's gone. The old days are buried. Would you dig 'em up? I was afloat on a good ship then, but this is a better for such a man as me. If it goes under—well, half a dozen go with it. There were five hundred sank with me last time. Someday we'll drop down in those latitudes and see what the fish are doing with their bones, Osbart. That's a trip which should please you. Aye, man, to count the dead men's skulls on the floor of the sea. Will you come with me?"

He asked it almost fiercely, and the Doctor shrank back from him afraid. These moods, when he delighted to inspire terror, were very characteristic of Black, and he would play with his victim as a cat plays with a mouse. As it chanced, he pushed the matter no farther on this occasion, for the engineer, Dingo, came into the saloon to say that No. 1 was sighted, and we all went up to the platform immediately. Night was falling then, and the northern sky aflame with an arc of light, which stood above the sea in fan-shape glory of red and blue and the rarest purple. The swell had died down, and the waves lapped upon our bows as though all anger was gone from them. Near by stood a heavy tramp, from whose stumpy, black funnel foul smoke poured. Already she had lowered her boat and sent a foreword to us, but we ran the Zero right under her lee when Black came on deck, and immediately began to ship the stores she had carried to us.

Of the nature of these I am unable to tell you. In part, no doubt, they were provisions. I saw bags of biscuit and some fresh meat; they were luxuries in tin cases, and others in wooden boxes. These went aft to the galley, where the hunchback received them. Then I saw that the engine-room hatch forward was open, and that drums (I have learned since that they contained chemicals for our batteries) were passed along. After that I noticed that the batteries themselves were being charged, and that a large number of cells were lifted from one ship to the other: ours being those that had been used, theirs a new supply for us. Altogether, I suppose we stood by the tramp for three hours or more, and when she was gone the northern lights still blazed in the wonderful sky.

But we had already turned our bows southward, and ran with all the speed we could command to the shores of Scotland.