Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 15


CHAPTER XV
THE DEATH BEACON

I was three days in my cabin after this dread affair. During that time I saw nothing of the Captain, but much of Osbart, who was often at my bed-side, and as full of devil-may-care confidence as I had known him since the beginning.

Our voyage, I learned, was now to carry us to the shores of Spain, where, in a haven which was not named, the men would get some recompense for the hardships they had endured since we quitted Ice Haven. Black, meanwhile, proposed to visit Paris, a city after his own heart. Osbart told me, as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world, that Black had set his mind upon buying certain pieces of old Chinese porcelain, come recently to Paris via St. Petersburg. "And," said he, "when Black has a mind to do that, there isn't a Government in Europe which will stop him."

To this I made a commonplace answer. My own hopes that the mad venture would end as it had begun, and that a swift cataclysm would overtake it, were now giving place to the belief that the man who had ruled the seas as never they were ruled before, would be as surely their master in the Zero as ever he had been on the Nameless Ship. And with this belief there came a foreboding gloomy beyond words.

What must my own lot be if Black kept his word and defied the nations? Could I hope that an accident would again be his undoing, as it had undone him once upon the high seas? That was a counsel of despair and not to be thought of. I saw myself, when I thought of it in the silent hours, doomed to this floating prison until the end; cut off from home and friends; lost to the world I had known; the companion of outcasts guilty of nameless infamies. And from this fate Almighty God alone could deliver me.


We were off Ushant on the morning of the third day, and I went up, despite the Doctor's order, to breathe a little of God's fresh air upon the platform. It was a pleasant morning, with a fleck of cloud and a gentle breeze from west by south. I could make out the coast of France upon our port quarter, and a tramp steamer wafting her black smoke toward us as she headed for the English shore. Ahead of us the great waves of the Atlantic rolled majestically through their infinite solitudes; and all the desolation and the beauty of the ocean enchanted my eyes, long accustomed to the gloom of the cabin.

This wonderful scene turned my thoughts naturally to the object of our voyage and the haven at which Osbart had hinted. Many speculations occupied my mind, but none which encouraged me to believe that 1 had solved the riddle of Black's purpose. That Spain could harbour him, I did not believe;and I had begun to tell myself that the story of Spain must be a fable, when I heard a step behind me, and, turning, I found myself face to face with the great Captain himself.

"Well, my lad," he said, taking my arm quite in the old kindly way, "so you, too, have learned the glory of the sea. I've been watching you this ten minutes or more. You are trying to reed the secrets, eh? and they are battling you? Why, my boy, they've baffled me for forty years; and here I am, every morning, trying to read them anew."

We paced the deck a little while in silence, and then, as though the same thought still dwelt in his mind, he exclaimed very earnestly:

“There's not a man alive who knows the truth about yonder ocean. She lives, I tell you as surely as you and I. She’s a heart and a mind to play with men. The shore's her enemy, and there she fights her battles. Study her a thousand years, and she's not a day older. Say that you have mastered her, and she'll beat the life out of you, because she owns no master. Aye, the sea’s the glory of the world, and there's none like to her. If you kneel before the Unseen Powers, lift your hands first to the sea. I tell you, land can show no such picture to the eyes of mankind. She is mightier than the mountains and deeper than the valleys. All the jewels dug from the bowels of the earth cannot match the gems she catches from the sun. There is no emerald as green as the heart of yon wave; no diamond to match the spindrift she shakes from her crown when the winds call to her and she answers. Aye, love the sea, my lad, and make her your divinity."

I had known him in such a mood before, and it was a delight to listen to him. Sometimes I thought that this was his secret, and that all he had done and all he had planned to do were the fruits of his homage to the mistress he served so faithfully. He flung the gauntlet to man in the name of the sea. No power on earth could keep him from that kingdom to which the ocean had called him.

"Captain," said I, answering him upon a mood of curiosity, "if you love the sea so well, is there no other way of serving her than upon such a ship as this?"

He did not reply to me angrily, as I feared he would, hut, still holding my arm, he declared his pride in the Zero and her achievement. At the same time he confessed some of those secret thoughts which would have been a revelation to the world if they had been wholly known.

"The Zero is my kingdom," he said quietly. "Men fight and sweat to be masters ashore, but I am master here, as surely as king or emperor. That's Guichard's doing, and the world should know of it. I thought that I must become as other men when the great ship went down—but, lad, it's not to be. Guichard has built me a fortress which no navy that swims is going to break. Give me the wide sea for my horizon, and I care no more for your battleships than for any bird which plays upon the breakers. They shut the gates to me, but I go in and out when I please. The ocean is my empire, and my will shall rule it. Remember it when men speak of Black and his crimes. Tell them that it's born in me to be master upon the sea, and that no law can write it otherwise."

"Then," said I, eager to question him, "you believe that the Zero is impregnable?"

"I believe it," he rejoined. "If I had not faith, why should these men follow me? Heaven or hell is nothing to me while I walk these decks and know that I am the master. Day and night are of less account than the waters about me and the wild sea's face. Aye, lad, I have begun to live again since the Zero sailed from Brest. It's Guichard's doing—and I will make him the greatest man alive as surely as there is a sky above us."

I forebore to ask him how he hoped to do this when every port was shut against him, and there was not a seaman afloat who would not try to take him, alive or dead. That the Frenchman had built him a submarine twenty years ahead of her time, I never doubted; but other considerations crowded upon my mind, and chiefly those of the support he must find if he would continue to hold the seas. What if he missed his consorts? How if he were isolated at the heart of the Atlantic? These were vital questions. But, as though they must be answered in irony, what should happen at that very moment but the engineer, Dingo, came up the ladder to say that relief "Number 2" lay upon our port quarter, and that we had better go about to meet her. When I looked over the sea to the point he indicated, I saw the tramp which had been upon our horizon an hour ago, and I understood that she was the consort for which Black waited.

We made the tramp about two o'clock of the after-noon and were grappled to her side while the stores came over. Her crew were mostly unknown to me, but I recognized the skipper for a man I had seen with "Four Eyes" in Black's room in Paris some years gone. The others were just tarry sailors, chiefly Russian, I think, with lascars among them. But whatever they were, they worked willingly enough and loaded us up with incredible rapidity. All kinds of provisions and delicacies came to our holds during the next two hours. There were cases of wine and whiskey, fresh meat and poultry, fine cakes and biscuits and an amazing quantity of rare fruit—all necessary to a ship where the meanest fed as well as the Captain, and no distinctions of persons were recognized. When the provisions were stowed, the chemicals for our battery were put on board, and these were worth their weight in gold to us, for with-out them no coracle had been more helpless.

I suppose it would have been nearly eight o'clock at night before the work was done and we were cast loose from "Number 2." Black had spent the time in the chart-room of the tramp, conferring with the skipper; but he was preoccupied when he returned and I had no further talk with him. Osbart, on the other hand, who had also visited the steamer, remained on the platform to talk to me, and he told me very frankly what was in his mind.

"The story's out," he said, without preface, taking me by the arm and beginning to pace the steel deck with the restless step I knew so well; "of course, you didn't expect to hear anything else, but that's the truth. The man was mad when he sent the telegram. Every station is warned from the Nore to 'Frisco. There isn't a warship afloat which won't be looking for him before a week has run. And here he is talking of what he'll do in Paris; my God, he might as well talk of Portland for all the sense of it."

He pulled a London paper out of his pocket and showed me what had been written. Many who read this will remember the excitement and the wonder in England when it was known that Black lived and was afloat again. Fear and incredulity and anger were reflected in the impassioned articles with which the London papers were filled. Some blamed the Government; others fell to wild appeals for instant action—just as though the Admiralty was not wide awake enough and at its wits' end to boot. Never have I read such a tissue of mad alarm and impotent threat as this journal, which Osbart handed to me, served up for the pleasure of its readers. And I will confess that my heart was aflame with pride both in the man and his ship when I looked over the wide waters and said that he ruled and would rule them still.

"Black had read this, of course?" I observed to Osbart as I returned the screed to him. He admitted that it was so.

"He reads every line written about him—there's vanity behind what he does, though you might be slow to think it. He'll go to Paris and risk his neck just because he wants the world to know he's been there. What's more, if something the skipper of 'Number 2' hinted at is true, Black and every man aboard her will hang as high as Haman in less than a month's time. I wouldn't tell it him for a million sovereigns laid on that deck this very minute. It's rung in my head like a bell ever since I heard it. There'll be no sleep for me to-night, Strong, not if the devil himself closed my eyelids."

"Then it is very serious news, Osbart?"

He clutched my arm and pressed me against the steel taffrail.

"It's life or death to all of us," he cried, his eyes almost starting from his head; "life or death, the open sea or the gibbet. That's what it is, Strong."

"And I am to know nothing of it?"

"You—you who stand as you do to him? There's not a dog in the ship I wouldn't tell before you. Fire burn the paper on which it's written down. I was mad to speak of it at all."

He was greatly troubled, and I confess that his agitation alarmed me not a little. At what danger he hinted, what was the secret he had learned on board the tramp, I could not even hazard; but that it was of grave import no man might doubt. Standing there, with puckered brow and clenched fists, Osbart typified a true figure of the ship. Dante had imagined no such face as his when a searching beam of crimson light fell upon it, and showed the eyes staring into the very soul of the night.

I say that beams of crimson light enveloped us, and you must know of this more intimately.

There had been men working upon the platform while the Doctor and I talked, and I now saw that they opened a pair of iron shutters in the spine of the ship and so disclosed a cavity in which lay the identical launch we chased from Dolphin's Cove. This, truly, was a clever idea. The launch fitted into a cavity in the whale-like back of the Zero, and you had but to throw the shutters open and to send her sliding down an iron rail and she was in the water immediately.

When she was launched upon this occasion the men began to occupy themselves with a task which was without any meaning to me at all. First, they put into the boat the sections of what looked very much like a raft. Then they pushed off from the Zero, and at a distance of a cable's length, perhaps, they began to fit this raft together, and make of it a great square of steel, which floated buoyantly and must have been some ten feet across. Returning to the ship, they then carried away a large number of electric accumulators, and, having put these on board the raft, they made another journey and loaded the launch with cans of spirits and sacks of coal. This brought it to my memory that the Zero was driven by electricity and that her batteries were renewed by fire. My wonder at the cleverness of it all was still with me when a sheet of flame leaped up from the raft and the sea turned blood red as though fire were vomited from its heart.

"Great God!" I cried in my astonishment, "what a sight to see! What a picture, Osbart!"

He heard me indifferently—the secret still obsessed him and he could find little interest for any-thing else. When he spoke, it was to give the credit of the thing to Guichard—that genius of all we did and all we might hope to do upon the high seas.

"Fire's life to us," he said quietly; "while you are on the Zero you will know that man shall live by fire alone. We burn our batteries every week if we can; but they could run three weeks if we were pressed. Black says he could get across the Atlantic with them; he's mad enough to try it, and God help us if he does. Some day a ship will catch us like this, and that will be the end of the Zero and her crew. I've foreseen it from the start. We are helpless when the batteries are out of us. Any third-class cruiser could sink us then."

"How long does it take to finish the work?" I asked him. He said that five or six hours were necessary.

"Five or six hours—and an open sea; not the fairway of ships such as this. We are fools to be playing about in such a place. We shouldn't have been but for Black's sentimentalism. What business had he in the Humber when the treasure was aboard and every hour precious? I say he is not the man he was, and you know it, Strong—none better."

Well, I had my doubts about it; but I would not get to words with him. To me Black was still the great Captain, the master genius of the sea whose like I shall never know; whose match will never be found in the story of the world. Had I doubted it that very night would have answered me triumphantly.

The batteries were out of the ship, I say; the hither sea was aflame with the sheen of the beacon we ourselves had kindled—the "death beacon," as Osbart called it ironically. And this was how things went: our engines helpless, our hatches off, some of the men at their supper; dinner already prepared in the saloon; when the look-out cried, "Ship on the starboard bow!" and there across the sea I discerned the black hull of a steamer, and told myself in the same instant that the Zero was done for, and every man aboard her.