Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 16

Captain Black (Pemberton) by Max Pemberton
XVI. The Red Flame Bears Witness


There had been a glow of the northern lights in the heavens and no real darkness at all since about two bells in the first watch. I could see the strange steamer quite clearly, and, for that matter, she was silhouetted against the cloudless sky as a picture in a shadowgraph. At first I thought by her shape that she was one of the British cruisers I had visited at Falmouth not many weeks ago; but presently I changed my mind and said that she would be some foreign warship and most likely German. But whatever she was, her discovery struck the crew of the Zero with such terror that men cried aloud as though ropes were already about their necks.

That was a dreadful scene and one I shall never forget. The loud shouting of the men for the Captain to come up to them; the mad running to and fro; the fierce beacon shooting its flames over the rolling waters; the Zero helpless in the trough of the sea—all, I say, contributed to a sense of panic and the belief that nothing could save us.' As for Osbart, his horrid curses made my blood run cold, and I shrank from him as from some devil whom danger had unchained. No lost soul could have uttered sounds more unearthly than this madman who had been touched by the finger of doom.

Here was the turnabout, this the disorder and panic of our decks, when Black appeared suddenly at the ladder's head and roared "Stand by!" in a voice which thundered over the waters.

Never have I seen a change so magical. Men, who had been blubbering like children, stiffened themselves and found tongues to cry, "Aye, aye, sir!" Osbart checked the curse upon his lips and waited with shining eyes to hear the Captain's word. Disorder gave place to the method and the silence of duty as though at the mere presence of the man whom all feared. You could have heard a pin drop while Black strode across the platform and raised his glass to espy the stranger.

"What do you make of her, Dingo?"

"She would be a Dutchman or a German, sir, by the cut of her top hamper."

"Nothing more than that, my man?"

"Unless she's a cruiser in her shore clothes, sir."

"Your eyes do you little credit—never believe more than you can see and but half of that. What has Jack-o'-Lantern got to say about it?"

His confidence in the one-eyed man had always been considerable, and I saw that he listened to him now with bent ear and puckered brow. Nor did the hunchback hesitate to speak his mind.

"I think she's German, sir, and no more than she looks."

Black nodded as though pleased.

"You think well, my man—she's the German liner Borkum, and she sailed from Hamburg to Cherbourg three days ago."

Well, it was a douche upon the panic, and the men started up at it, grown brave in an instant and contemptuous of "liners." I heard the bully Red Roger cry, "To hell with the black caps!" while as for the little Frenchman, he capered like a girl at a fair. The Doctor alone seemed unrelieved by the plain sense of the discovery. Still muttering, he crossed the platform and faced the Captain squarely.

"If she's a liner, what's she want with us, Captain?"

"She wants the twenty thousand pounds offered for you and me, Doctor, by those who have a fancy to see us dance on nothing."

Osbart stamped his foot.

"It's God's truth, and she'll get it."

And then to the men he said:

"I take you all to witness that this is none of my doing. There's a reward of twenty thousand pounds offered ashore for the ship that takes us. Well, that money is as good as paid. Our batteries are out—you know it. We lie here helpless for any man to strike. I say it's none of my doing. Bear witness all to that."

He made a wild appeal to them, but God alone knows what was in his mind. As for Black, I feared at first that he would strike him down where he stood—but that was not the great Captain's way of dealing with a coward; and presently I saw Osbart begin to tremble and quail as though he stood at a judgment seat and the sentence had been passed upon him. Still trembling and with the Captain's eyes fixed upon his face, he drew back as from a blow; and, never once averting his glance, he went slowly down the ladder to his own room. Then, and then alone, the Captain spoke.

"Yon man's no better for an English prison," says he quietly; "he'll be prescribing sulphur for the devil if he don't mind his ways. Take no heed of him, my lads. The Doctor's well enough when we're in southern latitudes; the rest of ye get your arms and stand by for trouble. I'll make those lousy Germans dance the polka, by thunder!"

He gave a secret order to Dingo and the latter went below. The rest of them, according to the command, appeared on deck presently armed to the teeth and as fine a looking lot of desperadoes as ever I hope to look upon. All carried a late pattern of rifle, and there was not a man among them who had not a couple of magazine pistols in his belt. Obedient to Black's order, they now raised a light hood of steel upon the starboard side of the platform and fixed it in its place with metal straps. Then the cover was taken from the gun and a shell thrust into its breech.

Observe that we were now in a measure shut in, the steel screen protecting us from any rifle fire upon our starboard side and forbidding us to take any other than a sitting posture. For all that, we had a clear vision of the open sea and of the steamer gradually drawing near to our beacon, which still flamed fiercely and shed a vast aureole as of blood upon the breakers. Reassured for the moment, the men had worked willingly enough; but when the work was done and we had but to wait for the issue, I could see that the Captain's splendid confidence was not shared by his fellows, and that a black despair again had fallen upon them.

Consider how it stood with us.

The batteries out of the Zero; the liner bearing down upon us; a great ship against which all our trickery could achieve little; other ships to be expected any hour in such a place. And there were but half-a-dozen men to be pitted perhaps against five hundred, and the latter inspired by the greatest reward ever offered by a Government. Was it reasonable to hope that we could weather such circumstances or dare to think of to-morrow? For myself I confess that I did not believe the Zero would be afloat at dawn.

If there were another side to it, Black's demeanour made that possible. I have seen him in many a dangerous hour, but never one which found him cooler. Disdaining the shelter of the platform, he had gone to the crest of the whale-back deck forward, and there he sat, smoking a great cigar and watching the liner's approach as though it were a common event of the day. When I crept up to him, he suffered me to sit there by his side and even deigned to tell me what he would do.

"Well, my lad," said he, "have you come to tell me we are done for?"

"Oh," said I, "that would be from one who did not know you, Captain."

He liked the compliment and nodded his head.

"We must bring her on a cable's length presently," he ran on; "the fire should not stand between us, I'm thinking. Don't you see, my lad, that they'll try to sink the batteries if they are clever. That's been in my mind since first I clapped my eyes on them. We must keep the lubbers off the batteries."

"But," cried I, "your engines are not working."

He laughed loudly.

"The Doctor's been at you," he said, with sly pleasure; "do you think I would sail a ship which must lie flat like a jelly-fish for any wave to swallow? We've a reserve, of course, enough to maœuvre her—no more."

"Then," said I, my heart beating rapidly at the thought, "you could sink if you choose, Captain? Osbart was telling a fool's tale when he said you were helpless."

"A fool's tale, my lad, for I'm never a man to be found helpless. What's truth is that we can't go below until the great battery is aboard. As well might a shark run away from his fins. We'll fight the cabbage-eating swine afloat and leave it at that. You tell me to-morrow whether Black was helpless."

I made no answer, for I could see that some movement on the liner's part had arrested his attention; and now, regardless of the place, he stood up and began to peer into the night. Ten seconds passed, perhaps, and found him motionless. Then he called to Jack-o'-Lantern and gave him an order.

"Dead slow below. Let every man stand by when the ship brings to. Ned will be at the gun. Let him fire at the word 'three.' You understand me, Jack——"

"Yes, Captain. And the men——"

"They'll keep at their stations and wait for the boat to come off. Let the Frenchman stand by the tube. It may be a case of sink or swim, Jack. I'll leave it to the Germans to begin."

He climbed back to the platform and I followed him with what skill I could. The steel doors of the conning-tower were open, and he did not shut them when he went in, so I followed him there, and to my surprise found Osbart, quite cool and collected, and carrying a heavy revolver in his hand. We were hardly down the ladder when the Frenchman cried to us from above that the liner was signalling to us— and this proved to be the case. Even I, who was no trained sailor, could read the message of her flashing lanterns.

"What are they saying?" the Doctor asked me quite in the old way. I told him, as well as I could, that they were asking us our name.

"Then they don't know the truth," says he; but it was hardly spoken when there came a rattle of rifle bullets, and they struck upon our hood of steel as a hail which left fire in its train.

"A pretty blundering lot," cries the Captain grimly; but he gave no other order, and presently I saw the great ship's lantern flashing again, and I read the second message. It offered us five minutes to decide whether we would surrender as we were or take the consequences. Evidently their captain thought that he had us stricken and helpless. There could be no other excuse for his folly.

"A gem of a man," says Black, falling to an Irish manner of speaking; but he gave no word of command, and so there we lay in the trough of the sea, with the great ship looming above us like a fortress, and the beacon blazing at our backs, and the swell ruddy as with a floor of blood. Never would a man ashore understand the moment of it or what the crew of the Zero must have lived through in those instants of waiting.

Had they any kind of gun or had they not? There are German liners that sail the seas in cruiser's trim and are little less serviceable than warships. Of the Borkum I myself knew nothing, either of her history or her armament; but it was plain that the men had some kind of a story about her, and that what was in my mind was in theirs also. If the great ship carried any kind of machine-gun, we were done for beyond any hope whatever. If she did not carry a gun, we might outwit her, poor as the prospect seemed. So the affair went in my manner of reckoning, and thus it was that I could hear my own heart beating as I stood at the glass of the conning-tower and looked out over the blood-red sea. The question of the gun stood paramount. I waited for the thunder of its report as for a judgment from Heaven upon the pirates. The instants of delay were an agony to suffer.

Well, no shot was fired, and, at that, courage seemed to come upon the men as a freshet. Black himself had not turned a hair from the beginning, and none was quicker than he to perceive the significance of the liner's silence. Plainly, he had staked all upon the hazard of her armament, and fortune rewarded him. As a man triumphant he turned to Jack-o'-Lantern, and bade him make an answer to the signal. Then through a monstrous megaphone, one of Guichard's designing, there went across the sea a word of defiance which might have set even our own men shuddering.

"Ahoy, there, you on the Borkum! I give you ten minutes to put twenty thousand pounds on this ship. Move a cable's length from where you are, and I'll blow you to hell, by the Lord above me! Do you hear me? Then put out a boat before I do you a mischief."

Jack shouted the order, and it was taken up instantly by another voice—that of the Frenchman, who spoke German very well, and translated for the benefit of the captain of the Borkum in case he had no English. When the message was delivered there was a little interval of waiting, and upon that an answer from the Borkum's lanterns. She told us that she understood, and that a boat was being put over immediately.

Now, you will say that this was a rejoinder which a fool might have understood, and, to be sure, there could have been none so foolish aboard the Zero that he was deceived by it. Had the Germans temporized with us, or made a show of argument, we might have been led into a trap; but such immediate acquiescence could only mean that they judged us to be at the mercy of any ship which happened upon us, and were determined, whatever the risk, to enjoy the reward and the réclame which would attend the capture of the great pirate. So they put over a boat without any loss of time whatever, and, rowing straight toward us, it seemed that they would be aboard us almost before we understood what they were at. It was then that Black spoke for the second time since the beginning of it.

"Cover your men!" he cried to our fellows; and then in a tremendous voice. "At them, my lads!"

The rifles cracked on the still air; a loom of smoke drifted above us; loud cries of rage and agony rang out. So sudden was it that my first thought would have it that the Germans had fired at us and not we at the Germans. As swiftly I realized Black's prescience and the wonder of his judgment. The ship's boat lay drifting at our very gunwale; we pulled it in with a long boat-hook, and flashing one of the big lamps upon it, we saw twenty men there, armed with pistols every one, and some with rifles as well. These had come in answer to our challenge, and had they boarded us, no man on the Zero would have lived to tell the tale.

"So that's their twenty thousand pounds?" said Black grimly, while the lantern shone upon the living and the dead; "that's the German hog's game, is it? So help me Heaven, I'll teach him something before this night's done."

And then, in a very whirlwind of passion, he roared, "No. I with the gun—you there, Jack, give 'em three minutes to bring the money. Do you hear me, lad?"

Jack-o'-Lantern cried, "Aye, aye, sir!" and once more the howling megaphone wafted its defiant message over the waters. If my thoughts could be turned aside, even for an instant, from the stress and strife of combat, it was that they might dwell upon the disparity of the antagonists; and I would look, now at the great ship frowning upon us like a citadel of the ocean, then at the Zero as she lay half submerged by the rolling seas. What a contrast it was; what an unbelievable encounter. And that we should have endured it and be still afloat, aye, and more than afloat, defiant and resolute. This, I say, might have been the trend of my thoughts had not they been called, now to this, now to that, scene of the turgid drama, which spoke of death upon the one hand, and of vigorous and all active life upon the other. So the contrasts of it became less to me than the realities, and my eyes were drawn at one glance to the great ship, at the next to the boat which spoke so eloquently of treachery. There were men worming in the agony of wounds so near to me that an outstretched hand could have touched them. There were the stark figures of those who had paid the price—and supreme above all stood the massive figure of the pirate, triumphant as David in the hour of his victory.

We had sent down the men in the boat (who came to take us alive or dead), and the next move lay with the German steamer. If I had been tempted to think that all which happened hitherto had been a medley of chance, a play of circumstance without order or method upon Black's part, a new event put that idea from my mind and left me amazed at his prescience. For now the great beacon went out suddenly, and the sea, which had shone blood-red, became but a sheen of rolling green waves which the struggling moon-beams disclosed capriciously. In a twinkling the Zero was hidden from her giant enemy. I heard the clang of the steel doors which covered the launch, and knew that men were launching her to bring the batteries on board. The work was hardly begun when a searchlight flashed out upon the far horizon, and with a startled cry Osbart declared that a warship was upon us.

"It's the Invincible out of Plymouth, by all that's hellish," said he. Black did not answer him immediately, but I knew that he was moved. The wide beam of light, winging over the dark waters, must have been a sudden vision of victory to the men on the German steamer. They had us now for a certainty—so much they must have said. Vain had been our impudent boasting that they should pay us twenty thousand pounds—the very sum offered by the Government for Black's capture. Let them stand for an hour, and that would be the end of it. We, in turn, must have begun to think of the clock already. Could we get our engines going before we came with-in range of the warship's guns? If we could not, God help us.

Of course, I thought that all the fighting was over now. The new turn of events must be too much even for Black's iron will. When I heard him cry "No. 2 with the gun," I could not believe my ears. Sitting there by the glass of the conning-tower, I watched the distant searchlight and tried to measure the speed of its approach. Would the cruiser be in time or should we cheat her even yet? The answer came from the Zero herself, for even as I dwelt upon the chances our own gun boomed out and the hither sea became as a sheet of livid flame.

I have seen many a great gun fired in my time but never such a gun as that. The world knows something about it by this time, and has been taught that Guichard fired no shot or shell as we understand it, but that his cannon was charged with chemicals, sending an obus which exploded with a force defying all theories, and when it had exploded, fired what the explosion itself had spared. I tell you it seemed that the Borkum was afire from her fo'c'sle to her funnel when the shot had gone home. Vast sheets of flame, multi-coloured, here a deep crimson, there a staring yellow, now wonderfully golden, anon of the deepest violet, this flame, I say, leaped up above the ship to die away as instantly in the blackest darkness. Hardly had the flash of it expired when a new order was roared from our megaphone. The ransom! Would they pay it? Black gave them five minutes.

I sat in the conning-tower and hid the scene from my eyes. The minutes were ages of intolerable suspense. Inch by inch the warship crept up to us. I heard Osbart raving, and then the complaints of the men. We were done for surely—and done for because the Man of Iron clung tenaciously to his purpose and would not be turned a hair's-breadth from it. There he stood, dominant above the peril of the night. From the sea there came the horrid cries of men burned by fire; wails and shrieks of pain and fear. The Borkum, her valves emitting dense clouds of steam, drifted upon the tide and anon began to forge ahead slowly. Our own men, working until the sweat poured off them like rain, were trying to get the batteries in—the distant warship loomed big upon our horizon, and the light from her mighty lantern began to envelop us as with a vast golden cloak dropped from the heavens. Such a scene must live for ever in my memory. The thunder of the shots will wake me from my sleep until the last of my days.

The race! My God, if we were to lose it! It mattered nothing to us if the German went free. To Black it mattered so much that his pride would have gone astoop many a day had she escaped him. Sooner than that, I believe he would have delivered himself a prisoner upon the warship's decks. For that, he fired a second shot at the very moment the Borkum began to steam away from us, and for the second time he enveloped her decks in the deadly flame. I saw the gun flash out; I saw the fire leaping as a spray of molten metal from stem to stern of the unhappy vessel. Impotently in the far distance the stranger fired a great gun and signalled her presence. Shrieks and prayers for mercy fell upon our ears from the drifting steamer, whose engines were now stopped. A second boat was lowered. It drew near to us, and as it came the light of our lanterns glittered upon the gold and jewels with which it was laden. And then I knew that the Indomitable Will had prevailed once more and that he who would be king had again proclaimed his kingship.

A wild cheer floated over the terrible sea. Again and again it was repeated as a very voice of devils from the depths of the black waters. I heard the clanging of steel doors; the ringing of bells. Then with a fierce rush onward, we headed straight for the coming warship, drew near to her defiantly, and plunged beneath her very bows to the marrow of the ocean.

The Zero had escaped her enemies, who had paid her twenty thousand pounds that they might go free.