Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 17


It had been Black's way in the old time to reward his crew when they had served him well; just as in the days of Nelson a tot of ruin was given the tarry sailor who had done a hard day's work.

This practice was not departed from upon the Zero; and no sooner had the ship escaped her enemies than a scene of carousal defying all description celebrated her victory. Champagne now ran like water; there was no distinction between fo'c'sle or saloon; but all the hands crowding together, Black gave them the first of the toasts, and they drank in bumpers drained to the dregs.

Thereafter a feast was spread in the chief cabin, and all sat down to it. We were still deep below the seas, and never was such a picture of lights, and silver, and the savage faces of exultant men, while the black waters shone through the ports and the fish stared at us with wondering eyes.

Here you saw a strange sight—black hands thrust into dishes of rare china; vast mouths, whose teeth awry devoured the hectic fruit of millionaires— bare chests and arms tattooed; a fierce, godless company with the great Captain leading them to debauch and the Doctor not a whit behind him. Through the long night they ate and drank and sang their foul songs—and while they sang, I shrank from them to my bunk and wondered anew at the destiny which had sent me among them.

Whither did the voyage carry us, and to what haven? I had asked myself this many times since we left Greenland, but never did it seem more difficult to find an answer. Sooner or later the Governments of the civilized world would win their victory, and this ship and all aboard her be delivered up to justice. Meanwhile, these scenes of death and debauch must be lived through without complaint. I knew that my life depended upon compliance, and, even at that, was but the plaything of an hour. Let a fit of passion fall upon this crew and they would kill me as a butcher kills a sheep.

It had been nearly midnight, I suppose, when the wicked affair of the carousal began, and dawn found it still raging. Try as I would, I could not shut the horrid songs and oaths from my ears; and when they died away at last in drunken moanings or trickling laughter, the fetid atmosphere of the cabin forbade me to sleep. Coming to the truth amid a maze of wild dreams, I started up in my bunk to remember that the ship still lay deep beneath the sea, and that those who should have brought her up were besotted in drink and beyond all hope of reason. And this, I think, gave me as great a fright as I can remember; so that I put on my clothes anyhow, and indifferent to the chances of a drunken brawl, went out to the corridor and so to the cabin.

Here there was a sight to stir the soul of any man that had a glimmer of decency about him. All the fine glass upon the table had been smashed to atoms. I saw costly porcelain chipped and starred as though it had been kitchen stuff; the candles stood awry, and the electric bulbs were broken; plates and silver were all aheap, and the cloth beneath them stained blood-red by the wine they had spilled. As for the men themselves, I was glad to find that Black was not among them; but the engineer, Dingo, lay stark insensible at the foot of the table, where the hulk of a man, Red Roger, had fallen atop of him, and there rested with his arms spread out and his face gone purple. Of the others, I could discern but Ned Jolly and a fellow who served as steward—but the nigger Sambo was asleep in the little pantry below the saloon, and from the engine-hold amidships there came a sound of groans and crying just as though a woman had been there and piped feebly for a man's help.

I shut the cabin door softly, and, following the corridor, came at last to the ladder by which you reach the engine-room. Lights burned here, but seemed to be at their last gasp. A fitful current waxed and waned upon the wires; the lamps were now aglow, now almost gone, and yet they permitted me to take in the scene below at a glance, and to recognize Jack-o'-Lantern and the Frenchman they called the Leopard. The latter was poised upon the rail of the dynamo; he had a long sheath-knife in his hand, and he dared the other to come near him. Plainly he was mad with drink and hysterical as any woman; while, in his turn, the one-eyed man could hardly stand straight upon his legs. like the other he was armed; but his weapon was a great bar of iron he had snatched up from the tool rack in the corner, and he waved it above his head giddily and with a want of control at which a child might have laughed.

"Come out, you French devil," he was saying; "come out of that. Would you send the whole ship to hell, ye frog-eating mouse-trap? Come out of it, I say, or, by thunder, I'll brain ye!"

Upon which he aimed a blow at his adversary which would have knocked the brains from an iron ox. I heard the bar crash upon the steel rail of the dynamo, and I cried aloud for fear of the blow. A foot further and it would have shivered the machinery upon which the safety of every man aboard the Zero depended.

"Below," I cried; and then, "have a care, Jack, for God's sake," and at this he turned a besotted eye upon me and watched me for a full minute as a beast of prey watches its quarry.

"Who called?" he asked at last, by which I knew that he had hardly recognized me, and that all his poor wit was set upon this task of saving the ship. When I made myself known to him in any words I could find, he listened with bent ear, but a brain which had no clear perception of the truth.

"It's this lousy Frenchman," he muttered at last, "gone raving mad, he have, and all amuck like a dirty nigger. He'll do us in, so help me thunder. Now you run away and bring the Captain, that's what you do, young gentleman. And no time to waste neither, if you don't want salt water for breakfast."

Well, he had hardly said it when the Frenchman was atop of him. I saw the sheath-knife flash twice, and heard a deep groan from the man who had saved my own life in the cabin of the Celsis; then I went headlong down the ladder, and springing at the Leopard, I caught his neck in both my hands and throttled him from his prey. It was at the very moment when the lights went out suddenly and black darkness came upon us.

I had dragged the fellow dear of Jack-o'-Lantern and was that much to the good. They had called him the Leopard with some sense, for never was there a more cat-like creature. I am strong, and can always take good care of myself in a common fray—gloves or singlestick, or a bout at wrestling, I care not what it may be; but this fellow was altogether too quick for me. Ducking his head so that his forehead almost touched the ground, he made a sudden move backward, and I had lost him. Then I heard the slash of his knife upon the steel plate of the ship's side, and I knew that he struck wildly in the hope of a lucky hit which should leave him master of the cabin. Here fortune favoured me, for while I could almost feel the smash of the blow, the knife did not touch me, and I had swarmed up the ladder and raced toward Black's room before the man knew that I had gone at all.

Black's private cabin was forbidden ground to us all, and this was the first time I had knocked upon the door of it. A larger cabin than the other, it lay upon the starboard side of the conning-tower, and was entered through an arched door of steel. Upon this I knocked loudly, crying, "Captain, Captain," while I did so—but not a sound within could I hear, nor did any voice answer me. Meanwhile, the air in the corridor had become heavy and foul, to the point of suffocation. I drew a deep breath with the sense that I might draw no other. There was that drumming in my ears which is the herald of suffocation; and believing that all within the Zero were certainly doomed, I raised my voice in a last great cry, and beat upon the door with the fury of a madman.

I shall not dwell further upon the intolerable minutes of delay which I suffered in the darkness as I stood at Black's door and told myself that I had not many minutes to live. When at last a bright light flashed upon my face, my senses were half gone, and it was some little time before I understood that the Captain himself opened to me and that he carried an electric torch in his hand. Unusually pale, there was that in his eyes I had never seen before, but debauch had been powerless before such a man as he; and when he spoke to me, it was in that cold and distant tone I knew and dreaded.

"What do you want with me, boy?"

"Captain," I said, drawing in my breath as a wounded man, "the Frenchman is in the engine-room destroying the ship. I think he has killed Jack Harvey. If you would go down, Captain!"

He was quite unmoved, and he walked before me down the corridor until he came to the door of the saloon. Then he flashed his lantern upon the débris of carousal and upon its victims, and with a savage cry of anger he kicked the prone men and bade them awaken. When they opened their eyes, the engineer Dingo first of all, Black dragged them to their feet as though they had been children, and fell upon them with such blows that I thought they had been struck dead upon the spot.

"Ye sots, will ye drink salt?" he roared. Their answer was to stagger after him, they knew not why or whither, but like men upon whom the shadow of death has fallen. When he reached the engine-room and turned the glow of his lamp upon the scene, it was some while before he discovered the figure of Jack-o'-Lantern, who lay in a welter of blood near the dynamo. A savage cry followed upon its disclosure, and almost immediately afterward we espied the Leopard crouching by the main pumps and babbling like a witless fellow who has stumbled suddenly upon a horror.

It was awful to see Black at this moment, to hear the roar which escaped him, and to look upon his face. For I should tell you that the engineer Dingo had got back sufficient sense by this time to switch on the reserve battery and to give us light; and so we stood in its warm glow to watch this fierce encounter between the maddened Captain and the cat-like mutineer. No one interfered, nor do I think that Black wished for any interference. The moaning Frenchman, whose knife glittered as the light struck upon it, became an animal again at his enemy's approach. He crouched as a leopard about to spring, uttered a low hiss of warning and then leaped upon the Captain. Then I thought that Black was surely done for, and I almost feared to watch them, though I should have known better than that. Was not this the man who had faced the mutineers of Ice Haven single-handed? Had I not seen him confronted by death many a time and the master ever?

What, then, had he to fear from the puny Frenchman, mad in drink as he was and almost blind with fury? At a hazard the answer might be, nothing at all. And yet think of what might have been.

The Leopard sprang out like an animal, leaping high into the air, and then aiming such a blow at Black that his skull would have been cleaved to the gorge had the knife gone home. Another would have reeled before such an attack, perhaps would have aimed a wild blow in return, and been cut to the bone in so doing. Not so Black, who had the eye of an eagle and a hand as quick. His was a more subtle way, and standing boldly up to the man he caught the fellow by the wrist so dexterously that the quickest hardly perceived the trick of it. Holding him in the vise-like grip, he bent him backward slowly, caught his feet from under him and put a huge knee upon his chest. I heard the bones cracking as bones are cracked by a dog, and I thought that the Frenchman's arm was gone, and that it would not lift a knife again for many a long day.

This was a dreadful scene, and I would well draw the curtain upon it. If I cannot do so wholly it is because of that sense of truth which bids me tell you both the best and the worst of the pirates. I must speak of Black in his better moods and of those which reveal the darker side. We had gone down to the engine-room, remember, upon the very verge of death by suffocation. Another ten minutes and we had all perished miserably, lying through all eternity at the bottom of the sea, imprisoned in that coffin of steel. To such had debauch and the treachery of debauch brought us. And now awakening had come, some glimmer of sense, and by sense salvation. Dazed and reeling as the engineer Dingo was, he had yet wits enough to get at the liquid oxygen and flood the ship with a breath of life. Men, who were gasping like fishes one instant, were capering like fools at a fair the next. And with their salvation came a savage, a rebellious anger against the man who had put the cup of death to their lips. Regardless of his screams of pain, of his wounded limb, of the agony he suffered, they demanded the uttermost penalty of their savage law. "Kill him! Kill him!" was their cry.

Black answered it in two words. "Brand him!" he roared, and the words were hardly spoken when the wire was made ready and the current switched on.

They were to brand him by burning wires laid straight to his flesh from the dynamo. Such a fearful torture could have been devised by these men alone. Pity was unknown to them. They gloated, I do believe, upon the hiss of burning fat; the awful wails uttered by the writhing man were music to them. I saw the fire tracing the indelible letters I saw blood, and flesh shrivelled up together, and, giddy at the sight, I implored Black for God's sake to desist. I might as well have addressed myself to the iron pillar at my elbow. There and then they would have done the wretched man to death but for an accident of the night as terrible as it now seems to have been inevitable.

They were in the midst of their horrid task, the Frenchman lay upon his bade with his breast red with fire; loud cries were uttered; men capered like demons beneath the glow of the lamp, when, without any warning, the Zero shivered to her spine, and for an instant threatened to roll over and over as a bottle may be rolled upon a floor. Never was such a turnabout. Thrown from their foothold, the pirates were pitched headlong. Some shrieked that the ship had foundered—others turned upon Black with savage oaths. He struck them down and clambered up the ladder with giant steps. I heard him pass along the corridor and enter the conning-tower, and then the bells above me rang out loudly.