Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 18


CHAPTER XVIII
THE CAVES OF VARES

The tremour which shook the Zero was not repeated, and after many minutes I knew that she was rising to the surface. The men, called by the bells from their mad panic, presently began to understand that there was still a hope for them, and they snatched at it as the drowning at a straw. All were quite sobered by this time and as quick at their work as any man-o'-war's men. I heard the hum of the dynamo and the steady rise and fall of the pumps which emptied our cisterns. To that there succeeded a rush of cold air filling the ship, and then a signal which no man might mistake at such an hour. We had come to the surface of the sea and lay there at rest. The genius of the Master had brought us out of the Pit. I tell you that the men would have hurled themselves at Black's feet for very gratitude. Howling, blubbering, laughing, the crew surged to the platform and lay there in all attitudes, some prone upon their stomachs with their arms outspread; others raising gnarled hands to the sky as though it had drawn them upward; others, again, in a dead faint because of the horror of their fears. For my part, I think that I trembled from head to foot when at last I climbed out into the night air and stood by Black's side. The horror of it all had come near to robbing me of my senses.

We find our tongues at such moments as these, and I must have said many foolish things to the Captain in that instant of deliverance. He heard me patiently, for even he had been shaken; and when I asked him how it had gone with us, he told me readily enough.

"Yonder," he said, indicating a black rock upon which the seas foamed and spouted, "yonder is the reef of Vares. We touched the fringe of it and heard the dogs barking. Another foot, lad, and this ship and all aboard would have gone to glory. That comes of overmuch good liquor and a wild eye on the chart; I must have made fifty miles more than I reckoned it—it's easy to do it in these waters. You'll be knowing that we're off the Spanish coast—you've sense in your head to have guessed that much. Well, then, yon high light is on the headland, and two points to westward finds us homeward bound. Will ye be glad to be ashore a while, my lad? I doubt it not, though God knows ye have pluck enough for your years."

I was gratified that he should speak in this way of me, a man so little given to praise of other men. Pirate and outlaw that he may have been, his own courage was beyond all experience magnificent, and it was only human that I should wish to have his praise. So I told him frankly that I was very glad to see the land again, while I wondered that he, on his part, could view it without misgiving. To which he responded with one of those kindly smiles which never failed to win upon the affection of his friends.

"Oh," says he, "'tis a pretty enough shore upon a dark night, and that's gospel truth, my lad. Yon's the coast of Spain, and many a good friend of mine tells his beads on the mountains. Go a step across them and I will show you the most desolate country in all the earth. That's why I've a fancy to pitch my tent there, for to be sure there are many who would sing hymns if they knew that Black had landed. We'll lie here until the hunt is over, and then head for the Americas. Will ye visit America with me? Would ye like to do that, my lad? Well, ye've no choice, I reckon, for if I put ye ashore now, the hands would burn you alive, by thunder!"

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the men, who were now recovered from their first stupor, and peered at the distant shore as at a land of promise where their labours would be ended. Dawn had broken in the east by this time, and a wan light spread across the gray heavens and anon lifted the veil from the chill sea. As a diaphanous panorama of solitude, the scene unfolded—here showing jagged rocks about which the seas gambolled as bears at their play; there, uplifting a vast head of cliff which might have been the rampart of a mighty fortress. Of ships, there was no sign whatever. I saw a wild waste of dull waters; a swell surging majestically westward—but of the living world of men and deeds, no evidence whatever. And this was our haven; here we were to anchor with our treasure.

Well, the men were ready enough, as may be imagined. When hot coffee had been served round, we began to head for the shore, all the hands but Dingo and the helmsman on the platform, and such a frequent sounding with the lead that even a landsman might have guessed the hazard of the venture. If there were any danger to be apprehended on the landward side, Black paid little heed to it. All his wit and seamanship seemed set upon the task of keeping us from the hydra-headed rocks, by which we passed so closely sometimes that a man could have tossed a biscuit to them. Standing by the conning-tower, I peered down into the clear water, and could see the treacherous shoals which had wrecked countless ships and were the monuments to unnumbered dead. And all the time the line would be running out and the leadsman crying, "Watch, there, watch," quite in the old-fashioned way of tarry seamen. Thus we drew near the tremendous cliffs, and I fell to amazement alike at their grandeur and the forbid-ding face they showed to us. It seemed madness to talk of going ashore at such a spot.

Osbart had come up from his cabin by this time and he took his stand beside me, wearing quite a jaunty air. Just as the coast of England affrighted him, so did this wild land please him by the magnificence of its solitudes. He spoke of it as others speak of home, and echoed Black's hope that here he would rest awhile from his labours.

"We lie up three days to get the stuff in order," he said, "and then I guess I'll see something of Paris. Why, it's nearly seven years since I was in that same city, Strong; seven years since I clapped eyes on the beautiful ladies of the Rat Noir. I've got some leeway to make up, and I'll lose no time in doing it. It will be your turn to do sentry-go in the Caves of Vares this time. Black spoke of that yesterday. He means to leave you to boss the show when he's gone, and I don't envy you the task. Did he speak about it at all?"

I told him that not a word had been said, nor did I understand him at all. What he meant by the Caves of Vares passed my comprehension. As to his talk of my being left alone with the men, he might as well have spoken of murder at once if Black were to be believed. And so I told him pretty plainly.

"I am as far from being with you in this, Osbart," I said, "as you are from London. You know that as well as I do. If Black puts the men under me, he is throwing me back upon a conception of my duty which circumstances hitherto have allowed me to forget. I cannot believe any such thing. Has he not just told me himself "that some of the hands would kill me if I were left alone with them? I believe every word of it is true, and so do you."

A sardonic smile crossed his hard face, and I think he was well pleased to see me in this quagmire of apprehension. His own attitude toward me had always been difficult to understand. Sometimes I thought he was right down jealous of my influence with Black; at other times I accepted a halting friendship upon his side, and had to make it a reality. Perhaps I shall never know the whole truth. Certainly the morning did not tell it to me, for we were still at the vague talk when the leadsman cried, "By the deep, six," and instantly upon that came the bell to stand by in the engine-room, and I heard it answered, and then the signal, "Dead slow," We had drawn up to the very face of the monstrous head-land, and far above us, peered on the altitude of a dominant crag, a crucifix stood out against the sky as an emblem of this strange world of desolation to whose gate we had come.

Was this, then, the haven of which Black had spoken almost with the love of a son for a homestead? I looked back over the rolling seas to the labyrinth of crags upon which the breakers sported. I saw a dim horizon destitute of ships; landward were the forbidden rocks, the mighty wall of granite presenting its impregnable face to the Atlantic. This our haven? Inconceivable and yet most wonderful!

You know that the leadsman had called, "By the deep, six." Now, as though to witness the changing sea beneath us, he called, "By the mark, twenty," so that we must have passed from six fathoms to twenty in as many feet of our drifting. A spell further, and the rocks before us opened as though a Titan's axe had cleaved them to the base. I saw that we had rounded a bluff of the cliff, and found behind it a little circular basin for all the world like a pool between two spurs of the great cliff. Into this we passed so slowly that I knew not whether the propellers were driving us or no. The swell of the open gave place to the gentler waters of this tiny natural harbour. A sombre light enveloped us,and from the darkness of that natural cleft I heard strange voices hailing us in what I believed to be the Spanish tongue.

"Good God! Osbart," I cried, "is this the place—is this where we are to lie?"

He smiled with vain love of a mystery, and pointed to the figures of the strangers, who, it seemed, were hanging like monkeys to the sheer face of the cliff, three of them, clad in rags but wearing vast sombreros, as though the sun would shine down such a chimney as this.

"Men and brothers," he said drolly, "particular friends of the skipper, and very ready with the knives, Strong. I'll introduce you when we go ashore——"

"Ashore!" I cried, "ashore in such a pit as this?" It amused him as a child's answer amuses the grown man.

"Oh," said he, "their wives can cook famously if you do not mind the garlic. Have a care how you make love to them, Strong, for I assure you the señors are a hasty people. We must now go below, I think—yes, the Captain is about to give the order. But it will not be for many minutes—and then, my boy, as good a breakfast as ever you ate in your life."

Well, I had no words for it, nor could any have been spoken. Black's loud command, "All hands below!" sent us immediately to the depths, and we crowded there in the corridors as though it were but the delay of an instant, as it proved to be. Rising as swiftly as she had sunk, the Zero came to the surface once more, and the hatches were opened. I stepped to the platform, to be blinded by a flash of radiant light, to see strange figures awaiting me, and to know that we had come up in the bowels of the mountains and that there were the Caves of Vares of which the Captain had spoken.

A prison, you say. Aye, but what a prison! No scene more wonderful has ever been opened to the eyes of man. Let all else but the Caves of Vares fade from Black's story and it will still be read through the generations.

And of these caves I was to be the master for many days. I shall now tell you how that came to be.