Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 19

Captain Black (Pemberton) by Max Pemberton
XIX. We Bring the Treasure Ashore


Had it not been for the wonder of the scene, my mind would have cast itself back to the method of our entry, and that, I think, would have affrighted me beyond any ordinary curiosity concerning the place.

Recall how we had sunk below the waters of the outer basin, then risen as quickly to find ourselves in the first of the caves. Passing, I suppose, through a natural tunnel, we had come to this black bower of the sea. Had we happed upon such a cave by accident—as lads will by any seashore—we should have found it dank, and dark, and dripping. Not so at Vares. Here a master-magician had been at work, I doubt not for many years. Great arc lamps flooded the water as with beams of unearthly light. There was a wide landing-stage with steps leading to a kind of natural platform which ran quite round this vast dungeon of the deep. I saw countless tunnels radiating outward from a common centre; while high above me, as upon the roof of an unimagined cathedral, star-like clusters of lamps dazed the senses with their suggestion of altitude.

A circular cave with an infinity of tunnels radiating from it. A glorious flood of the purest light—a platform to step upon, and, at the stairs' head, the figures of twenty wild men who shouted and huzza'd at Black's coming as at the welcome of a king. This was my first impression of Vares. When we had made the Zero fast at the quay prepared for her, we followed the leader of the men through the central tunnel, and again I shrank at the wonder of it. A palace had been revealed to me as at the touch of a wizard's wand. I stood n wonderland, and my tongue could utter no word.

Here was a room of vast size, square in shape, but with a natural apse as its western end. I judged that it would have been in black darkness but for the number of the electric lamps which glowed in every nook and cranny. So many were they that the stupendous apse seemed nothing else than an arch of golden light, while there was not a ledge of the schist-like walls which had not its ornaments of balls. Trembling in the air with all its suggestion of reserve power, was the hum of a dynamo which fed this abundance—and even a stranger might imagine that the rise and fall of the tides in the caverns was the motive force Black had employed so cleverly. The same force drove the fans by which the cavern was ventilated, and the air came in as pure and sweet as from the morning sea.

Of the furniture of the great cave I could get but a vague notion upon my entry. Not only was there much of it, but it was so fantastic, and had come from so many countries, that the eye was confused and all sense of proportion clean gone from me. A table, to be sure, ran down the centre of the cavern and glimmered with gold and silver plate. I saw piles of bear-skins, chiefly of the polar bear, just as I had seen them years ago in the Rue Joubert at Paris. There were cabinets a-many, and few that were not filled with rare china of the cloisonné enamel of Japan. From China had come vases and porcelain of the Ming and Kang-Hi periods; and in contrast to this patronage of art, there stood a long open table covered from end to end with models of ships and guns, which would have delighted any boy.

Black had spoken to me of his love of pictures, and I was surprised to see so few of them in the cavern. One gruesome thing, in which a ship's crew was about to roll their captain in a spiked barrel, hung in a niche above a considerable fireplace; but it was meretricious and quite unworthy of the Captain's keen judgment; while the others were mere chromos and not to be named at all. It occurred to me, even at this time, that the atmosphere of the place must be unsuitable to any work of art; and yet against that stood the fact that the cave seemed as dry as a bone. When I detected an electric heater with twenty bulbs standing where the fire should have stood, I began to understand how this great brain had solved the riddle, and what science had done to link the nineteenth century to B.C. 7000.

Now, all this was the mental note I made upon my entry into the cavern. I have told you of the uncouth company of Spaniards which received us there, and of the resounding cheers with which they hailed the Captain; but presently I discovered that cheering was not the chief business of their lives, for they began to wait upon us all directly we had passed the door—and one of them, a burly man with a Jew's nose and ear-rings, called out our names from a slip of paper and doffed his sombrero hat as each man answered him Mine was the third name on the list and when I cried "Here," a Spaniard of the company at once stepped up to me and said he was my servant.

"A little Engleesh, my lord," he said, laughing all over his face. I turned to Osbart and asked what he would have me to do.

"Why," said the Doctor, "to wash yourself I must be supposing," and he laughed as though it were the best thing he had said for a long while. "Look at yourself in a glass, man," cried he, very pleased with himself; "you have the face of a nigger minstrel. Upon my word, Strong, you would make a living at Ramsgate if I could find you a banjo; just take a peep at yourself, and then ask for a camera. Why, man, you'll make a famine in soap when you begin."

I reminded him that he himself could hardly sit for a figure of one of the Graces—for the truth was that no man had washed upon the Zero since the hour of the terror—and then I turned to follow the Spaniard. The bedroom to which he led me lay beyond the second of the tunnels counting from the centre. The sea had hewed it ages ago from a stratum of a beautiful green stone, so pure that it might have been aquamarine. A heavy curtain covered the arch by which you entered in, and a second curtain shut it from a bath-room which was nothing more or less than a deep natural pool, whose depths were lighted by a cluster of electric lights set in a silver sconce. Here the Spaniard left me with a profound bow and the intimation that he would "very much come back when the señor shall singee out," a term, I suppose, he had got from the pirates.

You will know that I had left Ice Haven with hardly a rag to my back. I was, therefore, both surprised and delighted to find new clothes set out upon my bed, both underlinen and a fine shirt of silk, with a very good suit of grey flannels which I was to find very useful in the caves. A dressing-table of French buhl had been set in a niche of the cave, and upon this there was laid out a good set of silver boxes and brushes and all that a fastidious man might look for in a house of luxury. The bed was of good brass in the English fashion, and had mosquito curtains about it, a very necessary precaution in such a place. Altogether, I may say that this bedroom delighted me both by its natural wonders and its many witnesses to the good taste of those who had furnished it. When I had taken a cold bath and put on my new clothes, I went back to the great hall and there found Black and the crew.

We had breakfast immediately, a full round meal with the unsurpassable chocolate of Spain and a rare kind of mullet I had eaten before in those waters. Wine was served in abundance afterward, and some excellent cigarettes of an exceedingly delicate fragrance. The men themselves, content to be ashore after such strenuous days afloat, lolled about in all attitudes, drinking and smoking and telling their wild tales. We were waited upon obsequiously by the Spaniards, who seemed devoted to Black and did him homage in a fashion which money had made extravagant. When the meal was done, and this could not have been until after midday, the Captain bade me follow him to his own room, and there I learned again of his intention to set out immediately for Paris, as he had threatened to do when upon the ship.

"There's business to be done, my lad," said he, "and it's not unconnected with the gold we carried away from Ice Haven. If I left you here with that, I should look for trouble when I came back. We spend the afternoon doing clerks' work, and to-night finds me on my road to Paris. You will stand in my place when I am gone. I ask nothing of you but to protect the lives of the men I am leaving behind me—and that's a thing your own English law would not forbid you to do. These men have a duty to do toward me, and I believe they will do it. If there's a man that does not, name him to me, and, so help me Heaven, I'll burn him alive when I come back. That's what I'm going to tell them before I go. They're right at bottom and well enough when they keep off the spirits. When they fall upon these, look out for yourself, and remember that one man could hold this room against a regiment. You'll regard it as your own while I'm away—and that won't be for long if all goes well. You may expect me in three days from now, Strong; not later if I can help it."

I had some difficulty in finding a rejoinder to this. His request seemed plausible enough, and since he would not set me free—and I knew he dare not do that because of the men—I could not refuse the other part of it. But I reminded him of what he said on the Zero concerning my own danger, and this found him far from his ease.

"You will have Jack-o'-Lantern for your mate," he said, "and him I trust. His wound's no more than a scratch, and he'll soon forget it. The engineer Dingo is clever enough on board, but a fool ashore. Mind the big fellow, Red Roger, and if he shows his teeth, pull 'em out. You may count on Jack to the ladder's head. I shall look to find you ready for sea when I come in. Remember, my lad, that you are under some obligation to me, and that I am putting you in a position of trust beyond ordinary. Do your duty by me—as I have done mine by you."

He was never a man to listen to argument, and he would listen to none then. No sooner were the words spoken than we returned to the great cavern and called the hands to attention. I knew that some of the treasure, at any rate, was to be got from the hold of the Zero, and I went to the quay-side as to a cave of Adullam where fabulous wealth was harboured. Soon there was a stir about, a going to and fro of a kind I had never witnessed when the pirates were ashore. Some shouted for the Spaniards to take themselves off; others unscrewed a steel hatch from the Zero and slung a little crane above it. Great boxes were hoisted and carried upon iron shoulders to one of the caverns. I saw bags which tinkled with a jingle of beads. There were bars wrapped in waste which had come from the engine-room, and a glint of gold shone where the waste had unwrapped itself. All this, I say, was carried expeditiously to one of the caverns and there laid upon the bare floor. Then a monstrous door of iron was swung to upon us, and all the truth revealed.

I had read of treasure since I was a mere lad; but never have I thought that the sight of it could so move me.

Here upon the floor of the cave were bars of so many that the walls might have been encrusted with them: diamonds ran as pebbles through the fingers which clutched at them; there were emeralds, rubies, sapphires to catch the beams of light and cast them back in radiance of unsurpassable beauty, green and blood-red and the deepest shade of violet. Upon these the pirates fell with a lust of gold inconceivable. They hugged the gold bars to their hairy breasts; fingered the precious stones until blood ran from their hands; filled their mouths with jewels and spat them out again. And then they turned to the coins, to vast heaps of gold pieces drawn from the coffers of the nations; and, a kind of madness overcoming them, they shouted and sang and rocked drunkenly in their delirium.

Here was an orgie which Black permitted to run its course. I judged that he deemed it prudent rather to show indulgence toward their intoxication than to suppress it. When the worst of the madness had passed, he called for some attention and obtained it. I saw that the treasure was to be divided up between the hands upon a ratio I could hardly understand. Very scrupulously the Captain began to estimate the values and to apportion them—he himself taking twenty shares, as I made out, to every five that the Doctor claimed. The men's share was a unit to every hundred of the Captain's, if I may trust my judgment in the matter. But, however it might have been, they divided the heap; and as each man received his share, a great iron box with his name inscribed upon it was dragged forward, and the gold—save such treasure as each desired to keep in his own possession—heaped into it. Immediately upon this a great flag was lifted from the floor of the cavern and a black orifice disclosed. I heard a sound as of the ebb and flow of the sea, and then a light shone out from the depths and disclosed a swirl of black water and the glitter of schists and the sheen of gold-green rocks. A cave lay beneath a cave, I saw, and thither the sea flowed.

Now, it was evident that the bulk of the treasure was to be transferred to a long-boat which lay tethered in the depths, and that this boat was to be manned by Jack-o'-Lantern alone. One by one the boxes and the bars were lowered down to him, and his answering hail re-echoed. I heard a splash of oars as the boat moved off, and then the light was doused immediately and the great stone stirred to its place. Of the whole treasure there remained but a bag of precious stones in Black's hand and the heaps of coin which the men had retained for their own purpose. The latter were gathered up with that prodigal in-difference which might have been expected from such a company. Men thrust fists full of sovereigns into tarry pockets or poured their loathsome gains into canvas bags which they thrust into their bosoms or slung about their necks as though they had been scapulas. Mere lust of gold had given place to the merriment of a useless possession—nor could I but reflect that the veriest pebble was here of as much value as the whitest diamond a nigger ever took from a mine.

Ah, that treasure! What blood and tears and the groans of men had not gone to its making! How many a good ship had passed to the desolation of eternal waters that these pirates might satiate their lust in the black night of reckoning! I thought of the women who had wept because of it; of the graves yet open for the dead over whom they would never close; of the lights which would shine no more in many a house of love because these men had sailed the seas. And a kind of fury took possession of me so that I could have killed them where they stood, and the great Captain first of all, even though he had called me son.

I had suffered in this way once before at Ice Haven, and, to be sure, my anger was vain enough. Impotent amidst these bloody villains, the changing scenes of their lives were the true antidote to any temper of black revolt and, perhaps, they alone saved me from a madness. Here, in the Caverns of Vares, I might know more solitary hours, but not yet. The treasure was divided, but upon that there followed immediately the departure of Black and Osbart and the bustle attending it. But a brief moment I had with the Captain before he set out in the Zero, and that was ominous enough, for he put a revolver into my hand—the first time I had ever carried arms since they trapped me on the Nameless Ship—and he bade me use it should the need arise.

"Ye may have trouble with Spaniards, but I doubt it," says he; "the man Red Roger must be watched, though he's all right when not in the drink. Stand nothing from him, lad. I'd as lief find his bones as his body when I come back. Shoot him on sight if he begins to bark; ye have my word for it, and your safety's much to me."

I did not remind him that all this talk of shooting was wild enough; nor did I blame him for putting me in a situation of such peril He would have listened to nothing of the kind, and, for that matter, he had another word to say which was of a different order altogether.

"There's the Frenchman to be thought of," he said. "I would have you prudent in that matter. The man's gone stark mad, and I must look for another to take his place. That's partly what sends me to Paris and then to Brest. We're shorthanded on the Zero, and we need new blood. I'll find it at Brest among those that can be trusted. Meanwhile, do you and Jack-o'-Lantern see that the French devil lies where he is. I fear him, my lad; the others may be wild enough, but this man has brains, and when you have brains against you, you have danger. Keep him where he lies, and if he dies, let him rot. That's my last word to you. You do your duty by me and you'll not regret it in the days to come."

I made no answer, for the Zero already stirred at her moorings, and I saw that he would go aboard. Now was I to be left alone in the caverns with these unspeakable monsters. And the great Captain had spoken of the "days to come."

What, in God's name, had the "days to come" to do with me? Was not this day all-sufficient, and how should I dare to look beyond it to any hope of liberty or of the old life from which Destiny had snatched me thus a second time.

No, for a truth, my spirit fell to its nadir as the Zero sank to the depths and, passing from my sight, went out to the open sea.