THE LAST OF THE STRANGERS
If ever I was sure of anything in my life, it was that I had seen the lanky seaman before; though under what circumstances I could not remember.
It may be that I was frightened to recall them, and that I knew from the first that the fellow had been one of Captain Black's servants at Ice Haven. Our courage plays strange tricks with us sometimes, and this may have been one of them. It was better to tell myself that the man was a stranger to me than to re-live scenes of horror which could still haunt me in my sleep. So I put him out of my mind and went back to clean my rifles just as though nothing had happened.
I say that I did this, and yet any one who has ever stood upon the threshold of adventure will know how ill it was done. Turn to this occupation or that as I might, I could not forget that we set out at four bells, and that many months might pass before I should see the white cliffs of England again. Ever before me was a picture of the great white land and of the treasure beckoning me. If I feared, it was not fear of the living, but of the dead, which troubled me. The spirit of the dauntless Captain hovered about this new emprise; his image, re-created by my dreams, called me back to the high seas that I might make reparation in his name. For was I not going to the land of silence, to the mighty arctic citadel be had set up above the kingdom of the snows, to recover the treasure he had amassed, and to put to shame those who had sought for it in vain? And were we not to sail with the tide, and would not the new day find us upon the broad of the ocean which Captain Black, the dead pirate, had ruled so terribly in the years of his dominion?
Well, I thought about all this, as you may imagine, while I counted the lagging hours of that sunny afternoon and waited, almost with a child's impatience, for Roderick and his sister Mary. When six o'clock struck, and I heard the wheels of the dogcart which was to take me to the station to meet them, I could have cut capers for very gratitude to the old time-piece in the corner of the room. Better still was the moment which set them down upon the platform at the junction: Roderick yawning, as usual; Mary as radiant as a rose in a Devonshire lane.
We shook hands heartily enough, Roderick with his, "Well, here we are," Mary with a complaint upon his laziness. "He's never opened his eyes since we left Paddington," she said; and I could well believe her. Roderick Stewart would go to sleep upon the block, as I once told him. His answer was that he could not imagine a better thing to do.
It was nearly dark when we reached Dolphin's Cove, and the anchor light of the Celsis welcomed us brightly at the river's mouth. Here and there a candle twinkled in a cottage; but full a half of the meagre population appeared to have gathered about the doors of "The Falmouth Arms," and so I judged that my three friends from the high seas were still in the town.
I had just made up my mind to tell Roderick the whole story at dinner when out he came with a piece of news not less remarkable than my own.
"Did you see to-night's papers?" he asked almost in a whisper, while Mary ran on before us into the hall. I told him not be an ass, for what do we know of "to-night's" papers at such a place as Dolphin's Cove?
"Well," he rejoined quite" coolly, "then you've missed something, my boy. Osbart's escaped from Parkhurst, and that's just all about it."
"Fine news entirely," said I, for I would not have him see how grave I thought it. "When did he escape, Roderick?"
"Last night, at six o'clock, after murdering one warder and nearly killing another. They don't know how he got away unless he had a boat waiting. Isn't it a coincidence that it should happen on the eve of our voyage?"
"If it is a coincidence," said I, and no more; for Mary ran out at the moment to tell me that the drawing-room piano was no place for my sea-boots, and that I ought to be ashamed of myself—which I have to be about twenty times a day when she is in command of the ship. My confession of repentance was cut short upon this occasion by the intimation that dinner was already on the table, and we went in immediately, glad, perhaps, to hide what we really felt; as hide it we must from the little mistress of the house.
You will have remembered Doctor Osbart, the mad Osbart of Captain Black's most wonderful ship. He was the first man I met when Black carried me a prisoner to Ice Haven, and the only one of that pirate crew who was caught by the police in London. His trial had been one of the sensations of the year; they charged him, not with piracy upon the high seas, but with a murder committed many years ago in a country town near Shrewsbury, and, a little to the surprise both of the judge and the police, the jury found him insane, and he was sent to a criminal lunatic asylum.
Oddly enough, I had received a letter from Osbart just a couple of months ago, and directly I opened it I knew that Roderick and I must put to sea again and seek to do what others, even our own Admiralty, had failed to do. That task was to regain Captain Black's treasure—the fabulous treasure of which all the world had heard.
And now the Doctor had escaped from prison and was on the high seas once more; while, as I believed, one of Black's very crew caroused at the inn below our windows in the company of rogues who, if they escaped the gallows, certainly did not deserve to do so.
You may well imagine how these thoughts stirred my pulse while Mary babbled of the yacht and the cruise, and Roderick yawned his miserly replies. The scenes they conjured up—scenes of the golden ship and the great silent ocean, and the world of snows; hours of terror and of dread; acts of death and cruelty and despair. All these passed through my mind while I tried to tell Mary that her cabin was "a dream," and that old Dan, the seaman, had been asking after her good health. But I was a thousand miles from Dolphin's Cove in my heart, and I think that the voice of the dead Captain rang loud in my ears. Indeed, it needed an effort to hide the truth from Mary at all.
"Oh," she would cry, "what dreadful men! One says 'I think so,' and the other 'Certainly.' For the last time, Mark, is Billy Eightbells on board or is he not?"
"Why," said I, "where could Billy be when you ore here, Mary? Poor Billy, the little lamb. 'And everywhere that Mary went—just at eight bells—the bos'n he would go.' By the way, though, Billy is third officer now, and he celebrated the occasion by nearly getting strangled this morning." And then I told them of the affair at the Inn, keeping back what I had seen in the timber yard, and leaving Roderick to put what construction upon it he might. He, good fellow, hardly heard me. The Devonshire cream was on the table, and he positively gloated over it.
"Are the men in prison?" Mary asked. I told her that they were more probably in drink.
"Then I hope you won’t let our sailors go to public-houses again, Mark."
"Say the Word and I'll muzzle the lot of them, Mary. They seem to want it by the row that's going on down yonder. Upon my word, the animals must be out of the Ark. Why, it might be the fifth of November!"
"Instead of the twenty-fifth of April," said Roderick. But it woke him up, nevertheless, and the three of us went to the open window to listen to the din. Never had Dolphin's Cove heard such a hullabaloo since the first of the Celts sailed his dugout here. The whole town seemed to be fighting at the doors of "The Falmouth Arms." And loud above the roaring sounds of conflict were the shouts of our own seamen, crying the name of the Celsis one to the other as though for help against a common enemy.
We could see little of the actual affair from our Windows, nor did the lanterns, carried by some of the brawlers, help us overmuch. When Nick Venning came stumbling up the cliff stairs to tell me what it was, his appearance seemed the most natural thing in the world, and I was glad to know that he had a couple of the coastguards at his back. His news was just as serious as it could be; and, as though to make it good, what should happen but that the searchlight of our own yacht was turned presently upon the rioters, and we saw the thing as clear as day—the houses hanging to the face of the cliff, the silver waters of the river, the old wharves and ships, and, right below us, the black surging crowd about the doors of "The Falmouth Arms." Then Nick Venning spoke:
"There's been murder done, gentlemen," he cried, gasping for breath at every word. "The tall man they call Red Roger has sent poor Harry Tebbott to his last account, God help him. I am powerless; I can do nothing, nor nobody else, so if you would come down, Master Mark, and if Mr. Stewart would come——"
I said we would go immediately, and getting a pair of pistols from the case of arms I had been cleaning during the afternoon, I told Mary to wait for us at the window, and bade Roderick follow me. There's no gamer fellow in a fight, I must say, nor one more wideawake when danger is about. The pair of us were out of the house and down the stairs almost before little Mary had begun to protest against our going at all.
Now, we had many friends at Dolphin's Cove, although I had not been the owner of the little house above the harbour for a full year yet. The people I think, had ceased to look upon me as a "foreigner," and I was always sure of a warm welcome from them. So you will understand that my appearance among them upon this occasion was altogether to their satisfaction. On every side I heard confirmation of Nic Venning's story. Harry Tebbott had told the man I called Red Roger that "they didn't want no American fibbilusterers" (he meant filibusters) "on this side of the Atlantic," and the bully had replied by striking him insensible with a quart pot. As it chanced, two of our own crew were at the inn when the thing was done—and, be sure, they set to work to repair the mischief. Flanks, the carpenter, had broken a mug of ale over Red Roger's head; while Cuss-a-lot, the cook, had greased the Frenchman's hair with some lard he happened to be taking back to the ship. Thenceforth riot and, in a way, pillage ensued. All the windows of the inn had been broken; Tom Benson was in the back parlour with a pair of eyes he dare not show in church for a month; Nick himself had been thrown clean through the window on to the quay (the poor fellow confessed as much to me), and, in short, as Mat Dolling, the fisherman, said, "If the sodgers weren't fetched from Truro there wouldn't be a dog with a whole tail on him by midnight."
And all this, mark you, done by three strangers, come none knew whence, and bound for a port as nameless. I would have laughed in the faces of the terrified fellows who told me the story if I had not seen the thing for myself. Yet there it was before my eyes. The inn besieged; the man Red Roger gearing death and damnation to all who came near; the Frenchman grinning at the window like a monkey; but more terrible than all, the one-eyed hunchback right astride the sign above the inn door, and there threatening that he would shoot the first man who stirred a step to take him.
"By all that's holy, Roderick," said I, "but this is a pretty mess. The fellow has a pistol in his hand." "And a real pistol, moreover."
"Of course it is; and some one will have a real bullet inside him by and by. What on earth's to be done? What does Nick Venning say?"
Nick Venning said very little. A terrier invited to tackle a boar at bay could not have liked the job less.
"I'll have to telegraph to Falmouth for help, gentlemen, that's what I'll have to do," he stammered.
"By which time the lot of them will be on board their own ship, " said I.
"And what's left of the inn will be good for fire-wood," chimed in Roderick.
Two or three men round about laughed aloud at this, but none of them had a suggestion to offer. Those in the forefront of the crowd were chiefly our own crew, liking the pistol but little and prudent enough to keep at a safe distance until a course should be resolved upon. When I shouted over to them to come round to the back of the house and see if we could not get at the fellow that way, they responded with a hearty "Ay, ay, sir," but before the thing could be done we heard the thundering voice of our own skipper, and turned with real relief to welcome Captain York.
"Good evening, gentlemen," said he; "and what have we here, if you please?
Some one has said that it would require an earthquake, a volcano, and a whirlpool to disturb the equanimity of that grizzled, silent man, who has been our friend of the high seas these many years. Of all the honest seamen I have known, give me John Rawdon York as the true comrade of a dangerous hour. But here he stood beside us, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his pilot coat, and his eyes twinkling merrily while he watched the affray.
"Why, Captain," said I, "but this is fortunate. I thought you were coming from Falmouth by the last train."
"The launch brought me," said he dryly. And then I told him about the men.
"Oh," says he, "some dirty foreigners from the Russian tramp that put into Falmouth yesterday. We'll teach 'em manners, gentlemen, I think." And then he roared an order to his men, and you could have heard his voice across the harbour bar.
"Celsis ahoy! Some of you get down and stove in their boat; sharp about it, my lads."
Well, it was a fine idea to be sure; and, as is the case with all fine ideas, we fell to wondering why we had not thought of it before. As for the crew, they took up the cry with wild delight, and presently there were twenty running across to the timber-yard; while the poor folk, who were afraid to go, encouraged then by shouts which cost them little. As for the rest of us, I think we would have followed immediately to the water's edge but for the horrible hunchback who sat athwart the sign above the inn door and defied any man to approach him. Grown bold at his advantage, and seeing the most part of his besiegers gone down to the boat, this fellow suddenly leapt down from his perch like a cat, and charged head downward at the amazed spectators, whose ranks opened to let him pass, and were as quickly shut again. Immediately upon which a sharp rifle fire was to be heard from the timber-yard, and even Captain York stirred his steps at that.
"One rat at a time, and the water-rats first!" cried he. "Come along, gentlemen; yonder gallows-bird will find no safe perch if he don't make the boat. We'll head him off, if you please." And he began to run with the odd rolling gait of the true seaman that he was. Of course, we followed him, and our excitement getting the better of us, we raced together to the quay, in time to see the strange boat well on its way to the harbour bar, and three of its crew of four mocking the fellows who gaped after them.
"Too late, by St. Christopher," panted Captain York, as he rolled up to our side. But there was no need to tell us that; the rogues had bested the honest men and were already on their way to Falmouth. I could have laughed at Billy Eightbells as he made his apologies.
"A gun it were that did it, gentlemen," says he in his odd way; "that there tarry Russian had a Winchester, or I never see the shape of one. There's a man shot in the starboard quarter and two or three more as don't know whether they've got lead in 'em or not. A bad business, Captain, and naught but the chap with the binnacle light in his topknot who'll answer for it. But, please God, we'll take him—unless he's swum to Falmouth, which ain't natural nohow."
We said that it was not; and, in truth, the whole affair was plain enough. The great Russian in charge of the strange launch had fired upon the townsfolk as they came up, bringing the mob instantly to a halt, and daunting even our own seamen. As for the bully and the Frenchman, no doubt they had mingled with the crowd when it set out, and, taking advantage of the sudden halt, they boldly ran to their boat, leaving the hunchback ashore, and perhaps glad to be quit of him. And now the three of them were out on the broad of the sea, and we might as well cry for the moon as for the hope of taking them.
"It's all up, Captain," said I, turning sorrowfully to our skipper; "they're across the bar by this time and laughing at us, you may be sure. We ought to have thought of their boat before. "
"Oh," says the Captain, "it's the boats I'm thinking about still." And then, wheeling round, he roared, as though he were on his own bridge, "Hands for the launch—brisk, my lads." And we were all running back again to the inn before you could have counted ten.
Now, in a way it was fortunate that the Captain had come over from Falmouth by our own launch rather than by train; for there she lay at the quay-side, steam hissing from her valves, and her lanterns burning brightly. She was a new launch, one of the smartest Devonport could turn out, and she would do sixteen knots on any fair sea. We bought her because we thought she would be useful in the creeks and fiords of Ice Haven, where the treasure lies; and it was odd that the first real service she must do was the pursuit of the drunken seamen who had terrorized our simple folk at Dolphin's Cove. Such, however, was the fact; and when we had boarded her and were racing out to sea, then, for a truth, the old spirit of adventure breathed upon me again, and I would not have turned back for a fortune.
It was a dull night, starry wastes and dark clouds above, and a fretful swell below. We rose to a heavy sea as we crossed the harbour bar, and for a little while thereafter steamed in black darkness. That the fugitives could hold a course to Falmouth light was not to be doubted, and it seemed to us that, even if we passed them on the way, we should take them before they could board the Russian ship. Our own course was two points west of south, and this we held for some fifteen minutes, after which time the clouds lifted without warning, and a flood of moonlight showed us "the pirates" already far out to sea and apparently making, not for Falmouth, but for the French coast.
"Are they out of Cherbourg, do you think?" I asked the skipper. He answered me by saying "Helm up" to the watch; and in the same instant the launch came round.
"Cherbourg or Devilsbourg, I'm after them," says he. "There's been murder done down yonder, and it's our duty to go. You've nothing to say against it, gentlemen, I hope?"
"So little, Captain," cried Roderick, "that I will give five pounds a-piece to the men if we take them."
"Then full steam ahead," roars Captain York, "and luck go with us."
We were in for it now, as you may suppose, and our hearts beating finely, as young hearts ever will when there are pursuers and pursued. What business we had to be out there in the open at such a time of night, why we took upon our shoulders duties which the police of Falmouth and of Cherbourg might have performed so much better, I make no pretence to say. Let it stand that the good launch went racing through the ugly seas as though she understood the game, and that we stood aft as the skipper commanded, and cried the news from man to man with voices that rose or fell to exultation or despair.
We were gaining; we were losing; they would escape in the darkness; the moonlight would undo them. And so it went on until our prospects became apparent beyond all doubt, and we knew that another half-hour of it would bring us up with the men and answer the question for good and all.
"We'll run alongside and make fast, gentlemen," said the skipper at this time. "If Mr. Mark will be good enough to cover the scoundrels with the gun, I will answer for the rest. You others get what shelter you can. There's been one murder done, and there'll be another if we ask for it. Now, steady there with that wheel, and one point starboard when I give the word."
The watch answered "Ay, Ay," and the hands, very ready to profit by the warning, began to stow themselves with what wit they could. My own place was just abaft the funnel, where I had good shelter of a kind, and could answer for the man with the gun as the skipper wished. Roderick squatted by me, while the Captain himself, disdaining to take any cover whatever, stood near by and waited silently. And this was how the affair was going, every man high-strung, the strange launch some half a mile away on the starboard bow, the moon a little clouded over, the swell much abated, our hopes of a capture running wild—this, I say, is how the affair was going when the strange thing happened, and both the men and the boat were gone from our sight in a twinkling, as though the sea herself had opened and swallowed them up.
It began, I should tell you, with a shrill siren, blown by no steamer that we could see, and so awesome and mysterious that even the hands were cowed by it. For myself, I had but to hear it to be set all a shudder with my memories; just as I had been upon that unforgotten night at Ice Haven when Black had murdered his prisoners and filled anew the desolate land with desolation. Now, as then, the siren echoed as a very death cry across the waste of waters; now, as then, it seemed to speak of human suffering and human cruelty in a voice that almost chilled the heart. And I must hear it and be afraid to utter a word lest just ridicule overtook me. For how could the dead speak; and was not the Name-less Ship but rusted iron at the bottom of the ocean?
Well, all listened to this strange signal, and one or two passed the remark that there was something uncommon queer about it. As for the skipper, I saw him peering about as though his eyes had deceived him, and presently he said, "Would they have a siren aboard, do you think?" But I told him they had not, for I had seen the launch that morning and was quite sure there was no such thing aboard her. We were still debating it when the watch cried, "Fog on the starboard bow"; and, sure enough, the sea, which had been free even of a wraith of mist five minutes ago, was now covered by a black pall that might very well have been the smoke of a burning ship. Such a thing I had never heard of, nor any man on board.
"Is she afire?" the skipper asked. I rejoined that the strange launch stood a cable's length from the place, and that the smoke did not come from any funnel of hers. In truth, I do believe he knew as much himself when he put the question.
"I've been at sea thirty years, man and boy," he ran on, "and never did I see a thing like that. Why, she's running into it, gentlemen, slap into it, upon my word."
It was true enough. The launch ran straight for the mysterious bank of fog, and presently was lost to sight. We ourselves, holding upon a course two points to the south of theirs, now eased our engines, and presently went right about to avoid the fog-bank if we could; but hardly had we brought up the launch when the greatest wonder of the night befell. As in a twinkling the fog lifted, until hardly a hand's breadth of cloud rested upon the sea. Where previously a look-out could not have seen a quarter of a mile ahead of him, he could now espy the Lizard light if he had the eyes. But, stranger still, with the fog had gone the launch and its crew. Not a sign of them anywhere; no shape upon the clear and fretting waters; no witness to any derelict of the night; nothing but the rolling wave-caps and the far horizon and the distant lights of that shore we had left so expectantly.
I have related the circumstances, and I shall add little to that relation. It would be idle here to speak of the stupefaction which overtook our crew; of the senseless theories they propounded; either of that or their fears. Seamen are a superstitious folk, and if ever a belief in the supernatural had a justification, it was upon that night when we stood off Falmouth Harbour and knew that the launch had escaped us. Even Captain York, the imperturbable, fell to a silence I could not misunderstand. My own thoughts, my faith, my wondering awe, I would not have disclosed to any man.
And yet I will bear witness in this place that some glimmer of the truth had come to me, and that the siren from the deep spoke, not of the living, but of the dead. Even as I had heard the voice of Captain Black over the wastes of Ice Haven, so did I hear it again, as it were, from the very sea wherein he had found a grave.