Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 20

Captain Black (Pemberton) by Max Pemberton
XX. The Silence of the Cavern


CHAPTER XX
THE SILENCE OF THE CAVERN

I watched the Zero sink beneath the black water and knew that I stood alone. Not a sound but that of the ebb and flow of the sea was now to be heard in the cavern, and there came to me the idea that I was buried alive in a vast tomb, and would never hear a human voice again.

This was a very dreadful thought, and set me shuddering. I looked up to the black roof and remembered the mighty headland which rose above it, a mountain upon the border of the sea. An intense desire for the light of the sun and the open face of day took possession of me, so that a word would have sent me plunging into the pool to swim out either to death or to my liberty.

Beyond all, I think it was the mystery of the tunnels which affrighted me. Whither did they run, and were they but so many blind alleys leading into the bowels of the mountain? A more daring thought said that by one of them a man must be able to pass out to the open country; for if he could not, by what means had the Spaniards come into the caverns at all?

Curiosity was upon me now, and a desire to explore the labyrinth. I went a little way down one of the tunnels, and was brought up suddenly by a sound of raging waters as though a river ran out into the sea and here broke into a cataract. There was no light in the tunnel nor any indication of the river's course; and fearful of a false step I returned to the great cavern. Whatever were the secrets of the dread place, I quickly perceived the nature of the peril which must attend their discovery. Well had Black boasted that this haven was impregnable.

You have heard that the Spaniards had been sent away when we divided the treasure, and I was not a little taken aback to find three of them at the water's edge when I returned. Very civil in their manner, one of them proved to be my own servant, who had apologized for his "very little Engleesh," and he now stepped forward and asked me, with a fine flourish of his sombrero, whether I would "take anything for the eatings." When I asked him what time it was, he produced an old silver watch from the profound depths of a shabby crimson coat and was proud to answer, "eights of the clock, my lord, preciso," a thing which astonished me, for I believed it to be still afternoon.

I told the fellow, as well as I could, to bring me some supper to the Captain's room; and while he served me a little fish and some excellent Spanish sherry, I asked him many questions both of himself and of the caves. Of the former he spoke readily enough, and what between scraps of French and a fearful wrestling with our own tongue, he managed to tell me that he had been one of the famous Civil Guards of Spain. Authority, he avowed, had treated him ill and had trumped up charges altogether beneath the notice of a gentleman. So here he was the servant of the great Captain, and willing to die for him, as he said;—though I make no doubt that he would have cut any man's throat for a guinea.

Of the caves he would say very little. I gathered that they were a famous place with the gentry of the neighbourhood, the wild Spaniards of the western hills, who shot at the law by day and made a jest of it by night. Such rogues had found a friend in Black and were his sworn allies; but as the Spaniard said, there were few of them now living who had the secret of the great cavern. The others were—and here he shrugged his shoulders as one who should say, "They were too curious, my lord."

For all his villainous looks, I liked this Spaniard, and was glad to have him near me. No man who has not lived in them can picture the black solitude of the Caves of Vares or the mortal spell of that immeasurable tomb. I swear that I would sooner have lived a year on a remote atoll of the Pacific than a day by the black waters of the cavern. When the Spaniard left me, a new and intolerable fear of the night overtook me, and I went to my bedroom immediately, and tried to lose in sleep the phantoms which pursued me. Vain effort, for sleep was far from my eyes, and every sound set me bolt upright. I believed that Black had utterly deserted me, and that I should never see the Zero again.

To be sure it was all wild enough, and yet there were excuses. At one time I heard the voices of men very plainly, and could say they were Spaniards who occupied one of the caverns near by my own. The drone of their [disputes rose and fell as the surge of the sea; and when the rhythm of it was broken by a loud cry, I recalled the account my servant had given of them, and I listened intently for a message of tragedy. None came, however, and presently the sounds died away and all that I could hear was the story written by the recording finger of the deep. Ebb and flow, ebb and flow … it ran as a song in my head, and upon it I think I must have slept, but so lightly that a breath upon my eyes would have awakened me.

There was another sound anon, and it was more ominous. I woke from my sleep as one who turns upon a dream, and lay with my eyes half closed, listening for the voices of the Spaniards. Thus it was that I first heard the murmur of a lamentation beyond all experience woeful. To begin with I thought it the cry of an animal; by and by I came to say that it was a human voice, the voice of a man in his agony, and that it came to me across the water of the outer basin. Lying there with ear intent, I tried to discover the nationality of the sufferer and his whereabouts, but could make nothing of it. Reason said that one of the Spaniards had been hurt in a quarrel and that he lay wounded in the apartment next my own. Driven by the thought, I slipped on my clothes and went out to the great cavern, thence to the water-side. There I heard the voice very plainly but could not locate it. It was just as though a man had been shut in some dark place and cried piteously but could get no hearing. Vainly, I crept to the water's edge and bent my ear to the surging tide. The sounds were high above me; they came from the black roof of the grotto—as they called the outer basin—and they had sunk until they were but a low groaning.

It would have been at this point that I began to have a clearer conception of this strange experience and to say with some confidence that the man who suffered was the Frenchman. That he had been kept in close confinement since the madness of the mutiny, I did not doubt; and now it appeared that he was a prisoner, here in the Caves of Vares, and that wounds and neglect of them had brought him to this pass. Of this I was sure when I had listened a little while longer; and, hot with anger that the man should have been so treated, I called to him and implored him to answer me. Then I thought that I heard a faint murmur of a response: but this was the intolerable thing, that I was still unable to say whence the voice came.

Now, I had always liked the "Leopard," and I would have given much to have served him that night. You shall judge, then, of my situation when I found myself neither able to visit the man in his cell, if cell it were, nor to find any who would do that service for me. Going back to the great cavern, I discovered but a glimmer of light there and no evidence of any occupation at all. A loud cry for my servant remained unanswered; I peered into this cave and that, but could hap upon no traces of the Spaniards. And so I came to believe at last that I was quite alone in that black place, and that, for all I could do for him, the Frenchman must die where he lay.

I shall not dwell upon my thoughts during that long night of suspense. Of sleep I had none; nor could I banish from my ears for a single instant the groans and cries of the man thus cruelly punished for an hour of madness. When a truce fell, it was upon the coming of my Spanish servant at daybreak, who listened very civilly to my story and said that he would make it his business to visit the prisoner. He himself had known the Frenchman formerly, and there had been a certain camaraderie between them, it appeared, so that he was very much surprised to have the news, and went off immediately to succour his friend. At the same time, he advised me very earnestly to have nothing to do with it; and since I perceived that he was to be trusted in the matter, I left it to him and got back to my bed about six of the morning. When next I awoke it was two of the afternoon, and the Zero had returned to her moorings.

Now, had I been in any doubt about this, the cries and laughter which reached me from the great cavern would have set my mind at rest. I perceived that our fellows had returned and were celebrating the occasion with one of those bouts of drinking in which Black's men indulged whenever opportunity showed as much as an eyelid at an open door. Going out into the great cave, I discovered a veritable feast set out, tables spread, bottles opened, and all the emblems of orgie. Of the men there, two were newcomers and unknown to me; one, a fine figure of an American whom they called Jerry Carr; the other a veritable Viking, whose real name I believe was Kanokoff, but whom the crew dubbed "Can-o'-coffee," in the way that seamen have. Both these men were far gone in liquor when I entered the room, and I saw, to my sorrow, that even our trusty Jack had not been proof against the temptation of the keg. As for the others, their attitude was frankly hostile, and I had hardly set foot in the place when the brute, Red Roger, stood up like a huge gorilla and thrust a jug of wine into my face.

"Ho," says he, "the little fairy boy. Wal, I reckon I want to see him dance, and dance he shall, by thunder." And then, with a giant's insolence, he cried: "Here, you, drink and be d—— to you!" And he splashed my face with the wine.

I struck the man a heavy blow on the point of the chin, and he went down like a felled ox. It was hardly done when the newcomers and the nigger Sambo were on their legs and their knives flashing. But they were too far gone in drink to do me a real mischief, and while they rolled impotently on the floor, and their horrible oaths echoed in the cavern, I bade Jack-o'-Lantern follow me, and we went out to the Captain's room.

"Jack," said I, "that's no place for the Captain's friend. What has happened to you, Jack?"

He pulled himself together, blinking his queer eye, and groping for his memory. His talk had always been strange, and I found it unchanged.

"Why," says he, as though in apology, "a drop of good drink never did a seaman harm yet, though to be sure, sir, yon stuff would bite a piece out of a snake. I give you my duty, sir, and report that we're come aboard."

"Jack, Jack," said I, "and what would the Captain say if he heard talk like that? Set your legs down both together, man. You are not walking on a tightrope. That's better, Jack; and now tell me, what of the 'Leopard,' what have you done with him?"

He seemed to think about it, scratching his head and chewing upon a ridiculous cutty pipe he would never abandon, whatever the circumstances.

"Aye," says he at last, "a bad man, true, by thunder; a bad man, sir. So, you see, I just clapped a hitch about his tiller, d——n me if I didn't."

"You locked him up, Jack; do you fear him, then?"

He became very serious.

"I'll tell you this," he said with unwonted emphasis, "we're in a clove hitch with that there Frenchman as sure as you and me sail this ship together. Do ye mind Bell Fairweather that was sent by the Yankees to cut your throats aboard the Celsis? Why, yes, you do, says you, and here's another of 'em, least-wise, where our skipper's concerned. I don't trust that man, sir, no more than Thames mud. Give him a chain's length and we swing—by the Lord, we swing high. The Captain knows it, and me, his mate, knows it too. He'll get a cinch on us if he ever goes ashore, you lay to on that, sir."

And then he added, while a horrible smile stole over his patched face:

"But he ain't goin' ashore, mind me; he's as far from shore as from hell's alley, and a derned sight farther to be sure. You lay to on that, sir. Jack's the boy, says you, and so he is, by thunder. Captain trusts Jack, to be sure he do. Keep that in your head, sir; him as dies hard don't cry soft. I wouldn't give sawdust for no Frenchman's chances when the skipper comes back. Let him rip, says you, and the skipper's the man, be sure he is."

It was black talk and I shrank from it.

"But, Jack," said I, "you don't mean to say that the Captain will kill him?"

He evaded the question, and cleverely fell back with a generality.

"Jenny a Frenchman goes, we swing!" he harped as the liquor drove him back upon a maudlin stupor. "Well, where's the human nater in that? Skipper, he don't take no chantses, not he, by the Lord. So there you are, master, and that's the bilge in your gunpowder. We'll hear the skipper about it. You and me are the mates on this deck, and there'll be plenty to do with the fo'c'sle hands while there's rum in the cask. If you doubt it, listen to 'em now, sir. Did you ever hear such hell's music in all your life?"

Well, a seaman might have called it that, to be sure, and yet it had another meaning for me even while Jack was speaking. Mingled with the oaths and the curses which came to us from the great cavern was a voice I recognized for that of the "Leopard"; and I knew in a flash that the man had escaped from his prison and that the drunken hands had taken him. A moment later, Jack-o'-Lantern knew it also, and with a wild cry he swung about on his heel and rolled from the cavern.

"They'll skin him alive, by thunder!" he roared. I believed every word of it, and, lagging but an instant to see that my revolver was loaded, I followed him down the tunnel and came out at the water's edge.