There were many thoughts in my head as I ran from the place; but chiefly this, that if the Frenchman should escape, the secret of the Caves of Vares would be known to all Europe within four-and-twenty hours, and all these pirates as surely doomed as though the ropes were already about their necks.
To this, reason answered that there could be no escape, either for the "Leopard" or the rest of us. We were shut down in those caverns beneath the mountain; the sea was the gate of our prison. So it must befall that either the brutes would kill their man, as they had threatened, or that we must kill them to save the life of one who would have betrayed Black and his ship. Never were two in such a quandary as Jack-o'-Lantern and I when we burst in upon the madman.
They had caught the mutineer—how I may never learn, but they had him surely; and there he lay in the midst of them, his face ashen pale, and the clothes half-torn from his back. Such a spectacle as he presented, with his flesh all scarred by the terrible branding-iron, and his eyes sunk in after long nights of suffering—such a spectacle, I say, should have moved even a brute to pity. But as well might a man have lifted his hands to the granite rocks as to these pirates, besotted with drink and aflame with the blood lust. No company of devils had been more pitiless as they threw their man down and drew their knives upon him. The horrid cry, "Flay him!" rang through the grotto as the roar of a savage animal; it was answered by a baying assent, as of hounds that have fallen upon their quarry. I saw that we had not a minute to lose, and, disregarding Jack's appeal, I drew my revolver, and fired point-blank at the drunkards.
Depict a cavern of the remote seas, with a roof of jagged rock, and the surging water for the best part of its floor; a group of men, knives drawn and sleeves rolled up, kneeling about a huddled figure, which cried to God in its terror. Let there be a glow of clear white light from the arc lamps above, and you have the scene as Jack and I beheld it when we came out from the Captain's room. An instant later and the revolver shot rang out with a reverberating echo, which rolled away in lingering thunder to the very bowels of the mountain. I had sent out my challenge to those human devils, and one of them, the Yankee, had fallen. Raging like a beast, he rolled over and over upon the grey floor, into the loom of the smoke, and out of it again, so that when he came to a rest it was at my very feet. And there he lay, bleeding at the mouth and swearing he would have the life out of me.
"You white-livered cub," he would roar, and upon that another oath and a new threat of what he would do presently. But I was quite unafraid of him, and thrusting him aside with my foot, I called to Jack to look out for himself.
"Mark the Dane!" I cried; and he answered me by lifting a great club of iron and felling Kanokoff as though he were an ox.
"Put that in your coffee-pot," he bellowed; and then, threatening him as he tried to rise, "stand clear of me, will you?" And I think that he struck the Dane a second time, while I shot haphazard at Red Roger, and saw him duck as though a stone had been thrown. Immediately there was a roar of fury which no words could tell. Men, reeling in drink, picked up what weapons they could, and came at us headlong. I saw faces leering into my own through the smoke and mist; raucous voices cried out in pain or exultation; there were the swish of blows and the heavier sound of bodies that were struck. And all the time I cried to Jack to have at them, and heard his cheery "Aye, aye, sir," as music in the melee.
God alone knows how we came out of that affair as we did. That there would have been a sorry story to tell but for the Frenchman I have no manner of doubt. Two to five as we were, and they hulking fellows who, when sober, had been a match for twenty, even Black's pistol might have proved a poor argument but for a new turn which instantly directed all their fury in another quarter, and saved our lives, as I must believe.
This befell at the very height of the fray, when Jack had closed with Dingo, the engineer, and bent him backward until his bones cracked; while I played a boy's game about the cavern with the brute Red Roger. Then might you have said that we were done for and as good as dead men already; but this was the very moment when some one—I think it would have been Jerry Carr—cried out that the Frenchman was off, and instantly a truce fell, and every man regarded his neighbour aghast. Here was a turnabout which even their drunken ferocity might not pass by. It held them in a grip of wonder and dismay.
Now, the grotto was murky with smoke and the arc lights none too bright—for we had made a rare mess of the electricity since the "Leopard" was dis-rated—and so it happened that I did not understand immediately what the outcry was about. When I perceived the truth, it was Jack himself who pointed it out to me, indicating a spot high up on the wall of the cavern, where the Frenchman crouched like a wildcat and spat his defiance upon his enemies.
Stripped of the best part of his clothes, his white flesh shone out against the black rock as a painting upon a wall in monotone; and I could see his grinning face and protruding teeth with a distinctness which revolted me. Another moment and I heard Jack cry to me to shoot him, for God's sake, or every man would hang.
"Shoot, sir, shoot!" he roared. "Would ye have us swing, every man Jack? Shoot, for God's sake, sir——" And the others took it up, howling and stamping like devils, while the pistol hung idly from my fingers, and I looked from one to the other as though I did not hear aright.
How could I shoot the man? What had he done to me or to these pirates? My honour bade me stand by Black where honour was not an offence against my fellows; but that it should dictate such a bloody crime as this was not to be believed. And so I told them, the while they stormed and swore and vowed to have the life out of me.
"Let any man take a step this way, and that's his last!" I cried back to them. Their rejoinder was another howl of rage; and upon that they flung themselves at the rock and began to climb it, maladroitly and with feet trained to no such task.
"Up, boys, up with you!" they roared; and one by one, Jack-o'-Lantern leading them, they followed after the "Leopard," whose words stung them as whips. But a hand's-breadth now and they would take him; and yet what a gapthem and fortune! For who would have imagined the thing as it befell and as these eyes witnessed it in the grotto of Vares? Not I, for a truth, nor any who may read this narrative.
The wall was steep and the holding none too good. Of the pirates, the giant Red Roger made nothing of the job at all, and, losing his foothold at the start, he slipped back to the quay with a bellow.
More cunning at the task, I saw that Jack-o'-Lantern climbed the treacherous slope with a seaman's foot and the instinct of a born mountaineer. He was up and within an arm's length of his enemy before the others had hardly begun to climb at all, and, coming to a gap between two spurs of the rock, he sat there to reason with the "Leopard." As well might be have addressed the surging water beneath him. Laughing like a grown child, the Frenchman bandied words with them all and defied them to come on.
"Assassins, have you the fear? Why do you not come up here for me? Shall you be afraid? I tell you I go to the police this night to tell them you are here. Ha, ha! do you like that, mes enfants? I go to the police, and they shall be arrived to visit your ship. Cochons, do you not hear me? Then I have pleasures to wait until you shall come to me."
His irony, carried to far greater lengths than my memory of it, and vastly coarser, moved the pirates to a fine fury. Sambo, the nigger, had now climbed to Jack's side, and, stung by the deft shafts of a mocking wit, he, of a sudden, tried to leap across the gap at the Frenchman. But he missed his foot-hold, and being struck full in the face as he came, he fell headlong into the black pool below, and diverted every eye from the grinning French monkey on his rocky perch. Every one liked Sambo, the nigger, and certainly I had no wish to see him drown. Running to the bank of the pool, I caught the black's outstretched hand as he rose to the surface. But he was still but half out of the water when a loud shout from above caused me to let go of him, and, looking up, I saw the "Leopard" poised upon the rock like a diver for the plunge. A moment later and he dropped with unimaginable grace straight as an arrow to the very centre of the basin.
It was done now; yet who could say that it was done?
The man had gone to his death—aye, but had he? Was it possible that this daring fellow, a splendid swimmer as his mates avowed, was it possible that he had dived clean under the tunnel to the outer sea, and was already at the foot of the headland? It might be so. But, even if it were, what then? Could he swim so far along the impregnable shore that he would find a cave or inlet, or must he perish at the cavern's gate? All this, I say, passed through my head like a flash while I watched the circling ripples and waited at a tension to see if he would rise. When the eddies died away at last, I knew the truth. The "Leopard" had escaped; his fate was on the knees of the gods.
Well, you never saw whiter faces than those of the men, who now grouped themselves at the quay-side and stared like wondering children at the mirror of the water. All the fight was out of them by this time, and the truce had brought some of the serving Spaniards to the cavern. These joined us to gaze into the pool; and there we all stood, hardly exchanging a word, and full of our fears. Would the man come up, or would he not? Answer at last began to press upon question, and then the truth to emerge. The thing was done and the "Leopard" gone. A thousand eyes staring into the pool could not have made it otherwise.
"He be gone, surely," said Jack at last; and then he asked, "What will the Captain say to that, lads?"
"Aye, what will the Captain say?" echoed Red Roger. "It's mighty fine news for the Captain, d——n me. Clean gone, like a fish horf of a 'ook. And where's he a makin' for, mates? Ask yourselves that, principally."
The nigger joined in, pleased to be a pessimist. "He gone right dam to the fishes, that's where he'm gone, massa. Don't you worry about lickle French gentleman. He no come back, sure and sartin."
"I reckon if he haf, we tam well do hang," said the Dane; and here he was joined by the wounded Jerry Carr, who lay huddled on the quay, quite indifferent to his hurt.
"Bully for us and the skipper, too," the fellow said, hugging his side to quench the flow of blood. I turned to him and offered my help, but he spurned me with an oath.
"Wait till I get a cinch on you," he snarled, "and I'll wring your head off your shoulders, by thunder!"
This defiance struck a new note, and I made no doubt that it would have been echoed by the others, ripe for a villainy, but for the glimmer of an idea which came to the engineer, Dingo, and was not to be passed by. If the Frenchman had lived through the waters of the tunnel, and was harboured in the cave outside, what easier than to board the Zero and to take him where he stood? No sooner put to them than every man Jack seemed ripe for it. Crying, "All aboard to go below!" the man Dingo leaped to the platform of the ship and swung the hatches open. I saw the nigger Sambo tumble aboard, Jack and the Dane after him. Even the wounded Yankee crawled to the water's edge, and swore he would not be left. They pulled him down with unpitying hands, and cast the warpings free. And then, almost before I realized that I stood alone, the Zero sank into the bosom of the pool and the surges foamed in the pit.
For a long while I stood watching the dwindling eddies and reflecting upon the tremendous hazard of this venture. Let the pirates succeed, and I knew that they would tear the "Leopard" to pieces, as wild beasts tear a sheep in the jungle. But let them fail—aye, and what then? What of Black's ship, of the secrets of the caverns, of the vast treasure they harboured? Let the Frenchman get clear away, and the nations would thunder at these doors before a new day dawned. Such a truth must be heard before all others. I said that the hour was momentous beyond any in Black's life, and yet he could know nothing of it.
A Spaniard at my elbow recalled me from the reverie, and I saw that he, with his fellows, who had fled from the brawl, was now returned to the grotto, and by no means unacquainted with the situation. A certain insolence attended the man's offer of service, and when I gave him an order he laughed in my face. The great Captain's absence had made mutineers of these wild men of the hills, as it had made madmen of his own crew, and I could not but reflect that a rash word might bring them upon me headlong. To be quit of them chiefly, but also to be alone with an idea which had come to me, I returned to Black's room, and shut the iron door upon the Spaniards. A clock told me that it was five of the afternoon, but the beat of its pendulum was the only sound that I heard in that still cavern. Hot and weary, and worn out with the suspense of it all, I lay upon the bed, and thought anew of all that had befallen us since the Captain went away.
What a Nemesis was this, that he should shut me in this gloomy prison when my liberty might have been all precious to him! Could I but have gained the heights, and sent a message such as I had conceived, he might even yet outwit his foes. But that was out of the question while the Spaniards stood between me and my liberty. That they themselves would pass freely from the caverns to the heights, I never doubted. And now it came to me that Black himself would never have been caught in such a snare, and that there must be another door to the hills if I could but find it.
This latter thought attracted me beyond others, and I returned to it again and again. There must be a road to the hills, I said, and a good wit should find it. I remembered that my own life might depend upon such a discovery should the Zero not return to the caves; and this firing me to an endeavour, I rose from my bed at the very instant the lights in the cavern failed and left me in black darkness.
To move now was a hazardous task. I had but little acquaintance with Black's room, and when I opened the iron door a hand's-breadth there was no light in the tunnel beyond to help me out. Standing there, I could hear the songs and laughter of the Spaniards, and presently, while I peered intently down the passage, a man's bright eyes met my own, and I knew that he was ready to spring, as a tiger at its prey. Prudence said that it would be madness to engage in a brawl with such a fellow; and, slamming the door in his face, I turned back to the cavern with my hope at an ebb.
I have told you that the electric light failed suddenly and left me in utter darkness. Such was the truth as my eyes perceived it; but when they had become a little accustomed to the swift change, they began to tell another story. I became aware that the darkness had given place to a gloom as of twilight; and, searching for the source of this, I discovered it presently at the far end of the room, where faint rays of a filtered light split the rock in twain, and disclosed an aperture of whose existence I had never doubted. In a flash I surmised that this was Black's secret door, this the exit to the mountain of which he alone was the master. And by it I also might pass to the heights!
I had matches upon me, and I struck one of them and examined the place more carefully.
And first I discovered a lantern hanging from a ring in the solid rock; and, lighting this, I could see other rings at intervals, and they were such as men use to climb up from a depth when a permanent ladder is desirable. As for the light which had beckoned me to the spot, I could see a star far, far above me, and. I said it would be almost at the head-land's height—a fearful goal, but not unattainable. Calling upon my courage, I slung the lantern to my arm with my handkerchief, and, gripping the rings firmly, I began to go up. Step by step, my heart in my mouth, and a horrid fear of the abyss driving me, I mounted that fearful chimney, and watched the light grow clearer. A slip upon that smooth iron, a moment's dizziness, and my brains had been dashed out for a certainty. But a cold determination sent me on, and, clinging with trembling fingers to the iron rings, I dragged myself up and up, ever toward the day and my liberty.
I shall tell you no more of this dire exploit than to say that I achieved it in the end, with hands blistered and fingers cold as ice, and with such a torture of brain and body that I hurled myself from the pit more dead than alive. Lying prostrate, as it seemed, for the best part of an hour, burning rays upon my face and God's air from the sea in my lungs, I opened my eyes at last to find myself in a grassy hollow over whose high banks I could see nothing but an infinitely blue sky and the great golden ball of the sun rolling through the ether. A spell and I had climbed the steep, to discover myself upon the very summit of the great headland, with such a panorama of sea and sky unfolded that I stood transfixed as one who has happed upon a new world. Oh, glorious to stand there and feel the salt breezes upon my face; glorious to say that I was free and the cavern a prison no longer!
It was a sea bare of ships as I then beheld it; and when the breath of it, as life in my veins, had given me back my strength, I turned my eyes landward and began to inspect the country. There is no more desolate shore than this of the extreme north-west of the Spanish peninsula, and I could well understand why Black had chosen it for his haven. West and east and south I saw nothing but rolling downs of the stubbly grass, bleak and lonely and forbidding. Not a house, not a man; no loom of a city's smoke nor spire of a village church upon all my horizon. Had I been a new Columbus come to discover the western world, assuredly would I have turned my ships about, and thought of home again. The idea of helping Black by a vague telegram—which he would understand—to one of the Paris newspapers now appeared a chimera indeed. I lay upon the grass to laugh at myself that such an idea should have come to me; and as I lay I saw the Zero rise to the surface of the sea, perhaps at a distance of a mile from the shore.
Now this was something beyond all expectation, and it fired my curiosity in no common way.
The pirates had set out to capture the Frenchman if they could; yet here they were grown reckless beyond all imagination, and so little mindful of the Captain's orders that they sailed boldly westward as though to the coast of France. Amazed beyond all belief, I lay and watched that beautiful silver ship, as she sported in the foam or plunged like some great fish into the rollers of the bay. No one stood upon her platform, and it was evident that her hatches were closed. As she had appeared, without any warning, a sheen of silver in the green waters, so did she disappear; but not before I had espied another ship, steaming straight toward the headland from the northern horizon, and now so clearly to be seen that all doubt of her was at an end.
She was a French cruiser, I said, and no man might doubt that she had discovered the Zero and started in pursuit of her.