THE HORROR OF THE "VENGEUR"
I heard a step beside me on the hard grass, and, looking up, I found myself face to face with the "Leopard." He was almost naked, his hands were cut and bleeding, his wounded arm hung limp by his side. Panting like a dog, he lay at my feet, and told me almost in a sentence that he had climbed the headland.
"I was born at Chambéry," he said in his own idiom, "among the mountains, monsieur. Englishmen know Jules Marchand, the guide. So I am train. Better the broken neck than the skin off the body. Là bas, they are all devils when the Captain is away. Very well, I away also until he come. He shall give them the back on the rope. Very good man, the Captain, when he not have the thunderstorm. Mon Dieu, he burn like the lightnings then; but afterward it is the blue sky, and he laugh. I go to him and say, 'Pardon,' and he shall give me the handshake. For the others, not so; they take the ship out. Captain say that very bad. Oh, my dam, there shall be the skin off the back for that."
I laughed at the drollery of it, and then asked him if he had seen the cruiser. When he replied, "Certainly; she is the Vengeur, from Toulon," I remembered that he was a seaman, and likely to miss nothing the horizon could show him.
"Why should she be here?" I asked him. "Do you think they have discovered the caves? Has any one betrayed the Captain?"
He shook his head. "They hunt the bay," he said. "Why for not? If be they discover, all the worse for them. That's what I say when I see the Zero come up. Cruiser go to hell by and by. Much better if they were not my countrymen, monsieur; I have sorrow for that. But I am the servant of the Captain, and what can I do? Captain Black, he the greatest man that ever have live in the world. If my countrymen so big fool as to send the ship, they pay the price as well as any other. The Vengeur never go back to Toulon again, sure and certain. She, what you say, done and gone for."
"Then it's an accident that brought her here, Marchand?"
He shrugged his shoulders with a Frenchman's gesture.
"Probablement. But she will not remain, monsieur; she will pay the price. Ecco, you shall see."
He repeated this, using the Italian exclamation again and again; and, being now a little recovered, he turned flat upon his stomach, and gazed intently down upon the hither sea. Fascinated by his vague words, which I could not but understand, I also turned my eyes upon the ship; and so we lay, side by side, watching the approaching cruiser, and wondering, perchance, if a tenth part of what we feared for her was in the minds of those who manned her.
What a placid scene! How still the sea! How characteristic of a desolate ocean whose waves beat upon a land of solitudes! Search it to a remote horizon, and the eye could detect no ship upon the broad of the waters. Gulls wheeled above the black islands as though to scare men from their dangers. Mingling in a sensuous play of colours were blues such as Murillo would have loved, greens which were not greens until the sea played upon them, the jewels of the impregnable ramparts, the gold fleck of the burning sun. Not a sound arose but that of the screeching birds. The ship's propeller made thunder in the silence as she drew in toward the land. And she was doomed beyond hope; three hundred souls aboard her would never see the sun rise again! I trembled at the horror of the thought. It came upon me as a chill wind blowing out of the night. Death! It was there upon the sea, and a man might have heard the beating of its wings.
Upon the other side stood the palpable fact that the Vengeur knew the secrets of the caves, and had come to search them. I could not doubt it as I watched her. Viewed from that high place, every movement upon the bridge was plainly visible. I saw officers with gold epaulets spying out the shore; there were leadsmen in the forechains, a group of soldiers aft, a busying to and fro which could not be mistaken. Anon, I heard the bells ring out, and saw the ship bring to. The fearful dread which had been upon me began to pass away. Our men had fled from her, I said; it must be that. When I told Marchand as much, he laughed aloud. This was a fine spectacle to him; he had forgotten all about his countrymen, it appeared.
"Our people very wise," he said, half turning his head; "they know how to wait. Be glad you are not down there, mon ami. Death a very bad thing, but, mon Dieu, the death they will die! Wait a little while, just a little while, and then——"
I made no answer, for the drama held me spellbound. A loud cry of "Ecco!" from my companion found me gazing with hot eyes at a ripple upon the water, such a ripple as a great fish might have made when pursuing or pursued; and I followed it almost from our own inlet to the very hull of the Vengeur. There it ceased, and for an instant, during which a man might have cried aloud for pity, there was no sound upon all the sea.
Of that which followed after, my first memory is of a low murmur as of thunder at the pit of the sea. The air about me quivered, and was followed by a cool breeze which seemed drawn down from above to the vortex o! the deep. I looked at the Vengeur, and thought she was unchanged. The confusion upon her decks, the wild shouts, the leaping figures of men—all might have been the horse-play of clowns in a pantomime. The unreality of it, the belief that the cruiser had escaped the danger, impressed itself upon my mind, and could not be shaken. From this I passed to a kind of curiosity. The ship had listed to port, I saw, and so swiftly that all on her decks were tumbled pell-mell into a black heap by her bulwarks. Carried across the sea, their screams and cries hardly seemed louder than those of the gulls that circled above them. It was impossible to watch them without a certain contempt for their craven panic; and yet how unjust a censure! The truth lay hidden from our eyes. It was a truth of fire.
A loud cry from the Frenchman first called my attention to this. I looked at the Vengeur and saw a puff of black smoke drift up amidships and go floating over the still sea. Immediately a flame of fire followed upon the smoke, and sent the doomed wretches headlong to the fo'c'stle. Now, as though a judgment had fallen on the ship, the flame ran crimson from stem to stern of her. I saw men burned to cinders where they stood; others withered as leaves in a devouring furnace. The roar of the fire, the scream of voices, the confusion, the agony set me trembling as with an ague. I cried to God to have mercy upon them, and tried to shut the scene from my eyes. It was a vain hope. The very terror of it compelled me to bear witness.
How long the Vengeur burned before she sank I cannot tell you. It seemed to me that the horror endured a full hour, during which many a brave fellow leaped to the waves and was swallowed up by them. When the end came, it was quite suddenly, and in a strange way. Listed to port, as I have said, the cruiser heeled more and more in that direction, until at last she turned right over, and showed her keel plates to the sun. All her beautiful yacht-like lines were disclosed then, and even her propellers were to be seen as they raced violently at that moment of her dissolution. For a brief spell she seemed to rest thus upon the surface of the sea; then, with a roar that made the headland tremble, she went down in a whirl of foam, and left the rushing waters to the dying and the dead. Now, I knew that her boilers had burst when she sank, and I began to think of the Zero and of what might have happened to her. Had the shock of this explosion harmed the devils who wrought this mischief, or had it left them scathless?
The ship herself answered the question, rising to the surface immediately, and showing excited men leaping to her platform. I heard the hellish laughter with which they met the shrieks from the wretches who perished beneath the foaming breakers; I saw them thrust the drowning under, and mock them at the instant of death. A holocaust at the altar of their safety, it may be that even one living man cast up upon that shore would have betrayed them irrevocably. So fury fell upon them as a pestilence; they were as madmen who knew not the meaning of mercy.
The records have stated that three men and a woman escaped from the Vengeur; the men upon deck rafts, the woman, if a girl of fifteen can ever be called a woman, by swimming to the shore, and lying hid upon a spur of the rocks until a fishing-boat discovered her, and she was carried to Vigo. Of these things neither Jules nor I saw anything at all during the tragedy or afterward. There were so many poor souls struggling in the waters, so many burned by the fire or killed by the desperadoes on the Zero, that the passing of one or two might well have escaped us. The child herself—Irma de Loisel—whose daring exploit was the talk of all France, I myself have met and heard in Paris since that dread day. She tells me that she saw both Marchand and myself very clearly, and that we were standing on the very summit of the headland; but of this I have no memory, and it seems to me that for long hours after the Vengeur went down I lay motionless on the grass, afraid to go down to the caverns, afraid of the desolate country all about me, afraid even of myself.
Revolt against circumstance now possessed me as a fever. I remembered that I was the preserver of these bloody pirates—in a way abetting their crimes. The spell of the great Captain no longer dominated the scene. What had been a splendid challenge to the world when he commanded the Zero had become a devilish orgy of blood and crime and horror in his absence. But for my word which I had passed to him, I would have fled the scene and gone out to the wild lands as to a haven opened by the hand of Almighty God. Against this was my pledge and the knowledge that he would return and judge the man—aye, and beyond that, the magic of his name and the wonder of his deeds. Go I could not; the pit revolted me; the night might deliver me to unknown perils of the wild men of the hill lands. I could decide upon no settled plan, and I watched the sun sink in the far west and wondered if I had seen Black for the last time. The day—would it bring him or his enemies to Vares?
Such a quenching of the spirit was but ill understood by my companion. like his fellows, the blood lust fell upon the "Leopard" with irresistible frenzy, and when it had passed he suffered a torpor of mind and body which endured for some hours, but did not find him repentant. As the twilight changed to darkness a new vivacity took possession of him, and he began to remember that he had not eaten since daybreak. This was a problem in which he delighted, and, despite the danger, he declared that our commissariat should not suffer.
"They all drunk by this time," he said cheerily. "Jules go down and fetch the meats, and nobody not any wisers. Remain here, mon ami, until I shall say the word, but chiefly you shall take care not to show the body to any man. Will you not eat, sir? Have you not the hunger anywhere? Me, I am ravening."
I told him that I was hungry enough, and bade him go as he proposed. It was not lost upon me that he did not re-enter the caves by the chimney I had climbed, but followed another path to a larger orifice upon the opposite side. Into this he disappeared, and was gone perhaps the better part of an hour. When he returned, his pockets were stuffed out with bottles of wine, and every loose fold of his coat baggy with the bread and meat he had managed to steal. Such a merry fellow I had not met for a long time, and his English was always a delight to hear.
"All drunk," he said, throwing himself down beside me, and producing the victuals in triumph; "one, two, twenty Spaniards, all drunk. Your friend, Red Roger, the most beastliest drunk of all. He filthy man, Red Roger, big as the wine butt; you fill him once, twice, all no good—he empty again before you begin. Attendez, monsieur, I hit him on the nose, and he think he see the corpse. So I came away to the dinner, and voilà, there it is."
Well, it was welcome enough, and we made light work of it. I don't think I have ever been so hungry in all my life, and, as Marchand confessed to the same condition, we sat and ate in silence until darkness had come down upon the sea. Cigarettes were then lighted, and some talk of the night set afoot. Should we return to the Captain's room to sleep, or bivouac out here under the silent stars? I was all for that, the horror of the pirates being still upon me. The "Leopard" offered no opposition. "The caves all hot," he said; "no airs to blow upon the face. We have much music down there—every man Jack sing the song and all drunk. Here a man shall sleep at his easiness. Time to go down to-morrow, when the reason come back and the head dizzy. So I say, mon ami, faut rester, and afterward to the great Captain, who will flog the rope on the back."
He went on to say that we had better sleep in the hollow, for the Spaniards might be passing in and out from the main gate of the cavern, while assuredly there would be none at the Captain's door.
With this I agreed, and we were on the point of going down when, chancing to look out to sea, I perceived a spreading arc of light upon the far horizon, and instantly called his attention to it A low whistle betrayed his alarm, and well it might have done, for hardly had the first light appeared when a second shone out a little to the westward, and anon a third right over to the east of the bay. This was menacing enough, but we were still all agog with a perplexity when I heard the sound of a distant drum as clearly as ever I heard anything in all my life. It came to us from the landward side, and could be taken for nothing else than a tattoo beaten by soldiers. Such a thing voiced on the wind of the night set my heart leaping as nothing I had heard for many a long day.
"Marchand," I cried wildly, "listen to that! Don't you hear them, man—the soldiers?"
He turned about and clutched my arm in his eagerness.
"Si, si," he said, "the soldiers. Then, monsieur, the great Captain is betrayed."
"Who could have betrayed him, Marchand?"
"I tell you it was have been the Spaniards. Who else shall it have be? Saprist! I have spoke the monition always. Do not trust the Spaniards, I have said. You see what have become with it. The great Captain is betrayed. All is lost—all, all."
"Then you are quite sure, Marchand, that the soldiers are coming to the caves?"
"Who would doubt it—the ships and the soldiers? They send the Vengeur to patrol, but she will be avenged, certainement; no man down there will live to-morrow. And we, monsieur, we are very fortunate. The bon Dieu have spared us. We go to Vigo together, and then to Paris. It is finished, I tell you; and afterward we shall find the Captain, and tell him so."
I thought upon it a minute, and then put a frank question to him:
"Should not we warn them, Marchand? Would it not be honourable to do that?"
He spat the words out with contempt.
"Honourable? Name of a dog? Honourable to them?"
And then he said very solemnly:
"Monsieur, if it were not for my master, I would lead the soldiers there myself."
I could make no rejoinder to this. My word had been passed to Black; but if others had betrayed him, who should lay it at my door? And what would a warning be worth to men already far gone in liquor and incapable of lifting a hand either in defence or attack? As it was« decreed, so, for all that I could do, must it befall. I thought of my own condition, of our ship and the good friends aboard it, of their anxiety concerning me, their hopes, their fears, and their affections. The hour of my deliverance was at hand. But at what a cost in life and treasure!
The sound of the drum had ceased by this time, but, if we had any doubt of its meaning, a flicker of fire upon the moorland behind us soon set that at rest. It was now possible to say that a regiment of soldiers had been marched to Vares, and would bivouac on the open plain for the night, proceeding, as I must suppose, to the attack early on the following morning. So near were they to us that their fires showed us the busy figures of the detachments told off for this or that duty. We could see them about their soup kettles or busy with the faggots. It was even possible to hear a faint carolling of song, such as soldiers raise when the day's work has been well done. Turning our eyes from them and looking seaward, we made out the shapes of the warships with wonderful distinctness, a good moon helping us and their own searchlights declaring now one, now another of them. Presently they drew quite near to the shore, and began to drop their anchors. Boats were manned and lowered, while launches puffed and rolled upon the seaway. I saw that these were drawing in to spy out the land, and even then some idea of what they would do occurred to me.
"Marchand," I said, "what if they dam the inlet? What of the Zero then?"
He had not thought of it.
"Ah," he exclaimed, "but that is the very great, magnificent notion. All go to hell then, mon ami; all block up and die. You have said well. All gone dam when that done."
"They are going to do it all the same. Look at that launch right below us. She's sounding the channel and spying out the rock. They mean to blast the cliff, and if they do, God help the Captain!"
He saw it clearly enough, and his interest drew him to the very edge of the precipice, down which we gazed entranced. Far, far below us was that puny boat, whose crew worked like niggers in the flare of the searchlight. Not a moment had they lost when the ships dropped anchor, and not a moment would they lose now. We could see nimble sailors—and it transpired afterwards that both French and Spanish warships had been sent to the task—we could see them hanging to the spurs of the cliffs, and drilling the solid rock with all the cleverness and the swiftness that sailors can command. Presently they signalled to the distant ships that their work was done, and the launch drawing away, we knew that the fatal moment had come. And at that we our-selves drew back and lay face downward to the grass for very fear of it.
I was once in an earthquake in Italy, and I can give you no better account of that awful moment than to say that the ground rocked beneath our feet—for that was the impression of it—just as it had done at Rocella, where I had seen a town destroyed as though the hand of Almighty God had touched it in anger. It may have been that the rushing winds which smote our faces, the flaming fires which burst from the rock, the swishing of the sea and the distortion of the searchlights contrived this delusion. I cannot tell you truly; but such was my apprehension of it, and such an impression remains. Sick and giddy, and believing that the very mountain would slip away beneath us and cast us down headlong, I clutched the grass and tried to shut the picture from my eyes; while the rolling thunder of the detonation drummed horribly in my ears, and the air came hot as a flame from the sea. As for Jules Marchand, he shrieked like a woman when the shock came, pawed the ground with convulsive hands, and cried out that we were dead men. So thick was the smoke, so impregnated the air with particles of dust, that quite a long while passed before I could as much as see him where he lay. The terror had enveloped us as in a fold of the blackest night, and we were hushed in the darkness, almost afraid of the sound of our own voices.
"Are you hurt, Marchand?" I asked him at last.
His response was a woman's wail of lamentation, and then a cry that he was blinded.
"They have taken away my eyes. My God! I am all blackness; it is dark, my comrade, dark, dark. I shall never see the daytime no more."
"Oh, come," said I, out of patience with his cowardice, "look again, man; look straight out to sea, and then tell me. Can you see nothing now?"
He lifted his head, and one of the searchlights, sending a bright beam swinging over the headland, the light fell full upon his eyes, and he opened them, to blink like a boy and to find a boy's gladness.
"Oh, my dam, I see the sun and the stars altogether!" he cried, and so great was the reaction that he shouted and sobbed all in a breath. I, however, had crawled to the edge of the cliff, and, looking down, I perceived that the inlet to the Caves of Vares was no more.
"They've done it now, Marchand," I cried back to him. "My God! the door is down."
He looked over with me, and a sardonic laugh escaped him. To this day I do not know whether Jules Marchand was a traitor or a friend to Black. Perhaps he was each in turn as the mood suited him. Crime commands no sure allegiance, however splendid the criminal.
"You speak right," he said, with a grin. "The devil have lock the door all right, and the rats is in the trap. Sacre bleu, they all dry the skin to-morrow when the soldier dogs go down. No more Zero now, my comrade; no more of the golds and the silver, eh? Very well, you and me come back by and the by, and we find him, eh? These devils all cold meat to-morrow. And the Captain, he in my own Paris to drink the white wine and eat the good dinner, and care not a ver little dam what happen. So ho! we shall be off immediately, you and me, my comrade."
I made no answer to him. A step upon the grass found me springing to my feet in wild alarm, fearful that the soldiers had already come.
But when I looked again I saw it was the great Captain, and that he stood alone.