I AM ALONE ON THE SHIP
We put to sea at four bells in the first watch, the Captain alone in the conning-tower, and Osbart and I together upon the platform. The night had fallen black dark, with heavy clouds rolling up from north-by-west, and a spatter of rain, which fell chill and cold upon the face. We pitched heavily as we left the cove, and, anon, the danger-bell rang thrice, and we knew that the Zero was going down for shelter. So we turned from the darkness to the warmth and and light of Osbart's cabin—and there he told me more of the voyage and of its purport.
"There's news of a Wilfred Black staying at a Strand hotel," he said, with some excitement. "The Captain's obsessed by the belief that the man is his son, and will go to London to make sure. Talk to him of the danger, and he'll ram a pistol down your throat. It's in his head to do the wildest thing he ever did—and it will be done, sure enough. As for you, Strong, my boy, look out for yourself. I won't say that he'll do you a mischief willingly—that would not be just to him; but this report has put another idol before him, and the old one is forgotten. Let him find the story false, and you'll be on the pedestal again. But if it's true, God help you."
"Meaning," I said, "that he will resent the very weakness which saved my life at the beginning, when they caught me on the Nameless Ship? Well, that's human nature, Osbart, and it's no good my quarrelling with it. If I have no friend on the ship——"
"No friend!" and this was said with real feeling. "Why, man, I'd go through fire and water for you, and so would Jack-o'-Lantern. Don't speak of wanting a friend while I'm aboard "
It was new to me that the Doctor should hold me in this affection; and, while I turned with loathing from the crimes he had committed, I could not forget that a madman's brain impelled him, and that, when wholly sane, no morecompanion existed. So, in a measure, his loyalty won upon my gratitude, as I did not fear to tell him.
"If it comes to that," said I, "there never was a moment since first I set foot on Black's ship when my life was not in peril. It may be that familiarity has bred contempt, Osbart. All said and done, it is you and the others who sail with him who have most to fear. What hope can there be for you in London? What chance can take the Zero safely up the Thames, even with Black at her helm? It's a thousand to one against you, Osbart. And if you fail—well, you're imaginative enough to know what comes after."
He did not deny it.
"A man who would sail with Black signs on with a halter about his neck," he said; "I've never hidden that from myself, fair weather or foul. We take the sweet and the bitter, and one's not to be had without the other. Sooner or later we shall all come to it, the grave ashore or the leaden jacket afloat. And, if we do, what odds? Would you die as I must die, or with your mouth full of cant and your heart a-hunger for what was never yours? I've tasted the good salt sea on the southern briner and I've tasted it on the northern. There's been hell in the heavens above me, and hell in the surge below; and I've lived through it, and come back to the old haven, and sat with the same good fellows, and numbered the bottles like shingle on the beach. What's death to me and to the others? What's it to old Thunder, who lies in the ice on Greenland's shore? Just the long, long sleep, and the sky gone black, and the heaven wanting her stars. That's death, my boy; whether you find it in London or on the high seas, that's my notion of it——"
He laughed aloud, but his laugh was hollow, and there were drops of sweat on his brow. When I asked him what the hands would make of it, he tried to pull himself together and to answer with like bravado.
"The hands, they'd follow Black to the gate of hell! Ask them, and hear for yourself. London will be just a gaming ground to them—wine and song, theatre and hall, money to spend, and sights to see. Speak of the police, and you may was well talk of a Punch and Judy show. If you told them death lay beyond the bridge, they'd turn a quid and ask you to trot him out. Oh, don't you worry about the hands!"
"And yet," I said, "not one of them but may swing upon a rope before another month has run."
He affected to make light of it, but the agony of mind was not to be hidden from me, while his staring eyes gazed into vacancy as though a vision of death were there. Another word and he would have been in a frenzy of madness, which would have betrayed all to the men from whom the secret was still hidden. So it lay upon me to turn his thoughts, and I spoke of other things and chiefly of Paris and of his visit there. When this was done, and we had supped together in the saloon, we went to our beds, and I lay long meditating this surprising turn and all that it might mean to me.
We were going to London, and the incredible boast would be made credible in my own city and among my own people. Out of the whorl of death and crime and darkness we were to pass to this supreme challenge, this surpassing mockery. In days fewer than the fingers of the hands could number, Black must stand face to face with that Justice he had defied, and answer to the nations. All else gave place in my mind to this inevitable truth. The great Captain was going to the death which sentiment had prepared for him. Nothing surely could save him from that now. The Zero was making her last voyage, and all aboard her were surely doomed.
I could not sleep, so heavily did these thoughts press upon me. And yet I will declare that any estimate of my own salvation lay far from my reckoning. What would become of me in the hour of crisis I hardly cared to ask. Black had told me that my friends were at Leith, and my heart had leaped at the tidings. Roderick, I had said, would move heaven and earth to come at me, and yet he would not forget the story of the Nameless Ship nor believe that it was otherwise than well with me. London must stand for the city of my salvation or the city of my death. There seemed to me no middle course. Either Black would persuade them or his men would kill me.
Despite the danger of the voyage and the mad bravado of it, Black brought the Zero up directly the gale had abated; and when I went out to the platform on the following morning I found her carrying a number, such as British submarines display, and flying the white ensign with all the effrontery imaginable.
That such a disguise would be successful I could not doubt. Little was then known of submarines by the captains of merchantmen, and such as we passed would surely say that this was a Government ship out of Plymouth. Be that as it may, we sailed as bold as brass up the Channel to the Eddystone, and it was not until danger threatened us from Plymouth itself that we made a long run below the sea, and did not emerge again until St. Catherine's had been left far in our wake. Then, the night being clear, with a full round moon, we lifted the hatches once more, and, all rushing to the decks, we lay there to drink in the chill, sweet air as though it were a draught from the well of life itself.
I remember that the sea was decked out with ships at this time, their red and green lanterns shining prettily in the lagoons of shadow.
Some of them passed us so closely that we could have tossed a biscuit aboard. One great liner in particular, a German, I think, bore down upon us menacingly, and was a very fortress of light and movement. From her decks there came the lilt of a sonorous orchestra, playing, I remember, a waltz of Strauss's, as only Germans can. This ship saluted us, and was answered back with all the precision and ceremony you would have found upon a Government vessel. When she was gone we passed some herring boats from Shoreham, and then a timber hulk, with three masts, sagging heavily to the swell. A little while after this some one cried out that a distant light was that of Newhaven, and very shortly we sighted Beachy Head, and knew that the real danger of our voyage was but beginning.
Often have I wondered what would have been said aboard those passing vessels had they been told that the shadow upon the hither sea was that of Black's ship, and that he himself was aboard her. What panic and terror would have followed that alarm! What a race for a haven! What a wild speeding of the news! But so it is ever in life that reality passes by us in the shadows which our self-assurance casts. All the world rang then with the story of Vares and the great Captain's death, yet here he was at the very mouth of the Thames, saluted by those who should have taken him, and honoured, I doubt not, for the flag he flew. And to-morrow the world would say, "If we had known; if—if!"
We sighted the Nore light on the fourth day after leaving the island, at three bells in the middle watch, and went below immediately, as I had expected we should do. Whatever brazen courage might win for us on the open waters of the Channel, assuredly it could win nothing here. Now there must begin a threading of the sands and the banks of the estuary, which was perilous beyond all imagination. Let us be detected but for one instant by any boat, either the launch of the Customs or of the medical officers, and that must be the end of us. Such a plain fact sent Black to the Thames in the watches of the night, and kept him below for many hours together. When the signal rang out for us to ascend I learned, not without surprise, that a morning fog had come down upon the river, and, going out to the platform, I found that I could hardly see my hand before my face. Nor did I discover immediately that the Captain walked the deck with me, and that we were alone.
Depict a world of white and rolling vapour, above which there hovered so still an air that a man might have been afraid to whisper. Far away beyond that veil of fog lay the heights of London, the ramparts of the mighty city then waking to the life of the new day. As in the echoes of a dream I heard the voice of London calling to me through the black silence of the swirling waters, and the devouring fog, and the rumour of ships. More than once my heart leaped as a siren's hoot burst upon my ear, to wax loud and bellicose and diminish again until it became but a murmur of soft sounds. I heard the sound of a railway whistle, and it seemed to say that I had been summoned from the lonely sea to this water-gate of England, there to be mocked and tortured by false hope as man has rarely been in all the years. I saw the shadows of vast steamers thrown upon the curtain of the mists, and could have cried aloud to them to deliver me from this prison, for such was the impulse born of the discovery. Yesterday I had been content to be the passive spectator of the mad life; but this call from my own land reached me in clarion tones, and nothing but the sudden coming of the Captain held me to that place or saved me from myself.
I see his majestic figure now, great and terrible and menacing, as he emerged from the dripping cloud of fog, and stood at my side to question me. Very thoughtful, harassed, and weary, he asked me what I knew of the Thames and how far I judged us to be from the shore. When I told him a quarter of a mile at a hazard, he seemed to agree with me and to be pleased that he could do so.
"Aye," he said, "the young ears want no tuning. Yon's Canvey Island, and you hear the trains to London. Well, my lad, we'll be there to-night, though it's little of that same city I may show you. Let me tell you so right now and have done with it."
I was surprised to hear this, for he had as good as promised me my liberty in London; and so I told him. His rejoinder was not a little callous, and it cut me to the quick.
"The men won't have it," he said, with a shrug. "There's not one of them would sail with me while a mouthpiece ashore was telling of their doings. So, my lad, for better or worse, it's the Zero while I command her. Maybe it won't be for long. Should yon city give me what I am seeking, I go to play a new part in the world, and the sea will know me no more. When that day comes, you and I will say a long good-bye. Ask, then, that it may be soon, for your own sake."
I saw that he was deeply moved, and perchance, but for the ship's need, some word of mine would have broken so harsh a resolution. But it befell that Jack-o'-Lantern came up at the moment to take soundings, and Black turned from me with an anxiety even his iron will could not conceal. A quarter of an hour later we were almost at the bottom of the river again; and so, creeping from bank to bank all that long morning, we came at length to anchor at about three bells in the afternoon watch, and lay for many hours with the swift current drumming upon our windows.
I must tell you that Black shut me from the conning-tower during this voyage down the Thames, and so I learned little either of the means whereby the ship was steered or of the exceeding skill which brought her at last to a safe anchorage. Concerning the latter, a brief talk to Osbart at the luncheon table led me to imagine that the Captain had purchased an ancient wharf situated upon one of the creeks near Tilbury, and that a private dock would harbour the Zero during her brief stay in the river. More the Doctor would not say, nor did I press him to do so, for it was clear that a premonition of ill sat heavily upon him, and that it now afflicted the crew so sorely that a word ill spoken would have brought them head-long upon me. Already there were ominous mutterings and whispered threats among them, and so hostile was their attitude as the day went on that I shut myself in my cabin, and there waited for any fortune that might come to me. An hour later I discovered that I was alone upon the ship, and, running out to the saloon, I think that I fell senseless, so overwhelming was the terror of it.
Alone upon the Zero! Alone in the depths of the black river, the prisoner of the swift-running water! Who shall wonder that my very soul was withered, my reason shaken to its depths by that dread discovery I They had left me aboard the ship to perish miserably, and this was the way of their vengeance.
Running hither and thither, beating my hands upon the steel roof above me, crying out to them to have pity, I strove blindly with the fate that threatened me. Visions of death, horrible and revolting, crowded upon me, and would not be thrust back. I saw myself perishing miserably of hunger, living unnamable days of agony, dying alone in the most terrible prison the wit of man has devised. And at that I think the last thread of my courage went snap, and I lay for many hours afraid to look fate in the face.
They say that there is mercy in this human capacity of suffering; that the mind is alert to impressions of pain and fear to a certain degree; but, when that is passed, stupor follows. I would bear witness that so it befell upon the Zero in that awful hour. A delirium of terror was followed by an hour almost of languorous indifference. Methodically and with brain benumbed, I went again from cabin to cabin of the Zero to be sure that none of the crew remained aboard and that I was indeed alone. The thing proved and my situation exposed beyond all doubt, I returned to my cabin and sat down to reckon with the situation, as a man to a chess-board where the figures are human.
They had left me and gone ashore, I said. Fearing me for the first time since I had been his prisoner, Black held me captive here while he pursued his scheme and sent the men to those debaucheries with which their perils were rewarded.
Should all go well with him, I did not doubt that he would soon return to give me my liberty; but, should ill befall him, what then? I asked. Would the crew dare to return to the Zero if the Captain were taken? Would she not lie here in this lonely dock, hidden from human eyes, until some chance of destiny discovered her? And, if that were so, what of my own fate, unless—and at that my heart beat—unless I myself could raise her? Death, beyond all question unnamable, such must be my end.
I say that my heart leaped at a certain thought, and this is no wild talk. No sooner had it come to me than I ran wildly to the engine-room, and flung myself down the ladder, as though the key to my liberty lay at the foot of it. One lamp burned here, and by its dim light I could distinguish the great board of the switches, and the cylinder of the pump, and the steel shafts going out to the propellers. With trembling fingers I tried the connections, and listened for an answer with the ear of a man whose last hope is in the answering word. When there was no movement, when the chill, cold machinery mocked me by its stillness, I saw that the great batteries had been shut off and all the arteries of their life run dry. The clock of the switch upon the board was a mockery anew. I stood as in the silence of a judgment to hear the river falling upon the plates and to understand the measure of this supreme rebuff. These devils had trapped me surely; the hand of God alone could snatch me from that tomb.
Long hours passed upon this, and left me without any sense of time or place. If there were intervals of a black delirium when I flung myself to the steel floor and swore I would not die, intervals when the phantoms of a dire mental agony hovered about me and drove me to a madman's outburst, by these I would pass to the better moments of reason and submission. Death had come to me as the king of terrors, but my manhood bade me face him with all the courage I could wring from my tortured soul. And to death I bent my head in the silence of my cabin, where the minutes were numbered as with a voice of doom, and the waters mocked me as they surged upon my window and seemed to say, "Nevermore."