Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 3

Captain Black (Pemberton) by Max Pemberton
III. The Mad Doctor is Heard of Again


We made a rapid passage to Greenland and first sighted the grim shores of that ice-bound land on the fifteenth day after leaving the Irish coast. Whatever had been the significance of the events at Dolphin's Cove, they were forgotten so soon as we steamed upon the open sea, and not a man of us did not dream of treasure the whole day long.

I used to laugh sometimes at the eagerness of our fellows and the wild talk with which they amused themselves. Verily you would have said that the riches of the fables were already poured into their laps. Even so shrewd a rogue as old Dan—Mary's favourite—could speak of the day when he would drive his "kerridge and pair" on Plymouth Hoe! The others dreamed idle dreams of trim houses by the seashore, and gardens fair with flowers, and a "blessed doing of nothing"—as Billy Eightbells tersely put it.

Of course, the men knew the object of our voyage by this time, and it had put heart into them. I think they cared little for stories of other adventures on the same track; nor did they believe that I, myself who had sailed with Captain Black, would have gone at all if there were any doubts of the issue. "Mr. Mark, he knows summat," they would say. But just what I did know they had yet to find out.

We, ourselves, talked of it often in the cabin when Mary was not there; and we read and re-read the letter which the mad Doctor Osbart wrote me from Parkhurst Prison. I had received this extraordinary document some four months before we set sail from England, and immediately upon reading it I knew that Roderick and I would go to Greenland whatever the consequences.

Perhaps you will say that it was a madman's tale and that we were foolish to believe in it. But I thought it otherwise. Notwithstanding the high-flown language in which it was couched, its wild sentiment and grotesque exaggeration, I read in it the words of a man hungering for freedom; and sometimes I think that I could have pitied Osbart.

I shall set down this letter here that every one may know just what the Doctor wrote, and understand the purport of a voyage which has been so much misunderstood.

And, first, it was a letter which had been posted to me from the prison at Parkhurst, in the Isle of Wight, by what agency I do not know to this day. Dated oddly, "In the Year of the Adventure X," this alone should have stamped it as the effusion of a madman's brain. If I alone read truth between the lines, remember that I alone of all on the Celsis had lived with Black upon his ship, had known and feared, and, in a way, had loved him.

The Prison, Parkhurst,
"The Third Day of January,
"In the Year of the Adventure X.

"My dear Strong:—Sincere good wishes to an old comrade of the adventurous days, the only one that I know to be living.

"Of all Black's crew, of all that gallant company, we, my dear fellow, remain to dance before Pilate if Pilate has a taste for our pirouetting.

"A bonny New Year to you, then, breathed out of this hell which chains me. Go free upon the decks of good ships and wet your Parthian locks at the fountains of the spindrift, as I would do but for the carrion which pick my bones in this house of skeletons.

"What forbids? Do you not read, and has the 'ice blink near and white' no meaning for you? Man, I would credit you with less than the soul of a dog if Black has not beckoned you northward and the great dead ghosts do not call you.

"What forbids? I repeat. Iron doors against which your hands may beat until they are fleshless? Men of the devils' eyes who hold you down until the blood surges in your brain and the walls turn black before you? Nothing of the kind. Then, fear of the Yanks who go to seek Black's treasure—our treasure—is it that, Mark Strong? Shame upon you that you let me write the words. I would sooner be a hundred fathoms down, branded and blind, at the heart of the blackest rock of Satan than men should write as much of me.

"Here am I 'fettered bar to wrist all for red iniquity,' as helpess as any lamb at the butcher's block, and but one man living of all Black's crew to whom I may turn.

"Is he comrade or craven? Will he leave me here in the marrow of hell or fetch me out to see the wide heaven and the great white world of silence? He can do it, for by money it can be done.

"The treasure lies in the chamber of the dead. Go where dead men's fingers point and their gibes ring in your ears. Turn the crescent of the tomb and delve amid its winding sheets. Then shall Cortina comb the hair of Fair-star and the jewels fall into her lap.

"Black estimated it at three millions sterling. He was little given to overtalk, as you know well. There's enough there, anyway, to set you and me aboard the great Golden Bug and carry us down to the cities of the fountain. Go, then—not to-morrow, but to-day, and return to fetch me, as Black would have done. In his name, go—cannot you hear him crying from the sea and calling you?

"You will go, Strong, and the gates of this living hell will open before me, and I shall stand a free man upon the deck of a good ship, and the night will be no longer a vision of dreams, but of the wide waters which the Master ruled, and we will rule in his name."

I say that we read this letter again and again, always discerning some new meaning and seldom forgetting to remind ourselves that a madman wrote it. Somewhat to my surprise, our skipper heard it less patiently than Roderick, and would often tell me that I would have been wiser to show it to him before we sailed and not afterward as I had done. Chiefly, I think, he was concerned about the American story and Osbart's belief that another expedition would arrive in Greenland before us. Rumour had spoken of this even in England, and surely it was a little wonderful that Osbart had heard of it in the seclusion of his prison.

"It's just this, gentlemen," the Captain would say, "there's been a syndicate put together in New York to hunt down this treasure, and your mad friend has got wind of it. Maybe they tried to buy him and would not pay the price, or he may have known too much about them to listen. Anyway, the fact is that we may find others there before us, and, if we do, look out for squalls."

Roderick replied that squalls were what he would have expected in that latitude; but I tackled the Captain boldly with knowing more than he would tell, and presently he admitted it.

"Has this been a straightforward voyage from the beginning?" he asked me in turn. "Could any fair man make it out to be that? I'll say nothing about the three fellows at Falmouth, and the trick they played upon us—but what of the crew themselves and their bogeys? Did they learn what they know from us or from others? And, if from others, then what others? Doesn't it all say that there have been stories about, even at Dolphin's Cove, and that they have listened to them? If not, to what then, I ask you?"

"You mean to say," said I, "that the men know something of Jo Mitchell's expedition?"

"Of course they do. Jo has been in five treasure hunts in as many years. He was after the Spanish galleon stuff on the West Coast of Ireland not nine months ago; he went to the South Atlantic with the Chilian millionaires who thought to find pieces of eight not a hundred miles from the Magellan Straits; and here he is after Black's lot now. Well, he won't be a nice partner at the game of Bo-Peep. There'll be heads broken if Jo Mitchell's before us. I suppose you have thought about that, gentlemen; you were prepared for it when you set out?"

Roderick answered that the skipper's prophecy savoured too much of an Irish wake to be taken seriously; and, in truth, I could see that he thought very little of this Jo Mitchell or of his chances.

"Half-a-dozen Government ships have looked for this stuff and failed to find it," he said in his own drawling way; "we know where it is, or we think we do, and that's not a bad beginning. First catch your hare, Captain, and see that you get him by the tail."

"Roderick means," said I in my turn, "that if it comes to a fight, we ought not to do so very badly, Captain. After all, we have sixteen rifles on board, and some of us can use them. I don't suppose this wonderful Jo Mitchell is going to sail an iron-clad; and, if he were, I would back Captain York against him every time. Now, wouldn't you, Roderick?"

Of course, Roderick agreed to it, and, of course the Captain was very well pleased. Even these silent men are not averse to flattery, and our skipperh was not proof against an ancient method of attack. When next he took up the thread of his argument, he seemed to have forgotten that he had ever expressed any apprehensions at all.

"Hurry is our motto, and plenty of it," he exclaimed with emphasis. "This crew has a bee in its bonnet, and it will remain there until we lose sight of the shores of Greenland and are heading home again. We musn't let them think about it. If Jo Mitchell is there when we sail in—why, then we'll trick him at a game of wits, if we can; and, if not, we'll fight him. Flesh and blood will not frighten our fellows; it's the other stories that shake them, and shake them badly."

"You mean this silly stuff about the hunchback being on board?"

"I mean nothing less, sir," said the Captain quietly. "The crew believes that we shipped the one-eyed man at Dolphin's Cove, and that he's aboard us now. Even my own mates are full of it. More than one of them swears he has seen the fellow in the middle-watch, and who's to argue with that? I tell you that if we go down, it will be the shadow of a man that sinks us. You can't fight superstition, sir; you are fighting the air."

I agreed that you could not; but I put it to him that the crew were quite honest in their belief, and that, at any rate, he could trust them to the last man. Judge of my astonishment when he hesitated to reply.

"Then you have your doubts!" I exclaimed. He could not deny it.

"There is one man, and one only, who does not please me," he said at length. "Perhaps you know his name."

"You mean Bill Fairway, Captain?"

"I mean no other, Mr. Mark. That man is a rogue, or I never saw one. Remember it, should the occasion arise; perhaps it will come sooner than you think for. Unless I am mistaken, our voyage is over. Let us go and see if I am right."

He opened the cabin door, and in a moment we understood. Such an excited crew, such wild faces of eager men, I have never seen in all my life. Every man Jack of our fellows was at the taffrail, I do believe, and as for little Mary, she was skipping about like a fairy. Our voyage, indeed, was done, and yonder lay the shores of Greenland.