Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 4

Captain Black (Pemberton) by Max Pemberton
IV. We Arrive at Ice Haven


Now, it was at seven bells in the second dog-watch that we espied the headlands of Captain Black's haven, and about an hour later when the wonderful shore became fully visible. Such a scene of solitude and grandeur a poet might not imagine; nor could I wonder that the spell of it put other thoughts from our minds and compelled us to pay silent homage to its majesty.

And here I would remind you that I had last looked upon this scene from the deck of the Nameless Ship, at an hour when the dead pirate set out to brave Europe and to sail to his destruction. All my thoughts had been of home and country then; a passionate desire to escape the bondage and to flee that dreadful company had possessed me. Now, for the first time, the grandeur of the home which Black had chosen became apparent to me, and I could tell with pride what hitherto I had named but with fear.

Imagine a wall of glittering schists; a vast cliff, limned, as it were, in jasper and chrysoprase and chalcedony; say that this jewelled rampart lifted a resolute face to the gentle waves of an Arctic sea; let the walls fall back by here and there to the curves of soft bays, all aglitter with rivers of solid ice, whence the bergs float down to the Atlantic. Do this, and set the towering caps of snowy mountains above them all, and you have the shores of Greenland as the crew of the Celsis first espied them, and as I who write looked upon them for the second time.

I shall not try to tell you of all that passed between us on the quarter-deck while we stood to watch this entrancing scene, and to speculate upon our good fortune in making the haven without fault.

A hundred questions were put to me and answered as readily. I told them how the giant headlands which guarded the entrance to the inner waters were more than a thousand feet high. I spoke of a monstrous chasm lying between an outer fiord and the great lake beyond. I promised them that they should visit Black's home with me and sleep in a house that surely had been one of the wonders of the world. And then, escaping from them for the ship's sake, I took Captain York apart and spoke to him of the anchorage and of what I knew of it.

"You have the Government chart," said I, "and will know more than I, Captain; but one thing is certain—we shall drop no anchor in the fiord, for it is more than a mile deep. Black used to warp the Nameless Ship against the northward cliff, and we ought to be able to pick his moorings up. If we don't, you may care to try the narrow passage, and make the lake beyond; but it's dangerous work, and we would lie more snugly in the outer basin if by any chance we find ourselves in company."

The Captain looked up under his shaggy eyebrows.

"Meaning if Jo Mitchell should be in?"

"Or any other Joe, Captain," said I, with a laugh.

He nodded his head.

"This is the end of the world, or looks something like it," he ran on. "But there'll be no Americans ashore, I'm thinking; and Jo Mitchell's not the man to be caught asleep. My glass has shown me a barren shore for the last half-hour or more. And that's to say we're lucky men, Mr. Mark, very lucky men indeed."

I could see that he was not a little excited at the thought, and that was natural enough. We had set out upon this voyage almost in a holiday spirit. Perhaps we had not really believed in the existence of any treasure at all—and now here we were, the masters of Ice Haven after all, free to search every nook and cranny of it, and to delude ourselves with those dreams which had sent us out of England. Do you wonder that my heart beat fast as I returned to the deck, and stood with Roderick and Mary to see the ship go in, and to know that the end was at hand?

We steamed very slowly at this time, passing the northernmost headland of the fiord so closely that a man could have tossed a biscuit to its shining crags. Everywhere a great glow of the sunlight searched out the wonders of the place and fell with blinding splendour upon the untrodden snow. We had now entered the great fiord, and the rocky walls rose up sheer on either hand. Not a sound save of the whirring wings of monstrous birds disturbed the stillness and solitude which knew man for the first time. The crew stood awed by its unknown mysteries. Even little Mary drew nearer to me and shuddered.

"You came here with Captain Black, did you not?" she asked me.

I said that it was so.

"But precious little I saw of the place then, Mary, for they had me a prisoner in the cabin, and no one but the mad Doctor came near me. Just think of it: of all that wild crew, he is the only one alive. Should not this be a place of spirits?"

She did not answer me, leaving it to old Dan, her favourite of the crew, who happened to overhear us. Dan had no respect for ghosts, and treated them but ill.

"Askin' your pardon, sir," says he, "I've lived forty years man and boy, and I never heerd yet of no speerit worth his victuals. They're overrated parties, be sure of it, sir. Why, my old skipper he had a ghostee in his wine cellar, and never a mouthful of good liquor did he miss as long as I knew him. What sort of a speerit was that, I arst you, to pass by good rum and not taste the flavour of it? No, says I, speerits is like Rotherhithe chickens, mostly bones; and bones never did no good to nobody that I've heerd tell on."

"You prefer good roast beef, Dan," said I. And that was evident enough, for a finer specimen of a well-fed sailor does not exist aboard any ship. When he had replied that he would not refuse "the same" if it were offered to him, there came a loud word of command from the bridge, and I saw that our skipper had discovered the berth where the Nameless Ship used to lie, and was warping the yacht at the pirates' very anchorage. This was a little slap on the back for my pride; and when we had made fast, and the engines were stopped, and the Captain himself come down from the bridge, there was not a man aboard who did not act and talk as though the treasure were already shipped and the anchor weighed for home. Had we not raced the "derned Yankees" to Ice Haven and beaten them after all? Oh, it was a splendid moment, and one I shall never forget.

This would have been about two bells in the first watch, and I remember that we had champagne at dinner that night, and drank the toast "Success." Half an hour later Roderick and I were afloat in the dinghy, rowing headlong for the "narrows," and determined to have one peep at Black's old home whatever the consequences.

It was a glorious night, the moon at the full, and a glow of the lingering sun shimmering upon the mountains. Cold as it was, we felt it not at all in the still air; while as for the sea, it might have been a sheet of silver where the moonbeams fell.

Over these placid waters we rowed toward the narrows, and as we went we could see the lights of the Celsis shining like so many stars against the back- ground of the rock. Then we lost them suddenly at a turn of the cliff, and, pulling our dinghy round a bluff, we found ourselves in a great chasm where the towering peaks seemed to close above our very heads and hardly a patch of the azure sky was visible. This was a dreadful ravine of the sea, and old Dan might well have recanted had he come with us. But I had told Roderick all about it, and he had honesty enough to admit its grandeur.

"What a devil of a place, Mark. Is this the chasm you spoke of?"

I told him that it was.

"The walls," said I, "run to a height of fifteen hundred feet. There is the most wonderful echo to be had here for a gunshot. Osbart, the mad Doctor, used to come here every day and shoot at the air with his revolver. If I had a pistol I would put it to the proof, but as I haven't——"

"Oh," says he, cutting in quickly, "that's all right, old chap," and before I could utter another word he had whipped out a revolver and fired it at the stars. What followed would have put any decent thunderstorm to shame. I swear that old Heinrich Hudson, playing Rip van Winkle in the Kaatskills, knocked down his ninepins to no such sounds. The very hills might have been at war, giants at their games, as the echoes swelled from peak to peak and then died away in fearful mutterings.

I did not fail to observe that Master Roderick put his pistol away quickly enough while the thunder was still rolling, and that both of us sat a little while in silence, awed by what we had heard. The stillness which succeeded the booming echoes seemed almost unnatural, and it was impossible to avoid the reflection that we had done a foolish thing. Of course, we were quite alone there; and all our fears of other expeditions had been satisfied by discovering the empty haven. Nevertheless, I was sorry that I had spoken at all, and did not hesitate to say so.

"That would have been a pretty 'Good day' to the Yankees, Roderick, if they had beaten us in the race. I wonder what Jo Mitchell would have said if he had heard it?"

"He would have said a lot, and some of it would have been unfit for print. Why speculate? This is hardly the place, is it?"

"Oh," said I, "one place is as good as another for a man who has played the fool. Don't you see that we may have alarmed them on the ship. If Mary were not on board——"

He laughed.

"Well, do you think she'll have the vapours? Leave Mary out of it, if you please, my boy. What you're thinking of is neither my sister nor the ship. You are trying to tell yourself that there might be somebody on the hills after all. Now, isn't it so?"

I would not answer him, afraid to speak of foolish fancies and yet unable to deny them. The idea that we were not alone in that wild place had forced itself upon my mind directly the ship had been lost to our view; and it recurred now when I took up the oars and began to pull the dinghy through the chasm. But, naturally, I said nothing to Roderick about it, and I believed that it would trouble me no more so soon as we came out upon the lake.

The great chasm, you should know, is nearly a quarter of a mile long, and the seaway twists and turns like the canals in Venice. It is so narrow in places that a horse might leap across, if he could find foothold; but his rider would have to search afar, for the walls of it are often sheer and sometimes they overhang like the eaves of a mediæval city. The upper end of it, where it opens into a lake, is a natural gateway, pillared by great bluffs, and certainly not thirty feet across. We used to go to and fro in a launch from Black's ship, and I remember that the cargo steamers, which brought the pirate's stores from America and Europe, made the passage easily, so that there must have been plenty of water there. What was my astonishment, then, to hear Roderick cry "easy" as we approached this gateway, and to find it barred right across with a formidable boom no ship could have passed.

"Hulloa," cried I; "and what now, Roddy?"

"Why," says he, quite calmly, "it would appear to be a tree."

"That's very odd," said I. "It must have been done by the commander of the Invincible when he was here last autumn. Is there no way round, Roddy?"

We peered together at the obstacle and could espy no break in the barrier whatever. Huge baulks of timber had been piled one upon the other and bound together by a great iron chain which a gunshot hardly would have blasted. Carried to a height of five feet above the water, it was impossible to see over the boom; while upon our side the great height of the cliffs and the narrowness of the channel left us almost in black darkness.

"Well," said I, at last, "we shan't sup in Black's house to-night, and that's sure and certain, Roddy. Hold on with the boat-hook while I take a peep. We came here to climb, you know, and may as well begin now. Steady, old man, the dinghy isn't a billiard table, remember. That's better; and now hold tight."

I got a foothold on one of the baulks as I spoke, and, pulling myself up by the chain, I stood at length on the summit of the boom, and looked out over the lake which had been the object of our journey. Not for one instant did the whole meaning of what I saw occur to me. The beauty of the scene, the wondrous light of mingled moon and sun, the wide expanse of the unruffled water, the shimmer of the distant snow-fields, these held my eyes spellbound. What fearful hours I had known by that lake-side when the dead pirate ruled it! There, yonder, he had buried a man alive in the snow. Southward I could point to the caverns where the dead slept and the treasure lay. Northward were the habitations of Black's men; the houses on the beach; the caves in the hill-side; the Master's house. One by one I noted the familiar landmarks and dwelt upon them. The truth, the meaning of what I saw, came but slowly. Perhaps I feared to tell it even to Roderick, lest I should be mistaken. And I sat and watched, as a man may watch an enemy's camp at the dead of night.

A lantern swung upon the hill-side. It danced from ledge to ledge of the rock as a giant fire-fly hovering. I saw it pass from the beach, up the iron ladder, to the door by which I, myself, had entered in when first I met the great Captain. There for an instant the light was enveloped by a brighter aureole, showing me the figures of men upon the platform, and of others in the doorway behind them. As swiftly the vision passed, twilight fell. The waters ebbed silently at the foot of the boom; the sun still glinted upon the sparkling snow of the greater heights. I realised that Roderick was hailing me from the dinghy below.

"Well, old Rameses, and what now?"

"Hush!" cried I, leaping down to him headlong. "The Yankees are here, and we are beaten, Roddy!"

He did not say a word. We pushed the dinghy off and rowed back to the ship as though an alarm had been sounded and the pursuit begun.