Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 5


CHAPTER V
THE MURDER ON THE SHIP

They were working the great searchlight on the bridge deck of the Celsis when we rounded the bluff, and its clear white arc fell magnificently upon the unruffled waters. Here I ceased to row; and, remembering with some sense that the same barrier which forbade our passage would forbid the passage to others, I lay upon my oars and watched the lantern's path. Perhaps I thought that the hills might have their tale to tell. Fear of pursuit had given place to sense of security. There lay our own good ship, a ready haven, and one whose deck a man might tread proudly. The heights about the fiord, the high rocks and the low, revealed but their nakedness when the white light searched them. Whoever had come to Ice Haven had made the lake-side his home; and that was wisdom, for by the lake the treasure lay.

"Roddy," I said, breathing as a man who has run a race, "this will be bad news for the men, Roddy——"

He shrugged his shoulders and lit a cigarette, just to show me how little he thought of it.

"It would have been worse news for us if we hadn't got back."

"Was there ever any doubt of our getting back?"

"Ill tell you now," he said, and very solemnly; "it's God's truth that I saw a man within a biscuit-toss of you as you leaped down from the boom. He had a gun in his hand, and I think it very wonderful that he did not fire it."

"Are you sure of it, Roddy?"

"As sure as this match shows me your white face, Mark. I dared not speak a word, and I'm glad I didn't. But I shan't be sorry to go on board again, and that's the truth. The black place gave me the creeps; I can't deny it."

I made no reply, just dipping my oars quietly and rowing the dinghy back to the ship. Captain York was at the gangway when we went up, and Mary, her head muffled in a white shawl, stood by his side. Again I reflected upon the folly which had brought her to Ice Haven. Had we not promised her that she should go ski-ing to-morrow?

"What!" cried I, "not in bed yet, Mary? don't you know it is nearly eleven o'clock?"

"Oh," says she, "and what an autocrat is this! Am I not 'out,' Mark? Would you 'finish' me again?" And then she asked me:

"Whatever have you been doing to get into that state, sir? Why, you're wet through, and—look, your hand is bleeding. Have you been fighting Roddy? I'm ashamed of you both. And please to come to my cabin to be bandaged—immediately, sir; I command it."

I suppose I had cut my hand as I climbed down from the boom; but I would not say a word about it, and as Mary loves nothing so much as bandaging somebody, I let her have her way. When it was done, she consented to admit that even a young lady who was "out" might properly turn in some time, and I left her and went up to the smoking-room, where I knew the others would be waiting for me.

This is a commodious cabin, right forward of the bridge, with large glass windows all round, and a couple of doors opening on the upper deck. I noticed as I went that the searchlight still played upon the hills, and the first question I put to the skipper had to do with the fact.

"So the watch doesn't like the sun, Captain?

He made no answer, inviting me to a chair by his side, and pouring out a long glass of cool drink which I needed badly enough. When it was empty, and our pipes alight, he signified almost with a look that he had the news.

"Our friends from over yonder have lost no time," he said, puffing at his black pipe between every stroke. "I thought as much an hour ago. Your news was no surprise to me, Mr. Mark."

"Then the lantern showed you something, Captain——"

"It showed me two men on yonder bluff as plain as ever I saw a man in my life. I fired a rocket to recall you, but you did not see it. We should have put out a boat but for your pistol-shot. I thought it safer to stand by when I heard that. Jo Mitchell won't be in any hurry to begin, that's certain."

We agreed to it. After all, a treasure hunt is a thing of which all the world hears in our day, and it was not likely that the man would open the campaign by any act of violence for which he might be accused and tried afterward. The danger would come when we set to work.

"He's a man in possession," the skipper went on, "and that's nine points of the law any day. If we force our way in, he'll show fight, and for that we must be ready. I'll not deny that I think this ship and those on board it in some danger, and you may be very sure I shall do what I believe to be my duty. Beyond that I do not go. I have a responsibility to the hands, and it must not be forgotten. My men sail the ship—they fight when they are hurt, not before."

"In which case," said Roderick, "we may as well weigh anchor and sail for Falmouth to-morrow. You don't suppose Jo Mitchell is going to ask us to dinner, Captain?"

"I suppose nothing at all, sir. If there is a way, and you can point it out to me, I take it. My duty is to protect the ship and those on board her. I'll do it to the beast of my ability."

It was an honest speech and we could not quarrel with it. Reason said that we should have considered all this before we sailed; but there had been little prudence shown in the matter, and the timorous hopes and fears had been but ill expressed. Now, we knew the truth—the Americans were the masters of Ice Haven, and the gates of it had been shut upon us.

"Well," said I, at length, "there may be a way, Captain, and, if there be, I'll trust to my wits to find it. You answer for the ship, and I'll answer for the shore. If there is a treasure left by Black, we have a better chance of finding it than any other. Osbart is a madman, but there may be a method in his madness. I believe he liked me, and that stands for something. At any rate, we can but put him to the proof, and we'll lose no time in doing it. To-morrow night I am going through to Dead Man's Cave. If I know anything of Roddy, he'll come with me. And I think, Captain, that two may be more than enough for the work we have to do."

"It may be two too many, sir," said the Captain dryly. But I could see I had impressed him. As for Roderick, he was as wide awake as ever I saw him in my life.

"Of course, old Scribe's right," he cried, striking half-a-dozen matches in his excitement. "Let's know if there is anything worth fighting for before we sharpen our hatchets. No treasure—no guns. We came on a picnic—there's no denying that; and if it's no more than a picnic, we shall have seen Ice Haven, anyway. Mitchell won't fight unless the dollars are on the table. Let us find them, and then come to terms with him, if we can. Now, what do you say to that, Captain?"

Well, the Captain said nothing at all, for what should happen in the thick of it but that we heard a great shouting and stamping on deck: and presently in comes Billy Eightbells, with half-a-dozen shaking men upon his heels, and the babel they set up would have done credit to a monkey-house. When Billy found his tongue to tell us what happened, we laughed aloud at him. The hunchback of Dolphin's Cove had shown his face in the fo'castle, said he, and the men swore it with great fists smiting from pretty black hands.

"Dan, he were awake, and he seed him first—he ain't no man for speerits. Then Martin, the fireman, cried out that the devil was athwart his hawse—and Martin's no female in a sou'-wester. There was eight of we, and weight that swears to his blue mug. He's aboard this ship, Captain, sure and certain, and if you turn up the hands, you'll take him. We says it—all on us. There ain't a man as don't sign to it—you may lay to that, Captain. Jack-o'-Lantern's aboard us, and there'll be some that will know it If he ain't put over this night."

They spoke all together; this man contradicting that, and a third swearing that what the others had said was false. We laughed at Billy Eightbells when he began to tell us the amazing tale; but such earnestness as we witnessed was irresistible, and no sooner had the whole story been blabbed than the Captain strode out to the deck and called for our first officer, that quiet Scotsman, Mr. Farquharson. He was already in his bunk, but he came out presently in a long overall and listened to the news wide-eyed.

"You hear, Mr. Farquharson," cried the skipper, "the men say we have a stowaway, the hunchback that came over from Falmouth."

"I'm thinking it more likely that he would have come out of a keg of rum, sir."

Even grim Captain York smiled.

"Ah," says he, "that kind of spirit does not see with a single eye, Mr. Farquharson. But I'll trouble you to go round the ship with me, all the same. The man that trips up upon a ghost is a poor bedfellow— there are about eight of them down below. Let us try to get them to sleep, sir, before they give the spirit a tail."

He called for lanterns, and a search party fell in. Billy Eightbells was sent up to the bridge that he might have a view of the whole ship. There was a sentinel posted astern, and another ordered to the maintop of the short foremast. The rest, armed with lanterns, went down to the depths, searched the fo'castle from end to end, dived into the coal-bunkers, went to the very profundity of the ship and tracked the iron tunnel in which the screw-shaft runs. Our steward, the nimble old fellow they call Pharaoh, because he is given to stories of the Red Sea, then opened the doors of the cabins we were not using and helped us to lay them bare. We had all the lights on in the saloons, the galleys, and even in the bath rooms, but went as near to finding a ghost as a bag full of diamonds.

In a way the search was both a ridiculous and a picturesque thing enough. If a satirist had laughed at the anxious faces thrust forward into this or that nook or cranny, an artist would have seen the same faces aglow with the lanterns' light and eloquent of many emotions. And just as action is the surest antidote to fear, so was our search the best answer we could make to Billy Eightbells and the faint-hearts. They were willing to admit, when it was done, that what they had seen might not have been seen after all; and they turned in at length, encouraging each other with smooth words, but taking mighty good care that no man went alone. When they were gone, the skipper hinted that we should do well to imitate them. It was just one o'clock of the morning and two bells sounded as I shut my cabin door. But I think I was just as far from sleep as ever I had been in all my life.

Consider how it went with me. The last time I had sailed into this haven I had been a close prisoner on Black's ship. The only friend I had known then was Osbart, the mad Doctor. When they took me ashore I saw fearful things done: men fighting naked with knives, men shot down and buried in the snow—drink, debauchery, horror of all kinds. Now, for the second time, I visited Ice Haven to see if it were true that Black's treasure lay hidden here, and was a fact and not a fable. Setting out upon what had promised to be but a pleasure cruise, inviting Roderick and Mary to accompany me, I found myself instantly at the heart of a dangerous adventure; threatened I knew not by what perils; haunted by fears and dreams I would have confessed to no man. And from these perils my wit must save me, as it had saved me on board the Nameless Ship, and even on the lonely Atlantic where the great Captain had met his death.

This latter thought ran in my head to the exclusion of others. I must save my friends, must justify my beliefs, must outwit these Americans who had beaten us in the race. Upon it at last I think that I fell into a light sleep; but it was a sleep troubled by dreams, and chiefly a dream of the hunchback for whom we had searched so vainly. Unlike the men, I did not fear this apparition at all, even when it seemed (in my sleep) that he opened the port above me and crept softly upon my bed.

Now spoke the logic of the dream, and said that if the man had hidden from us at all, he had hidden in the main chains, leaping overboard when a hue and cry was raised, and laughing, I doubt not, while we searched the ship. I said that it must be so, and, starting up in a sweat, I saw that my cabin was empty. Now a new dread fell upon me, but not a dread of the hunchback.

How to tell you of this I hardly know. The cabin was as it had been when I dropped to a fitful sleep; and yet I felt that it was not the same. Once I thought I heard a sound of heavy breathing at my door; but when I switched on the electric light, I saw that the door was fast shut and bolted. Through the porthole when I had drawn the curtain I could discern the rocky shores of the fiord, the rivers of ice and the lofty pinnacles. It was night and yet day, for the sun does not set in the Arctic circle when the month is May. The warm, wan light did but little to cheer me, and I lay back upon my pillow and fell to sleep in earnest.

Now comes the more wonderful thing. From my sleep was I waked a second time to find the warm sunlight flooding my room, and yet my body as cold as though it were swathed in ice. Opening my eyes as one waked from a dream, I saw the hunchback of Dolphin's Cave as plainly as ever I saw anything in all my life. There he stood crouching over the bed, a wild, uncouth figure of a man who would jibber a story if he could, but had not the power of speech to tell it. On my side was the stupor of lingering sleep, blank disbelief in what I saw and the disposition to name it a nightmare. If I came to do otherwise, it was the quickness of the man himself which recalled me to sense. A sound of stirring on the deck, the footfall of the watch, and the fellow had gone in a flash, slipping like an eel through the open port and so being hidden instantly from sight.

Well, I was staggered, to be sure, and utterly confounded. I saw that I had not feared the man, and that was the truth; but curiosity remained, and kneeling upon my bed (for we have beds in the private cabins of the Celsis) I went to peer through the port after him—but this was the moment when I saw another man on the floor and understood in a flash what had happened. There had been two in my cabin and one lay dead, so close to me that I could have touched him with my hand. When I looked at him again, I saw that he had been stabbed through the heart; and all the horror of his waxen face and hanging jaw and staring eyes getting the better of me, I ran wildly from the place, and never ceased to run until the door of the Captain's cabin was shut behind me and every word of the story told.

"It would be Bill Fairway," says he, drawing on his clothes as he could. I told him that Fairway was the man.

"Then," says he, "but for God's Providence, you'd have been a dead man this night. And it was the hunchback, you say? Surely, sir, we are in the presence of some great mystery."

I said that it must be so, though of its nature or meaning I could tell him nothing. The vain thoughts, which had afflicted me when we pursued and lost the strange craft off Falmouth light, here came anew to set my head in a whirl and my heart beating.

The dead had spoken to me by the deed of the living. The Master who had ruled this haven of the desolate land, had sent his messenger to my bed side. Name it superstition, folly, if you will, accuse me as you may, that was my belief.

And I clung to it tenaciously as I followed the Captain to the deck and beheld the morning sun shining gloriously upon Ice Haven.