Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 7

Captain Black (Pemberton) by Max Pemberton
VII. The Great Stone Rolls Back


CHAPTER VII
THE GREAT STONE ROLLS BACK

There had been a promise made to Mary that she should go ashore with her skis as soon as might be, and, much to my surprise, I heard the Captain say that she could go when breakfast was done, if she had the mind. Naturally, she accepted in a girlish outburst which put down all argument, and five bells in the forenoon watch had not been struck when we were in the launch and Mr. Farquharson at the tiller.

I thought it a little strange that the first officer should go upon such an errand, and so did Roderick for that matter; but we held our tongues about it, and presently we headed straight across the fiord for the snow slopes upon the farther shore. It was there I first began to perceive the Captain's object, and made some remark upon it.

"This place would not be charted, Mr. Farquharson," said I. He admitted that it was not.

"And you came with us to take some soundings," said I. He would not deny it.

"Yon berth's a little too rock-bound for the Captain's likings, Mr. Strong. I think he'll be moving the ship."

"Ah," said I, "he'd he snug here, Mr. Farquharson."

"And be able to cock an eye at visitors before they dropped in upon him, sir."

He nodded his head significantly, and no more was said. The shore itself proved to be but a rough "hard" of solid ice, and it was droll to watch Mary casting longing eyes at the snow-fields so far above us. As for her skis, she might as well have brought a tennis-racket, and she was not backward in telling us so.

"Mark, are you not thoroughly ashamed of yourself for bringing me here?" she asked. I was indeed, but I would not have told her so for a fortune.

"Why, Mary," said I, "you have only to walk about five miles over those hills, and you will find a whole continent of snow. There's nothing else in Greenland but snow. Write and ask Dr. Nansen when we get back. This is too near the sea, that's all. Now can I help it?"

Well, she was very angry, and came as near to sulking as I can remember. Our little climb to the summit of a snowy hill near by did something to pacify her, for therefrom she could descry the distant mountains and have a vista of the eternal snows through the mighty ravines the glaciers had cut. In this way we passed an hour or two until it was time to return to the ship for lunch, and when next the boat was put overboard but Roderick and I and Billy Eight-bells were aboard her.

Now, that would have been about six o'clock of the afternoon. Nothing beyond the ordinary had happened on the ship during the day, nor had there been any sign on the Captain's part that he was aware of the existence of a certain adventurer of the name of Mitchell. Thus it came as a surprise to every man aboard when, at three bells in the first dog-watch, the hands were turned up and the ship moved to a new anchorage. Half an hour afterward the launch was made ready, and we embarked as I have said.

Whither were we going, and upon what errand? I would tell you in a word that we were going ashore, secretly, if we could, to discover the truth of Dead Man's Cave and the meaning of the letter which the mad Osbart had written to us. Knowing well that Mitchell's men would be on the look-out, we headed the launch as though for the open sea; then ran straight for the great headlands of the outer harbour, and did not cease to run until their spurs hid us from the observation both of those in the ship and on the shore. So, at last, we called an easy, and, taking rifles in our hands, Roddy and I leaped ashore as we could and left Billy alone in the launch.

"We shall be a couple of hours gone, and perhaps more, Billy," I shouted after him. "Stand by here if the light's strong, but we'd sooner have you in the bay if you can manage it. Mr. Farquharson will show you where we went ashore this morning. We'll look for you there to begin with—here if you fail us."

He bawled back that he understood, and headed the launch for the open sea. A raging tide surged between the headlands and made it none too safe for an open boat. Roddy and I had leaped to the rocks anyhow; but when I looked back at the swirl of the sea below, the sharp, jagged reefs, and the steepness of the place, I could well wonder that we had got to the shore at all.

"It will have to be the bay, Mitchell or no Mitchell," said I to Roddy; "we'd never board the launch here. Let's pray that Billy has some sense in his head, for he's as like to look for us in London as anywhere."

He agreed to it, though, for that matter, I think the wonder of the scene, the grandeur of the steep above us, and the awful solitude of the headland were in his thoughts more than our safety or that of the launch. And well they might have been. I, who knew the place well, shuddered at its barren loneliness. And what must Roddy have thought of it?

"We'll have to skirt the bluff and work round by the snow glacier at the back, Roddy," I said to him; "we should then come out at the lake-side, and be able to make the cavern. I'll know the place well enough if you put me at the water's edge; it's the getting there I fear."

"To say nothing of Jo Mitchell going fishing on a fine April evening, Scribe. I don't like the look of it, old chap. I never saw such a dead man's land in all my life."

"Well," said I, "it was alive enough when Black was here. These rocks could tell some fine tales, Roddy. I wonder how many poor devils lie in the snow beyond them. Dante never beat this in his wildest dreams. It's just as though we had left the world altogether."

He would not dispute it: the spell of the place lay heavy upon him as upon me. Every step upward, every advantage we gained upon the steep was a new rung in the ladder of a weird enchantment. The danger of our ascent hardly occurred to us. I think we feared that a voice would speak to us out of the bowels of the rock and that we should flee in terror.

Of course, we did nothing of the kind. A man can accustom himself to most things if he gives his reason a chance; and we were soon happy amidst the desolations all about us and ready to laugh at them. The monstrous birds that went whirring from their nests; the strange play of light in the ravines; the echoes of our whispers magnified to great sounds ceased to daunt us when we had gone a little way; and by and by we were jesting about them. Old climbers, who had "bagged" the Dent Blanche and other famous peaks in Switzerland, we made short work of the bluff directly we set ourselves seriously to the task; and soon we had circumvented it and were dropping down to the glacier on the far side.

I would tell you that the shore was now hidden from us for a spell, and that we seemed to be in a great pit of ice—as deep a pit as Sindbad the Sailor lay in when the great bird took a fancy to his diamonds. All about us were needles of black rock, wild ravines, and a solitude beyond any imagination dreadful. We had feared crevasses in the glacier; but the few we discovered were of no great depth, and it being unnecessary to cross them, we followed the banks of a river of ice, and presently gained the higher ground on the far side. Here a disquieting thing happened, for we heard a rifle-shot very clearly, and then a second, echoing over the hills as though a hidden enemy enveloped us. For quite a long while we stood and listened, uncertain whether the shots had come from the outer basin or the distant lake. But we could make nothing of them, and drawing a little closer together and watching every spur of the rock as though a man were hidden by it, we gained a height and saw the ship again. And then in a flash we discovered a strange truth.

A long-boat was being rowed round the Celsis, and fully twenty men were aboard it. I could see, even in the uncertain light, that our own gangway ladder had been drawn up, and that the whole of the crew stood to attention on the deck. Captain York himself appeared to be parleying with the strangers from a station near the aft-deck house. But why the rifles had been fired or what was the meaning of that attack I had not a notion, nor Roddy either, for that matter.

"Does he think to play the pirate himself and loot us in the open day?" said I. "Why, Roddy, he could hang for that, if we get back to Europe."

"If we get back, old chap——"

I looked at him sharply. His imperturbable face had not lost its imperturbability, but there was something in his eyes I had never seen before.

"Do you think it's as bad as that, Roddy?"

"As what, my boy?"

"As your thoughts, Roddy."

Well, he dwelt upon it a moment, and then he spoke.

"Look here," he said, with unwonted emphasis, "if those Yanks believe there is gold in Black's house, do you think they mean us to get back to Europe?"

"But, Roddy, we are not old women——"

He laughed.

"You always say that, Scribe. I'm just putting the thing to you. Do they mean us to get back? If the skipper hadn't moved the ship to-day, would there have been any ship to move to-morrow? You know you don't believe it."

"That's to say that they would have mined the rock above us?"

"Of course it is. I guessed that long before Mitchell came aboard. It was the rock I was looking at last night when I took my glasses——"

"Oh," I cried, "what a devilish thing——"

"You may well say that, though I don't suppose Jo Mitchell cares much for a pious opinion. He'd have blasted the rock above us, and the ship would have gone down like a stone. Well, we're holding four aces on that, and he's got to see us. That's what he's been trying to do to-night."

"And the skipper fired a shot or two to keep up his spirits. I wish we were aboard, Roddy."

"What's the good of wishing—we're not. Surely York's capable of dealing with that lot. They're heading off already, don't you see?"

"And running for the open. Then they'll come slap on Billy and the launch."

It was too true. The long-boat was now being rowed from the ship straight for the headlands, and would certainly discover what we had done. It was ten to one we should have the gang on our heels before another hour had passed.

"Will Billy come ashore, do you think?" I asked next. Roddy was sure he would not.

"He's no fool, though he looks one. You get the laugh of the world when you've a mug like Billy's. I'll bet he finds a way out; you see if he doesn't. Hallo, though, I don't like that!"

He caught my arm in his excitement, and we stood together to listen to a sudden roar of a great gun—not the echo of a rifle shot this time, but of cannon—to which the very hills reverberated. Such a surprising thing struck us dumb. We just looked at each other and waited.

"It must have been the echoes, Roddy. Do you remember last night?"

"But, my boy, that was a shot from the headland, from the place we have just left. Good God, and we thought ourselves alone there!"

"Anyway," said I, with more composure, "it was not at old Billy they fired; they'd have done it long ago if he had been their target. There must be others ashore, Roddy; there must be——"

Well, I did not dare to finish with it. A freshet of thought had come to me, and I might share it with no other. Just as I had heard the voice of the dead pirate when we sailed after the rogues of Dolphin's Cove, so in my heart did I believe that I might hear it again amid this desolation. Call it folly, hallucination—what you will, the fact stood stubborn and unconquerable. Roddy, on his part, knew that I was keeping something back, and pressed me to the issue.

"There wasn't a third expedition, Mark. What do you mean by others?"

"Do ships' guns go off by themselves? That was a ship's gun they fired; I knew the sound too well."

"Then it was a ship's gun ashore. I'll swear they fired it from the headland."

"But not at Billy; I'll answer for that."

"Should we go back, do you think?"

"A lot of good we'd do. I say, push on while the luck is with us. That boat may be our salvation if there are others in the haven. I'll trust to York for the ship. He's worth half a dozen Jo Mitchells any day, and he knows just what Billy Eightbells is doing."

I hardly waited for his answer, so reasonable did the thing seem; and soon the pair of us were threading the glacier's path again, and the ship and the outer basin were lost to our view. Half an hour of stiff climbing brought us to a ravine through which we could espy the shore of the great lake, and down this we ran in our excitement. We had won our way whatever the danger, and in an hour we should know the truth.

I can hardly tell you of the medley of strange sensations which accompanied me to the lake-side, or the vivid memories which troubled me. Though it was past seven o'clock of the evening, a full red sun still shone in the western sky and flooded the lake with a sheen of glorious radiance. Wide over this world of desolate waters the crimson rays were winged until they struck upon the infinite whiteness of the distant snow fields and fired the mountain peaks as with living flame. Such grandeur, such a sense of vast spaces, such glory of Nature in her loneliness, few men live to see.

Upon this sense of the majesty of the place there came my memories of the day when I had visited it with the mad Osbart; when he had told me why the pirates had made it their home; had pointed out the deserts to which the prisoners were driven; had shown me the great ice-caves in which the dead had been immured. Black had been King of Ice Haven then, and all had obeyed him. Could he but rise from the dead this night, with what a fury of cruelty and lust would he not drive the intruders out! But Black lay at the bottom of the great ocean, and men were free to come and go as they listed in this, the kingdom he had ruled.

I would tell you that the lake hereabouts is of vast extent; that there are sheer cliffs to the northward, but a kindly shelving shore to the south, and that this leads up by shallow terraces to the Caves of the Dead. Naturally, our first thought, when we threw ourselves down upon the snows of the beach, was of Mitchell and his men, who now occupied Black's old house on the farther shore, and would hardly cross the lake unless they had Osbart's story. So we thought that we lay in some safety for the time being, and might visit the galleries at our pleasure.

"There are rocks enough on the hill side," said I, "and it's hardly likely they will spy us out in such a light. You shall play sentry, Roddy, and I will go into the caves. Of course, I don't expect to do more than reconnoitre; but if there is any truth in the story of the gold, then I'll learn it or call myself a fool. The first thing is to avoid a surprise. It would take them twenty minutes in a launch to cross the lake. We can make a bolt for the ship directly they get afloat, and if Billy is not there, the skipper will take us off. That's the best I can think of, and if you've anything better——"

He puffed hard at his great pipe, and seemed to be turning the matter over in his head. The lake was as silent as the waters of death; not a breath of wind stirred in the hills; the sun continued to shine with diminishing splendour; while the glow upon the heights changed from a deep crimson to wondrous hues of pink and violet.

"Well, Roddy, and what do you say? You take a long time about it."

"I was thinking, old chap."

"Of what?"

"Of the gun that was fired from the headlands. Suppose it was at Billy, after all? Suppose Mitchell's lot are on this side?"

"Their ship's not, anyway. Take my glasses and see. There's a yacht lying at anchor right over against Black's house. Why, my glass would almost show you a man on her decks; and it's sense to say that where the yacht is, there will the best part of the crew be. You don't suppose Jo Mitchell would desert his ship?"

"No, but——"

"But what, Roddy?"

"Well, it's odd that we don't see any men. I've been watching the place ever since we dropped down here, and there isn't a sign of life anywhere—not as much as a hand's breadth of smoke nor the smallest of boats. They wouldn't have turned in at this time of night——"

"Of course they wouldn't; they'd be all ashore, eating."

"Tinned meat, I suppose. Didn't you say that you saw some smoke when you climbed on the boom last night?"

I had to admit it; and really it was very odd that there was no witness of any kind to human occupation of the galleries on the far shore. My glasses were powerful enough to show me the yacht very plainly, and, beyond the yacht, the steep cliff wherein Black had built his home. I could see the iron ladder by which you gained the height, the rude windows cleft in the rock, and, farther up the shore, the low buildings in which the pirates had been housed. These buildings were now a heap of blackened ruins, for the Government ships had destroyed them; but it was odd, nevertheless, that no human being showed himself anywhere upon that side; nor could I gainsay Roddy's view of it.

"You're right about the place," I admitted at length, "but that doesn't alter my opinion. If we're going to lie here and speculate as to what might happen, we may as well throw up the sponge at once. Let's risk it while we're in the mood, Roddy. We shall never get a better chance; and as for Mitchell's men being on this side of the water—well, I'm ready to take my luck with them——"

"You're always ready to take your luck anywhere Scribe. Don't think me a tenderfoot—I was a bit anxious, that's all; but, if you give the word, we'll go at once."

"Then I give it now, and luck go with us. Remember, one call brings me back to you. We mustn't muddle it. I shall know there's danger if I hear you whistle, and that's all you have to remember."

He said that he understood; and upon that we set out. The climb to the mouth of the caves was light work enough, and what we had seen (or had not seen) upon the farther shore encouraged us to go with little prudence.

Every step now carried me nearer to a recognition of my surroundings. I could point to the track around the lake by which Osbart and I had first come to this place; I saw the narrow ledge upon which a man must walk to reach the outermost of the galleries; I recognized the hill wherefrom we had discovered the distant shore and the ocean beating upon it. And there I left Roddy.

It was not a time for sentiment, and yet I think we were both a little troubled at that parting. For a moment I thought he was wistful to call me back after I had left him; but when I turned round he had found a nook behind a boulder of the rock, and there he sat smoking his great pipe as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world for him to be playing a sentry's part. Twenty yards farther on I gained the ledge of the rock and the entrance to the cavern. A wan light enveloped me immediately, my eyes saw but dimly in the deep shadows, and I stood wondering if I would have the courage after all.

Remember how different a thing it had been when the mad Doctor went with me upon a similar journey. I had nothing to fear then from unknown enemies; I knew little of what I must see or of the horror of the place. Now, dread of the caverns fell upon me heavily at the outset; I groped my way fearfully, while there was ever with me the dread that I might lose my bearings and be lost here in this dismal place beyond any hope of seeing the sun again.

I say that what affected me chiefly was the dim light within the cavern and the almost black darkness of the narrow passage beyond it. There had been ship's lanterns lighting this when Osbart took me there; and some of them remained, as my hands told me while I felt my way by the jagged wall. I struck a match I saw that the lantern was all rusted, while water dripped from the roof, and the path itself was littered by boulders of the rock. Thenceforth the way became more difficult. I stumbled and came near to falling more than once. The darkness grew so profound that I could not see my hand before my face.

And what foreboding through it all; what listening for any sound that might speak of friend or foe; what fears of the void and its unknown terrors! Sometimes I would say that I must slip through a crevasse of the rock and fall headlong to vast depths. Or I would disturb a boulder, and hear it go clanging down behind me, filling the cavern with its thunders, and setting my heart aflutter as though other hands than mine had hurled it. When light came at last, I feared it almost as much as the dark. What truths of this black world might it not reveal? And I knew that the dead lay near me, and that I must look upon their faces.

These fears I put behind me a little as the light waxed stronger, and it became apparent to me that I was alone in the cavern. Now I could see that the passage led into a large apartment, one I remembered to have visited with the Doctor, and I did not fail to notice that the door of this inner cave was fended by a great stone, which had been rolled back many years ago, but still lay so that a man who would enter must clamber over it. This I did quickly enough, anxious to make an end of it; and no sooner was I upon the other side than I stood in the presence of the dead, and knew that my goal was achieved. Achieved—if it be not irony to write the word. For was not that the moment when I heard the thundering echo of the great stone as it rolled back to its place, and, turning, knew that it had trapped me in that fearful den, the prisoner of the impotent dead, whose staring eyes mocked me as they lay?