Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 9


CHAPTER IX
I SUP WITH OSBART

There were two men with the Doctor, and the lantern's light showed me that one of them was the man we had called Red Roger at Dolphin's Cove. The other was a stranger to me, a huge negro with green eyes and a merry face and lips which bulged ridiculously. These two waited for us to pass and they followed close upon our heels until we emerged from the gallery, and the lake itself was spread out to our view.

I write down this account of it in the common way; for no words of mine would tell you what was in my head—neither speak of my gratitude because they had fetched me out of the cave; nor of my wonder that they should be there at all. One thing is very sure: I had not a notion of Osbart's meaning when he talked about there being good news for the Captain. I walked as a man who dreams; the glorious view of the lake below me, of the snow-field and the majestic hills, had become as unreal as the scene at a theatre. I could not understand that it was intimately connected with all I had done and was doing. When at length I bethought me of Roddy and asked a question, there was no great desire to have an answer. This madman had hypnotized me now as he had done when first I went aboard Black's ship.

For all that, his reply to my question was plain enough, and should have satisfied me.

"Your friend has returned to the yacht," he said, in his own way. "I will tell you more about him presently. We must go to the Captain now and lose no time. Am I wrong in thinking that you will be glad to see him?"

He walked by my side while he spoke, and we went down the slope toward a boat that waited for us at the water's edge. Something in his tone forbade me to treat his words lightly, and I had no desire to do so.

"Name your Captain to me," I rejoined with reserve, "and I will tell you whether I am glad or sorry."

He looked at me—the mad eyes were unchanged since the old days—and then he laughed softly.

"Ah," said he. "I can understand that," though what he understood and why he would not speak I knew no more than the dead. Then we came to the boat, and there, waiting for us, was no other than the hunchback whom my men had named Jack-o-'Lantern.

I was astounded to meet the fellow under such circumstances; nor could I make anything of them. The mystery of his appearance in my cabin on the Celsis had not ceased to be a matter of speculation among us; but here he sat at the tiller of the boat and hardly paid me the compliment of a nod. For that matter, the men took their seats without a word and set out immediately to row to the farther shore.

The crossing occupied us a matter of twenty minutes or so, and our course lay toward the foot of the iron ladder by which you go up to Black's house. Though it was after midnight, a man might very well have seen to read a paper, and the whole of the fore-shore and the high cliffs beyond it became plainly visible before we were half-way across.

At this time, too, I noticed Mitchell's yacht, but I thought she occupied a different berth from the one Roddy and I had spied out that afternoon. When we drew a little closer I observed that she had been beached on the snows and lay right over on her beam ends. This had been done while I was in the great cavern, and I fell to wondering if Roddy had seen anything of it. Osbart said that he had returned to the ship; but why he had returned and what his desertion of me meant, were riddles I would not attempt to solve. They were still unanswered when the boat drew up at the ladder's foot and the Doctor bade me go ashore.

"We are over late for the Captain," he said as he stepped out; "but, anyway, you will be glad to get back to your old quarters. They are changed and not all you could wish them to be. But we have done our best, and it is not for long. Should the Captain be gone aboard, I propose that we take supper together. Is that agreeable to you?"

Of course, I had to say that it was. There could be no thought of a rebuff at such a time or place; and, indeed, my curiosity now commanded me to go on at all costs. I believed that the mystery of Ice Haven was at length to be revealed to me—but of its full measure I had not an idea.

We mounted the iron ladder, Osbart showing the way, and the huge man named Red Roger coming at my heels. The door at the ladder's head leads, as you may remember, to a corridor cut from the rock; but while this had been elegantly furnished in Black's time, and the embrasures hung handsomely with crimson curtains, it was now bare as a barn—the hangings gone and the furniture smashed.

In the great dining-room which lies at the upper end of it, I found some pretence to decency of life; a little of the old luxury and more than a suggestion of recent occupation. Here a dining-table was laid for three and lighted by candles in silver sticks; while a wealth of plate decorated the white cloth. But as though to remind the diners that they were many thousands of miles from civilization, the floor of the apartment was covered by skins, chiefly of white bear; while great piles of the same served for couches round about. I thought, as I looked upon them, of that apartment in the Rue Joubert in Paris where I had first seen Black and his villainous crew—and I wondered that Osbart, the last alive of all that company, should have imitated his old leader here in far Greenland. But, naturally, I made no mention of it, and we sat to the table without a word.

"Well," said I, for the remark could not be kept back, "we're not to see the Captain, anyway." He looked at me out of those cunning eyes of his and answered almost naĩvely:

"I think it better not. He is sleeping or he would be here. You remember the old adage. Well, then, we will just have supper together and talk about all this in the morning. I am sure you are very tired."

"Not so tired but that I must be thinking of my ship. You don't suppose that I have forgotten my friends."

"I suppose nothing of the kind. It is very natural that you should not, especially as you will not see them for a long time."

Well, I supposed that I laughed in my turn. Osbart's cool effrontery had ever been matchless; but that he should have attempted to play a leader's part, here at Ice Haven when all was changed and the master dead, seemed to be an irony.

"Come," said I, "we are not play acting, Osbart—and the gulf between to-night and the old time is hardly worth bridging. Had Black been here, there is no man living who would not have listened—but you, my friend, his part fits you badly."

He made light of it—and touched a gong upon the table. The negro who answered the bell was the very same who had waited upon me in the old days. Nothing about him seemed changed. His very grin and the salutation "Good evening, sah," were familiar.

"Capen gone aboard ship," he said to Osbart; "will Massa Doctor take 'em supper now, or will he wait whiles?"

"Massa Doctor will take his supper immediately, Sambo. Hurry, my infant, I am not here for a month; hurry, I tell you."

The nigger went off like a shot, and Osbart seized upon a flagon of wine and poured himself out a bumper and another for me. His manner was now a little excited and menacing. I had seen him in this mood once before, upon the day when the prisoners were shot on the snow-fields; but why it should overtake him this night I could but hazard.

"Ourselves," he cried, spilling the wine upon the cloth as he lifted his cup; "our splendid selves and fortune! You'll drink to that, Strong."

"Certainly; it's a capital toast."

"I'll give you a better—the Captain."

"Well, I'll drink that. Anyway, he sent you to bring me out of the cavern."

He looked at me queerly.

"That's true—while you, you and your gang, would have left me to rot in Parkhurst until eternity. It's as true as the stars; I knew it when I wrote to you. Did you think of me when you fitted out your ship? No, by ——! You thought of the treasure—and the man who showed you where the treasure was might have been ten thousand fathoms down in hell for all you cared. That's the story, Strong—there's the man whose life I saved this night."

"Then why did you save it, Osbart?"

"Why did I save it—have you no brains to think, then? Am I the master or the servant of the man who gave me life? Where would I be to-night but for him? Groping in a cell, beating at the walls with my bleeding hands; crying to them for God's sake to kill the madman. That's where I'd be. And where am I now? Why, upon the brink of the wide sea with the whole world for my prison. Free, I tell you, for all that I would do—free for vengeance; free to serve, to walk the old ways. That's what he has given me

"Then you were rescued from Parkhurst?"

His eyes flamed at the thought.

"The Captain came for me. I'd dreamed of it a hundred nights. Awake or asleep I dreamed of the Captain. Dead or alive he would come to me. Red death before me or blood in my eyes, I saw the Captain coming. Then they brought me the letter. I asked no questions. The warder had been well paid, I said. He brought me the letter. That night I climbed the wall by the Governor's house and made my way down to the sea. A boat waited for me; I went aboard the ship. The sentinel who fired his rifle at me will never fire another. I wrung his neck with these hands—I left him stark, and dead upon the hill-side. But the boat put out to sea and we made the great Atlantic—and now the work begins and they shall pay; the uttermost farthing, if the deep runs red with blood."

I shuddered when I heard him. A madman he was; but the temper of his madness passed all comprehension. And this man, I said, had escaped from prison; he was free to work his dreadful will where he could. Such horror of Ice Haven I had not know in the days when Black had ruled—and this was an Osbart I understood for the first time.

But more than my loathing of his talk, of his wild threats and his insane confessions, more than these was the story he had put together so incoherently.

Who was this unknown friend who had rescued him from Farkhurst prison; who was the man he served?

All the wild dreams of my journey since the first day of it were made good in this place and at this table. Here for the first time I knew the truth and trembled when I heard it.

"Tell me," I cried, "for God's sake tell me—is Black alive?"

Well, he looked at me as though I were the madman.

"Is Black alive?"

"I am asking you—is it possible that he lives?"

He laughed wildly—horrid laughter that echoed under the vault of the great room. Then, taking a candle from the table and regardless of the dish they had set before him, he rose and beckoned me to follow him.

We left the dining-room and went a little way down the wide corridor which runs the whole length of the cliff. There are rooms facing the lake at intervals here; and before the door of one of them he paused and lifted the candle aloft. Then he pulled a curtain and showed me what lay beyond. As in the great dining-hall, so here a table had been spread for dinner. There were five men sitting round about it, and for an instant I did not see that they were stone dead. But such was the case; and while one still had a cup in his hand, another held the very knife with which he had been cutting his food. So swiftly had the unseen death overtaken them that one of the younger men might have been still sleeping. The eyes of another were wide open and seemed to be looking at us. I saw that this man was Jo Mitchell, and that he alone among them had known both the pain and the fear of death.

"Well," cried Osbart, and his words echoed terribly in the dark room, "do you ask me the question now, Strong?"

But I had turned away, sick and faint at the spectacle; and worn out and overcome by all I had seen and heard, I tumbled in a dead stupor, and knew no more until the fresh night air brought me to my senses; and I saw that I was being carried out of the galleries to the cabin of a ship.