The Iron Pirate/Chapter 10

The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter X



For full five days we steamed with the other vessels, under no stress to keep the sea with them, since they made no more than twelve knots, for the sake of the cruiser which had been so fearfully maimed in the short action with the nameless ship. During this time there was little power of wind; and the breeze continuing soft from the north-east, it was easy business to hold sight of the convoy, which we did to the satisfaction of every man aboard us. But I could not put away from myself the knowledge that the events of the first three days had made much talk in the fo'castle and that a feeling akin to terror prevailed amongst the men.

This came home to me with some force on the early morning of the fifth day. I found myself unable to sleep restfully in my bunk, and went above at daybreak, to see the white hulls of the American war-vessels a mile away on the port-quarter and the long line of the Black Anchor boat a few cables'-lengths ahead of them. Paolo was on the bridge, but I did not hail him, thinking it better to give the man few words until we sighted Sandy Hook. He, in turn, maintained his sullen mood; but he did not neglect to be much amongst the hands, and his intimacy with them increased from day to day.

Now, when I came on deck this morning, I found that the breeze, strong and fresh though it was, put me in that soporific state I had sought unavailingly in my bunk. There was a deck-chair well placed behind the shelter of the saloon skylight, and upon this I made myself at ease, drawing my peaked hat upon my eyes, and getting the sleep-music from the swish of the sea, as it ran upon us, and sprinted from the tiller right away to the bob-stay. But no sleep could I get; for scarce was I set upon the chair when I heard Dan the other side of the skylight, and he was holding forth with much fine phrase to Roderick's dog, Belle.

"Yes," he said, apparently treating the beast as though possessed of all human attributes. "Yes, you don't go for to say nothing, but you're a Christian dog, I don't doubt; and yer heart's in the right place; or it's not me as would be wasting me time talking to yer. Now, what I says is, you're comfortable enough, with Missie a-makin' as much of yer as if good fresh beef weren't tenpence a pound, and yer mouth warn't large enough to take in a hundredweight; but that ain't the way with the rest of us—no, my old woman, not by a cable's-length; we're afloat on a rum job, old lady; and some of us won't go for to pipe when it's the day for payin' off—not by a long way. So you hear; and don't get answerin' of me, for what I spoke's logic, and there's an end of it."

I called him to me, and had it out with him there and then.

"What's in the wind now, Dan," I asked, "that you're preaching to the dog?"

"Ay, that's it," he replied, putting his hand into his pocket for his tobacco-box. "What's in the wind?—why, you'd have to be askin' of it to learn, I fancy."

"Is there any more nonsense amongst the men forward?"

"There's a good deal of talk—maybe more than there should be."

"And what do they talk about? Tell me straight, Dan."

"Well, I've got nothing, for my part, to hide away, and I don't know as they should have; but you know this ship is a dead man’s!"

"Who told you that stuff?"

"No other than our second mate, sir, as sure as I cut this quid. Not as yarns like that affect me; but, you see, some skulls is thick as plate-armour, and some is thin as egg-shells: and when the thin 'uns gets afloat with corpse, why, it's a chest of shiners to a handspike as they cracks—now, ain't it?"

"Dan, this is the most astounding story that I have yet heard. Would you make it plainer? for, upon my life, I can't read your course!"

He sat down on the edge of the skylight—long service had given him a claim to familiarity—and filled his pipe from my tobacco-pouch before he answered, and then was mighty deliberate.

"Plain yarns, Mister Mark, is best told in the fo'castle, and not by hands upon the quarter-deck; but, asking pardon for the liberty, I feel more like a father to you gentlemen than if I was nat'ral born to it; and this I do say—What's this trip mean; what's in yer papers? and why ain't it the pleasure vige we struck flag for? For it ain't a pleasure vige, that a shoreman could see; and you ain't come across the Atlantic for the seein' of it, nor for merchandise nor barter, nor because you wanted to come. That's what the hands say at night when the second's a-talkin' to 'em over the grog he finds 'em. ’Where's it going to end?' says he; 'what is yer wages for takin' yer lives where they shouldn't be took? and,' says he, 'in a ship what the last skipper died aboard of it,' says he, 'died so sudden, and was so fond of his old place as who knows where he is now, afloat or ashore, p'r'aps a-walking this very cabin, and not bringing no luck for the vige, neither,' says he. And what follows?—why, white-livered jawings, and this man afeard to go here, and that man afeard to go there, and the Old One amongst 'em, so that half of 'em says, 'We was took false,' and the other half, 'Why not 'bout ship and home again?' No, and you ain't done with it, not by a long day, and you won't have done with it until you drop anchor in Yankee-land, if ever you do drop anchor there, which I take leave to give no word upon."

"It's a curious state of things. You mean to say, I suppose, that there's terror amongst them—plain terror, and nothing else?"

"Ay, sure!"

"Then it remains for us to face them. What's your opinion on that?"

"My opinion is, as you won't go for to do it, but will take your victuals, and play your music in the aft parlour, and skeer away the Old One with the singing, as ye've skeered him already—that's what ye'll do afore Missie and the skipper—but by yourself, you won't have two eyes shut when you sleep, and you won't have two eyes open when you're above; and when you're wanted you won't be an hour getting yourself nor Mr. Roderick under weigh—and that's the end of it, for there goes the bell."

The watch changed as he spoke, and I went below to the bathroom; thence, not thinking much of Dan's terror, nor of the men's petty grumbling, I joined the others at breakfast. We were now well towards the end of the journey, and I itched to set foot in America. The new safety in the presence of the warships had given us light hearts; and that fifth day we passed in great games of deck-quoits and cricket, with a soft ball which the bo'sun made for us out of tow and linen. The men worked cheerfully enough, giving the lie direct to Dan; and when Mary played to us after dinner at night I began to think that, all said and done, we should touch shore with no further happening; and that then I could make all use of the man Paolo and his knavery. So I went to bed at ten o'clock, and for an hour or two I slept with the deep forgetfulness which is the reward of a weary man.

At what hour Dan awoke me I cannot tell you. He shook me twice in the effort, he said, and when I would have turned up the electric light, he seized my hand roughly, muttering in a great whisper, "Hold steady." I knew then that mischief was afloat, and asked him what to do.

"Crawl above," he said, "and lie low a-deck"; and he went up the companion ladder when I got my flannels and rubber-shod shoes upon me. But at the topmost step he stood awhile, and then he fell flat on his hands, and backed again down the stairway, so that he came almost on top of me; but I saw what prompted his action, for, as he moved, there was a shadow thrown from the deck light down to where we lay; and then a man stepped upon the stair and descended slowly, his feet naked, but in his hand an iron bar; for he had no other weapon. At the sight of him, we had backed to the foot of the stairway; and, as the man crept down, we lay still, so that you could hear every quiver of the glass upon the table of the saloon; and we watched the fellow drop step by step until he was quite close to us in the dark, and his breath was hot upon us. Swiftly then and silently he entered the place; and, going to my cabin door, he slipped a wedge under it, serving the other doors around the big cabin in the same way. The success seemed to please him; he chuckled softly, and came again to the ladder, where, with a quick motion, Dan brought his pistol-butt (for I had armed him) full upon the fellow's forehead, and he went down like a dead thing at the foot of the swinging table.

There we left him, after we had bound his hands with my scarf; and with a hurried knock got Roderick from his berth. He, in turn, aroused his sister, and in five minutes we all stood in the big saloon and discussed our plan.

Dan's whispered tale was this. The watch was Paolo's, who had persuaded four stokers and six of the forward hands to his opinion. These men, the dupes of the second officer, had determined on this much—that the voyage to New York should be stopped abruptly, come what might, and that our intent should go for nothing. We, being locked in our cabins, were to have no voice in the affair; or, if waked, then we should be knocked on the head, and so quieted to reason.

It was a desperate endeavour, wrought of fear; but at that moment the true hands of the fo'castle were battened down, and Dan, who had seen the thing coming, escaped only by his foresight. That night he had felt danger, and had wrapped himself up in a tarpaulin, and lain concealed on deck.

As it was, Paolo stood at the door of the skipper's room; there were three men guarding the fo'castle, and five at the foot of the hurricane deck. One man we had settled with; but we were three, and eight men stood between us and the true hands.

Roderick was the first to get his wits, and plan a course.

"We must act now," he said, "before they miss their man. They've stopped the engines, and we shall drop behind the others. There's only one chance, and that is to surprise them. Let's rush it and take the odds."

"You can't rush it," I replied; "they're looking for that; and if one now went forward they would shoot him down straight—and what's to follow? They come aft, and how can we hold them? But we must get the skipper awake, or they'll knock him on the head while he sleeps."

Mary had listened, shivering with the night cold; but she had a word to add, and its wisdom was no matter for dispute.

"If I went," she said, "what could they do to me?"

We were all silent.

"I'm going now," she said; "while I'm talking to them they won't be looking for you."

"Certainly, we could follow up," I added, "and might get them down if you held them in talk; but don't you fear?"

She laughed, and gave answer by running up the companion-way, and standing at the top; while we cocked our pistols, and crept after her. Then we lay flat to the deck, as she ran noiselessly amidships, and into the very centre of the five men. To our astonishment, they gave a great howl of terror at the sight of her—for it lay so dark that she seemed but a thing of shadow hovering upon the ship—and bolted headlong forward; while we rushed in a body to the hurricane deck, and faced Paolo. He turned very white, and would have opened his lips; but Dan served him as the other; and hit him with his pistol, so that he rolled senseless off the narrow bridge, and we heard the thud of his head against the iron of the engine-room hatch. He had scarce fallen when Mary, with the laugh still upon her lips, reeled at the sight of him, and fell fainting in my arms. I knocked at the skipper's door, but he was already on his feet, and passed me to the bridge, where I laid the swooning girl on the sofa in the chart-room.

The skipper got the whole situation at the first look, and acted in his usual silence. He re-entered his own cabin, and came to us again with a couple of rifles, which he loaded. We were now all crouching together by the wheel amidships, for Mary had recovered, and insisted that I should leave her, and we waited for the heavy black clouds to lift off the moon; but the fore-deck lay dark ahead of us; and we could not tell whether the men who had fled had gone below, or were crouching behind the galley, and the skylights of the fore-cabins. Nor could we hear any sound of them, although the skipper hailed them twice. He was for going forward at once; but we held back until the light came, and then by the full moon we saw dark shadows across the hatch. The men were behind the galley, as we thought—the eight of them.

The skipper hailed them again.

"You, Karl, Williams—are you coming out now, for me to flog you; or will you swing at New York?"

I could see their whole performance in shadow, as they heard the hail. One of them cocked a pistol, and the rest huddled more closely together.

"Very well," continued the skipper, ironically deliberate. "You've got a couple of planks between you and eternity. I'm going to fire through that galley."

He raised his rifle at the word, and let go straight at the corner of the light wood erection. A dull groan followed, and by the shadow on the deck I saw one man fall forward amongst the others, who held him up with their shoulders; but his blood ran in a thick stream out to the top of the hatchway, and then ran back as the ship heaved to the seas.

For the fifth time the skipper hailed them.

"There's one down amongst you," he said; "and that's the beginning of it; I'm going to blow that shanty to hell, and you with it."

He raised his rifle, but as he did so one of them answered for the first time with his revolver, and the bullet sang above our heads. The skipper's shot was quick in reply; and the wood of the shanty flew in splinters as the bullet shivered it. A second man sprang to his feet with a shout, and then fell across the deck, lying full to be seen in the moonlight.

"That's two of you," continued the skipper, as calm as ever he was in Portsmouth harbour; "we'll make it three for luck." But at the suggestion they all made a run forward, and lay flat right out by the cable. There we could hear them blubbering like children.

The skipper was of a mind to end the thing there and then. He sprang down the ladder to the deck, and we followed him. They fired three shots as we rushed on them; but the butt ends of the two muskets did the rest. Three of them went down straight as felled poplars. The others fell upon their knees and implored mercy; and they got it, but not until the skipper, who now seemed roused to all the fury of great anger, set to kicking them lustily, and with no discrimination—for they all had their full share of it.

We had the other hands up by this, and, despite the tragedy and horror of the thing, a smile came to me as the true men set to binding the others at the skipper's order; for Piping Jack and Planks, and the whole ten of them, fell into such a train of swearing as would have done your heart good to hear. They got them below at the first break of dawn, and the dead they covered; while Paolo, who lay groaning, we carried to a cabin in the saloon, and did for his broken head that which our elementary knowledge of surgery permitted us.

As the day brought light upon the rising sea, I looked to the far horizon, but the rolling crests of an empty waste met my gaze. Again we were alone. The night's work had lost us the welcome company.