THE SHIP IN THE BLACK CLOAK.
The day that broke was glorious enough for Nature's making, but sad upon our ship, in that the folly of eight poor fellows should have cost the life of two, with three more lying near to death in the fo'castle. The sea had risen a good deal when we got under steam again, and clouds scudded over the sun; but we set stay-sails and jibs, and made a fine pace towards the shores of America. It was near noon when we had buried the two stokers shot by the skipper, and more on in the afternoon before the decks were made straight, and the traces of the scuffle quite obliterated. But Paolo lay all day in a delirium, and Mary went in and out, bearing a gentle hand to the wounded, who alternately cried with the pain of it, and begged grace for their insanity. The second officer's case was worse than theirs, and I thought at noon that the total of the dead would have been three; for he raved incessantly, crying "Ice, Ice!" almost with every breath, while we had all difficulty possible to hold him in his bunk. His words I could not get the meaning of; but I had them later, and in circumstances I had never looked for.
After the hour of lunch the skipper called Roderick and me into his cabin, and there he discussed the position with us.
"One thing is clear," he said; "you've brought me on more than a pleasure trip, and, while I don't complain, it will be necessary at New York for me to know something more—or, maybe to leave this ship. Last night's work must be made plain, of course; and this second officer of yours must stand to his trial. The men I would willingly let go, for they're no more than lubberly fools whose heads have been turned. But one thing I now make bold to claim—I take this yacht straight from here to Sandy Hook; and we poke our noses into no business on the way."
"Of course," said Roderick somewhat sarcastically, "you've every right to do what you like with my ship; but I seem to remember having engaged you to obey my orders."
"Fair orders and plain sailing," replied Captain York, bringing his fist down on the table with emphasis; "not running after war-ships that could blow us out of the water without thinking of it. Fair orders I took, and fair orders I'll obey."
"That's quite right, Roderick," I said; "there's no reason now why we shouldn't go straight on—if we don't meet with anyone to ask questions on the way; of that I'm not so sure, though."
"Nor I," said the skipper meaningly, and waiting for me to add more; but I did not mean to gratify him, and we all went out on deck again after we had agreed to let him have his will. We found the first officer on the bridge, looking away to the south-east, where the black hull of a steamer was now showing full. I do not know that the distant sight of a ship was anything to cause remark, but as I looked at her, I noticed that she steamed at a fearful speed, and she showed no smoke from her funnels.
"Skipper," I said, "will you look at that hull? Isn't the boat making uncommon headway?"
He took a long gaze, and then he spoke—
"You're right. She's going more than twenty knots."
"And straight towards us."
"As you say."
"Is there anything remarkable about that?"
He took another sight, and when he turned to me again he had no colour in his face.
"I've seen that ship before," he said.
"Where?" asked Roderick laconically.
"Five days ago, when she fired a shell into the Ocean King."
"In that case," said I, "there isn't much doubt about her intentions: she's chasing us!"
"That may or may not be," he replied, as he raised his glass again, "but she's the same ship, I'll wager my life. Look at the rake of her—and the lubbers, they've left some of their bright metal showing amidships!"
He indicated the deck-house by the bridge, where my glass showed me a shining spot in the cloak of black, for the sun fell upon the place, and reflected from it as from a mirror of gold. There was no longer any doubt: we were pursued by the nameless ship, and, if no help fell to us, I shuddered to think what the end might be.
"What are you going to do, skipper?" asked Roderick, as gloom fell upon the three of us; and we stood together, each man afraid to tell the others all he thought.
"What am I going to do?" said he. "I'm going to see the boats cleared, and all hands in the stoke-hole that have the right there"; and then he sang out, "Stand by!" and the men swarmed up from below, and heard the order to clear the boats. They obeyed unquestioningly; but I doubt not that they were no less uneasy than we were; and, as these things cannot be concealed, the whisper was soon amongst them that the danger lay in the black steamer, which had been five days ago the ship of gold. Yet they went to the work with a right good will; and presently, when a canopy of our own smoke lay over us, and the yacht bounded forward under the generosity of the stoking, they set up a great cheer spontaneously, and were ready for anything. Yet I, myself, could not share their honest bravado. The black ship which had been but a mark on the horizon now showed her lines fully; there could be no two opinions of her speed, or of the way in which she gained upon us. Indeed, one could not look upon her advance without envy of her form, or of the terrifying manner in which she cut the seas. Churning the foam until it mounted its banks on each side of her great ram, she rode the Atlantic like a beautiful yacht, with no vapour of smoke to float above her; and not so much as a sign that any engines forced her onward with a velocity unknown, I believe, in the whole history of navigation. And so she came straight in our wake, and I knew that we should have little breathing time before we should hear the barking of her guns.
The skipper did not like to see my idleness or this display of inactive indifference.
"Don't you think you might help?" he asked.
"Help—what help can I give? You don't suppose we can outsteam them, do you?"
"That's a child's question; they'll run us to a stand in four hours—any man with one eye should see that; but are you going down like a sheep, or will you give them a touch of your claws? I will, so help me Heaven, if there's not another hand breathing!"
"The skipper's right, by Jove!" said Roderick; "if it's coming to close quarters, I'll mark one man anyway," and with that he tumbled down the ladder, and into his cabin. I followed him, and got all the arms I could lay hands on, a couple of revolvers and a long duck-gun amongst the number. There were two rifles—the two we had used in the trouble with the men—in the chart-room, and these we brought on deck, with all the other pistols we had amongst us. We made a distribution of them amongst the old hands, giving Dan the duck-gun, which pleased him mightily.
"I generally shoots 'em sittin'," he said, "but I'll go for to make a bag, and willin'. You're keepin' the Missie out of it, sir?"
"Of course; she's looking after the sick hands downstairs. You go forward, Dan, and wait for the word, then blaze away your hardest."
"Ay, ay," replied he; and I took myself off to see after the others, whom we posted in the stern to keep a closer look-out; while Roderick, the first officer, and myself went above to the bridge.
The men now fell to work in right good earnest. They had all the grit of the old sea-dogs in them—how, I know not, except in this, that their lives had been given to the one mistress. The thought of a brush-up put dash and daring into them; they had the boats cleared, the water-barrels filled, and the life-belts free, with an activity that was remarkable. Then they stood to watch the oncoming of the nameless ship; and when we hoisted our ensign, they burst again into that hoarse roar of applause which rolled across the water-waste, and must have sounded as a vaunting mockery to the men behind the walls of metal. But they answered us in turn, running up an ensign, and a cry came from all of us as we saw its colour, for it was the blue saltire on a white ground.
"Russian, or I'm blind," said the skipper, and I looked twice and knew that his sight was safe to him; for the nameless ship, which five days ago showed her heels under a Chilian mask, now made straight towards us in Russian guise.
"Are you sure she's the same ship?" asked Roderick, when his amazement let him speak.
"Am I sure that my voice comes out of my throat?" said the old fellow testily. "Did you ever see but one hull shaped like that? And now she signals."
So rapidly had she drawn towards us that she was, indeed, then within gun-shot of us. After the first enthusiasm the men had stood, held under the spell of her amazing approach, and no soul had spoken. Even with their plain reckoning and hazy notion of it all, they seemed conscious of the peril; but not as I was conscious of it, for in my own heart I believed that no man amongst us would see to-morrow. There we stood alone, with no prospect but to face the men who openly declared war against us. I turned my eyes away to the crimson arch which marked the sun's decline; I looked again to the east, whence black harbingers of night hung low upon the darkened sea; I searched the horizon in every quarter, but it lay barren of ships, and soon the last light would leave us, and with the ebb of day there was no security against an enemy whose intentions were no longer disguised. I say no longer disguised—but of this the skipper made me cognisant. He pointed to the mast on the nameless ship, where the Russian ensign had hung ten minutes before. It was there no longer; the black flag took its place.
"Pirates, by the very devil!" said the skipper; and then he whistled long and loud and shrilly as a man who has solved a sum.
"Gentlemen," he added very slowly, "I said I would resign this ship at New York: with your permission I will withdraw that. I will sail with you wherever you go."
He shook our hands heartily, as though the discovery of our purpose had unclouded his mind. But we had no time for fuller understanding, for at that moment the air itself seemed torn apart by a great concussion, and a shell burst in the water no more than fifty yards ahead of us. When the knowledge that we were not hit was sure on the men's part, they bellowed lustily; and old Dan fired his gun into the air with a great shout. Yet we knew that all this was the cheapest bravado; and when the skipper touched the bell to stop our engines, I was sure that he was wise.
"That's the end of it, then," I said. "Well, it's pretty ignominious, isn't it, to be shot down like fools on our own quarter-deck?"
"Wait awhile," he answered, looking anxiously behind him, where a mist gathered on the sea; "let 'em lower a boat, the lubbers!"
By this time the great vessel rode still some quarter of a mile away from us; but the glass showed me the men upon her decks, and conspicuous amongst them I saw the form of Captain Black standing by the steam steering gear. Others below were moving at the davits, so that in a small space a launch was riding in a still sea, and was making for us. I watched her with nerves strained and lips dry; she seemed to me the message boat from Death itself.
"Stand steady, and wait for me!" suddenly yelled the skipper, his fingers moving nervously, and his look continually turning to the banks of mist behind us. "When I sing 'Fire!' pick your men!"
The boat was so near that you could see the faces in it; and three of the five I recognised, for I had seen them in the room of the Rue Joubert. The others were not known to me, but had rascally countenances; and one of them was a Chinaman's. The man who was in command was the fellow "Roaring John"; and when he was within hail he stood and bawled—
"My ship!" roared back the skipper, again looking at the mist-clouds, and my heart gave a bound when I read his purpose: we were drifting into them.
"And who may you be?" bawled the fellow again, growing more insolent with every advance.
"I'm one that'll give you the best hiding you ever had, if you'll step up here a minute!" yelled the skipper, as cool as a man in Hyde Park.
"Oh, I guess," said the man; "you're a tarnation fine talker, ain't you? But you'll talk less when I come aboard you, oh, I reckon!"
They came a couple of oars' lengths nearer, when Captain York made his reply. There was a fine roll of confidence in his voice; and he almost laughed when he cried—
"You're coming aboard, are you? And which of you shall I have the pleasure of kicking first?"
The hulking ruffian roared with pleasant laughter at the sally.
"Oh, you're a funny cuss, ain't you, and pretty with your jaw, by thunder! But it's me that you'll have the pleasure of speaking to, and right quick, my mate, oh, you bet!"
"In that case," said the skipper, with his calmness well at zero; "in that case—you, Dan! introduce yourself to the gentleman."
Dan's reply was instantaneous. He leant well over the bulwark, and his cheery old face beamed as he bellowed—
"Ahoy, you there that it's me pleasure to be runnin' against so far from me old country. Will you have it hot, or will you have it the other way for a parcel of cold-livered lubbers? By the Old 'Un, how's that for salt 'oss!"
He had up with his shot gun, and the long ruffian, who had reached forward with his boat-hook, got the dose full in his face as it seemed to me. At the same moment the skipper called "Fire!" and the heavy crack of the rifles and the sharp report of the pistols rang out together. The very launch itself seemed to reel under the volley; but the Chinaman gave a great shout, and jumped into the sea with the agony of his wound; while two of the others were stretched out in death as they sat.
"Full steam ahead!" roared Captain York, as the nameless ship replied with a shell that grazed our chart-room. "Full speed ahead!" Then, shaking his fist to the war-ship, he almost screamed—"Bested for a parcel of cut-throats, by the Powers!"
There was no doubt about it at all. The moment the yacht answered to the screw the fog rolled round us like a sheet, in thick wet clouds, steaming damp on the decks; and twenty yards ahead or astern of us you could not see the long waves themselves. But the sensations of that five minutes I shall never forget. Shot after shot hissed and splashed ahead of us, behind us; now dull, heavy, yet penetrating, and we knew that the ship lay close on our track; then farther oft and deadened, and we hoped that she had lost us. Again dreadfully close, so that a shell struck the chart-room full, and crushed it into splinters not bigger than your finger, then dying away to leave the stillness of the mist behind it. An awful chase, enduring many minutes; a chase when I went hot and cold, now filled with hope, then seeming to stand on the very brink of death. But at last the firing ceased. We left our course, steaming for some hours due south across the very track of the nameless ship; and we went headlong into the fog, the men standing yet at their posts, no soul giving a thought to the lesser danger that was begotten of our speed; every one of us held in that strange after-tension which follows upon calamity.
When I left the bridge it was midnight. I was soaked to the skin and nigh frozen, and the water ran even from my hair; but a hot hand was put into mine as I entered the cabin, and then a thousand questions rained upon me.
"I'll tell you by-and-by, Mary. Were you very much afraid?"
She tossed her head and seemed to think.
"I was a bit afraid, Mark—a—a—little bit!"
"And what did you do all the time?"
"I—oh, I nursed Paolo—he's dying."
The man truly lay almost at death's door; but his delirium had passed; and he slept, muttering in his dream, "I can't go to the City—Black; you know it—let me get aboard. Hands off! I told you the job was risky"; and he tossed and turned and fell into troubled slumber. And I could not help a thought of sorrow, for I feared that he would hang if ever we set foot ashore.
I returned to the saloon sadly, though all was now brightness there. We served out grog liberally for the forward hands, and broke champagne amongst us.
"Gentlemen," said the skipper, giving us the toast, "you owe your lives to the Banks; and, please God, I'll see you all in New York before three days."
And he kept his word; for we sighted Sandy Hook, and harm had come to no man that fought the unequal fight.