The Iron Pirate/Chapter 18

The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter XVIII

CHAPTER XVIII.


THE DEN OF DEATH.


The bed in which I lay was wondrous soft and downy; and the cold gave me deep sleep, so that I awoke at a late hour to find the sun streaming through my rock window, and the negro telling me, as he was wont to do in the ship, that my bath was ready. The bath-room lay away a few paces from my chamber; but the water that flowed from the silver taps was icily cold; and I shivered after my plunge, though the beauty and luxury of the place compelled my admiration. It was no ordinary bath-room, even in its arrangement, the great well of water being large enough to swim in, and the basin of pure white marble; while soft and brightly-coloured rugs were laid on the couches around, and the arched roof was Eastern in design and decoration. When we returned to my sleeping-place, I found the bed curtained off, leaving a commodious apartment, with books, armchairs, a writing-table, and a fire-place, in which a coal fire burned brightly. But the greater surprise was the view from my window, a view over a sunlit fjord, away to mountain peaks, snow-capped and shining; and between them to a vista of an endless snow-plain, white, dazzling, and not altogether unmonotonous, yet relieved by the nearer patches of green and almost garden-land which seemed to stretch towards the sea.

My new home was, as I had thought, upon the side of a fjord which led through a cañon to the outer basin. There was beach at the upper end of it, and grass-land where several canoes and kayaks lay; and I saw that many of the men who had watched the horrors of the night were working lustily now, dragging stores and barrels from a heavily-charged screw steamer which was anchored near the beach. The rocks which bound the opposite side of the bay did not appear to be cut for dwellings as on our side; but I saw trace of several passages in them; and away above them there was a small mountain peak by which a river of ice ran into the sea. But of the outer cave I could observe nothing; or of the shore itself, though away at a greater distance, over some of the ravines, I made out the clear blue of the Atlantic, and a waste of peaceful water.

The doctor came to me while I was at breakfast. He was very cheerful, and began to talk at once.

"The captain sends you his compliments," he said; "and hopes you have slept. Entre nous , you know, he doesn't care a brass button for such things as we saw last night; but if we didn't keep discipline here, we should have our throats cut in a week."

I gave him civil words in return, and he went on to speak of personal matters.

"The men are inclined to resent the exception that has been made in your case. I am afraid it will lead to trouble by-and-by, unless, of course, you choose to close with the offer that Black makes to you."

"You speak of an 'exception,' and an 'offer,'" said I; "but for the life of me, I don't quite know what you mean. How has an exception been made in my case, and what is the offer?"

"I will tell you in a minute; Captain Black has brought thirty or forty Englishmen of your position, or better, to this place within the last three years; not one of them has lived twenty hours from the time he set foot in the rock-house. As for the offer, it is evident to you that we could not permit any man to share our privileges, and to be one of us, unless he shared also our dangers and our risks. In other words, the time will come when you must sign an agreement such as I have signed, and these men have signed—and I don't believe that you will refuse. It is either that, which means full liberty, plenty of money, a life which is never monotonous, often amusing, and sometimes dangerous; or an alternative which I really won't dilate on."

"You lay it all down very clearly," I replied, "but you can have my answer now if you like."

He raised his hand laughingly.

"Curse all emotion," he said, "it affects digestion. Black won't hurry you—why, for the life of me, I can't tell, but he won't. You can't do better than take things easy, and see the place. I've brought you a 'Panama,’ for the sun can advertise himself at eight bells still; and if you have nothing better to do, put it on, and light a cigar as we stroll round."

The idea of inspecting the place pleased me. I followed Doctor Osbart—for such his name was—down the rock slope we had trodden on the previous evening; and thence to the beach, hard and baked with the sun. The men, who had ceased the labour of discharging the steamer, were lying about on the grassy knolls, smoking and dozing, and they cast no friendly glances on me as we passed along the shore round the edge of the bay, and mounted a soft grass slope which led to the cliff-head on the other side. It was a long walk, but not unpleasant, in the crisp, sweet, odour-bearing air; and when we had attained the summit, a glorious seascape was spread before us. All about were the white peaks and the basaltic rocks, towering above ravines where ice flowed, or falling away to bright green pastures where reindeer trod. The coast-line was lofty and awe-inspiring, often showing a precipitous face to the sea, which beat upon it with the booming of heavy breakers; and spread surf all foaming upon its ridges and promontories. I stood entranced with the vigour born of that life-giving breeze; and the young doctor stood with me watching. At last he touched me upon the shoulder, and pointed to the first cave, where he nameless ship lay snugly moored in the creek, with many seamen at work upon her.

"Look," he said, "look there, where is the instrument of our power. Is not she magnificent? Do you wonder at my warmth—yet why? for without her we here are helpless children, victims of poverty, of law, of society. With her we defy the world. In all Europe there is no like to her; no ship which should live with her. Ask her for speed, and she will give you thirty knots; tell her that you have no coal, and she will carry you day after day and demand none. Aboard her, we are superior to fleets and nations; we ravage where we will; we laugh at the fastest cruisers and the biggest warships. Are you surprised that we love her?"

He spoke with extraordinary enthusiasm—the enthusiasm of a fanatic or a lover. The great ship reflected the sun's glow from her many bright parts, and was indeed a beauteous object, yet swan-like, the guns uncovered as the men worked at them, and a newer lustre added to her splendour.

"She is a wonderful ship," said I, "and built of metal I never met with."

"Her hull is constructed of phosphor-bronze," he answered, "and she is driven by gas. The metal is the finest in the world for all ship-building purposes, but its price is ruinous. None but a man worth millions could build the like to her."

"Then Captain Black is such a man?" I said.

"Exactly, or he wouldn't be the master of her—and of Europe. Doesn't it occur to you that you were a fool ever to set out on the enterprise of coping with him?"

I did not answer the taunt, but looked seaward, away across the west, where Roderick and Mary were. The boundless spread of water reminded me how small was the hope that I should ever see them again; ever hear a voice I had known in the old time, or clasp a hand in fellowship that had oft been clasped. They thought me dead, no doubt; and to take the grief from them was forbidden, then and until the end of it, I felt sure.

But the doctor was still occupied with the great ship, looking down upon her as she lay, and he called my attention to a fact I had not been cognisant of.

"We are coaling here, do you see?" he said. "It was one of Black's inspirations to choose Greenland for his hole; it is one of the few comparatively uninhabited countries in the world where coal is to be had, somewhat of a poorer quality than the anthracite we are accustomed to use, but very welcome when we are close pressed. He is filling his bunkers now, in case we should decide to break up this party before the end of the winter. That will depend on our friends over in Europe. We have given them a nightmare, but it won't last, and they'll go to bed again to get another."

"Who are your miners?" I asked suddenly, interrupting him, for I saw that the rock above the nameless ship was pierced with tunnels leading down to the shafts, and that forty or fifty coal-black fellows were shooting the stuff into the bunkers.

"These are our guests," he said lightly, "honest British seamen whose voyages have been interrupted. We give them the alternative of work in the mine, or their liberty on the snow yonder."

"But how can they live in such a place?"

He laughed as though the whole thing were a joke.

"They don't live," said he. "They die like vermin."

"I'm evidently afloat with a lot of fine-spirited fellows," said I; "or, to put it in plain English, with a beautiful company of blackguards."

"Why not say with a lot of devils—that would be more accurate? But you can't forget that you came to us unasked, and now you must stop."

His leer at this sally was terribly expressive, and I showed all the contempt I felt for him, turning away to the sea fondly, as the hope of my liberty, since thence only should it come. He read my thoughts, perhaps, taking me by the arm with unsought pretence of kindness, and he said—

"Don't let's dissect each other's morals; we have the place to see, and you must be getting hungry. I will show you only one thing before we go—it is our cemetery."

It was not a fascinating prospect, yet I followed him across the high plateau to the creek wherein the rock-house was, but to the side which was opposite to my bedroom window. There he descended the face of the cliff by rough steps; and entered one of the passages which I had observed from my chamber. The passage was long and low, lighted by ships' lanterns at intervals, and I discovered that it led to a great cavern which opened to the face of one of the glaciers going down to the sea on the farther side. Nor have I entered a sepulchre which ever gave me such an infinite horror of death, or such a realisation of its terrors.

The end of the cavern was nothing but a wall of ice, clear as glass, admitting a soft light which illuminated the whole place with dim rays, making it a place of mystery and awe. Yet I had not noticed its more dreadful aspect at the first coming; and, when I did so, I gave a cry of horror and turned away my face, fearing to see again that most overwhelming spectacle. For blocks had been cut from the clear ice, and the dead seamen had been laid in the frozen mass just as they had died, without coffin or other covering than their clothes. There they lay, their faces upturned, many of them displaying all the placid peacefulness of death; but some grinned with horrible grimaces, and the eyes of some started from their heads, and there were teeth that seemed to be biting into the ice, and hands clenched as though the fierce activity of life pursued them beyond the veil. Yet the frightful mausoleum, the den of death, was pure in its atmosphere as a garden of snow, cool as grass after rain, silent as a tomb of the sea. Not a sound even of dripping water, not a motion of life without, not a sigh or dull echo disturbed its repose. Only the dead with hands uplifted, the dead in frozen rest, the dead with the smile of death, or the hate of death, or the terror of death written upon their faces, seemed to watch and to wait in the chamber of the sepulchre.

I have said that the sight terrified me; yet the whole of my fear I could not write, though the pen of Death himself were in my hands. So profoundly did the agony of it appeal to me that for many minutes together I dare not raise my eyes, could scarce restrain myself from flying, leaving the dreadful picture to those that should care to gaze upon it. Yet its spell was too terrible, the morbid magnetism of it too potent; and I looked again and again, and turned away, and looked yet once more; and went to the ice to gaze more closely at the dead faces, and was so carried away with the trance of it that I seemed to forget the dead men, and thought that they lived. When I recalled myself, I observed Doctor Osbart watching me intently.

"A strange place, isn't it?" he said. "Observe it closely, for some day you will be here with the others."

I shuddered at his thought, and muttered, "God forbid!"

"Why?" he asked, hearing it. "It's not a very fearful thing to contemplate. I would sooner lie in ice than in earth—and that ice is not part of the glacier; it never moves. It is bound by the rock there which cuts it off from the main mass."

"It's a horrible sight!" I exclaimed, shivering.

"Not at all," he said. "These men have been our friends. I like to see them, and in a way one can talk to them. Who can be sure that they do not hear?"

It was almost the thought of a religious man, and it amazed me. I was even about to seek explanation, but a sudden excitement came upon him, and he raved incoherent words, crying—

"Yes, they hear, every one of them. Dick, you blackguard, do you hear me? Old Jack, wake up, you old gun! Thunder, you've killed many a one in your day. Move your pins, old Thunder! There's work to do—work to do—work to do!"

His voice rang out in the cavern, echoing from vault to vault. It was an awful contrast to hear his raving, and yet to see the rigid dead before him. My surmise that Doctor Osbart was a madman was undoubtedly too true; and, horrified at the desecration, I dragged him from the cavern into the light of the sun, and there I found myself trembling like a leaf, and as weak as a child. The cold crisp breeze brought the doctor to his senses; but he was absent and wandering, and he left me at the door of my room.