The Iron Pirate/Chapter 2

The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter II

CHAPTER II.

I MEET CAPTAIN BLACK.


The lights of Paris were very bright as we drove down the Boulevard des Capucines, and drew up at length at the Hôtel Scribe, which is by the Opera House. Mary uttered a hundred exclamations of joy as we passed through the city of lights; and Roderick, who loved Paris, condescended to keep awake!

"I'll tell you what," he exclaimed, after a period of profound reflection, "the beauty of this place is that no one thinks here, except about cooking, and, after all, cooking is one of the first things worthy of serious speculation, isn't it? Suppose we plan a nice little dinner for four?"

"For two, my dear fellow, if you please," said Hall, with mock of state—he was quite the Perfect Fool again. "Mr. Mark Strong condescends to dine with me, and in that utter unselfishness of character peculiar to him insists on paying the bill—don't you, Mr. Mark?"

I answered that I did, and, be it known, I was the Mark Strong referred to.

"The fact is, Roderick," I explained, "that I made a promise to meet one of Mr. Hall's friends to-night, so you and Mary must dine alone. You can then go to sleep, don't you see, or take Mary out and buy her something."

"Yes, that would be splendid, Roderick," cried Mary, all the girlish excitement born of Paris strong upon her. "Let's go and buy a hundred things"—Roderick groaned—"but I wish, Mark, you weren't going to leave us on our first night here; you know what you said only yesterday!"

"What did I say yesterday?"

"That there were a lot of bounders in Paris—and I want to see them bound!"

I consoled her by telling her that bounders never made display after six o'clock, and assured her that Roderick had long confessed to me his intention to buy her the best hat in Paris, at which Roderick muttered exclamations for my ear only. By that time we were at the hotel, and the Perfect Fool had much to say.

"Could any gentleman oblige me with the time, English or French?" he asked; "my watch is so moved at the situation in which it finds itself that it is fourteen hours too slow."

I told him that it was ten minutes to eight, and the information quickened him.

"Ten minutes to eight, and half-a-dozen Russian princes, to say nothing of an English knight, to meet; so ho, my toilet must remain! Could anyone oblige me with a comb, fragmentary or whole?"

He continued his banter as we mounted the stairs of the cozy little hotel, whose windows overlook the core of the great throbbing heart of Paris, and so until we were alone in my room, whither he had followed me.

"Quick's the word," he said, as he shut the door, and took several articles from his hat-box, "and no more palaver. One pair of spectacles, one wig, one set of curiosities to sell—do I look like a second-hand dealer in odd lots, or do I not, Mr. Mark Strong?"

I had never seen such an utter change in any man made with such little show. The Perfect Fool was no longer before me; there was in his place a lounging, shady-looking, greed-haunted Hebrew. The haunching of the shoulders was perfect; the stoop, the walk, were triumphs. But he gave me little opportunity to inspect him or to ask for what reason he had thus disguised himself.

"It's five minutes from here," he said, "and the clocks are going eight—you are right as you are, for you are a cipher in the affair yet, and don't run the danger I run—now come!"

He passed down the stairs with this blunt invitation, and I followed him. So good was his disguise and make-pretence that the others, who were in the narrow hall, drew back, to let him go, not recognising him, and spoke to me, asking what I had done with him. Then I pointed to the new Perfect Fool, and without another word of explanation went on into the street.

We walked in silence for some little distance, keeping by the Opera, and so through to the broad Boulevard Haussmann. Thence he turned, crossing the busy thoroughfare, and passing through the Rue Joubert, stopped quite suddenly at last in the mouth of a cul-de-sac which opened from the narrow street. He had something to say to me, and he gave it with quick words prompted by a quick and serious wit, for he had put off the rôle of the jester at the hotel.

"This is the place," he said; "up here on the third, and there isn't much time for talk. Just this; you're my man, you carry this box of metal"—he meant the case of curiosities—"and don't open your mouth, unless you get the fool in you and want the taste of a six-inch knife. That's my risk, and I haven't brought you here to share it; so mum's the word, mum, mum, mum; and keep a hold on your eyes, whatever you see or whatever you hear. Do I look all right?"

"Perfectly—but just a word; if we are going into some den where we may have a difficulty in getting out again, wouldn't it be as well to go armed?"

"Armed!—pish!"—and he looked unutterable contempt, treading the passage with long strides, and entering a house at the far end of it.

Thither I followed him, still wondering, and passing the concierge found myself at last on the third floor, before a door of thick oak. Our first knocking upon this had no effect, but at the second attempt, and while he was pulling his hat yet more upon his eyes, I heard a great rolling voice which seemed to echo on the stairway, and so leapt from flight to flight, almost like the rattle of a cannon-shot with its many reverberations. For the moment indistinct, I then became aware that the voice was that of a man singing and walking at the same time, and seemingly in no hurry to give us admission, for he passed from room to room bellowing this refrain, and never varying it by so much as a single word:—

"There was a man of Boston town,
With his pistols three,
With his pistols three, three, three;
And never a skunk in Boston town
That he didn't chaw but me!"

When the noise stopped at last, there was silence, complete and unbroken, for at least five minutes, during which time Hall stood motionless, waiting for the door to be opened. After that we heard a great yell from the same voice, with the words, "Ahoy, Splinters, shift along the gear, will you?" and then Splinters, whoever he might be, was cursed in unchosen phrases as the son of all the lubbers that ever crowded a fo'cas'le. A mumbled discussion seemed to tread on the heels of the hullabaloo, when, apparently having arranged the "gear" to satisfaction, the man stalked to the door, singing once more in stentorian tones:

"There was a man of Boston town,
With his pistols three,
With his pistols——"

"Hullo—the darned little Jew and his kickshaws; why, matey, so early in the morning?"

The exclamation came as he saw us, putting his head round the door, and showing one arm swathed all up in dirty red flannel. He was no sort of a man to look at, as the Scots say, for his head was a mass of dirty yellow hair, and his face did not seem to have known an ablution for a week. But there was an ugly jocular look about his rabbit-like eyes and a great mark cut clean into the side of his face which were a fit decoration for the red-burnt, pitted, and horribly repulsive countenance he betrayed. His leer, too, as he greeted Hall, was the evil leer of a man whose laugh makes those hearing hush with the horror of it; and, on my part, forgetting the warning, I looked at him and drew back repelled. This he saw, and with a flush and a display of one great stump of a tooth which protruded on his left lip, he turned on me.

"And who may you be, matey, that you don't go for to shake hands with Roaring John? Dip me in brine, if you was my son I'd dress you down with a two-foot bar. Why don't you teach the little Hebrew manners, old Josfos? but there," and this he said as he opened the door wider, "so long as our skipper will have to do with shiners to sell and land barnacles, what ken you look for?—walk right along here."

The room indicated opened from a small hall, for the place was built after the Parisian fashion—akin to that of our flats—and was a house in itself. The man who called himself "Roaring John" entered the apartment before us, bawling at the top of his voice, "Josfos, the Jew, and his pardner come aboard!" and then I found myself in the strangest company and the strangest place I have ever set eyes on. So soon as I could see things clearly through the hanging atmosphere of tobacco smoke and heavy vapour, I made out the forms of six or eight men, not sitting as men usually do in a place where they eat, but squatting on their haunches by a series of low narrow tables, which were, on closer inspection, nothing but planks put upon bricks and laid round the four sides of the apartment. Of other furniture there did not seem to be a vestige in the place, save such as pertained to the necessities of eating and sleeping. Each man lolled back on his own pile of dirty pillows and dirtier blankets; each had before him a great metal drinking-cup, a coarse knife, which I found was for hacking meat, long rolls of plug tobacco, and a small red bundle, which I doubt not was his portable property. Each, too, was dressed exactly as his fellow, in a coarse red shirt, seamen's trousers of ample blue serge, a belt with a clasp-knife about his waist, and each had some bauble of a bracelet on his arm, and some strange rings upon his fingers. In the first amazement at seeing such an assembly in the heart of civilised Paris, I did no more than glean a general impression, but that was a powerful one—the impression that I saw men of all ages from twenty-five years upwards; men marked by time as with long service on the sea; men scarred, burnt, some with traces of great cuts and slashes received on the open face; men fierce-looking as painted devils, with teeth, with none, with four fingers to the hand, with three; men whose laugh was a horrid growl like the tumult of imprisoned passions, whose threats chilled the heart to hear, whose very words seemed to poison the air, who made the great room like a cage of beasts, ravenous and ill-seeking. This and more was my first thought, as I asked myself, into what hovel of vice have I fallen, by what mischance have I come on such a company?

Martin Hall seemed to have no such ill opinion of the men, and put himself at his ease the moment we entered. I had, indeed, believed for the moment that he had brought me there with evil intent, distrusting the man who was yet little more than a stranger to me; but recalling all that passed, his disguise, his evident fear, I put the suspicion from me, and listened to him, more content, as he made his way to the top of the room and stood before one who forced from me individual notice, so strange-looking was he, and so deep did the respect which all paid him appear to be. We shall meet this man often in our travels together, you and I, my friends, so a few words, if you please, about him. He sat at the head of the rude table, as I have said, but not as the others sat, on pillows and blankets, for there was a pile of rich-looking skins—bear, tiger, and white wolf—beneath him, and he alone of all the company wore black clothes and a white shirt. He was a short man, I judged, black-bearded and smooth-skinned, with a big nose, almost an intellectual forehead, small, white-looking hands, all ablaze with diamonds, about whose fine quality there could not be two opinions; and, what was even more remarkable, there hung as a pendant to his watch-chain a great uncut ruby which must have been worth five thousand pounds. One trademark of the sea alone did he possess, in the dark, curly ringlets which fell to his shoulders, matted there as long uncombed, but typical in all of the man. This then was the fellow upon whose every word that company of ruffians appeared to hang, who obeyed him, as I observed presently, when he did so much as lift his hand, who seemed to have in their uncouth way a veneration for him, inexplicable, remarkable—the man of whom Martin Hall had painted such a fantastic picture, who was, as I had been told, soon to be wanted by every Government in Europe. And so I faced him for the first time, little thinking that before many months had gone I should know of deeds by his hand which had set the world aflame with indignation, deeds which carried me to strange places, and among dangers so terrible that I shudder when the record brings back their reality.

Hall was the first to speak, and it was evident to me that he cloaked his own voice, putting on the nasal twang and the manner of an East-end Jew dealer.

"I have come, Mister Black," he said, "as you was good enough to wish, with a few little things—beautiful things—which cost me moosh money——"

"Ho, ho!" sang out Captain Black, "here is a Jew who paid much money for a few little things! Look at him, boys!—the Jew with much money! Turn out his pockets, boys!—the Jew with much money! Ho, ho! Bring the Jew some drink, and the little Jew, by thunder!"

His merriment set all the company roaring to his mood. For a moment their play was far from innocent, for one lighted a great sheet of paper and burnt it under the nose of my friend, while another pushed his dirty drinking-pot to my mouth, and would have forced me to drink. But I remembered Hall's words, and held still, giving banter for banter—only this, I learnt to my intense surprise that the pot did not contain beer but champagne, and that, by its bouquet, of an infinitely fine quality. In what sort of a company was I, then, where mere seamen wore diamond rings and drank fine champagne from pewter pots?

The unpleasant and rough banter ceased on a word from Captain Black, who called for lights, which were brought—rough, ready-made oil flares, stuck in jugs and pots—and Hall gathered up his trinkets and proceeded to lay them out with the well-simulated cunning of the trader.

"That, Mister Black," he said, putting a miniature of exquisite finish against the white fur on the floor, "is a portrait of the Emperor Napoleon, sometime in the possession of the Empress Josephine; that is a gold chain—he was eighteen carat—once the property of Don Carlos; here is the pen with which Francis Drake wrote his last letter to the Queen Elizabeth—beautiful goods as ever was, and cost moosh money!"

"To the dead with your much money," said the Captain with an angry gesture, as he snatched the trinkets from him, and eyed them to my vast surprise with the air of a practised connoisseur; "let's handle the stuff, and don't gibber. How much for this?" He held up the miniature, and admiration betrayed itself in his eyes.

"He was painted by Sir William Ross, and I sell him for two hundred pounds, my Captain. Not a penny less, or I'm a ruined man!"

"The Jew a ruined man! Hark at him! Four-Eyes"—this to a great lanky fellow who lay asleep in the corner—"the little Jew can't sell 'em under two hundred, I reckon; oh, certainly not; why, of course. Here, you, Splinters, pay him for a thick-skinned, thieving shark, and give him a hundred for the others."

The boy Splinters, who was a black lad, seemingly about twelve years old, came up at the word, and took a great canvas bag from a hook on the wall. He counted three hundred gold pieces on the floor—pieces of all coinages in Europe and America, as they appeared to be by their faces, and Hall, who had squatted like the others, picked them up. Then he asked a question, while the little black lad, who bore a look of suffering on his worn face, stood waiting the Captain's word.

"Mister Captain, I shall have waiting for me at Plymouth to-morrow a relic of the great John Hawkins, which, as I'm alive, you shouldn't miss. I have heard them say that it is the very sword with which he cut the Spaniards' beards. Since you have told me that you sail to-morrow, I have thought, if you put me on your ship across to Plymouth, I could show you the goods, and you shall have them cheap—beautiful goods, if I lose by them."

Now, instead of answering this appeal as he had done the others, with his great guffaw and banter, Captain Black turned upon Hall as he made his request, and his face lit up with passion. I saw that his eyes gave one fiery look, while he clenched his fists as though to strike the man as he sat, but then he restrained himself. Yet, had I been Hall, I would not have faced such another glance for all that adventure had given me. It was a look which meant ill—all the ill that one man could mean to another.

"You want to come aboard my boat, do you?" drawled the Captain, as he softened his voice to a fine tone of sarcasm. "The dealer wants a cheap passage; so ho! what do you say, Four-Eyes; shall we take the man aboard?"

Four-Eyes sat up deliberately, and struck himself on the chest several times as though to knock the sleep out of him. He seemed to be a brawny, thick-set Irishman, gigantic in limb, and with a more honest countenance than his fellows. He wore a short pea-jacket over the dirty red shirt, and a great pair of carpet slippers in place of the sea-boots which many of the others displayed. His hair was light and curly, and his eyes, keen-looking and large, were of a grey-blue and not unkindly-looking. I thought him a man of some deliberation, for he stared at the Captain and at Hall before he answered the question put to him, and then he drank a full and satisfying draught from the cup before him. When he did give reply, it was in a rich rolling voice, a luxurious voice which would have given ornament to the veriest commonplace.

"Oi'd take him aboard, bedad," he shouted, leaning back as though he had spoken wisdom, and then he nodded to the Captain, and the Captain nodded to him.

The understanding seemed complete.

"We sail at midnight, tide serving," said the Captain, as he picked up the miniature and the other things; "you can come aboard when you like—here, boy, lock these in the chest."

The boy put out his hand to take the things, but in his fear or his clumsiness, he dropped the miniature, and it cracked upon the floor. The mishap gave me my first real opportunity of judging these men in the depth of their ruffianism. As the lad stood quivering and terror-struck, Black turned upon him, almost foaming at the lips.

"You clumsy young cub, what d'ye mean by that?" he asked; and then, as the boy fell on his knees to beg for mercy, casting one pitiful look towards me—a look I shall not soon forget—he kicked him with his foot, crying—

"Here, give him a dozen with your strap, one of you."

He had but to say the words, when a colossal brute seized the boy in his grip, and held his head down to the table board, while another, no more gentle, stripped his shirt off, and struck him blow after blow with the great buckle, so that the flesh was torn while the blood trickled upon the floor. The brutal act stirred the others to a fine merriment, yet for myself, I had all the will to spring up and grip the striker as he stood, but Hall, who had covered my hand with his, held it so surely, and with such prodigious strength, that my fingers almost cracked. It was the true sign-manual for me to say nothing, and I realised how hopeless such a struggle would be, and turned my head that I should not see the cruel thing to the end.

When the lad fainted they gave him a few kicks with their heavy boots, and he lay like a log on the floor, until the ruffian named "Roaring John" picked him up and threw him into the next room. The incident was forgotten at once, and Captain Black became quite merry.

"Bring in the victuals, you, John," he said, "and let Dick say us a grace; he's been doing nothing but drink these eight hours."

Dick, a red-haired, penetrating-looking Scotsman, who carried the economy of his race even to the extent of flesh, of which he was sparse, greeted the reproof by casting down his eyes into the empty can before him.

"Is a body to cheer himself wi' naething?" he asked; "not wi' a bit food and drink after twa days' toil? It's an unreasonable man ye are, Mister Black, an' I dinna ken if I'll remain another hoor as meenister to yer vessel."

"Ho, ho, Dick the Ranter sends in his resignation; listen to that, boys," said the Captain, who had found his humour again. "Dick will not serve the honourable company any longer. Ho, swear for the strangers, Dick, and let 'em hear your tongue."

The man, rascal and ill-tongued as I doubt not he was at times, refused to comply with the demand as the food at length was put upon the table. It was rich food, stews, with a profuse display of oysters, chickens, boiled, roast, à la maître d'hôtel, fine French trifles, pasties, ices—and it was to be washed down, I saw, by draughts from magnums of Pommery and Greno. I was, at this stage, so well accustomed to the scene that the novelty of a company of dirty, repulsive-looking seamen banqueting in this style did not surprise me one whit, only I wished to be away from a place whose atmosphere poisoned me, and where every word seemed garnished with some horrible oath. I whispered this thought to Hall, and he said, "Yes," and rose to go, but the Captain pulled him back, crying—

"What, little Jew, you wouldn't eat at other people's cost! Down with it, man, down with it; fill your pockets, stuff 'em to the top. Let's see you laugh, old wizen-face, a great sixty per cent. croak coming from your very boots—here, you, John, give the man who hasn't got any money some more drink; make him take a draught."

The men were becoming warmed with the stuff they had taken, and furiously offensive. One of them held Hall while the others forced champagne down his throat, and the man "Roaring John" attempted to pay me a similar compliment, but I struck the cup from his hand, and he drew a knife, turning on me. The action was foolish, for in a moment a tumult ensued. I heard fierce cries, the smash of overturned boards and lights, and remembered no more than some terrific blows delivered with my left, as Molt of Cambridge taught me, a sharp pain in my right shoulder as a knife went home, the voice of Hall crying, "Make for the door—the door," and the great yell of Captain Black above the others. His word, no doubt, saved us from greater harm; for when I had thought that my foolhardiness had undone us, and that we should never leave the place alive, I found myself in the Rue Joubert with Hall at my side, he torn and bleeding as I was, but from a slight wound only.

"That was near ending badly," he said, looking at the skin-deep cut on my shoulder. "They're wild enough sober, but Heaven save anyone from them when they're the other way!"

I looked at him steadily for a moment; then I asked—

"Hall, what does it mean? Who are these men, and what business carries you amongst them?"

"That you'll learn when you open the papers; but I don't think you will open them yet, for I'm going to succeed." He was gay almost to frivolity once more. "Did you hear him ask me to sail with him from Dieppe to-morrow?"

"I did, and I believe you're fool enough to go. Did you see the look he gave you when he said 'Yes'?"

"Never mind his look. I must risk that and more, as I have risked it many a time. Once aboard his yacht I shall have the key which will unlock six feet of rope for that man, or you may call me the Fool again."

It was light with the roseate, warm light of a late summer's dawn as we reached the hotel. Paris slept, and the stillness of her streets greeted the life-giving day, while the grey mist floated away before the scattered sunbeams, and the houses stood clear-cut in the finer air. I was hungry for sleep, and too tired to think more of the strange dream-like scene I had witnessed; but Hall followed me to my bedroom, and had yet a word to say.

"Before we part—we may not meet again for some time, for I leave Paris in a couple of hours—I want to ask you to do me yet one more service. Your yacht is at Calais, I believe—will you go aboard this morning and take her round to Plymouth? There ask for news of the American's yacht—he has only hired her, and she is called La France. News of the yacht will be news of me, and I shall be glad to think that someone is at my back in this big risk. If you should not hear of me, wait a month; but if you get definite proof of my death, break the seal of the papers you hold and read—but I don't think it will come to that."

So saying, he left me with a hearty handshake. Poor fellow, I did not know then that I should break the seal of his papers within three days.