The Iron Pirate/Chapter 20



It was on the next afternoon, near to the setting of the sun, there having been unusual activity about the creek during the forenoon, that Doctor Osbart came to my room with great news for me.

"This business with the men has completely upset our plans," said he. "Black hoped to winter here; and to let the hubbub in Europe quite subside before he put to sea again. Now he can't do that, for there'll be trouble just as long as the crew eats its head off in this wilderness. There's only one thing that will keep the hands quiet, and that's excitement. After all, it's the same motive with most of us, from the gutter-beggar who lives on the hope of the next penny to the democrat who supports existence on a probable revolution. If we once get them away to sea, with money to win, and towns to riot in, we shall hear no more of this folly, and Black knows it. He has determined to sail to-night; and he'll take some of the men he put out of the mines to do the work of those who went down yesterday. I'm very glad, for I should have cut my throat if I'd been here the winter through, and I dare say you won' tbe displeased to get a change of quarters; but, before we talk of that, we must have the conditions."

"I won't sign that paper, and Black has been told so," cried I at once; "it's no good coming here again with that."

"You're premature," he replied, with a smile, "premature, as you always are. Isn't it time enough to discuss the paper when I bring it to you?"

"Then what have you to ask?" said I, prepared to hear of something which I must refuse, but longing with a great hope for the freedom of the sea.

"Simply this," he answered, "and, for the life of me, I don't see what the guv'nor is driving at in your case; for he asks only that, if he take you from here, where you'd starve in a month if he left you, you shall give him your word, as a man of honour, that you will make no attempt to leave his ship without permission. Under no pretence or plea will you try to escape, and, whatever you see, you will not complain about when aboard with him. You are to hold no converse with the men, nor will you interfere with them in any work they do; and you will carry out this contract not only in the letter but in the spirit. If you will give me your word on that now, you can pack your trunk and come aboard without any fuss; but I don't disguise it from you, that any folly after this may cost you your life, and that if you have half a thought of playing us false, you'd better stop where you are."

I debated on the whole extent of his proposition, and made up my mind on it in a few moments. I was aware that, if I remained at the station, I could expect nothing but speedy death upon the ice, since the doctor had told me that the place would be deserted during the winter. Against this I had to ask myself if my going aboard the nameless ship meant in any way approval of the occupation of those who sailed it; but this suggestion was too trivial, and I dismissed it in a moment; while the thought flashed across my mind that if I could but once be taken to European or American waters, there would be at least the probability that this man might fall into the hands of those who were seeking him. In that case liberty would come with his undoing; which was even more pleasant to think upon than to contemplate it with him yet free as a voracious beast of the seas.

"You accept?" said the doctor, who sat watching me as I thought these things; and I answered him without hesitation—

"I accept."

"The captain has your word of honour as between gentlemen?"

"As between—well, if you like it so—as between gentlemen."

The satire of the last word was too much for him, for he was one of the pleasantest fellows in his saner moments that I have ever met. We both laughed heartily, and then he said—

"But I'm forgetting, you've got no trunk, and I must lend you one. You're rather short of duds, I know, but we can rig you out until we get to Paris, and there the skipper will see to it—any way, so long as you've a coat thick enough, we won't criticise you in these parts; and I don't suppose you're thinking of garden parties."

"Anything but," I answered, as pleased as he was at the prospect of it all, and especially at the thought of quitting the ice-prison, if only for the winter; "I have neither clothes nor cash."

"Well, I don't see what you're going to do with the latter, just yet; but, man, you can just help yourself from the first Cunarder we stop—pshaw! don't look like that; wait until you feel the excitement of it all. Why, what is but one ship against the world, big men on their knees to you, money enough to wade in, and a fig for all the navies and all the fleets that ever left a port? I defy 'em to put a hand on the ship if they spend a million in the process. Come with us and see it all, and you'll say it's the most daring, the grandest, the most stupendous enterprise that man ever conceived."

It was no good to lift up one's voice against enthusiasm of this sort, so I let him lead me to his room, and took from him a trunk with some linen. As he said, it was more convenient to have my own things, and we were much of a build, so that his clothes were no ill-fit; and he was ridiculously generous, pressing all that he had upon me, and lending me a great gold watch and gold studs that were illicitly gotten, I felt sure.

In the end I had quite a store of clothing; and I waited while he finished his own work that we might go down together to the launch awaiting us. There we found Black, watching men who were putting large bales of goods into the screw steamer, and everywhere there was sign of the break-up of the settlement. The captain merely nodded when I gave him a word, and I thought that he was sore depressed, with scarce energy enough to be irritable. He seemed to doubt the wisdom of the departure even then; and he often hesitated in his walk, looking up to the windows of his home behind him. At the last, when the negro servants had come down the iron stairway, he locked the great door after them; and then he stood and cast his gaze over to the hills and the desolate land, which I believed he had a great kindness for. When he did join us, he gave the word, "Let her go!" with a dogged sort of indifference; and at his command the launch ploughed ahead, and passed through the cañon to the outer basin.

The sun was almost in the horizon then, and the northern lights were playing in the heavens, so that all the water was then alight with the glory of a hundred colours. Now orange, or a lighter golden, or blue as the Corsican Sea, or flaming scarlet, or emerald green, or all shades of yellow, with the pink and pearl and fainter green as of a colossal opal, the light fell and spread from bight to bight, and crag to crag; and above there were sheets of eruptive flame and great rumblings, and mighty arcs of fire spanning the whole heavens, and gripping them as with the glittering jewelled hand of some monstrous keeper of the skies whose mutterings came to us below. Or the scene changed again, and it was as though elves of the zenith had brought their golden caskets above the firmament, and there had burst them open, so that all the jewels of the light rained upon sea and land, and burnt each other with their own beauty as they fell; and the earth answered them back with her shining face. One of the supreme moments of life, truly, to bathe in this shower of multi-coloured splendour, to follow it in its golden path, where rocks took shape, and snow-forms lived, and the seas danced to its accompanying music, and one stood nearer to the great mysteries while yet farther from the homes of man.

Black watched the aurora as we watched it, but chiefly as it played upon his ship, lying moored in the very centre of the outer basin. They had made a great change in her since I had seen her but two days before; for she was now given bulwarks of white canvas, and her funnel was painted white, while covers hid away the bright points of her deck-houses and her turrets. She had become a white ship; and her transformation had been made with vast skill, so that I felt I should not have known her had I met her in the Atlantic. From her position away from the shaft of the mine, it was evident that she was ready to weigh, and I was reminded grimly of her mission by seeing a streamer of black at her mast-head instead of the Blue Peter. This time, too, there was a faint haze above her funnel, as though coal was being burnt in her furnaces; yet I had no wonder that I did not see steam coming from her, for I knew that she was driven by gas, and was in many ways a ship of mystery.

We boarded her at a ladder amidships, for the most part of her accommodation was contained in a towering deck erection round her funnel. Here there were two stages of cabins with a wide gallery running between them, and protruding so that it was directly above the water. There was, indeed, a companion-way aft of this which led to the cabin I had occupied when a prisoner in the ship, and I found at a later time that the library of the vessel, with the store-rooms and a number of private cabins, was built in the 'tween decks abaft the funnel. Yet the great saloon I was to use during so many months, the quarters which Black occupied, the doctor's room, the rooms for the engineers, and for certain of the others who were privileged, were all ranged amidships; and I learned that while there was a big fo'castle, it was given over entirely to the niggers, with whom the white men would not serve. These superior fellows, as they thought themselves, had accommodation in the poop, where there was a big cabin with berths all round it; yet with all this, the small part of the whole vessel devoted to quarters was noteworthy, and was designed, I did not doubt, for some purpose which I should learn presently.

These things I did not ascertain, you may be sure, on first boarding the ship. Although they left me to myself upon the high gallery whence I could see all the life on the decks below, they were so busy with the preparation for weighing anchor that no man spoke a word to me. The hands themselves, the moment they were afloat, settled down to work with surprising steadiness. Black upon the bridge now wore a smart uniform with gold buttons and much show of lace; and the self-command of the man, the perfect knowledge of all things nautical which he displayed, and his all-absorbing love of his child, the ship, accounted for much that I had not understood in him before. I found to my amazement that Doctor Osbart acted not only as surgeon to the crew, but also as second officer; "Four-Eyes" being first officer; and the bully, "Roaring John," third. The coarse-mouthed Scotsman who assumed the title of "meenister" was, they told me, as good a sea-man as any of them, and a wonderful gunner, so that he was in charge of the armament, with a big staff of men at his back. Of the engineers I saw nothing on first coming aboard; but later I heard the sound of pumping below, and there came up to the bridge where Black and the others were, a little, thin, wizened, and spectacled man, quite bald, very ragged and black, yet with a head on him that could have stamped him "First-Class" in any assembly of the learned. I thought at the first glance that he was a German, and my surmise was confirmed by the doctor, who remembered me at last, and said—

"Do you see that little fellow?—well, he's the genius of this ship. He's deaf and dumb, and no man has ever heard a word from his lips; but he designed our engines, and he runs them with his three sons. It's almost pitiable to see the man's disregard for anything but that infernal machinery. He never leaves it; it's meat and drink to him. If we make money, he doesn't want it; if we're going for a spell ashore, he won't come, but stays here poking about the wheels. He was the first man in all Europe to see that gas would finally supplant steam for maritime vessels; and Black gave him carte blanche to carry out his ideas on this ship. You may be surprised to hear it, but fore and aft in those great cigar-shaped ends of ours we have nothing but gas—three million feet, at a pressure of between two and three atmospheres. Why, man, it's the idea of the century; for every four pounds of coal burnt by an Atlantic liner, we don't burn a pound. We can steam for ten days without lighting a fire; and all the coal we need to go round the world will go in our bunkers. Save for that, and Karl Remey's genius, there wouldn't be a man jack of us with a neck to call his own to-day. Now, we snap our fingers at the best of them; there isn't a cruiser that can live with the thirty knots we can show; and there isn't a line-of-battle ship swimming that could get the better of us while our engines are moving. It's a big claim you think, but wait until you see us in action, then you'll know how much we owe to the little man in rags, but who has one of the clearest brains that ever was put into human being."

I was silent under this revelation, for it came to me that, with all the terrors of the great ship, there was also a scientific side, which marked the presence of a mighty intellect. The doctor saw the impression he had made upon me, and he said—

"To-morrow we will show you more; you shall meet the ragged man——"

"Which is mysel'," said the Scotsman, who had joined us silently, "mysel' that has'na a dud to my back. D'ye ken that when there's ony distribution o' the gudes I get a' the female apparel; which is no justice ava for a meenister, let alone a sea-faring man."

"Never mind, Dick," said the doctor laughing, as I did; "we'll beg a skirt for you the first time we say how-d'ye-do to a passenger vessel——"

"Hands, heave anchor!" roared Black at that moment; and our conversation stopped suddenly at the cry. Then slowly, as the bell rang out, the great engines began their work, and we swept out to the open sea. Night had fallen, but the aurora still gave her changing light; and as we felt the first oscillations of the rolling breakers, Black took a long look behind him to his Arctic home. There before us was the black, towering, indented coast of Greenland, the bluff headlands of gneiss, the beacons of snow all crimson in the playing colours of the mighty arc; and away beyond them, the vista of the eternal stillness, and the plain of death. A long look it was that the man of iron cast then upon his wild habitation; a look almost prophetic in its sadness, as if he knew that he should look upon it no more. A great farewell of an iron heart, and the breakers sang the "Vale!" as the ship sped onward to her deadly work.