The Iron Pirate/Chapter 4

The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter IV

CHAPTER IV.


A STRANGE SIGHT ON THE SEA.


It was on the morning of the second day; three bells in the watch; the wind playing fickle from east by south, and the sea agold with the light of an August sun. Two points west of north to starboard I saw the chalky cliffs of the Isle of Wight faint through the haze, but away ahead the Channel opened out as an unbroken sea. The yacht lay without life in her sails, the flow of the swell beating lazily upon her, and the great mainsail rocking on the boom. We had been out twenty-four hours, and had not made a couple of hundred miles. The delay angered every man aboard the Celsis, since every man aboard knew that it was a matter of concern to me to overtake the American yacht, La France, and that a life might go with long-continued failure.

As the bells were struck, and Piping Jack, our boatswain—they called him Piping Jack because he had a sweetheart in every port from Plymouth to Aberdeen, and wept every time we put to sea—piped down to breakfast, my captain betrayed his irritation by an angry sentence. He was not given to words, was Captain York, and the men knew him as "The Silent Skipper"; but twenty-four hours without wind enough to "blow a bug," as he put it, was too much for any man's temper.

"I tell you what, sir," he said, sweeping the horizon with his glass for the tenth time in ten minutes, "this American of yours has taken the breeze in his pocket, and may it blow him to——I beg your pardon, I did not see that the young lady had joined us."

But Mary was there, fresh as a rose dipped in dew, and as Roderick followed her up the companion ladder, we held a consultation, the fifth since we left Calais.

"It's my opinion," said Roderick, "that if those men of yours had not been ashore on leave, York, and we could have sailed at midnight, we should have done the business and been in Paris again by this time."

"It's my opinion, sir, that your opinion is not worth a cockroach," cried the captain quite testily; "the men have nothing to do with it. Look above; if you'll show me how to move this ship without a hatful of wind, I'll do it, sir," and he strutted off to breakfast, leaving us with Dan, the forward look-out.

Dan was a grand old seaman, and there wasn't one of us who didn't appeal to him in our difficulties.

"Do you think it means to blow, Dan?" I asked, as I offered him my tobacco-pouch: and Mary said earnestly—

"Oh, Daniel, I do wish a gale would come on!"

"Ay, Miss, and so do many of us; but we can't be making wind no more'n we can make wittals—and excusing me, Miss, it ain't Daniel, not meaning no disrespect to the other gent, whose papers were all right, I don't doubt, but my mother warn't easy in larning, and maybe didn't know of him—it's Dan, Miss, free-and-easy like, but nat'ral."

"Well, Dan, do you think it will blow? Can't you promise it will blow?"

"Lor, Miss, I'd promise ye anything; but what is nater is nater, and there's an end on it—not as I don't say there won't be a hatful o' wind afore night—why should I? but as for promisin' of it, why I'd give ye a hurricane willing—or two."

We went down to breakfast, the red of sea strength on our cheeks; and in the cosy saloon we made short work of the coffee and soles, the great heaps of toast, and the fresh fruit. I could not help some gloomy thoughts as I found myself on my own schooner again, asking how long she would be mine, and how I should suffer the loss of her when all my money was spent. These were cast off in the excitement of the chase, and came only in the moments of absolute calm, when all the men aboard fretted and fumed, and every other question was: "Isn't it beginning to blow?"

The morning passed in this way, a long morning, with the sea like a mirror, and the sun as a great circle of red fire in the haze. Hour after hour we walked from the |fore-hatch to the tiller, from the tiller to the fore-hatch, varying the exercise with a full inspection of every craft that showed above the horizon. At eight bells we lay a few miles farther westward, the island still visible to the starboard, but less distinct. At four bells, when we went to lunch, the heat was terrible below, and the sun was terrible on deck; but yet there was not a breeze. At six bells some dark and dirty clouds rose up from the south, and twenty hands pointed to them. At "one bell in the first dog" the clouds were thick, and the sun was hidden. Half-an-hour later there was a shrill whistling in the shrouds, and the rain began to patter on the deck, while the booms fretted, and we relieved her in part of her press of sail. When the squall struck us at last, the Channel was foaming with long lines of choppy seas; and the sky southward was dark as ink. But there was only joy of it aboard; we stood gladly as the Celsis heeled to it, and rising free as an unslipped hound, sent the spray flying in clouds, and dipped her decks to the foam which washed her.

During one hour, when we must have made eleven knots, the wind blew strong, and was fresh again after that; so that we set the foresail unreefed and let the great mainsail go not many minutes later. The swift motion was an ecstasy to all of us, an unbounded delight; and even the skipper softened as we stood well out to sea, and looked on a great continent of clouds underlit with the spreading glow of the sunset, their rain setting up the mighty arched bow whose colours stood out with a rich light over the wide expanse of the east. Nor did the breeze fall, but stiffened towards night, so that in the first bell, when we came up from dinner, the Celsis was straining and foaming as she bent under her pressure of canvas, and it needed a sailor's foot to tread her decks. But of this no one thought, for we had hardly come above when we heard Dan hailing—

"Yacht on the port-bow."

"What name?" came from twenty throats.

"La France," said Dan, and the words had scarce left his lips when the skipper roared the order—

"Stand by to go about!"

For some minutes the words "'bout ship" were not spoken. The schooner held her course, and rapidly drew up with the yacht we had set out to seek. From the first there was no doubt about her name, which she displayed in great letters of gold above her figure-head. Dan had read them as he sighted her; and we in turn felt a thrill of delight as we proved his keen vision, watching the big cutter, for such she was, heading, not for Plymouth, but for the nearer coast. But this was not the only strange thing about her course, for when she had made some few hundred yards towards the coast, she jibbed round of a sudden, with an appalling wrench at the horse; and there being, as it appeared, no hand either at the peak halyards or the throat halyards, the mainsail presently showed a great rent near the luff, while the foresail had torn free from the bolt-ropes of the stay, and was presenting a sorry spectacle as the yacht went about, and away towards France again.

Such a display of seamanship astounded our men.

"Close haul, you lubbers; close haul!" roared Dan, in the vain delusion that his voice would be heard a quarter of a mile away. "Keep down yer 'elm and close haul—wash me in rum if he ain't comin' up again, and there she goes right into it. Shake up, you gibbering fools; luff her a bit and make fast. Did ye ever see anythin' like it this side of a Margit steamer?"

The skipper said nothing, but as the yacht luffed right up into the wind again, he groaned as a man who is hurt. Piping Jack looked sorrowful too, and said, almost with tears in his eyes—

"Axin' yer pardon, sir, but hev you got a pair of eyes in your head which can make out anything unusual aboard there?"

"They're a queer lot, if that's what you mean, and they haven't got enough seamanship amongst them to run a washing tub. Is there anything else you make out?"

"A good deal, sir; and look you, there ain't a living soul on her deck, or may I never see shore again."

"By all that's curious, you're right. There isn't a man showing!"

"'Bout ship," roared the skipper, and every man ran to his post, while I touched Captain York on the shoulder and pointed to the seemingly deserted and errant yacht.

But the skipper's eyes were not those of a ground-gazer; he needed no aid from me; what others had seen, he had seen, and he nodded an affirmative to my unspoken question.

"What do you think it means?" I asked, as we came up into the wind, and the men were belaying after close hauling for the beat; "are they hiding from us, or is she deserted?"

But the only answer I got was the one word "Rum," uttered with a jerky emphasis, and taken up by Dan, who said—

"Very rum, and a good many drunk below, or I don't know the taste of it."

The obvious thought that the yacht we had sought and run down was without living men upon her decks had taken the lilt from the seamen's merry tongues, and a gloom settled on us all. Perhaps it was more than a mere surmise, for an uncanny feeling of something dreadful to come took hold of me, and I feared that, finding the yacht, we had also found the devil's work; but I held my peace on that, and made up my mind to act.

"Skipper," said I, "order a boat out; I'm going aboard her."

He looked at me, and shook his head.

"When the wind falls, perhaps; but now!" and he shrugged his shoulders.

"Is there any sign that the breeze will drop?"

"None at present; but I'll tell you more in an hour. Meanwhile," and here he whispered, "get your pistols out and say nothing to the men. I shall follow her."

His advice was wise; and as the dark began to fall and the night breeze to blow fresh, while the yacht ahead of us swung here and there, almost making circles about us, we hove to for the time and watched her. I begged Mary to go below, but she received the suggestion with merriment.

"Go below, when the men say there's fun coming! Why should I go below?"

"Because it may be serious fun."

She took my arm, and linking herself closely to me as to a brother, she said—

"Because there's danger to you and to Roderick; isn't that it, Mark?"

"Not to us any more than to the men; and there may be no danger, of course. It's only a thought of mine."

"And of mine, too. I shall stay where I am, or Roderick will go to sleep."

"What does Roderick say?"

He had joined us on the starboard side, and was gazing over the sea at the pursued yacht, which lay shaking dead in the wind's eye, but Mary's question upset whatever speculation he had entered upon.

"I've got an opinion," he drawled, with a yawn.

"You don't say so——"

"The wind's falling, and it's getting beastly dark."

"Two fairly obvious conclusions; do you think you could keep sufficiently awake to help man the boat?—in another ten minutes we shall see nothing."

"Do you think I'm a fool, that I'm going to stop here?"

"Forgive me, but I'm getting anxious. Martin Hall sailed on that yacht; and I promised to help him—but there's no need for you to do anything, you know."

"No need when you are going—pshaw, I'll fetch my Colt, and Mary shall watch us. I don't think she is afraid of much, are you, Rats?"—he called her "Rats" because they were the one thing on earth she feared and then he went below, and I followed him, getting my revolver and my oilskins, for I knew that it would be wet work. I had scarce reached the deck again when I felt the schooner moving; but no break of light showed the place where the other was, and the skipper called presently for a blue flare, which cast a glowing light for many hundred yards, and still left us uncertain.

"She's gone, for sure," said Dan to the men around him, for every soul on board, even including old Chasselot called by the men "Cuss-a-lot"—our cook, was staring into the thick night; "and I wouldn't stake a noggin that her crew ain't cheated the old un at last an' gone down singing. It's mighty easy to die with your head full o' rum, but I don't go for to choose it meself, not particler."

Billy Eightbells, the second mate, was quite of Dan's opinion. The looks of the others told me then that they began to fear the adventure. Billy was the first really to give expression to the common sentiment.

"Making bold to speak," he said, "it were two years ago come Christmas as I met something like this afore, down Rio way——"

"Was it at eight bells, Billy?" asked Mary mischievously. She knew that all Billy's yarns began at eight bells.

"Well, I think it were, mum, but as I was saying——"

"Flash again," said the skipper, suddenly interrupting the harangue, and as the blue light flashed we saw right ahead of us the wanderer we sought; but she was bearing down upon us, and there was fear in the skipper's voice when he roared—

"For God's sake, hard a-starboard!"

The helm went over, and the yacht loomed up black, as our own light died away; and passed us within a cable's length. What lift of the night there was showed us her decks again; but they were not deserted, for as one or two aboard gave a great cry, I saw the white and horridly distorted face of a man who clung to the main shrouds—and he alone was guardian of the wanderer.

The horrid vision struck my own men with a deadly fearing.

"May the Lord help us!" said Dan.

"And him!" added Piping Jack solemnly.

"Was he alive, d'you think?" asked Dan.

"It's my opinion he'd seen something as no Christian man ought to see. Please God, we all get to port again!"

"Please God!" said half-a-dozen; and their words had meaning.

For myself, my thoughts were very different. That vision of the man I had left well and hopeful and strong not three days since was terrible to me. A brave man had gone to his death, but to what a death, if that agonised face and distorted visage betokened aught! And I had promised to aid him, and was drifting there with the schooner, raising no hand to give him help.

"Skipper," I cried, "this time we'll risk getting a boat off; I'm going aboard that vessel now, if I drown before I return." Then I turned to the men, and said: "You saw the yacht pass just now, and you saw that man aboard her—he's my friend, and I'm going to fetch him. Who amongst you is coming with me?"

They hung back for a moment before the stuff that was in them showed itself; then Dan lurched out, and said—

"I go!"

Billy Eightbells followed.

"And I," said he, "if it's the Old One himself."

"And I," said Piping Jack.

"And I," said Planks, the carpenter.

"Come on, then, and take your knives in your belts. Skipper, put about and show another light."

He obeyed mechanically, saying nothing; but he was a brave man, I knew. It was our luck to find that the boat went away from the davits with no more than a couple of buckets of water in her; and in two minutes' time the men were giving way, and we rose and fell to the still choppy sea, while the green spray ran from our oilskins in gallons. In this way we made a couple of hundred yards in the direction we judged the yacht would turn, and lit a flash. It showed her a quarter of a mile away, jibbing round and coming into the wind again.

"We shall catch her on the tack if she holds her bearing," said Dan, "and be aboard in ten minutes."

"What then?" said Billy.

"Ay, what then?" echoed the others.

"But it's a friend of the guv'nor's," repeated Dan, "and he's in danger—no common danger, neither. Please God, we all get to port again."

"Please God!" they responded, and Roderick, who sat at the tiller with me, whispered—

"I never saw men who liked a job less."

As the good fellows gave way again, and the boat rode easily before the wind, I noticed for the first time that the clouds were scattering; and we had not made another cable's length when a great cloud above us showed silver at its edges, and opaquely white in its centre, through which the moon shone. Anon it dissolved, and the transformation on the surface of the water was a transformation from the dark of storm to the chrome light of a summer moon. There, around us, the panorama stretched out: the sea, white-waved and rolling; the lights of a steamer to port; of a couple of sailing vessels astern; of a fishing fleet away ahead, and nearer to the shore. But these we had no thought for, since the deserted yacht was beating up to us, and we stood right in her track.

"Get a grapnel forward, and look out there," cried Dan, who was in command; and Billy stood ready, while we could hear the swish of the waves against the cutter's bows, and every man instinctively put his hand on his pistol or his knife.

As if to help us, the wind fell away as the schooner came up, and she began to shake her sails; making no way as she headed almost due east. It seemed a fit moment for effort, and Dan had just sung out "Give way," when every man who had gripped an oar let go the handle again and sat with horror writ on his countenance. For, almost with the words of the order, there was the sound as of fierce contest, of the bursting of wood, and the spread of flame; and in that instant the decks of the yacht were ripped up, and sheets of fire rose from them to the rigging above. The light of this mighty flare spread instantly over the sea about her, and far away you could look on the rolling waves, red as waves of fire. A terrible sight it was, and terrible sounds were those of the wood rending with the heat, of the stays snapping and flying, of the hissing of the flame where it met the water. But it was a sight of infinite horror to us, because we knew that one who might yet live was a prisoner of the conflagration—the one passenger, as it seemed then, of the vessel which was doomed.

"Give way," roared Dan again, for the men sat motionless with terror. "Are you going to let him burn? May God have mercy on him, for he needs mercy!"

The words awed them. They shot the long-boat forward; and I stood in her stern to observe, if I could, what passed on the burning decks. And I saw a sight the like to which I pray that I may never see again. Martin Hall stood at the main shrouds, motionless, volumes of flame around him, his figure clear to be viewed by that awful beacon.

"Why doesn't he jump it?" I called aloud. "If he can't swim, he could keep above until we're alongside"; and then I roared "Ahoy!" and every man repeated the cry, calling "Ahoy!" each time he bent to his oar, his voice hoarse with excitement. But Martin Hall never moved, his gaunt figure was motionless—the flames beat upon it, it did not stir; and we drew near enough anon and knew the worst.

"Devils' work, devils' work!" said Dan; "he's lashed there—and he's dead!" But the men still cried "Ahoy!" as they rushed their oars through the water, and were as those mad with fiery drink.

"Easy!" roared Dan. "Easy, for a parcel of stark fools! Would you run alongside her?"

There they lay, for any nearer approach would have been perilous, and even in that place where we were, twenty feet on the windward side, the heat was nigh unbearable. So near were we that I looked close as it might be into the dead face of Martin Hall, and saw that the fiends who had lashed him there had done their work too well. But I hoped in my heart that he had been dead when the end of the ship had begun to come, and that it were no reproach to me that he had perished: for to save his body from that holocaust was work no man might do.

So did we watch the mounting fire, and the last tack of the yacht La France. Saucily she raised her head to a new breeze, shook her great sail of flame in the night, and scattered red light about her. Then she dipped her burning jib as if in salute, and there was darkness.

"Rest to a good ship," said Dan, in melancholy mood; but I said—

"Rest to a friend." I had known the man whose death had come; and when his body went below I hungered for the grip of the hand which was then washed by the Channel waves.

"Give way," I cried to the men, who sat silent in their fear of it, and when they rowed again they cried as before, "Ahoy"; so strong and vivid was the picture which the sea had then put out.

As we neared our own ship, Roderick endeavoured to speak to me, but his voice failed, and he took my hand, giving it a great grip. Then we came on board, where Mary waited for us with a white face, and the others stood silent; but we said nothing to them, going below. There I locked myself in my own cabin, and though fatigue lay heavy on me, and my eyes were clouded with the touch of sleep, I took Martin Hall's papers from my locker, and lighted the lamp to read them through.

But not without awe, for they were a message from the dead.