The Iron Pirate/Chapter 6

The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter VI



We caught the first train to London; and were at the Hotel Columbia by Charing Cross in time for dinner. Mary had insisted on her right to accompany us, and, as we could find no valid reason why she should not, we brought her to the hotel with us. Then by way of calming that trouble, excitement, and expectation which crowded on us both, we went to Covent Garden, where the autumn season of opera was then on, and listened to the glorious music of Orfeo and the Cavalleria. Nor did either of us speak again that night of Hall or of his death; but I confess that the vision of it haunted my eyes, standing out upon all the scenes that were set, so that I saw it upon the canvas, and often before me the wind-worn struggle of a burning ship; while that awful "Ahoy!" of my own men yet rang in my ears.

When I returned to the hotel I wrote two letters, the beginning of my task. One was to the Admiralty, the other to the office of the Black Anchor Line of American Steamships. I told Roderick what I had done, but he laughed at the idea; so that I troubled him no more with it, awaiting its proof. On the next morning, in a few moments of privacy between us, he agreed to let me work alone for two days, and then to venture on suggestion himself. So it came to be that on the next day I found myself standing in a meagrely furnished anteroom at the Admiralty, and there waiting the pleasure of one of the clerks, who had been deputed to talk with me. He was a fine fellow, I doubt not: had much merit of his faultless bow, and great worth in the nicety of his spotless waistcoat, but God never made one so dull or so preposterous a blockhead. I see him now, rolling up the starved hairs which struggled for existence upon his chin, and letting his cuffs lie well upon his bony wrists as he asked me, with a floating drawl—

"And what service can I do for you?"

For me! What service could he do for me? I smiled at him, and did not disguise my contempt.

"If there is any responsible person here," I said, with emphasis upon the word responsible, "I should be glad to impart to him some very curious, and, as it seems to me, very remarkable, information concerning a war-ship which has just left Spezia, and is supposed to be the property of the Brazilian Government."

"It's very good of you, don't you know," he replied, as he bent down to arrange his ample trousers; "but I fancy we heard something about her last week, so we won't trouble you, don't you know"; and he felt to see if his bow were straight.

"You may have heard something of the ship," I answered with warmth, "but that which I have to communicate is not of descriptive, but of national, importance. You cannot by any means have learnt my story, for there is only one man living who knows it."

He looked up at the clock a moment as though seeking inspiration, but his mind was quite vacant when he replied—

"It's awfully good of you, don't you know; we're so frightfully busy this month; if you could come up in a month's time——"

"In a month's time," I said, rising with scorn, "in a month's time, if you and yours don't stand condemned before Europe for a parcel of fools and incompetents, then you'll send for me, but I'll see you at blazes first—good-morning!"

I was outside the office before his exclamation of surprise had passed away; and within half an hour I sat in the private room of the secretary to the Black Anchor Steamship Company. He was a sharp man of business, keen-visaged as a ferret, and restless as a nervous horse long reined in. I told him shortly that I had reason to doubt the truth of the statement that a warship recently built at Spezia was intended for the purposes set down to her; that I believed she was the property of an American adventurer whose motives I scarce dared to realise; that I had proof, amounting to conviction, that this man possessed jewels which were commonly accounted as lost in his firm's steamer Catalania; and that if his company would agree to bear the expense, and to give me suitable recompense if I succeeded in supporting my conjectures, I would undertake to bring him the whole history of the nameless ship within twelve months; and also to give him such knowledge as would enable him to lay hands on the man called "Captain Black," should this man prove the criminal I believed him to be. To all which tale he listened, his searching eye fixing its stare plump upon me, from time to time; but when I had done, he rang the bell for his clerk, and I could see that he felt himself in the company of a maniac. So I left him, and breathed the breath of liberty again as I went back to the hotel, and told Roderick of the utter and crushing failure waiting upon the very beginning of the task which Martin Hall had left to me.

Roderick was not at all surprised—it seemed to me rather that he was glad.

"What did I tell you?" he said, as he sat up on the couch, and took the tube of his hookah from his mouth; "who will believe such a tale as we are hawking in the market-place—selling, in fact, to the highest bidder? If a man came to you with the same account, and with no more authority to support him than the story of a dead detective—who may have lost his wits, or may never have had any to lose—would you put down a shilling to see him through with the business? Pshaw! my dear old Mark, you, with your long head and that horribly critical eyes of yours, you wouldn't give him a groat."

"Exactly, I should consider him a dupe or a stark-staring madman; but the case is different as it stands. I know—I would stake my life on it—that every word Martin Hall wrote is true, true as my life itself. I am not so sure that you are convinced, though."

I awaited his answer, but it did not come for many minutes. He had passed through his momentary enthusiasm and lay at full length upon the couch, making circles, parabolas, and ellipses of fine white smoke, while he fixed his gaze upon the frieze of the wall, as if he were counting the architraves.

"Mark," he said at last, "when we were at Harrow together an aged sage impressed upon us the meaning of Seneca's line, '[[Veritas odit moras]].' I regard myself at the moment in a position of truth; but whether on calm reflection I believe the whole of your dead friend's story, I'm hanged if I know, and therefore"—here he made a long pause and smoked violently—"and therefore I have bought a steamer."

"You have done what?"

"At two o'clock to-day, in your absence, I bought the steam-yacht Rocket, lately the property of Lord Wilmer, now the property of Roderick Stewart, of the Hotel Columbia, London."

I think I must have laughed sorrowfully at him, as a man laughs at a drawing-room humorist, for he continued quickly—

"Before we go on board her, the yacht will be re-christened by Mary—who will stay with her dear maiden aunt in our absence—and will be named after your vessel Celsis. Her crew will consist of our silent friend, Captain York, of his brother as chief mate, and of your men now at Portsmouth, with half a dozen more. We shall need eight firemen, whom the agents will engage, and three engineers, already found, for I have taken on Lord Wilmer's men. Your cook, old 'Cuss-a-lot,' will serve us very well during the fourteen or fifteen days we shall need to go across the Atlantic, and we want now only a second and third officer. As these men will be mixed up with us on the quarter-deck, I have told the agents to send them up to see you here—so you'll run your eye over them and tell me if they'll do. I hate seeing people; they bore me, and I mean you to take the charge of this enterprise from the very beginning—you quite understand?"

"Roderick, my old friend, I'm as blank as a drawing-board—would you mind giving me that yarn from the beginning again and tell me first, why are we going; then, where are we going; and after that, what has your steamer to do with the business of Martin Hall—and, well, and what we know?"

He spoke quickly in answer, and seemed disappointed.

"I hate palaver," he said, "and didn't think to find you dense, but you're growing silly at this business anyway. Now, look here; until you read me that paper in your cabin, I don't know that I ever felt anger against any man, but, before God, I'll bring the man who murdered Martin Hall, and Heaven knows how many others, to justice or I'll never know another hour's rest. You have been talking of Governments and ship-owners for twenty-four hours; but what have Governments and ship-owners to do with us? Is it money you want? Well, what's mine is yours; and I'm worth two hundred and fifty thousand pounds if I'm worth a shilling. Is it profit of a dead man's work you're after? Well then, mark your man, learn all about him, run him to his hole; and then, when other people besides yourself know his story, as it must be known in a few months' time, put your price on what is your own, and don't fear to recompense yourself. What I want you to see is this:—For some months, at any rate, we shall get no outside help in this matter from any living creature; what we're going to do must be done at our cost, which is my cost. And what we're going to do isn't to be done at this hotel, or on this couch, or in the City: it's going to be done on the high seas, and after that in America on the Hudson River, where, if Hall be right, is the home of Captain Black. It is to the Hudson River that I mean to go now—at once, as soon as money and the devil's own number of men can get the steam-yacht Celsis ready for sea. And at my cost, don't forget that; though I'm a fool in the game, which is yours to make and yours to play, as it has been from the beginning, when the dead man chose you to finish it and to reckon with the scoundrels now afloat somewhere between here and the Banks. In his name I ask you now to close your hand with me on this bargain, to ask no question, to make no protests, and to remember that we sail in three days, if possible, and if not in three, then, in as small a number as will serve to get the steamer ready."

What could I say to a story such as this one? I could only wring his hand, and feel how hot it was, knowing that the same haunting wish to be up and off in pursuit was about him as about me. For half-an-hour we sat and smoked together. In three-quarters I was closeted in the room below with Francis Paolo, who had come from the agents to seek the berth of second officer to the new yacht Celsis. When the servant gave me this man's name, I had some misgiving at its Italian sound, but I remembered that Italy is breeding a nation of sailors; and I put off the prejudice and hurried down to see him. I found him to be a sprightly, dark-faced, black-haired Italian, apparently no more than twenty-five years old; and he greeted me with much smoothness of speech. He had served three years as third officer to the big steam-yacht owned by the noted Frenchman, the Marquis de Cluneville; and, as he was unmistakably a gentleman, and his discharges were in perfect order, I engaged him there and then for the post of second officer to the Celsis, and gave him orders to join her at Plymouth, where she lay, as soon as might be.

But had I known him then as I know him now, I would have paid a thousand pounds never to have seen him!