The Iron Pirate/Chapter 7

The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter VII

CHAPTER VII.


THE BEGINNING OF THE GREAT PURSUIT.


It was our last day in London. Roderick and I sat down to dinner in the hotel, the touch of depression upon us both. Mary had left us early in the morning to go to Salisbury, where her kinsfolk lived, and I confess that her readiness to quit us without protest somewhat hurt me. I imagine that I was thinking of it, for I blurted out at last, when we had been silent for at least a quarter of an hour—

"I suppose she's arrived by this."

"No, I didn't post her till three," Roderick replied in equal reflective mood.

"Didn't post who?" I asked indignantly.

"Why, old Belle, of course. I sent her down with the guard to get her out of the way."

"Oh," I replied, "I was thinking of Mary, not of your dog."

"You always are," he said; "but, between ourselves, I'm glad she went. I thought there'd be a fuss; and if it comes to a row, as it most probably will, girls are in the way. Don't you think so? But, of course, you don't."

I didn't, and made no bones of pretence about it. Mary was a child; there was no doubt that; but as I girded up my courage for this undertaking, I thought how much those pretty eyes would have encouraged me, and how sweet that childish laugh would have been in mid-Atlantic. But there—that's no part of this story.

We were going down to Plymouth by the nine o'clock mail from Paddington, and there was not a wealth of time to spare. So soon as we had dined, I went up to my room to put the small things of need away, meaning to be no more than five minutes at the work; but, to my amazement, the whole of the place had been turned utterly inside out by one who had been there before me. My trunk lay upside down; my writing-case was unlocked and stripped, my diary was torn and rent, my clothes were scattered; I thought at first that a common cheat of a hotel thief had been busy snapping up trifles; but I got a shock greater than any I had known since Martin Hall's death when I felt for his writing, which lay secure in its case, and found that, while the main narrative was intact, his letters to the police at New York, his plans, and his sketches had been taken. For the moment the discovery made me reel. I could not realise its import, and almost mechanically I rang for a servant, who sent the manager to me.

His perplexity and dismay were no less than mine.

"No one has any right to enter your rooms," he said; "and I will guarantee the honesty of my servants unhesitatingly. Let us ring and ask for the porter."

The porter was emphatic.

"No one has been here after you since yesterday, sir, when the Italian gentleman came," he pleaded. "To-day he sent a man for a parcel he left here, but I know of no one else who has even mentioned your name."

"What is the amount of your loss?" asked the manager, as he began to assist me to make things straight, and the question gave me inspiration. I made a hurried search, and I must have shown feeling, for I was conscious of pallor of face and momentary giddiness.

"You have lost something of great value, then?" he continued, as he watched. And I replied—

"Yes, but to myself only. Nothing has been taken from the room but papers, which may be worth ten thousand pounds to me. They are not worth a penny to anyone else."

"Oh! papers only—that is fortunate; it is, perhaps, a case for your own private detective."

"Quite so; I shouldn't have troubled you had I made a search before. I will see to it myself—many thanks."

He withdrew with profuse apologies, but I remained standing, with all the heart out of me. What, in Heaven's name, did it mean? Who had interest to rifle my portfolio and take the papers? Who could have interest? Who but the man I meant to hunt down? And what did he know of me—what? I asked, repeating the words over again, and so loudly that those in the neighbouring rooms must have heard them.

Was I watched from the very beginning? Had I to cope, at the very outset, with a man worth a million, the captain of a band of cut-throats, who stood at no devil's deed, no foul work, no crime, as Martin Hall's death clearly proved? My heart ached at the thought; I felt the sweat dropping off me; I stood without thought of any man; the one word "watched" singing in my ears like the surging of a great sea. And I had forgotten Roderick until he burst into my room, a great laugh on his lips, and a telegram in his hand; but he stood back as he saw me, and went pale, as I must have been.

"Great Scott!" he said; "what's the matter?—what are you doing? We leave in ten minutes; why aren't you ready?"

The excuse gurgled in my throat. I stammered out something, and began to pack as though pursued by Furies. Then I put him off by asking what his humour was about. He laughed again at the question—

"What do you think?" he said; "Mary's arrived all right."

"Oh, that's good; I hope she'll like Salisbury," I replied, bundling shirts, collars, and coats into my trunk with indiscriminate vigour.

"Yes, but you don't wait to hear the end," he continued, with a great roar of laughter; "she isn't at Salisbury at all; she's at Plymouth, on board the Celsis. She went straight down there, and devil a bit as much as sent her aunt a telegram!"

I rose up at his word, and looked him in the face.

"Well," he said, "what do you think?—you don't seemed pleased."

"I'm not pleased," I said, going on with my packing. "I don't think she ought to be there."

"I know that; we've talked it all over, but when I think of it, I don't see where the harm comes in; we can't meet mischief crossing the Atlantic, and when the danger does begin in New York I'll see she's well on the lee-side of it."

I did not answer him, for I knew that which he did not know. Perhaps he began to think that he did not do well to treat the matter so lightly, for he was mute when we entered the cab, and he did not open his lips until we were seated in the night mail for Plymouth. The compartment we rode in was reserved for us as he had wished; and, truth to tell, we neither of us had much liking for talk as the train rolled smoothly westward. We had entered upon this undertaking, so vast, so shadowy, so momentous, with such haste, and moved by such powerful motives, that I know not if some thought of sorrow did not then touch us both. Who could say if we should live to tell the tale, if our fate would not be the fate of Martin Hall, if we should ever so much as see the nameless ship, if chance would ever bring us face to face with Captain Black? And whither did we go? When should we set foot again in that England we loved? God alone could tell; and, with one great hope in a guiding and all-seeing Providence, I covered myself up in my rug, and slept until dawn came, and the fresh breezes from the Channel waves brought new strength and men's hearts to us again.

It was full day when we went on board the yacht, and I did not fail to cast a quick glance of admiration on her beautiful lines and perfect shape as I clambered up the ladder, at the top of which stood Captain York.

"Welcome aboard," he said, giving us hearty hand-shakes; and without further inspection at that hour we followed him to the cabin, where steaming coffee brought the blood to our hands and feet, and put us in better mood.

"So my sister's here," said Roderick, as he filled his cup for the third time.

"Yes, last night, no orders," jerked the skipper with his usual brevity.

"Ah, we must see to that—and the second officer——"

"Still ashore; he left a bit of writing; he'll be aboard midday!"

He had the writing in his hand, and was about to crumple it, but I caught sight of it, and snatched it from him. It was in the same handwriting as the letter which Captain Black had sent to me at the Hôtel Scribe in Paris.

"What's the matter?" said Roderick, as he heard me exclaim; but the skipper looked hard at me, and was much mystified.

"Do you know anything of the man?" he asked very slowly, as he leant back in his chair, but I had already seen the folly of my ejaculation, and I replied—

"Nothing at all, although I have seen that handwriting before somewhere; I could tell you where, perhaps, if I thought."

Roderick nodded his head meaningly, and deftly turned the subject. I yawned with a great yawn, and the episode passed as we both rose to go to our cabins. It is not well to greet the waking day with eyes that are half-closed in sleep; and, although the skipper seemed to desire some fuller knowledge as to the ends of our cruise and the course of it, we put him off, and left him to the coffee and the busy work of the final preparation. But Roderick followed me to my berth and had the matter of the handwriting out. I told him at once of the robbery of some of the papers, and the coincidence of the letter which the second mate had left with the skipper. He was quick-witted enough to see the danger; but he was quite reckless in the methods he proposed to meet it.

"There's no two thoughts about this matter at all," he said; "we've evidently run right into a trap, but luckily there's time to get out again—of course, we shall sail without a second mate?"

"That's one way out of the hole, no doubt, but it's very serious to find that our very first move in the matter is known to others. Hall said well that his diamond-buyer could command and be obeyed in ten cities: and there isn't much question that we've got one of his men aboard this ship—but I don't know that we shouldn't keep him."

"Keep him! What for?—to watch everything we do, and hear everything we say, and arrange for the cutting of our throats when we land at New York? You've a fine notion of diplomacy, Mark!"

"Perhaps so; but we won't quarrel about that. There's one thing you forget in this little calculation of yours—our men are as true as steel; this rogue couldn't turn one of them if he staked his life on it. Suppose he has come here to use his eyes, and hang about keyholes; well, we know him, fortunately; and what can he learn unless he learns it from you or me? There's not another soul aboard knows anything. You will tell the skipper that we cross to America for a pleasure trip; you will help me to keep so close an eye on Master Francis Paolo, second mate, that if he lose a hair of his head we shall know it. In that way it may turn out that we shall get from him the link which is lost in the chain; and when he would draw us, we shall pump him as dry as a sand-pit. At least, that's my way of thinking, and I don't think it's such a poor notion, after all."

"It's not poor at all—it never came to me like that. Of course, you're right; let's take the man aboard, but I wish we could have left Mary behind—don't you?"

That I did, but what could I tell him? It was bad enough to be hugging all those fears and thoughts of danger to my own heart, without setting him all a-ferment with apprehension and unrest; so I laughed off his question, and after a six hours' sleep I went aft to the quarter-deck, to take stock of the yacht and get some better acquaintance with her.

She was a finely-built ship of some seven hundred tons, and was schooner-rigged, so that she could either sail or steam. Her engines were unusually large for so small a vessel, being triple-compound; while the main saloon, aft, and the small library attached to it, showed in the luxurious fitting that her late owner had been a man of fine taste. In the very centre of her there was a deck-house for the chart-room, the skipper's and engineers' quarters, and a couple of spare cabins; but generally the accommodation was below, there being three small cabins with two berths apiece each side the saloon, and room for the steward and his men amidships. The fo'castle was large, and airy, giving ample berthing for the stokers and sea-men; while the whole ornament of the deck was bright-looking with brass, and smart rails, and pots of flowers, these last showing clearly that Mary had been at work. Indeed, I had scarce made my inspection of our new ship when she burst up from below, and began her explanation, standing with flushed cheeks, while the wind played in her hair, and her eyes danced with the merriment of it.

"Come aboard," she said, mocking the sea-man's "Adsum," and I said—

"That's evident; the question is, when are you going ashore again?"

"I don't know, but I guess I'll get ashore at New York, because I mean to go to Niagara——"

"You think you'll go ashore at New York, not 'you guess,' Mary."

"But I do guess, and I don't think, and I wish you wouldn't interrupt me with your perpetual grammar. What's the good of grammar? No one had a good time with grammar yet."

"That's not exactly the purpose of grammar——"

"No, nor of orthography, nor deportment; I learnt all these at a guinea a quarter extra when I was at school, so you're just wasting your time, because I'm finished."

"Finished?"

"Yes, didn't Roderick tell you that I went to a finishing school? You wouldn't finish me all over again, would you?"

"Not for anything—but the question is, why did you come aboard here, and why didn't you go to Salisbury? What is your old aunt thinking now?"

She laughed saucily, throwing back her head so that her hair fell well about her shoulders; and then she would have answered me, but I turned round, hearing a step, and there stood our new second mate, Francis Paolo. Our eyes met at once with a long, searching gaze, but he did not flinch. If he were a spy, he was no poor actor, and he stood his ground without the movement of a muscle.

"Well?" I said.

"Is Mr. Stewart awake yet, sir?" he said, asking for Roderick.

"I don't know, but you may wake him if he isn't."

"The skipper wants a word with him when he gets up," he continued; "we are all ready to heave anchor when he speaks."

"That's all right: I'll give you the word, so you can weigh now; perhaps, Mary, you'll go and hammer at Roderick's door, or he'll sleep until breakfast time to-morrow."

She ran at the word, and the new second mate turned to go, but first he followed the girl with his eyes, earnestly, as though he looked upon some all-fascinating picture.

I watched him walk forward, and followed him, listening as he directed the men; and a more seaman-like fellow I have never seen. If he were an Italian, he had left all accent of speech in his own country, and he gave his orders smartly and in a tone which demanded obedience. About his seamanship I never had a doubt from the first; and I say this now, a more capable officer than Francis Paolo never took a watch.

Yet he was a man of violent temper, soon displayed before me.

As I watched him from the hurricane deck, I heard a collier who had not yet left the ship give him some impudence, and look jauntily to the men for approval; but the smile was not off his cheeks when the new mate hit him such a terrific blow on the head with a spy-glass he held that the fellow reeled through the open bulwarks right into his barge, which lay along-side.

"That's to set your face straight," cried the mate after him; "next time you laugh aboard here I'll balance you on the other side."

The men were hushed before a display of temper like this; the skipper on the bridge flushed red with disapproval, but said nothing.

The order "Hands, heave anchor!" was sung out a moment after as Roderick joined me aft, the new Celsis steamed away from Plymouth, and the episode was forgotten.

For truly, as we lost sight of the town and the beautiful yacht moved slowly upon the broader bosom of the Channel, thoughts of great moment held us; and I, for my part, fell to wondering if I should ever see the face of my country again.

And in that hour the great pursuit began.