Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 23

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CHAPTER XXIII
THE CAVERN OF THE TORRENTS

The searchlights of the warships still wavered upon the headland, and must have disclosed his splendid figure as he stood there, upon the very edge of the precipice, defiant and motionless.

A challenge had been thrown out to the civilized world, and these great ships were the answer to it! Doomed as it seemed, beyond any hope of salvation, the door of his prison closed for ever, the soldiers standing sentinels on the hills, thus he answered them. A black figure upon the tremendous rock, so has the world last seen him; and such is the picture of him which dwells most surely in my memory.

I have called him the "Great Captain," and so he shall ever be to me, both for the magnitude of his attainments and the method of them. Betrayed this night, as it would appear, ignominious death awaiting him, never had he been cooler or more scornful of his enemies. I saw a swift glance cast out to sea, another to the distant bivouac, than with an indescribable gesture of contempt, he turned to me.

"At what hour did the Vengeur make this shore, my lad?" he asked in his gentlest tone. I told him it would have been about nine o'clock. "And the soldiers?" he went on. They had come, I said, about an hour ago.

He nodded and addressed himself to Marchand.

"I have no good account of you," he observed; "if you would go to Paris, there is the road. Be swift to take it."

The "Leopard," who had cringed before him like an animal, now drew himself up and answered with all a Frenchman's dignity.

"Captain, I will my life destroy before I go. Why shall you send me away from you?"

"Because you do not know how to be faithful, Marchand."

"Oh, monsieur, say not so. I am mad and I forget. But in my heart there is love for the great Captain always—always."

"Then show it by your conduct now. Come, we will go down."

He spoke as though it were a common affair of a common night, and yet, my God! what an act of madness it seemed to me. To go down into that pit of horrors—a pit from which flight henceforth must be impossible; to court a living tomb; to bend his head to fate and say, "It is decreed"— was this the Black I had known? And yet the command was unmistakable; and we, who would so willingly have fled from these catacombs of darkness and despair, we followed him without a word to share whatever fate his destiny had written.

I would tell you that we did not go in by the chimney I had climbed, but by that other door through which Marchand had visited the Spaniards. Here, in a granite vestibule beneath the hollow of the headland, we found a common wooden ladder some thirty feet in length, and we went down by it to a chill cave wherein a single lamp was burning. From this we passed down a vaulted tunnel, so low that a man must go astoop, so winding that the outstretched hands could hardly direct the feet aright. Beyond there lay the orifice to a black pit and a second ladder, longer than the first, and so frail that a weak head would have reeled to see it bending. Down this we went, and again down a third ladder of like length, until at last we stood in a wide cave, and there discovered the Spaniards in all attitudes of sleep and drowsiness; a company of fierce men, whose capes shielded evil faces from the light, whose wit had been washed out by the bottle long hours ago. Among these Black strode, until, halting before a prone figure, he kicked it with his boot and bade the sleeper awaken.

The man muttered an oath, rolling upon his side and crying out that he should be left to sleep. A second kick opened his eyes and brought him giddily to his feet. He stared wildly at Black, put his hand to his side as though to find his knife, and dropped it as quickly. Then the Captain spoke:

"Your friends are encamped on the high land," he said quietly; "go to them and get your reward."

"My reward, Señor Captain!"

"I have said it. In a week's time you shall be garroted at Vigo. Go and make your peace, then. These others, who have served me well, will know to-morrow who has betrayed them. I leave them to reckon with you should your friends, the soldiers, be so foolish as to lose you. Go, dog of a Spaniard, before I remember what you have done."

He had become angry in an instant, and his anger no living man had yet learned to face. As for the Spaniard, he slunk away like a whipped hound; but he was still at some distance from the ladder's foot when . two of his fellows, awakened from their sleep and auditors of the Captain's accusation, sprang upon him from the shadows and drove their knives into his back with a sound of torn flesh which turned the heart sick. To them Black spoke a few words in the Spanish tongue, and immediately upon it the other Spaniards awoke to a babel of alarm and confusion beyond all reason. I saw then that the word had been passed and the truth made known. The hillmen were trapped, and by their own wit must they win a road to safety.

We left them to the orgy of a drunken panic, and, descending a winding stair which led to the great cavern, a sound as of a man screaming fell upon our ears. A few steps farther and the cavern, now lighted only by lanterns, showed me the figure of the man Red Roger, triced up to the bare rock and stark naked but for a pair of seaman's breeches about his loins. Holding a flare aloft was Jack-o'-Lantern; while Ned Jolly, who had been to Paris with Black, as they told me, whirled a stout whip of buffalo hide about his head and almost cut the bully in two at every lash. Such a roaring of oaths and imprecations I have never heard before and never shall hear again. The very roof flung the screams of agony back to us, while the whip tore the flesh in strips and left it hanging down the back of that brutal wretch who had sworn to have my life but a few brief hours ago.

I would have interceded with Black to have spared this fellow, but here had been a useless I thing, for he was cast free and fell fainting upon the cavern floor almost as we entered in. The others, grown ashen gray in the extremity of their fear, men face to face with accusation and the gallows, now crowded about the Captain to give news or to receive it. Amid a frenzy of talk, hands uplifted, witness sworn in filthy phrase, I gathered that the truth was known, and that nevermore would the Zero go out from Vares by that door whereby she had entered in. Upon this, there comes the tidings of the soldiers and the bivouac; and then, I think, the ultimate madness of the panic fell upon them all, save the man who should win life or death for them as the judgment ran.

Oh, to hear them in that hour of reckoning! To see them wringing their hands like women, crying for the gold that was lost, cursing the hour which brought them into Spain! To be with them while they ran helter-skelter, some to the outer basin to test the soundings anew; others up to the caves where the Spaniards lay; then back again to the Captain's side to beg salvation upon their knees. And through it all Black remained immobile. It seemed an age before he spoke at all.

"The ship to the pool!"

The command rang out in brazen tones and was caught up by the wretches as a message of their deliverance.

"The ship to the pool!"

What it meant I knew not; yet I saw Jack-o'-Lantern go leaping down to the basin, and after him the engineer Dingo; while fighting for footway were Sambo the nigger, the gunner Ned Jolly, and the giant Bed Roger, reeling and faint and mad for safety. A second cry from the Captain, "Load up and stand by!" was echoed as willingly by a crew already crowding the platform of the ship and lifting her steel hatches.

From them Black turned to Osbart and the French man, and, beckoning me to follow him, he led the way to his own cabin and slammed the door that the riff-raff might not hear him.

"Osbart," says he, going straight to his table, "would you give me the chart of Vares that Guichard made in the year '90? 'Tis there on the shelf behind you, the little book in the green cover. Thank you, and now ll1 take a cigar, if you don't mind, and just a glass of the old stuff to clear my head. Drink up, my lads, and put a bit of colour into your faces. Would ye have the soldiers taking you for women when they come in? Then drink and be d——d to them."

The jest fell ill in that dark place, and I could see Osbart's hand shake as he took the bottle from the Captain and then poured himself out a stiff glass of the brandy. Here he was imitated neither by the "Leopard" nor by me; but, drawing closer to the table, we watched Black as he unfolded the canvas-backed chart and laid it out before him. What was in that alert mind now? What miracle of a chance could be tempting it—what phantom of an idea? For a full quarter of an hour there was not a sound in the cave save that of the deep breathing of men and of the seconds as the great clock numbered them.

"We are wanting three days to the flood," says the Captain at last.

Marchand rejoined that it would be just six tides.

"Ah," says he, "and that's five tides too late for us, but we'll sing hymns that it's not at the neap, surely. Just hand me the compasses, will you,Doctor, and another match for my cigar? The man that sold the box will hear from me when I walk into London. Now, quite quiet everybody for just two minutes. So long, and then I'll tell you."

The minutes were hours, both of them. The silence in the cave was not less profound, but a new sound came to us from without, just as though water had been set running behind the wall of rock and would burst in upon us presently. No one but my-self seemed to notice this, and I was far too intent upon the Captain's face to take much notice of it. When he spoke again it was clear that he had come to a resolution, but that even he could flinch from the daring of it.

"Ah, well," says he, throwing the chart aside and taking up the well-bitten cigar, "ah, well, boys, it will have to be by the old river, after all."

Osbart and the Frenchman stepped back from the table together.

"You're mad, by ——!" says the Doctor, his eyes almost starting from his head. The "Leopard" breathed heavily as a man afraid to speak but having much to say.

"The old river!" he gasped at last. "But that is death, death, death, Captain. We go down to the tomb, the waters shall rot us in the old river. Speak again, Captain; it shall not be that."

Black rose majestically and faced them both.

"See here," he said, "it's the old river or hell and death in a Spanish prison. It's the old river or the garrote which bursts a man's head from his neck. The old river or Devil's Island for those whose necks are left. Will you follow me through the darkness or wait until the soldiers come in? They shoot at sight, I'm told, and they carry bayonets. Will ye try the truth of that or go out by the old river? I give you twenty seconds to decide."

What rejoinder could they make to him? I doubt, indeed, if he waited for any; and this much I know for certain, that the words were hardly spoken when he turned about and smote the solid rock behind him. It opened as at a wizard's touch to reveal a heavy door of steel, and, beyond that, an orifice wherefrom there came the sound of rushing water and the voices of men.

"Except Jack-o'-Lantern the others must know nothing," the Captain said; and, upon that, he began to go down the iron ladder which the open door disclosed. And thither we followed him to the platform of the Zero, which lay right beneath us in as beautiful a subterranean pool as the wildest imagination has conceived.

I would have you depict this grotto as all arched over by a roof, wherefrom there depended stalactites of enormous size; not of the common limestone, as might have been expected, but of sprays and spars of a clear crystal, fashioned to these fantastic shapes I know not by what humour of the natural law.

Far beneath lay a pool of running water, bordered by a steep slope of schistous rock which caught up and mirrored the glow of many lanterns and shot back its beams of gold and green upon the stern faces of the men who worked about the ship. West of the pool it was possible to see a clear river running through a wide arch out into this natural basin; but eastward there lay a black tunnel, and it came to me immediately that by this the Captain would pass to the open sea if his daring led him so far. A voyage more terrible to the imagination was not to be thought of, and so swiftly did the dread of it creep upon my awakening mind that I shrank already from the Zero as from a living tomb.

Upon his part, Black had never been more unconcerned. He encouraged the men, who were lifting great packages from the river's depths, and bade them hasten. A precise habit of mind sent the Frenchman up the ladder again for the compasses we had left behind and for a book Black had bought in Paris and had not read. The hazard of the venture appeared to be forgotten altogether. His voice, splendid always, rang out without a quaver when he gave the order to "Step quick," or, "Be easy there." I saw him now at the bows, now at the aft-rail of the Zero, satisfying himself that this or that was done, the ship all trim, the warpings free. I searched his face in vain for the fearsome secrets of which it should have been eloquent, but could discover thereon no testimony either of hope or despair. It remained for Osbart to be eloquent, with a madman's hoarse whisper and an anticipation of death which froze the very heart.

"There's an open grave for you, Strong," he whispered to me, clutching my arm until his finger-nails almost pierced the flesh; "there's the road to hell's gate! Look at it, man! You shall rot in that darkness until the end of time; your bones shall lie there until fire strikes the mountain and the dead come forth! That's Black, the great Captain; that's where he's leading us, into the pit, I tell you—the pit—the pit!" And he frothed at the lips as though the fires of a madman's death already tortured his brain. It was a dreadful thing to hear, and I pushed him away, but could not escape him.

"There's rushing water through the tunnel, and a cascade," he went on; "the legend tells of it; the hillmen have it in their songs. Let the ship pass through, and we will see the night and the stars; but let the rock grip her in its fangs and what then, Strong—what then? A thousand years and our bones will wash to and fro in that pit of the sea; a thousand years and our skulls will grin in the darkness of the vault. That's the great Captain, I say; that's where he's leading us. My God, into the pit of hell—the pit of hell——"

He turned from me with a great cry which long years of agony might have wrung from a damned soul, and, shutting the pit from his eyes, I saw him creep down the ladder toward his cabin, wherein, I did not doubt, he would drug himself to insensibility, as he had so often done before. When he was gone I heard Black commanding the hands to come aboard, and right willingly he was answered. Immediately now there were lanterns dancing upon our decks and the cry of man to man, the casting free of hawsers, the rattling of chains. With a last look about him, up at the vault as though the stars would shine upon him, down at the ship as though she were his last hope in this world, the Captain roared a long farewell to the Caves of Vares. He was jesting again when he entered the conning-tower and bade me follow him.

"Good night, my Spanish monkeys; a long good night to ye. When I come back, take care of yourselves, or your tails will be shorter, by the powers! You thought to trap me, did you? Well, here's my answer to you, lousy swine that ye are; here's my answer to ye——"

He spat with unutterable contempt into the clear water, and so descended into the tower. If I had any consolation when I followed him it was to see our projectors throwing their monstrous beams of light once more upon the black river, and to know that they would guide us through the tunnel. Hot thoughts of our perils came crowding upon the fetid atmosphere of the ship when the caps of steel shut us in at last; but no thought which could stifle that hope of God's heaven which lay beyond the blackness of the caverns. And to this the wide beams pointed as they searched the waters of the tunnel, and disclosed its heart as man had never beheld it since the beginning of the world.

The water in the pool was very deep, I imagine. We sank to the rim of the conning-tower, and our main window still being above the current, we went at a snail's pace toward the orifice. There was not a sound and hardly a ripple upon the mirror of the sea. When the walls of rock closed in upon us, they drew so near together that an outstretched hand could have touched them; the roof bent down ominously and forced us at last to sink entirely, and thus to shut the danger from our eyes. Upon a dial before us, a clever instrument of Guichard's designing, the fathoms were recorded, just as though a leadsman had been in the chains. I saw, to my wonder, that the river ran to a depth of fifty feet here in these narrows. Black observed this at the same time, and his spirit leaped at it. Presently, however, he took the receiver of our sea telephone into his hands, and when he had listened a little while, his brow puckered and he handed the instrument to me.

"What do you make of that, my lad?"

"A sound of rushing water, Captain, or it might be a boat moving on ahead of us."

"There'll be no boat in the river of Vares. What makes you think it's a boat?"

I told him that the sounds were not constant, and might well stand for the rise and fall of oars in the surge; at which he took the receiver back and clapped it to his own ear.

"There'll be no boat hereabout," he said almost with contempt. "The Spanish rats speak of a cascade, and that's what you're hearing. You there, Marchand! Give 'em three bells in the engine-room, and let's have more light. Be d——d to the boat; there'll be none in the river of Vares."

The bells rang out clearly, and were answered almost immediately by a great flood of white light, which pierced the dark waters as with a tremendous arrow of radiance and showed us every crevice of the tunnel. A third projector, and this of gigantic size, had been added to the other two, and its radiating beam was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in all my life. You could almost count the flakes of weed in the stream about us. Rocks became nuggets of pure gold; the roof above us was a sheen of green and silver, the sand sparkled as with the powder of crushed diamonds. Such, I say, was the picture revealed to our wondering eyes. The terror came later and not less swiftly.

Marchand, the Frenchman, was the first to perceive it, and so did the thing affright him that he cried out aloud and clutched the Captain's arm. Upon that there comes a fearful oath to his lips, and, dragging us both to the glass, he showed us the horrible shape of a gigantic devil-fish. Such a fearsome thing in such a place, the eyes of it staring in our own, the eight arms extended as the gnarled boughs of a tree, was beyond all imagination unlooked for. For one long instant I beheld the revolting spectacle; then, in a flash, the scene was hidden; the water became black as jet; the Zero rocked as though a great sea had struck her.

I have many memories of this dreadful scene, but none which could convey to others the divers horrors of it or one tithe of its awful reality. Not at the first, perhaps, did it come to us that the devil-fish had gripped his arms about the rim of the conning-tower, and thus rocked us to and fro as a cradle is rocked by a woman's hand. Thrown headlong, the Zero rolling helplessly against the jagged rock; wild cries of terror reaching us from the engine-room; the water turned black with the filthy fluid the fish ejected; we were as men plunged into the darkness of the ultimate horror, robbed of our senses, driven to the madness of panic. And from this madness Black's voice alone recalled us. Even as write I can hear again his baying cry, "Stand fast there!" can see him holding to the iron rail before the dials, and sending his commands to the engineer. "Stand fast!" Aye, a mockery, and yet mockery which would win salvation.

The bells rang out; they were answered—I knew not how—and the propellers reversed. Slowly the Zero backed from the great fish and began to drag it, us it were, to the basin we had left. Thus fighting the monster, whose tentacles were as steel ropes about us, of a sudden the Captain gave the order, "Full speed ahead!" and with a rush, in which all should be lost or all won, we carried the cuttle-fish headlong and shot from the tunnel's mouth into a great vortex of the waters. It was the cascade of which the Spaniards had told us, and the heart of the earth holds no more beautiful thing.

Here from every side of a vast pit beneath the mountain the torrent fell into a cup which might have been shaped from a solid emerald, so wonderful were its hues of translucent green. Raging furiously upon the cycle of a whirlpool, the surge leaped and foamed about us, shooting its spray in whirls of froth and raining silver spindrift upon our glasses. No longer did the monster cuttle-fish blacken the water with the ink-like fluid; no longer did he drag us hither and thither in the blind ferocity of his attack. Our danger lay elsewhere. By a tunnel had we come into the basin; by a tunnel must we go out. As in some vision of a horrid sleep, I perceived the black orifice beyond the whirlpool, and asked myself what miracle even of the Captain's genius might carry us to such a gate of our salvation. The end of it all was at hand, I said. Here in this cavern of the torrents the Zero and all aboard her must lie to the end of time.

If this were the logic of my despair, the frenzy of the others took a mood less acquiescent. The steel door behind us had been opened by the men in their heat of passion, and now they would have come swarming in upon us, their lips black with the burning oaths, their eyes outstanding as the horror gripped them. Drawn down by the vortex, they screamed and cried in a delirium which put the fish's tentacles about their bodies and tore them limb from limb where they stood. To such as these the thunder of the cascade was less terrible than the eyes and arms of the monster which they now perceived clearly through the glasses of the conning-tower. Beating at it with their fists, kneeling to it, striking blindly as though threat and voice would drive it off, they turned next upon Black to accuse him. He had brought them to this! Here was the end of his fine promises, this the grave of their treasure. They must die this dreadful death because he, forsooth, had not the wit to see that Vares would be their prison. When they were spent, and not before, the Captain answered them with an outburst of fury at which the brain reeled.

"Ye devil's spawn, must I waste words on such as you? Out, I say—out! Back to your holes, vermin that you are! Get ye gone before I deal with you! Get you gone, dirt and carrion, or by the Lord above me no man shall see the sun again!"

They quailed before him, shrinking from that tremendous figure of a man, and discerning his resolution in every gesture. When the Dane would have lifted a hand to strike him, I saw but the mock of a blow, and then beheld the fellow prone and bleeding on the floor, with a face so waxen that he might have been already dead. As a bolt from the blue that terrible arm had stricken him; and they dragged him back, fearful now to say a word, and yet believing surely that death was upon them. When they were gone, a black silence fell in the tower, and was unbroken save by the swirl of the foam upon the glasses. In the end that ceased, and I knew that we had sunk to the very depths of the basin, and lay in the cool, clear water of its hollow.

To such, then, had the Master brought us. And what of the dread minutes which followed after? What of Black's genius and resource?—ah, to tell you of that! For my part I had given up all hope of life, while a desire of life ran warm as blood in my veins. To think of the open sea and God's heaven of stars, to remember the home I had left, my dear friends and the youth of my days; to do this and to peer out into those merciless waters which never again should yield up their prisoners—aye, that was a torture of the soul beyond any a man may suffer even in his dreams. And to it surely we were doomed. The rock held us in its giant embrace; the cascade surged above us; the gate was barred by chains of the foam which no ship might hope to pass. Such, I say, was my belief, when I heard the bells ring once more, and knew that we were rising. Upward and upward, the great fish still cupped upon our flank, we rose amid the thunder of the waters, until, with one mighty shout of "Full speed ahead!" one leap at the bells to ring the signal down, Black put all to the venture and raced for the orifice. And then I think that my eyes could suffer no more, and, pressing my burning hands against them, I waited for the end.

Would the Zero strike the rock, and be shivered as a bolt shot awry, or would she find the gate and breach it? In the agony of that doubt I heard men cry aloud. Would she find a haven, or breast the bulwark and open her plates to a wound of the water? We should know in five seconds, or in ten; and who shall wonder if we counted them, saying, "Now, now, it is coming now." As sailors who cling to a life-line when a monstrous wave threatens their ship, so we stood in the cabin. It was here, it was gone by—oh, the spell of it! And now the torrent had us, and we were carried as a feather upon a freshet, headlong in darkness, out and downward, in blackness, amid the roar of hell's voices, out to the sea and the night, out to the heaven these men derided.

The torrent had carried us beneath the mountain and brought us to the open sea. We rushed headlong to the platform, and, some calling for axes, we fell upon the monster fish and hewed its limbs asunder. A delirium of joy seized upon the pirates. Nor were they less terrible to me in that hour of the mercy than in the blackest instant of the doom which had hovered above them.