Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 26

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CHAPTER XXVI
THE GREAT CAPTAIN PUTS OUT TO SEA

I had looked at my watch to discover that it was five minutes past eleven o'clock, though whether of the night or the day I did not know.

For some hours I lay in a heavy trance of sleep, wherein the terror of the truth still affected me, but would not stir me from my bunk. All the reality of my prison, the unspeakable cruelty of it, and that which imagination superadded, remained and were with me in my dreams. I heard the waters falling about the Zero, could depict the black depths of the river in which she lay, and see myself lying there as in a coffin of steel until the very plates were rusted and the waters gave up their dead.

But I warred no longer with such a fate, and, commending my soul to God, I slept.

I say that I had looked at my watch, and this is to tell of the breaking of my dream. Profound as the trance had seemed, the ears remained intent despite it, and they had warned me. A tremor seized upon the Zero, and she stirred at her moorings. It was hardly repeated when I sprang to my feet, and, taking a heavy stick in my hands, beat upon the plates of steel as though I would burst them. My God! if they had heard me, I said; if this were the finger of my destiny thus writing upon the surface of the waters!

And the watch told me that it was five minutes past eleven o'clock, though whether of the night or the day I knew not.

Oh, bear with me while I speak of this, when that tremor of life vibrated through the sleeping ship, and I believed that she stirred. Bear with me as I ran headlong from the cabin and bent my ear to listen, and cried aloud that they might come to me. Bear with me during the instants of suspense when I knew not whether the waters lied or beat upon the steel as the heralds of truth. The Zero moved, I said; they had started her engines from above.

There are moments in a man's life of which no words shall tell fitly, and this was one of them. While I could hear the pumps humming in the engine-room, while the Zero lurched now to this side, now to that, as though heavy seas were breaking upon her, I remained incredulous. It was a trick anew whereby I must suffer again, a thought to torture me, an hallucination of my sleep. I shut my eyes, put my fingers into my ears, and staggered from the place. A lie, I said; and yet a cold wind blowing sweetly upon my face mocked me, and, all my senses reeling, I understood that the hatch was off, and that a man was speaking to me.

"Master Strong, Master strong, will I have a word with you?"

A man bent down from the platform and thrust a lantern into my face. He was Jack-o'-lantern, blind with drink and staggering in his gait. What more he would have said, what message he carried to me, I shall never know until the end of time. A horror of the pit defying all reason, a desire of life and light and God's heaven above me, gave me the strength of ten such as he and sent me to his throat. And then—ah, God—and then I won the open. Inch by inch I fought my way to the platform, the man imploring me to hear him, I mad with my desire, and seeing the dark waters and the lights beyond them, seeing these and hearing from afar the city's voice, I plunged headlong into the river, and was gone from him.

Oh, the wild wonder of it, the breeze upon my brow, the cool waters lapping my mouth, the distant lights calling me as to a goal where all should be won! Of place or people, of all that happened about me, of steamers looming up in the darkness and going by, I knew nothing nor cared. There were the clear lights upon the farther bank, and they called me as to a gate of my home. Made strong by peril and suffering, I swam with lengthening strokes which cleared the frothing wavelets and bore me swiftly to the shore. The goal was mine, and nothing now could keep me from it.

I remember a monstrous barge, and beyond it an open road; I can recollect an instant when I said that the lights were those of a railway, and that the sounds I heard were of a train rumbling on to London. But those impressions were forgotten at the last; and, thinking only of the shore, I thrust out my hands to the chain which held the barge, and cried aloud that I was free.

For an instant I stood poised upon the prow to which I had climbed, and looked back upon the river. There were little banks of mist drifting down toward the city, but in a clear space between them, and as though it were a vision of the night, I saw the Zero and the great Captain alone upon her deck.