Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 13

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Captain Black (Pemberton) by Max Pemberton
XIII. I See the English Coast Again


Captain Black had ever been a solitary man. When I was upon the Nameless Ship, days and even weeks would find him living a life apart in his own cabin,, and here upon the Zero he was not changed. Sometimes he would dine with us in the saloon; he was often upon deck very early in the morning to see the sun rise; but for the most part of the day we never saw him at all. What he did or what brooding of the spirit kept him from his fellows, I make no pretence to say. The man was not as other men, and could not be judged by the common standards.

Of the rest of the crew I saw much during the ten days which followed the destruction of the Vespa. They were a wild lot, but most of them had brains. Black had picked them up in many ports, I learned, and more than one of them had been in prison. The silent Frenchman, whom they called the Leopard, had studied under Guichard and was a first-rate electrician. The great rogue Red Roger was a bully and the whip to keep the idlers going. Like most of his kind he was a coward at heart, and the crew soon discovered it. But he talked big all the time, and to hear him you would have thought him a match for all the fighting men in the world.

One night, I remember (it would have been about the twelfth day out from Ice Haven), I went up to the platform toward the hour of sunset and found this hulking fellow and the little Frenchman together there. The sea ran rather wild, and every hatch had a red disc outward to show that it must be shut fast by any who used it. The Zero herself was running well through the troubled waters and making light of them; in truth, the best part of her lay entirely below the surface; and when I stood upon the platform the waves rose often to the height of my head. There it ended, however, for the wind was behind us, and the seas fell heavily upon the spine of the ship and gave us no more than a dousing of fresh spray.

I had imagined that we must be somewhere near the coast of Scotland by this time, and looking round the horizon, I could make out a dim headland on the starboard quarter. Answering my inquiry, the fellow Red Roger replied, glibly enough, that it was Cape Wrath, which instantly set the little Frenchman chuckling, and he continued to chuckle in a way that irritated the big fellow beyond all bearing.

"Ho," cried Red Roger angrily, "and ain't it Cape Wrath, then? Who says different?"

"Jules, me, I say it. Not Cape Wrath at all;" and then turning to me he exclaimed, "He know nothings about anythings; he joost one great big lie altogether."

Well, the bully was shockingly put out. Clenching his fists, he advanced upon the Frenchman and struck an attitude.

"You son of a blue livered pig, what do you mean by that?"

"Précisément—exactly what I say. You are the wind-bag. Then why tell monsieur that it is Cape Wrath when I shall say it is the Holy Island?"

"The Holy Island be jowned. I say it's Cape Wrath, and the man as don't say it with me is going to smell the outside of this," and he thrust his fist toward his adversary's nose, and in another moment would have knocked him down. Then was the Frenchman's opportunity. He had come on deck with a heavy oil-can in his hand, and now he gave it a pinch, and the filthy stuff squirted full into Red Roger's face and went streaming down his neck almost to his boots. Uttering a howl of rage that might have terrified the boldest, the bully sprang upon his enemy and sought to throttle him where he stood. A vain hope. The Leopard deserved his nickname, and ducking with the agility of an animal, he let the red man leap headlong into the sea.

I thought he had gone clean overboard, and was already on my way to the engine-room hatch when a roar of laughter arrested me and I learned the truth. Not only had the Leopard pitched his man into the sea, but he had caught him by the ankle as he did so, and there he held him while the fellow's head was now in, now out of the water, and his wicked oaths were choked by the waves before they were wholly uttered.

"That Cape Wrath, eh, mon enfant? Shall you now say what is the lie? Ho, ho, you speak polite and I dry you before the fire. Is he Cape Wrath—no, by crambo! you say, and that the truth. He not Cape Wrath at all; you have took the medicine, and now you know."

He hauled him up from the sea while he spoke and laid him dripping on the deck. All the fight was clean gone out of Red Roger by this time, and not a little of the dirt. The brine had almost choked him and he was black in the face. What ultimately would have happened to him I cannot tell you. The swell was now rising so rapidly that it was dangerous to stand on the platform at all, and we all made our way below with what speed we could. Then for twenty-eight hours the Zero lay deep at the bottom of the North Sea, while the gale raged above and the winds blew tempestuously.

I shall always think this conquest of the deep by a submarine one of the most wonderful things that man has achieved. Here were we, caught suddenly by a hurricane off Holy Island in the North Sea and yet able to drop gently below the waves and to lie there until wind and sea had fallen.

Seated with Osbart in the saloon, for Black did not dine with us that night, we watched the great projectors throwing their powerful rays upon the shelving banks of sand; we lived in a world upon which the eyes of man had never looked. Great fish were to be seen here and there; monstrous crabs crawling upon their prey; shoals of silver mackerel with the dog-fish darting amidst them and devouring them fearfully. Elsewhere, all would be as still as in some temple of the ocean's mysteries. The water had no motion here; there was no life upon the shelving banks; the rank weeds did not lift to any swell. And here we lay for twenty-eight hours, the air in our cabins made light by the liquid oxygen we carried, and a glorious feeling of security following us to our hiding place.

The gale was quite abated when we rose to the surface at last, to see the flashing lights of the Spurn Head vessel, and to know that we stood almost in the mouth of the Humber. Black had joined Osbart and myself at dinner previously, and we found him in the lightest of moods. His mad adventure was still the mainstay of his conversation, and it could be doubted no longer that he meant to carry it out. With Osbart he was unusually playful; but the Doctor had no lack of courage when the time came, and he answered his taunts quite honestly.

"I'm stark afraid of England, and that's the truth, Black. Set me down in any other country and you'll not find a better man. You'd be the same yourself if you'd stood before an English jury and heard a red devil with ermine about his neck send you to the scaffold. I've done it, and you're asking me to go in a second time. Well, if it were any other man living, I'd blow his brains out or he should blow mine. But if you go, I go——"

Black laughed until the glasses rang.

"Why, Doctor," says he, "would you have me hitch you to the Bell buoy and leave you there until we sail out? Come, man, keep up your spirits—or put 'em down if the rum suits you better. I'm going ashore to fetch Ned Jolly out of the Sunk Island Fort here, and you're coming with me. If they take us, turn King's evidence and string the lot of us. But you ought to know me better; you ought to know that when Black has a mind to do a thing, it's half done already. I'm going into that fort to fetch Ned out, and there isn't a ship afloat that could stop me. What's more, I'm going to send Whitehall a telegram when I've done it, so help me thunder."

We stared at him in amazement.

"A telegram, Captain?"

"Why not? The station's on Sunk Island Point. Ned does sentry-go there, and they've trained dogs to help him. You must give these dogs a dose of medicine, Doctor. That's your job, while I fetch out Neddy. If so be he's on sentry-go to-night, it's easier than cracking walnuts. If he's not, why, then I must set my wits to work. But what I want you both to understand is that this is no red work and that no man's life is to pay forfeit. We'll enjoy ourselves, my lads, and the fun should be fast enough. You may both stand in the tower with me, if you like and see it——"

He never doubted that we would accept, and draining his glass, he led the way down the long corridor to the tower of which I have told you. I have already said that this was a new Captain Black to me: a man grown more daring in many ways and less prudent in some. His talk of a telegram, for instance, proved to me that he no longer doubted that his escape was known in London. I saw in him a gambler staking his all upon the throw, and I understood that even his courage might not keep him many weeks upon the seas. And yet I have often thought how premature that judgment really was and how little the world knew of him.

The conning-tower of the Zero is a wonderful tribute to the skill of the famous French engineer Guichard. There are some of the most beautiful instruments of navigation that even modern science has constructed. All the work of the ship can be done from the tower; the discharging of her fire torpedoes; her rising to the surface or sinking below; her manœuvres, and the control of her engines if need be. Here also is an instrument something like a telephone. You put it to your ear and can distinguish every sound that comes down through the water: the siren of a steamer or a lighthouse, the propellers and paddles of ships, and even the beat of oars. Another switch turns on the great electric projectors; there are speaking-tubes to communicate with the crew; and, by no means less remarkable, a knob beneath a glass case which, should danger threaten the Zero in the depths, instantly releases a great weight from her bottom, and sends her to the surface as though she were a cork.

These instruments I came to know more intimately as the days went on; but I confess to thinking less of them than of ourselves when we followed Black to the tower and he shut the doors of steel behind us. It was now about nine o'clock on a May evening, and we stood some five miles from the Spurn Head light-ship. A peaceful sea showed us countless herring boats, which I did not doubt had come out of Grimsby; and they were a pretty enough spectacle, riding like so many dream ships against the azure sky. No boat, however, lay nearer to us than one mile, and there was little danger of our being observed, even though we rested on the surface of the water, as we continued to do for some time.

Suddenly, and without any warning, Black touched a bell before him, and the Zero sank rapidly and then began to forge ahead, but so deep down that I did not doubt she was wholly submerged. When we had gone on in this way for nearly an hour, the signal to rise was rung upon the bells, and we came up slowly to the surface and there lay with our platform just above the waves and our propellers hardly turning. We were then close to the shore by Sunk Island, and the batteries at the Humberts mouth frowned upon us forbiddingly. I could see the black shape of a small fort which lay, perhaps, the third of a mile away upon our starboard bow, and it was evident that we must run the gauntlet of the guns if we would make it, as Black's intention appeared to be. This did not daunt our Captain one whit. He was in a jester's mood to-night, and I do believe he would have gone on if all the British warships afloat had been anchored in the estuary behind him. Not so Osbart, who had been afraid from the beginning and was now white with terror at the sight of the English shore.

"There's not a man alive that's worth a game like this, Black," he cried passionately, indicating the batteries and the black mouths of the guns which threatened us. He might as well have addressed himself to the granite of the forts.

"Why," says the Captain with imperturbable good humour, "you're about a month after the fair, Osbart. You should have said all this before I set out for the Isle of Wight to fetch out a certain doctor friend of mine they'd clapped in a madhouse there. Poor old Ned Jolly wants a better advocate, I'm thinking. There isn't a cleverer gunner in the British Navy, and here he is stuck on sentry-go in a bit of a fort not five miles from hell as the crow flies. Would I leave Ned to the vultures—no, by thunder, not if there were five hundred in yon mouse-trap with him. He was as good a man as ever served me, afloat or ashore, and he's coming this trip if I have to fire the town to get him out. Now, stand by and hold your tongue. Ill hear the rest of it to-morrow."

His tone had become domineering, and when it was that, there were few who had the nerve to contradict Black. I saw that both the daring and the humour of the situation had gripped him, and that nothing short of a miracle would break the spell. He was going to the fort to get out an old comrade of the famous days, and he did not reckon the risks of the venture. When next he spoke it was to ask us if we could make out a sentry on the granite wall before us, and whether it were a bugle or a ship's siren he heard in the fairway. This question I answered, telling him that a bugle had sounded ashore, and that there was a sentry before the fort.

"Is he a little man with a big top-knot—can you make out that much?" he asked next.

I told him that it was impossible.

"Ah," says he, "then we must see for ourselves." And again he touched the gong and we glided onward, creeping up in the darkness until we were not fifty yards from the fort, and it seemed to me in instant danger of discovery.

"Now," said the Captain, "to give old Ned the tune he'll like best." With that he touched a lever and instantly a siren began to blow weirdly over the waters, while, as it was still blowing, the Zero sank gently beneath the waves and the sounds died away in a long wail as of a man in his death agony. It was the very signal I had heard across the sea when Jack-o'-Lantern and his fellows fled from Dolphin's Cove. But, I confess, I heard it now with very different feelings, believing that it must be answered instantly by the guns of the fort, and that our discovery would be but a matter of moments.

I have told you of an instrument in the conning-tower by which all sounds from the sea, whether above or below, were carried to our ears whatever the depth at which we lay. Black had picked up one of these receivers directly we sank, and he motioned to me to take another. No sooner had I put it to my ears than I heard a sound of men talking excitedly above us, then of the tramping of feet and of some one halloaing as though to a boat which was approaching the fort. After this there was silence a little while, and upon this the splashing of oars and a new interchange of questions and answers as though from the ship to the fort and back again. For me it had no meaning, but Black read it clearly enough, and he chuckled while he interpreted it.

"That's the medical inspection boat hailing them, Doctor," he cried, looking over his shoulder at Osbart while he spoke. "I guess they've sighted us and have come along to give us their pills. That's your job, my boy, and don't let 'em queer your pitch, Why, man, there won't be a front seat in any graveyard in Yorkshire if this goes on. And you sit there like a clucking hen and not half so handsome."

Osbart answered not a word, and, chuckling still, Black fell to business. We rose slowly from the depths and lay now in the very shadow of the fort. High above us a searchlight was working, and a vast arc of its golden light shone far upon the still waters. We could see the medical inspection launch very plainly, and we had no difficulty in seeing that she was going down river upon an errand which did not concern us. On the rampart of the fort itself there stood three men, who were gazing out over the river in a vain endeavour to discover the mysterious siren which had warned them. I imagined that one of them would be Black's old comrade, Ned Kelly, but which one or by what means he was to be brought on board I knew not at all. The danger of our situation was plain enough, and needed no emphasis. Those above had but to fire a gun at us, and we were done for in a flash.

Well, we lay for some minutes without sound or motion in the shadow of the fort, and then a curious think began to happen. It was nothing less than the appearance of a thick fog on the sea round about us—a black, impenetrable mist which floated up, not from the water, but from a large bell-mouthed funnel on the platform of the Zero.

This fog was generated chemically, and was one of Guichard's most precious secrets. The effect of it was to shut everything from our view almost instantly; and when the first black smoke of it had passed, it left a thick haze behind through which all things were seen in vague and distorted shapes. Recalling our adventure at Dolphin's Cove, I remembered the sea-fog which had so puzzled Captain York, and held it to be a mystery no longer. Just as the cuttle-fish protects himself by shooting an ink liquid into the sea, so did we aboard the Zero protect ourselves from observation by the swift discharge of this blinding vapour. The haze of it was still upon the water when Black opened the steel hatch of the conning-tower and stepped on deck. An instant later he had hailed the sentry at the fort, and asked him boldly if Ned Kelly were there.

"Who goes?" came the cry. The answer was, "Friend," and then, "Submarine A1 to speak with Sergeant Williams."

I had followed Black to the platform, and I stood there, amazed at his courage and quite spellbound by the effrontery of his actions. I knew that a false word might send us headlong to the bottom of the Humber, and I waited, telling myself that it was incredible such a jest could be played to the end. Then I heard the voice again, speaking through the fog and seeming to come from the very wall of granite which sheltered us.

"I am Sergeant Williams. What orders do you bring?"

"A telegram to London, Sergeant. Have the goodness to write it down."

A contemptuous guffaw followed the intimation, and then the voice asked a question:

"Is this a night manœuvre or what? We've no instruction here. You'll have to show me some authority, I'm thinking—that is, when this d——d smoke of yours blows over. I never saw such a fog in my life. Are you afire, or what?"

"A bit leaky in the ribs, Sergeant—you'll like the flavour of it by and by. Is that Ned Kelly with you, I wonder? It seems to me I know the cut of his jib—why, yes, it would be Ned, surely, and he'll just be stepping aboard us—eh, Ned, are you coming aboard? It's the old skipper who calls you. Don't you know his voice?"

Well, the effect of it was electrical. I saw a blurred figure come forward to the very edge of the glacis, a voice cried, "Black, by thunder," in a tone which stirred the blood, and then a man came rolling and sliding over the concrete hard and fell plump upon the platform like a sack shot into a wagon. In the same instant a hatchway opened, and Jack-o'-Lantern, catching the fugitive in his arms, dragged him below decks; while Black made a sign to me to return to the conning-tower, and immediately entered it himself.

"Sergeant," says he jauntily, before he closed the steel doors, "I'm very much obliged to you, and my compliments at home. You'll be remembering the telegram to Whitehall, I don't doubt. Say that Black's afloat, and that some of them will hear of him sooner than they look for. Do you hear me? Then, good night, my boy, and good luck to ye."

His laugh rang out over the waters as the doors went to with a clash, and the Zero began to sink. What was in Black's mind, what danger he feared, I did not instantly perceive; but I know that the ship whirled away astern at a tremendous speed, and then swung round as though she would cross the river backward. Hardly had this manœuvre been completed when the water about us began to race and foam as though a tempest were raging beneath, and not on the surface of the sea. I heard a low rumbling sound, as of a submarine explosion; the Zero trembled from stem to stern, the very plates in her seemed bursting asunder. And then, as swiftly, calm fell, and we were racing through the dark waters for Spurn Head and the open.

"A near thing," said Black calmly, as he took a six-inch cigar from his pocket and struck a match. "I knew the channel was mined, but I did not think the fool had the wit to fire it. Well, he did his duty, and I'm not the man to quarrel with him. Let's think about supper, for I am sure the Doctor has been licking his lips half an hour or more. Eh, Doctor, do you feel like a glass of the best—could you crack a bottle of champagne with me? Upon my word, man, a better imitation of a parlour ghost I never saw in all my life——"

He might well have said it, for Osbart was as white as a sheet, and his eyes were almost starting from his head. He had but one thought, that Black had betrayed him, and that the Zero was as surely trapped as though the police were already aboard her.

"They'll take you at Dover in the Narrows, " he said, almost with savage calm. Black replied by ringing the bell and telling Sambo to serve supper.

"So be it, Doctor," says he, with a laugh. "At Dover, then, we'll look out for your old friends. Let's pledge them a bumper while we have the time, for to-morrow—why, maybe, to-morrow we die."

And with that he led the way to the saloon, and we followed him, as the Zero rose to the surface, and all the glory of the moonlit sea was revealed to us.