Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 14

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Captain Black (Pemberton) by Max Pemberton
XIV. We Fight Below the Sea


We were now out upon the North Sea, and it was plain that we were going to attempt the passage of the Straits of Dover and so try to reach the open Atlantic.

Beyond this I had not a notion of Black's plans, nor was Osbart any wiser. As for the crew, they were as wild a set of desperadoes as ever trod a ship's deck. North or south, east or west, it did not matter a rap to them, while debauch was their goal. They had cast in their lot with the greatest dare-devil in the world, and nothing else mattered.

This was all very well, but I had already come to believe that Black was not the man he used to be, and that his old-time prudence had gone down with the Nameless Ship he loved so well. Herein Osbart agreed with me, and it was just because the Doctor understood the Captain's new mood better than most of us that he suffered so many panics upon this voyage.

For my own part I did not doubt that Osbart was wise in his forebodings, and that this wild adventure could not long endure. What my own share in it must be, whether good or ill, what the future must bring to me, I cared but little, such was the magnetism of the man and his daring. You, who have never known Captain Black, may not follow me in this; but, had you known him, you would have suffered the spell not less surely, and have found in this amazing contest of one man against the whole world a spectacle so engrossing that no peril by sea or land would have dragged you from it.

Remember that we had no port in all the world open to us; that every warship, to whatever nation she belonged, must seize us if she could, or sink us upon sight if capture were not possible. We carried a great hoard of gold, which would have opened untold delights to every man aboard could we have found a haven ashore.

But that gold was now so much dross to us, of less worth than the weed of the sea or the pebbles of the beach. No merry smacksman in a fishing-boat was as poor as we; the very beggars at the church doors might have despised us.

And yet, I say, Black was not daunted, and the jester's mood still sat lightly upon him. Here in the North Sea, with British warships upon one hand and German upon the other, he played a boy's part and delighted in it. Well do I remember how, that very night, when we had left the Humber, he came suddenly upon a fishing-fleet silhouetted against the azure horizon, and ran the Zero in among them and began his capers there. Such a scene, played in the bright moonlight, had never been known in the North Sea before, and never will be again. Here were we, risen up suddenly from the depths amongst these poor fellows, who surely must have thought we were the devil. And there was Black scattering gold upon their decks by handfuls. The night must be far distant when those fine fellows out of Grimsby will be able to tell of another hour as lucky.

That was a picture which will not readily pass from my mind. I see again the black trawlers, bold and sharp against the starlit sky; the wide waters with the moonbeams rippling upon them; I hear Black's merry laugh as he paced the platform and hailed this ship and that, asking of their welfare, and then flinging his gold upon their decks. Here and there a coin would go flashing into the water, and gleam an instant there; but Black ever had a contempt for money, and I do believe he would have flung diamonds into the sea as readily. When the jest was done, he fell to talking earnestly to Jack-o'-Lantern, who worshipped his very footsteps, and I could see that the pair of them were not a little concerned at the appearance upon the northern horizon of a ship which had the aspect of a cruiser. Black, however, gave no orders, and we continued to lie upon the surface, while the distant vessel gradually drew away to the eastward, and even the Doctor forgot to be afraid.

Osbart had become his old self again after we had left the Humber, and I had quite a long chat with him as we smoked a pipe together Before turning in. There for the first time I heard that Black had a haven in Spain, and that he was making for it upon this very voyage. But for Ned Jolly and the Captain's unswerving loyalty to all who had befriended him, we should never have entered the North Sea at all; but here we were, and God alone knew if we were ever to get out of it.

"They'll trap us at Dover, if it's anywhere," Osbart said. "I told Black so, but what's the use? You might as well try to move Mont Blanc as to alter his course when he's set upon it. If his insanity to-night doesn't bring his ship ashore—why, then nothing will. They've three submarines at Ports-mouth, and the French have half a dozen more at Cherbourg. When I tell him so, he lights a new cigar and offers me a match! Good God! and we might be living like kings ashore if he'd make for South America, as I want him to. There are a dozen cities there which would take such a man, and glad to have him. And what's he say to it—why, that Paris is the only place fit to live in, and that the others are towns for hogs."

I ventured to suggest that if the danger in the English Channel were all he feared it to be, then Black's partiality for the French capital really did not matter. But Osbart would not hear of that—his faith in the great skipper was sound enough at heart and led him to an eternal hope even in the face of inevitable disaster.

"Oh," he said dryly, "he may find a door—he's just the man, even if the devil were on the other side of the wall. You know that as well as I. The ship which takes Black is going to be the Glory Boat, and somebody pulling like Satan at her tiller. All the same, I wish we were out of the Channel; and so do you, my boy, for all your Quaker's face. Why, Strong, you'd no more give him up than sell your own father to the Cherokee Indians. I know it—and so do you."

I evaded the question, as well I might, and we fell to talking of other matters, but chiefly of the great ship with which Black had ruled the seas before the ironclads of the nations hunted him down. Those were amazing days, but Osbart seemed to think that if the Zero once made the ocean, the old kingship would be taken up, and our skipper rule the Atlantic as he had ruled it when first I knew him. And so we were back again at the starting point. Should we be trapped off Dover, or should we not? It was plain that time alone could answer that question, and answered it was dramatically enough, as you shall now learn.

We travelled slowly down the North Sea, standing outside the roads of Yarmouth, and seeing Lowestoft and Southwold but as a cluster of lights upon a far horizon. Margate we passed in the daytime, and I could just discern the cliffs of the North Foreland as we set a course toward the French coast, and so lost the English shore altogether. So far there had seemingly been very little prudence in the manner of our voyage. We kept the Zero on the surface, and the weather being abnormally warm and sunny, the best part of our days were spent upon the platform, where we basked, while the crew lifted their wild chanteys or gambled to an accompaniment of frightful oaths and often of blows.

Black passed his time chiefly in his cabin, where, as Osbart told me, he occupied himself with a wonderful collection of coins he had purchased at Christie's just before he bought the Zero. Sometimes at night, when the hither sea was free of ships, we would have a little concert, and the great rogue, Red Roger, would sing "Down Among the Dead Men," or the Frenchman they called the "Leopard" would bring up his guitar and give us haunting lullabies from the Basque provinces; while once, I remember, Osbart himself sang "Alice, Where Art Thou?" in a fine tenor voice which held the men spellbound. This was not a little remarkable, for there was not a man among them who would not have murdered his own brother for a look; and yet here they were shedding crocodile's tears at a little sentimental music and ready to die for the home, sweet home, which none of them might hope to see again.

All this was well enough, but it gave place to a different order of things when we sighted the Good-win light, and from that moment a real and vital anxiety took the place of a happy indifference.

Black would be often on deck now, judging every ship upon the horizon and careful to be detected by none if it could be helped. Our course carried us almost as far south as Cape Grisnez, and this being out of the track of steamers, either from London or the German ports, we were able to "keep our heads above water," as Osbart put it, and we rarely dived but upon an urgent necessity. So simple did it all appear, that I thought our escape as good as made, when, without any warning whatever, at a quarter to twelve o'clock on the third day after we left the Humber, I heard the alarm bells ringing all over the ship, and instantly knew that the hour of crisis was at hand.

I say it was a quarter to twelve o'clock. I had left Osbart and the Captain in the saloon but ten minutes earlier, and was still but half undressed when the alarm rang out. Running down the corridor, and dragging on my pea-jacket as I went, I tried to gain the platform by the iron ladder amidships; but I found the hatch tight down, and the red lamp, indicating danger, shining . clear below it. Already the ship was full of that heavy air which accompanied a descent to the depths, and I could hear the water hissing in the tanks which sank her. I knew that we must have gone down with unusual rapidity; and when I met Jack-o'-Lantern at the ladder's foot he told me in a breath that we had run slap upon a fleet of submarines not five miles from Cape Grisnez, and that God Almighty alone could keep us out of their clutches.

"The Captain's in the tower," he said; "he'll be expecting you there, sir."

"And Doctor Osbart?" I asked him.

"Oh," says he, "the Doctor's right all through, sir, when his headlights aren't set on the English shore—you'll find him with the Captain, sir——"

I waited for no more, but ran along the passage; and hammering upon the lower hatch, by which you enter the conning-tower from the hold of the ship, gained admittance immediately and climbed to Black's side. Jack-o'-Lantern had spoken of the danger with such emphasis that I quite expected to find the Captain in a bad way and Osbart no better; but, when they invited me to come up, a cooler pair of men could not have been found afloat. For the matter of that, Black himself had just offered Osbart one of his "six-inch" torpedoes, as we called the famous cigars, and the Doctor was in the very act of striking a light as I came in. So I was quite unprepared for the spectacle my eyes beheld when I looked out through the glass of the tower, and discovered all the water turned to gold, as though a thousand lamps shone out at the bottom of the sea. Such a thing I do believe no man had ever seen since the beginning of the world, and I could but stand and gaze spellbound, while Black watched me curiously with the vain eyes of a man who knows his mastery.

"What is it, Captain?" I asked, finding my tongue at last. "What are we doing, and what do those lights mean?" He answered me immediately, pleased, I think, to speak of the Zero.

"Why, boy," says he, "this is a little bit of a party we're giving to the fishes, and those are the lamps to show our friends the way. Keep your weather eye open and you'll see more things than your philosophy ever dreamed of—and see 'em inside five minutes. Yonder, I may tell you, is the submarine Plongeur, which has come all the way from Cherbourg to pay her respects. There are a couple more behind her, and as many up above to do the honours when we peg out. Now, watch while Black has a word to say to them, for they'll remember it, by ——."

His figure became erect and stern instantly; the eyes flashed fire—I knew that I had found again the Captain Black of the Nameless Ship. As for the Doctor, a frenzy of courage appeared to have come upon him, and he stood like a statue, devouring the scene and consumed by that lust of cruelty which ever had mastered him at such moments. The very ferocity of it set me shuddering. I drew back and watched the thing, afraid to speak, but fascinated as I had never been in all my life. Imagine the depths of the sea shining with such a glorious iridescence that every drop of water might have been a diamond upon which the sun of day had turned its most precious beams. Say, that down there, upon the very bed of the Channel, that Channel over which you have looked so often from Dover or Folkestone or the southern ports, down there monstrous lamps were creating a fairy scene more beautiful than any of which man had dreamed through the ages. Do this and you will be able to stand with me in the conning-tower of the Zero and to witness that fearful encounter, when Death hovered about our ship and the lives of all hung upon a thread.

Light, I say, was my first impression of that magic moment, and, upon light, a vision of danger so real that my heart seemed to stand still as I realized it. There, right ahead of us, and clear to be seen in the golden water, was the gleaming shape of a submarine, looking for all the world like a gigantic fish of aspect most terrible. In five seconds, or ten, we should plunge into the jaws of this monster, and it would engulf us. No miracle, I thought, could avert that swift catastrophe—and yet, instantly, with the swiftness of light, Black had averted it, and we had shot upward as a stone from a sling, rising above our enemy and sinking as swiftly in ironic challenge. A moment later, and we had swung about to face the ship again; but this time she was not alone, and another hovered above her. Following Black's glance to the port upon the starboard side. I perceived the third of the French submarines creeping upon us from that quarter, and I said that we were surely doomed. It was at this moment that the great projectors ceased to light the scene, and black darkness enveloped us.

Remember that I knew little hitherto of the genius of that wonderful engineer, Guichard, or of the magic of his ship. I did not know that she could shoot up from the depths with amazing swiftness or sink as rapidly. But now I came to learn that this power was among her qualities, and that upon it Black relied chiefly for his safety. No sooner were our lamps out than we rose to the surface of the Channel, as a swimmer whose breath is failing him. From the blackness of deep waters we passed to the vision of the still sea and of the coastwise lights shining distantly above the white cliffs of France. Ships appeared upon a far horizon and nearer to us, the submarines waiting for their fellows to rise. We had passed, in a sense, from hell to heaven; but I knew that we were but at the beginning of it, and I watched Black's every gesture as he stood immobile at the glass and surveyed the scene with shining eyes.

Of what was he thinking? Of a turn of destiny which would have sent us headlong to death had he but mistimed his acts by a single instant? Or was this wholly the Black of old time, dauntless before his enemies and relentless when they pursued him? His face seemed to say that the latter was nearer the truth than the former. The lust of battle was upon him. I believe he would not have turned back if all the navies of Europe had been waiting there in the Channel to destroy him.

"Stand by to the tubes!" The order rang out in clarion tones as he took up the speaking-tube and hailed the watch below. I heard a sound of men moving swiftly in the depth of the ship, and perceived in the same moment that the two submarines were coming at us headlong. Black laughed aloud when he saw them, but the Doctor's face had grown ashen in an instant, and he clutched at the brass rail behind him as though to fend off the shock of the inevitable collision.

"Done for, by ——," he cried. The words were hardly uttered when the Zero began to race backward away from the ships and straight toward the French shore.

It was the ruse of ten seconds, for she had not gone a hundred yards when she stopped as though a cable held her, and plunging forward once more, she dived under the very bows of the leading submarine and was down at the bottom of the sea before a man could have counted ten.

"Well done, Guichard, well done!" cried the Captain as the Zero touched the soft sand and our projectors, shining out suddenly, made of it a carpet of gold. The Doctor, in his turn, muttered some words I could not understand, but fear had fallen from him as a garment, and his eyes glowed like lamps while he peered through the glass and searched the still waters for the enemy they hid from us.

"Will they follow us below, Captain?" he asked.

Black did not seem to hear him.

"This will be great news for Guichard," says he, as though that thought ran in his head before others; "I must give him a good account of it when we get through to Paris. There isn't a head like Guichard's in all France, so help me Heaven. Did ye see the way she went down, boys—like a diver, and better? And these swine came here to hunt me out. As true as night, they were after Black and his ship. Well, let 'em take her if they can. The carrion, let 'em put their beaks into me if they have the mind to."

He spat upon the floor as though the fury of it had taken possession of him, body and soul; then, peering into the path of the light, he told us what was in his mind.

"Maybe I could show them a clean pair of heels—maybe not. If I run for it and they hold me, there may be warships out of Portsmouth or Frenchmen out of Brest. My word's for here. And now, God help those that keep under. If you're with me, Doctor, say so and have done with it. I never was one to forbid a man to speak, and I don't begin to-night. Answer plainly, then, shall it be now or to-morrow? You've got a life to lose as well as me. Say what's in your head and I'll listen."

Osbart seemed to hesitate, as well he might have done. This terror of the nether sea sat ill upon him as it sat ill upon me. Sometimes I could have cried aloud for very dread of the prison of steel and all its fearful suggestion. Even Black had need of all his iron nerve.

"Well, man, are you tongue-tied, then—will you have no voice in it?"

Osbart shrugged his shoulders.

"It's in your hands," said he at last; "sink or swim, you are the man to lead us."

"And the lad here—what does he say?"

I knew not how to answer him and yet felt compelled to speak. A fool alone would have uttered a platitude to this crew of desperadoes fighting for their lives in the caverns of the sea.

"In your place," I said at last, "in your place I would fight now. But I should never have been in your place, Captain, and that you know well."

He smiled on me not unkindly, I thought, and then called for a glass of wine all round and gave us a toast.

"To-morrow!" said he; "to those who see to-morrow!" And he drained the glass to the dregs and bade the negro, whom his bell had summoned, to refill it. Then he asked for the engineer whom they called Dingo, and the two conferred together in low tones for many minutes. When they had done and he took up the sea telephone again, there was not a sound in the tower save that of the deep breathing of three men.

"They're about three hundred yards away upon the starboard quarter," says Black at last; and I knew that by "they" he meant the French boats we had come down to seek. Presently, however, he astonished us by adding, quite calmly: "But there are only two of them now"; and upon that he laughed and rang down an order to the engineer.

Immediately afterward the Zero began to creep along the sandbank; she had made some two hundred yards, I suppose, when, all together, we espied one of the French submarines, and knew that she was done for.

No words of mine could tell of my thoughts at this moment or of the emotions which afflicted me. There upon the sand I saw the wrecked submarine lying upon her side with her bows stove in, and I needed no words to tell me that she had collided with one of her fellows and sunk without hope for those she imprisoned. To them the plates of steel were now a ghastly tomb, mocking their cries and bruising the hands which beat upon them. My mind depicted their agony, and I could not but reflect that we ourselves might suffer just such a fate before many minutes were numbered.

To be sure, a sentiment of self-pity seemed out of place under such circumstances, nor could I expect it to be shared by the others. Black himself stood quite unmoved, regarding the wrecked hull with an indifference which might have been expected from such a temperament. Imagination did not help him to realize the sufferings of the doomed men; his thoughts centred upon his own good luck in finding one antagonist removed from his path. I thought him brutal in the hour of triumph; but he had been that from the beginning, and it was not to be supposed that the night had changed him.

"Caught in their own trap, by the Lord," he cried, pressing his face to the port as though his eyes must devour the awful sight. Osbart, in his turn, began to laugh horribly, and the laughter waxed and waned fearfully in the tower as the ravings of a madman whose hands have touched death. When I begged him to forbear, Black turned upon me savagely:

"Aye, let him laugh," he bellowed, "the lid's off the hell can and the water's in. Would you lie where they lie? Is he to whimper like a woman because the skunks don't know black from white? The sea rot their bones. I wouldn't lift a finger to save one of them if this were the Day of Judgment."

He flung my arm aside with a wild oath and again gave the signal, "Half -speed ahead." Whatever was my pity for the poor fellows in the cabins of the Plongeur, it gave place immediately to a new interest when I beheld the other submarines lying, perhaps, a hundred yards from us and prepared, I did not doubt, for instant attack. So quickly did they act that a loud cry from Black bore witness to the cleverness of it. I saw a dark shape in the water, and knew that it was a torpedo. A ripple of foam ran in its wake; the eyes of it were like those of a fish; the sea telephone carried to my ears the drone of its motor as it headed straight for the Zero. Then an agony of dread fell upon me. I did not dare to look again, but waited with my eyes shut for the roar of the explosion and the instant of death.

Some one has said that it is necessary to live through such instants as these to know the meaning of life. If that be so, the cup of my philosophy has been filled to overflowing since destiny first sent me to Ice Haven. Time and again have I stood upon the brink of the dark valley to be snatched therefrom by the genius and the courage of the great pirate. And as it had been when the Nameless Ship dominated the ocean, so now. The blow, which should have shivered the Zero, never fell. A touch upon her helm, a lightning-like deviation from her course, and the work was done. The torpedo, they told me, touched the very rim of our periscope. A foot nearer and it would have shivered us to atoms, there in the depths of the English Channel where the coastwise lights had been our beacon.

A laugh from Black told me the truth, and I opened my eyes to see that we had run right between the attacking submarines, and that they now lay exactly abreast of us, so that we could mark the faces of the men in their conning-towers and study the expressions of those who knew that they were warring with us for very life. Of these my memories are vivid. Often in my sleep I see the wild eyes which then encountered my own; the pale faces of the French seamen, and especially the face of a young lad who stood at the lieutenant's side and trembled with an apprehension of death. Poor boy, I learned afterward that his name was Maurice Dalerny, and that he had left a sweetheart behind him at Calais; but I think he knew that he would never see the sun again, and he was but seventeen years old. The others were grown men, but the horrors of the fight were heavy upon them, and a visionary might have said that they were the ghosts of dead seamen risen suddenly from the deep.

All this, I would write, was the apparition of an instant; and when it had passed Black stopped our engines, and we lay for a little while inanimate upon the sands. What manœuvre he contemplated—what was in his mind or how he hoped eventually to escape from such a trap, I knew no more than the dead; but I could see that he had become strangely excited and Osbart no less. At last, without any warning whatever, he took the speaking-tube in his hands and roared an order which set the very lamps reverberating.

"Stand by to fire the mines!"

Some one answered, "Aye, aye, sir"; and the ship began to move. Our projectors were now throwing great beams of light straight upward to the surface of the sea, and so brilliant were they that all the water might have been aflame. We moved on a cable length, perhaps, and then once more we eased. I saw Black standing as a figure of bronze by the signal bell and realized that we were going about. For an instant silence befell, and then as a rocket fired from a gun we began to tower, upward and upward, while from below there came the boom of a mighty cataclysm which flung me headlong to the floor and struck the Zero to her very heart.

The ship shivered and rolled. A whirlpool of waters raced about the glasses of the conning-tower and foamed as though a mighty wave had broken upon us. There was light no longer from the projectors, but black darkness everywhere, the bellowing of men's voices and the roar of our engines. An eternity seemed to pass before I heard a signal-bell ring out and knew that one of those with me in the tower was still alive. To this there succeeded the idea that a man was laughing in my ears, laughing horribly; and then fearful sounds recurred and recurred until they were as the ravings of a madman in his death agony. When they ceased, it was because I myself had lost all sense of time and place. Stupor fell upon me, to give place to that dim idea of environment and of action which attends awakening. I heard, as a man may hear in his day sleep, the clash of steel doors and the trampling of feet. A bright light flashed in my eyes; I knew that some one lifted me in his arms; the cool air of the night was breathed upon my face. Then I staggered to my feet to find myself upon the platform of the Zero with Black by my side.

"Good God, what has happened—where are we?" I asked him wildly.

But he pointed to the waters void of ships, and with a devil's laugh he cried:

"Ask the sea, lad, ask the sea!"

There was no other answer. Far away I beheld the light of Cape Grisnez flashing its mighty beams over the waters of the Channel.

But of our enemies there was no sign whatever, and I knew that the victory was won and that nothing lay between us and the great Atlantic which the pirate had ruled and would rule again.