Captain Black (Pemberton)/Chapter 24

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We had been three days at sea, and had picked up our relief when we sighted the Green Island—Isle Verte the French call it—and there I understood that the crew were to enjoy a brief rest while the Captain paid another visit to Paris.

God knows, the men had supped upon horrors, and even such miscreants must have suffered a nausea of the soul which bade them crave for ease. None understood this better than Black. Here, on a sea-blown island off the wild coast of Brittany, he had a home made ready and a refuge to hand. Perchance should the story of his life be wholly written, it will tell of many such sanctuaries in the creeks and bays and rivers of the world—many a hiding-place in many a forgotten cave; for such was the wisdom of the man and such his foresight.

We made the Green Island, I remember, just as the day dawned; a wonderful day of the young summer breaking in radiant glory upon the wide sea and that garden of the waters whereon we were to rest. Sailing boldly into a narrow creek between gentle cliffs, the Captain passed the word to make the ship trim, and then for all to go ashore. For the first time since I had been aboard her I saw a new miracle of Guichard's genius, by which the Zero could be sunk from without, and so sent to an anchorage beneath the waves without a living soul aboard her. Electric cables running from the shore to her batteries permitted her pumps to be set going and her tanks to be filled. She sank gently upon a bed of golden sand; and had twenty warships visited the island, I doubt if they would have discovered her.

I would tell you that the men had taken some of their belongings ashore, and when we had all climbed the mild slope of the cliff we came out upon a tableland of verdant grass, whereon there stood a neat white bungalow such as you may see at any south-coast watering-place. Flowers grew all about it, and it was fended from the east wind by a ring of shabby trees, turning weak limbs from the western gales which wracked them. Beyond the wood, as we learned to call it, there lay a deep pool of clear water upon the edge of the downs, which were wild and free and destitute of houses. But one farm, I learned, existed upon the Isle Verte, and that was owned by a man who would have laid down his life for Black. His name was Benoit, and his little daughter Isola was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen in all my days. But this is to get beyond the story, which brings me to the bungalow upon the height, and what we found therein.

Paris had furnished it, and the farmers of Brittany sent of their best to its table. A young Frenchman called "Mike" by the crew—I suppose his name was Michel—received us at the door and showed us to our rooms, light and cheerful all of them, and as luxurious as any man could desire. When we had bathed (even the filthy pirates were sent to the bath whenever they came ashore) we sat down to an excellent breakfast of hot coffee and fish and eggs, and were waited on both by the farmer Benoit and by the little girl of whom I have made mention. Then beer and wine were served to the crew, and they fell to singing and dancing on the grass, just like a lot of village lads at a fairing.

It was here that I found myself apart with the Captain, and had some talk with him. Taking a rugged stick in his hand and with a wideawake, such as planters wear, upon his head, he proposed that we should make a tour of the island, and I fell in with his proposition very readily.

Kind and gentle in his manner, reminding me at every word of the days when we had been adrift on the Atlantic together, I found in him the great Captain of my ideals, and wondered if all we had lived through in the dreadful days was the truth or a dream. Was it but three days ago that his guns, firing shells of flaming spirit, had burned the cruiser to the water's edge—was it but seventy hours since I had seen his enemies at Vares perishing horribly amidst the roaring furnace of the waters—but seventy hours since his searchlight played upon their agony and the pirates thrust the fleshless limbs beneath the blood-red waves from which they were uplifted? I could not believe it as we strode the cliffs of the Green Island and our feet crushed the marigolds to powder. And yet, God knows, it was true.

"Ye would be anxious about your friends," he put it to me, as he lighted a cigar and offered me another. I told him immediately that my first thought had been of them since the day we quitted Ice Haven. He nodded his head as though he were with me in that.

"They'll be at Leith this day," he said; and then, with a dry laugh, "telling a fine tale to the canny Scotsmen, I'll not doubt. The week out and you may hear of them in London when I take you there."

I looked at him as though a madman were speaking.

"In London, Captain?"

"Nowhere else, my lad, if there's any truth at all in what the last despatches tell me. I go to London to see my son."

He said it so softly, almost with such pathos, that I stood there on the spot as a man who has heard the greatest thing he could ever hear in such a place. His son! Had not the lad died at Panama, and was he not buried there? What news could this be—what wild story to dupe him?

"Captain," I said, "you told me when we shared the peril of the ship that your son was dead. Was that false, then?"

He sighed heavily and walked on very slowly, while he looked wistfully across the northern sea as though it would surrender the supreme truth of his terrible life.

"Ah, that's what I'd give my fortune to know," he said very solemnly; and for a spell we walked on in silence. Presently, however, he began to speak with unwonted animation, from a heart bursting with a desire it did not dare wholly to confess. His son! The man would have bared his head to God at last could his son have been given to him.

"My boy died in Panama, they said. I saw his grave there—you know that much, for you heard it on the ship. Well, there are those who say that the grave was empty, a trick for him to escape a man that hunted him and to get south. He worked his way, I'm told, to Lima; thence to Valparaiso, where he's been these ten years or more, rising in the Government service, and now with the revolutionaries against the President. Latterly, he's come to London, and was heard of there a month ago. Should that be true, and I shall know when I reach Paris to-morrow, I'll sail the Zero to Tilbury Docks if it costs the life of every man aboard her. What I fear is the trap they may have set for me. Lord, it must be that—the dead sleep, and what cry of man's shall awaken them?"

I could make no rejoinder to this; but I did not fail to perceive that his face was quite altered in that instant, and that something of nobility and of a deep and true emotion were to be read upon it. This man would have lived and died for the son whom he mourned. All the riches he possessed would have been but as dross before this human treasure he coveted so ardently. And for a son his soul now cried aloud upon that lonely western isle.

"Do you go to Paris alone, Captain?" I asked him presently.

He replied that it was so.

"Fear nothing from the men; they have had their lesson," he said. "If you see ships in the offing, keep to the house and let no man show himself. But they'll not look for me in such a place as this, and I shall be gone before the scent grows warm. When that time comes, I'll speak to you again about your own future, my lad. It's time that you and me sailed different courses, if it can be done with reason. But I'll not deny that the men will take it badly, and we must act with prudence. The Green Island will give them something else than their own skins to think about. I wish to God sometimes that I had sailed my last voyage, and could anchor for the last time in such a cove as this. But my destiny's on the sea; it calls me, sleeping or waking. I shall die on a good ship, my lad—I'd ask for nothing more."

The fresh north wind was blowing on his face while he spoke; it brought warm blood to his pale cheeks and a fire of life into his eyes. He looked across that ocean of which he was the king, and it seemed to me that no earthly power would ever win him from it. Here, upon this verdant island, was all a man might desire: the perfume of sweet flowers, the gold of wide sands, the shade of orchards, the white farmhouse in the hollow. Black cared for these things as a man for a jewel he fingers and passes on. The sea called him ever; it called him now to the son who had risen from the grave.

The Isle Verte is no more than a mile across, and you can see the mainland from the eastern heights. We walked thither over the wide table-land, and then returned to Benoit's farm, where we drank a glass of cider and had a little talk with a fine old woman whose father had served Napoleon. It was still early in the morning when we reached the cove where the Zero lay beneath the waters, and there we found a lugger with three fishermen in charge. By this, it appeared, Black would cross to the mainland; and when his luggage had been put aboard and he had given us his commands we all went up to the headland to see him sail. Not a ship could then be discerned upon any horizon. Northward, southward, out over the great Bay of Biscay, there was naught but the immensity of sea and sky, the blue void, and the fretting waters. And so the great Captain left us, upon a quest which should mean life or death to those who watched him go.

This, I suppose, would have been about eight bells. I remember that the crew began to speak of dinner directly the tiny lugsail had been lost upon the horizon, and that we returned to an al fresco meal upon the grass before the bungalow. Here there was a wide lawn extending almost to the cliff's edge, with a little white paling at the far end of it, and about it well-kept beds all aglow with English roses and the simple flowers Black loved. The wild waters of the Bay of Biscay lay before us; the distant shores of France behind us; and here we got our dinner, served by little Isola with many a jest and many a quip which set the pirates wincing. When it was done, Osbart and I went up to the Captain's room to have a pipe together, and there we talked of the visit to Paris and of what might come after.

I found the Doctor very ill at ease, as might have been expected, and was not at all surprised that the prospect of another voyage to England filled him with dire alarm. He perceived, as I had perceived, that if the Captain's son really were alive, the Zero would go to him whatever the peril. Nor did he hesitate to say that if Black were mad enough to visit London, then, indeed, were all lost.

"The man has this in his character," he said, "that he would sail a thousand miles at the bidding of a grain of sentiment. But for that, my dear Strong, there is not a Government nor a country which would stand against him. He has heard the fool's tale, told, I believe, to trap him, and he becomes as credulous as a woman. Let it be confirmed by the tricksters in Paris, and he will sacrifice everything—ship and men and money—to prove its truth. We shall go to London, and the hangman will be on the quay to meet us. I have foreseen that since the day I first set foot on the Nameless Ship. The rift was in the lute, and some day there would be no more music. Well, that day has come; I am as sure of it as of this pipe I hold in my hand."

"But none the less," said I, "you still believe in Black's genius, Osbart. If he sails to London, he will sail out again. I can see that you are not convinced——"

He would not deny it.

"Black is a man in a million. If it were to any other port I would have some hopes for him. But, man, think of it, to London! Is not that the last act of a madman? To London—where every street lad knows his name; where the police at every corner will point the finger at him! Could any insanity beat that? You must see yourself it will be his last voyage. Ship and men and money! All staked on a trickster's tale, and he child enough to believe it."

"Where did he get the story, Osbart—was it in Paris?"

"He had it first from the captain of the relief, when we took the German liner. The London papers were full of Black's name then, and one of them said that his son had been heard of in Paris. That set Black afire. I thought he would have gone stark mad at the news. When we got to Vares, he was for Paris immediately, and there he heard the talk that a man who called himself Wilfred Black had been staying with some Peruvians at the Victor Hugo hotel, but was supposed then to be either in Berlin or in London. Wilfred was the Christian name of Black's boy, and there you have it. He'll not rest, day or night, until he knows the truth. And when he knows it, he'll take the knowledge to the scaffold with him."

He fell to that tone of half conviction as one who should say—This would be the story of any other man, but I speak of Black, and he is different. I saw that he believed it yet possible for the Captain to visit London and to escape with his life, so transcendent was the man's genius in elusion. At the same time he disbelieved wholly in the possibility of his son being alive—and here I agreed with him.

"It's a common name," I said; "there are many Blacks in England. I knew one at Harrow, who was as fine an all-round athlete as you would wish to meet. It's a thousand to one that this Wilfred Black is no relation whatever. We should try to convince him of that, Osbart."

He looked at me rather in an odd way.

"You would convince him, Strong?"

"Why not, Osbart?"

Again the sly look and the droll laugh.

"Well," he said at last, "I would have thought London your only chance of seeing your friends again."

I had not thought of it, and it took me all aback. If Black dared all and went to London, might not that be the hour of my deliverance? The hope fired me as a fever. I had not a word to say.

"Confess," he ran on, "you would not have him go to London. This fine moralist, who told the world the story of the great pirate, he would not save himself at such a price! Confess it, Strong! There lies in your heart the hope that Black will never go to London."

I would not deny it, and we left it at that. None the less, the hours which followed were alive with anxiety and doubt, and we spent most of them at the cliff's head looking across the bay for ships or turning our eyes to distant France, as though some miracle would bring the Captain back to us already. The men, for their part, behaved like boys at a fête. The grass, the flowers, the golden sands made a very Eldorado for them, and they played children's games or rolled in the fresh seas or went hand in hand about the island, garlanded with blossoms. Thus five days passed, but toward sundown upon the sixth we espied the lugger crossing the strait; and, going down to the beach altogether, we welcomed the Captain ashore, and gave him a rousing cheer as he came among us.

His manner was grave, I thought, and when I would have spoken to him, he, to my great astonishment, thrust me aside with such a word of displeasure as I had never heard from him before. A sure instinct led me to perceive that all was changed, both his affection for me and his desire to save me from the men; and I knew that his son lived, and that we were to go to London.

To London—to the scaffold. It could not end otherwise. As he would have given his life for me, so now would he give it for that son whom he believed to be risen from the dead.