The Iron Pirate/Chapter 1

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The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter I


A Plain Tale of Strange Happenings on the Sea.



"En voiture! en voiture!"

If it has not been your privilege to hear a French guard utter these words, you have lost a lesson in the dignity of elocution which nothing can replace. "En voiture, en voiture; five minutes for Paris." At the well-delivered warning, the Englishman in the adjoining buffet raises on high the frothing tankard, and vaunts before the world his capacity for deep draughts and long; the fair American spills her coffee and looks an exclamation; the Bishop pays for his daughter's tea, drops the change in the one chink which the buffet boards disclose, and thinks one; the travelled person, disdaining haste, smiles on all with a pitying leer; the foolish man, who has forgotten something, makes public his conviction that he will lose his train. The adamantine official alone is at his ease, and, as the minutes go, the knell of the train-loser sounds the deeper, the horrid jargon is yet more irritating.

I thought all these things, and more, as I waited for the Perfect Fool at the door of my carriage in the harbour station at Calais. He was truly an impossible man, that small-eyed, short-haired, stooping mystery I had met at Cowes a month before, and formed so strange a friendship with. To-day he would do this, to-morrow he would not; to-day he had a theory that the world was egg-shaped, to-morrow he believed it to be round; in one moment he was hot upon a journey to St. Petersburg, in the next he felt that the Pacific Islands offered a better opportunity. If he had a second coat, no man had ever seen it; if he had a purpose in life, no man, I hold, had ever known it. And yet there was a fascination about him you could not resist; in his visible, palpitating, stultifying folly there was something so amazing that you drew to the man as to that unknown something which the world had not yet given to you, as a treasure to be worn daily in the privacy of your own enjoyment. I had, as I have said, picked the Perfect Fool up at Cowes, whither I had taken my yacht, Celsis, for the Regatta Week; and he had clung to me ever since with a dogged obstinacy that was a triumph. He had taken of my bread and eaten of my salt unasked; he was not a man such as the men I knew—he was interested in nothing, not even in himself—and yet I tolerated him. And in return for this toleration he was about to make me lose a train for Paris.

"Will you come on?" I roared for the tenth time, as the cracked bell jangled and the guards hoisted the last stout person into the only carriage where there was not a seat for her. "Don't you see we shall be left behind? Hurry up! Hang your parcels! Now then—for the last time, Hall, Hill, Hull, whatever your confounded name is, are you coming?"

Many guards gave a hand to the hoist, and the Perfect Fool fell upon his hat-box, which was all the personal property he seemed to possess. He apologised to Mary, who sat in the far corner, with more grace than I had looked for from him, woke Roderick, who was in his fifth sleep since luncheon, and then gathered the remnants of himself into a coherent whole.

"Did anyone use my name?" he asked gravely, and as one offended. "I thought I heard someone call me Hull?"

"Exactly; I think I called you every name in the Directory, but I'm glad you answer to one of them."

"Yes, and I tell you what," said Roderick, "I wish you wouldn't come into a railway carriage on your hands and knees, waking a fellow up every time he tries to get a minute to himself; I don't speak for myself, but for my sister."

The Perfect Fool made a profound bow to Mary, who looked very pretty in her dainty yachting dress—she was only sixteen, I had known her all her life and—he said, "I cannot make your sister an apology worthy of her."

"If that isn't a shame, Mr. Hall," replied the blushing girl. "I never go to sleep in railway carriages."

"No, of course you don't," said Roderick, as he made himself comfortable for another nap, "but you may go to sleep in a railway carriage;" then with a grunt, "Wake me up at Amiens, old man," he sank to slumber.

The train moved slowly over the sandy marsh which lies between Calais and Boulogne, and the vapid talk of the railway carriage held us to Amiens, and after. During the second half of the long journey Roderick was asleep, and Mary's pretty head had fallen against the cushion as the swing of the carriage gave the direct negative to her words at Calais station. At last, even the maker of commonplaces was silent; and as I reclined at greater length on the cushions of the stuffy compartment, I thought how strange a company we were then being carried over the dull, drear pasture-land of France, to the lights, the music, and the life of the great capital. Of the man—Martin Hall I remembered his true name in the moments of repose—I knew nothing beyond that which I have told you; but of my friends Roderick and Mary, accompanying me on this wildaway journey, I knew all that was to be known. Roderick and I had been at Caius College, Cambridge, together, friends drawn the closer in affection because our conditions in kith and kin, in possession and in purpose, in ambition and in idleness, were so very like. Roderick was an orphan twenty-four years of age, young, rich, desiring to know life before he measured strength with her, caring for no man, not vital enough to realise danger, an Englishman in tenacity of will, a good fellow, a gentleman. His sister was his only care. He gave to her the strength of an undivided love, and just as, in the shallowness of much of his life, there was matter for blame, so in this increasing affection and thought for the one very dear to him was there the strength of a strong manhood and a noble work.

For myself, I was twenty-five when the strange things of which I am about to write happened to me. Like Roderick, I was an orphan. My father had left me £50,000, which I drew upon when I was of age; but, shame that I should write it, I had spent more than £40,000 in four years, and my schooner, the Celsis, with some few thousand pounds, alone remained to me. Of what was my future to be, I knew not. In the senseless purpose of my life, I said only, "It will come, the tide in my affairs which taken at the flood should lead on to fortune." And in this supreme folly I lived the days, now in the Mediterranean, now cruising round the coast of England, now flying of a sudden to Paris with one they might have called a vulgarian, but one I chose to know. A journey fraught with folly, the child of folly, to end in folly, so might it have been said; but who can foretell the supreme moments of our lives, when unknowingly we stand on the threshold of action? And who should expect me to foresee that the man who was to touch the spring of my life's action sat before me—mocked of me, dubbed the Perfect Fool—over whose dead body I was to tread the paths of danger and the intricate ways of strange adventure?

But I would not weary you with more of these facts than are absolutely necessary for the understanding of this story, surpassing strange, which I judge it to be as much my duty as my privilege to write. Let us go back to the Gare du Nord, and the compartment wherein Mary and Roderick slept, while the Perfect Fool and I faced each other, surfeited with meteorological observations, sick to weariness with reflections upon the probability of being late or arriving before time. I would well have been silent and dozed as the others were doing; of a truth, I had done so had it not become very evident that the man who had begun to bore me wished at last to say something, relating neither to the weather nor to the speed of our train. His restless manner, the fidgeting of his hands with certain papers which he had taken from his greatcoat pocket, the shifting of the small grey eyes, marked that within him which suffered not show except in privacy; and I waited for him, making pretence of interest in the great plain of hedgeless pasture-land which bordered the track on each side. At last he spoke, and, speaking, seemed to be the Perfect Fool no longer.

"They're both asleep, aren't they?" he asked suddenly, as he put his hand, which seemed to tremble, upon my arm, and pointed to the sleepers. "Would you mind making sure—quite sure—before I speak?—that is, if you will let me, for I have a favour to ask."

To see the man grave and evidently concerned was to me so unusual that for a moment I looked at him rather than at Roderick or Mary, and waited to know if the gravity were not of his humour and not of any deeper import. A single glance at him convinced me for the second time that I did him wrong. He was looking at me with a fitful pleading look unlike anything he had shown previously. In answer to his request I assured him at once that he might speak his mind; that, even if Roderick should overhear us, I would pledge my word for his good faith. Then only did he unbosom himself and tell me freely what he had to say.

"I wanted to speak to you some days ago," he said earnestly and quickly, as his hands continued to play with the paper, "but we have been so much occupied that I have never found the occasion. It must seem curious in your eyes that I, who am quite a stranger to you, should have been in your company for some weeks, and should not have told you more than my name. As the thing stands, you have been kind enough to make no inquiries; if I am an impostor, you do not care to know it; if I am a rascal hunted by the law, you have not been willing to help the law; you do not know if I have money or no money, a home or no home, people or no people, yet you have made me shall I say, a friend?"

He asked the question with such a gentle inflexion of the voice that I felt a softer chord was touched, and in response I shook hands with him. After that he continued to speak.

"I am very grateful for all your trust, believe me, for I am a man that has known few friends in life, and I have not cared to go out of my way to seek them. You have given me your friendship unasked, and it is the more prized. What I wanted to say is this, if I should die before three days have passed, will you open this packet of papers I have prepared and sealed for you, and carry out what is written there as well as you are able? It is no idle request, I assure you; it is one that will put you in the place where I now stand, with opportunities greater than I dare to think of. As for the dangers, they are big enough, but you are the man to overcome them as I hope to overcome them if I live!"

The sun fell over the lifeless scene without as he ceased to speak. I could see a crimson beam glowing upon a crucifix that stood on the wayside by the hill-foot yonder; but the cheerless monotony of plough land and of pasture, stretching away leafless, treeless, without bud or flower, herd or herdsman, church or cottage, to the shadowed horizon, looming dark as the twilight deepened, was in sympathy with the gloom which had come upon me as Martin Hall ceased to speak. I had thought the man a fool and witless, flighty in purpose and shallow in thought, and yet he seemed to speak of great mysteries—and of death. In one moment the jester's cloak fell from him, and I saw the mail beneath. He had made a great impression upon me, but I concealed it from him, and replied jauntily and with no show of gravity—

"Tell me, are you quite certain that you are not talking nonsense?"

He replied by asking me to take his hand. I took it—it was chill with the icy cold as of death; and I doubted his meaning no more, but determined to have the whole mystery, then so faintly sketched, laid bare before me.

"If you are not playing the fool, Hall," said I, "and if you are sincere in wishing me to do something which you say is a favour to you, you must be more explicit. In the first place, how did you get this absurd notion that you are going to die into your head? Secondly, what is the nature of the obligation you wish to put upon me? It is quite clear that I can't accept a trust about which I know nothing, and I think that for undiluted vagueness your words deserve a medal. Let us begin at the beginning, which is a very good place to begin at. Now, why should you, who are going to Paris, as far as I know, simply as a common sightseer, have any reason to fear some mysterious calamity in a city where you don't know a soul?"

He laughed softly, looking out for a moment on the sunless fields, but his eyes flashed lights when he answered me, and I saw that he clenched his hands so that the nails pierced the flesh.

"Why am I going to Paris without aim, do you say? Without aim—I, who have waited years for the work I believe that I shall accomplish to-night—why am I going to Paris? Ha! I will tell you: I am going to Paris to meet one who, before another year has gone, will be wanted by every Government in Europe; who, if I do not put my hand upon his throat in the midst of his foul work, will make graves as thick as pines in the wood there before you know another month; one who is mad and who is sane, one who, if he knew my purpose, would crush me as I crush this paper; one who has everything that life can give and seeks more, a man who has set his face against humanity, and who will make war on the nations, who has money and men, who can command and be obeyed in ten cities, against whom the police might as well hope to fight as against the white wall of the South Sea; a man of purpose so deadly that the wisest in crime would not think of it—a man, in short, who is the product of culminating vice—him I am going to meet in this Paris where I go without aim—without aim, ha!"

"And you mean to run him down?" I asked, as his voice sank to a hoarse whisper, and the drops stood as beads on his brow; "what interest have you in him?"

"At the moment none; but in a month the interest of money. As sure as you and I talk of it now, there will be fifty thousand pounds offered for knowledge of him before December comes upon us!"

I looked at him as at one who dreams dreams, but he did not flinch.

"You meet the man in Paris?" I went on.

"To-night I shall be with him," he answered; "within three days I win all or lose all: for his secret will be mine. If I fail, it is for you to follow up the thread which I have unravelled by three years' hard work——"

"What sort of person do you say he is?" I continued, and he replied—

"You shall see for yourself. Dare you risk coming with me—I meet him at eight o'clock?"

"Dare I risk!—pooh, there can't be much danger."

"There is every danger!—but, so, the girl is waking!"

It was true; Mary looked up suddenly as we thundered past the fortifications of Paris, and said, as people do say in such circumstances, "Why, I believe I've been asleep!" Roderick shook himself like a great bear, and asked if we had passed Chantilly; the Perfect Fool began his banter, and roared for a cab as the lights of the station twinkled in the semi-darkness. I could scarce believe, as I watched his antics, that he was the man who had spoken to me of great mysteries ten minutes before. Still less could I convince myself that he had not many days to live. So are the fateful things of life hidden from us.