The Iron Pirate/Chapter 15
THE PRISON OF STEEL.
I awoke in the day, but at what hour of it I know not. The red curtains opposite to my bunk were drawn back, admitting dull light from a port-hole through which I could look upon a tumbling sea, and a sky all girt with rain-clouds. But I had not been awake five seconds when I saw that my arm-chair was occupied by a man who did not look more than thirty-years old, and was dressed with all the scrupulous neatness of a thorough-going yachtsman. He was wearing a peaked cloth cap with a gold eagle upon it, a short jacket of blue serge, with ample trousers to match, and a neat pair of brown shoes; while his linen would have touched the heart even of the most hardened of the city. He had a bright, open face, marred only by a peculiarly irritating movement of the eye, which told of a nervous disposition; and there was something refined and polished in his voice, which I heard almost at once.
"Good-morning to you," he said; "I hope you have slept well?"
"I have never slept better; it must be twelve o'clock, isn't it?"
"It's exactly half-past three, American time. I didn't wake you before, because sleep is the best medicine in your case. I'm a doctor, you know."
"Oh I you're the physician-in-ordinary to the crew, I suppose; you must see a good deal of practice."
He looked rather surprised at my meaning remark, and then said quite calmly, "Yes, I write a good many death certificates; who knows, I may even do that service for you?"
It was said half-mockingly, half-threateningly; but it brought home to me at once the situation in which I was; and I must have become serious, which he saw, and endeavoured to turn me to a lighter mood.
"You must be hungry," he continued; "I will ring for breakfast; and, if you would take a tub, your bathroom is here."
He opened the door in the passage, and led the way to a cabin furnished with marble and brass fittings, wherein was a full-sized bath and all the appurtenances for dressing. I took a bath, and found him waiting for me when I had finished. We returned to the scarlet room, and there spread upon the table was a meal worthy of Delmonico's. There was coffee served with thick cream; there were choice dishes of meat, game pies, new rolls, fruit, and the whole was finished with ices and bon-bons in the true American fashion. My new friend, the doctor, said nothing as I ate; but when the repast was removed he pushed the cigars to me, and, taking one himself, he began to talk at once.
"I regret," he said, "that I cannot supply you with a morning newspaper; but the latest journal that I can lend you is a copy of the New York World of Saturday last. There is a passage in it which may interest you."
The paper was folded and marked in a certain spot. I read it with blank amazement, for it was a full account of the nameless ship's attack upon the American cruiser and the Ocean King. The paper stated shortly that both ships had been impudently stopped in mid-Atlantic by a big war-vessel flying the Chilian flag; that the cruiser had been seriously damaged and had lost twenty of her men; while a shell had been fired into the fo'castle of the passenger ship and two of her men killed, with other such details as you know. The matter was the subject of a profound sensation, not only in America, but throughout the world. The Chilian Government had been approached at once, but had repudiated all knowledge of the mysterious ship. Meanwhile war-vessels from England, America, and from France had set out to scour the seas and bring such intelligence as they could. The whole account concluded with the rumour that a gentleman in New York had knowledge of the affair, and would at once be interviewed, with the result, it was hoped, of disclosing that which would be one of the sensations of the century.
When I had put the paper down, the doctor, who followed me with his eyes, said laughingly—
"You see that interview was unfortunately interrupted. You are the gentleman with the full particulars, for we know that your friend Stewart plays a very small part in the affair. Without your energy, I think I may say that he is little less than a fool."
"Hardly that, as you may yet discover," I said, seeing instantly which way safety lay; "he knows as much as I know."
"Which is not very much after all, is it?—but that we must have fuller knowledge of. I am here to ask you to write accurately for us a complete account of every step you have taken in this matter since you were fool enough to follow Martin Hall, and poke your nose into business which did not concern you. As you know, Hall was punished in the Channel: you saw his end, as I hear from my comrade Paolo. We have spared you, and may yet spare you, if you do absolutely what we tell you."
He smiled cruelly, and his eyes danced when he answered—
"Otherwise, you would give all you possessed if I would shoot you now as you sit; but don't let us look at it that way. You must see that your case is utterly hopeless; you will never look again on any civilised city, or see the face of a man you have known. For all purposes you are as dead as though twenty feet of earth covered you. If you would still have life, not altogether under unfavourable conditions, you have but to ask for pen, ink, and paper—and to make yourself one of us."
"That I will never do!"
"Oh, you say that now; but we shall give you some days to think of it. Let me advise you to be a man of common sense, and not to run your head against a stone wall. Believe me, we are a curious company; I don't suppose there is a man aboard us who has not some deaths to his account. I am wanted for a murder in Shropshire; but I am giving your people a little trouble. Ha! ha!"
This was said with such a fearful laugh that I shrank back from the man, who restrained himself with an effort as he rose to go; but as he stood at the door, he said—
"We are now bound on a four-days' voyage. During these four days, you need fear nothing. We should have paid off our score in the Atlantic, and sent you and your fellows to join other intrusive friends of ours, if we had not wished to get this little account of yours. So don't disturb yourself unnecessarily until Captain Black puts the question to you. Then, if you are foolish, you had better feed your courage. I have seen stronger men than you who have cried out for death when we had but put our fingers on them; and we shall do you full honour—in fact, we shall treat you royally."
When he was gone, I thought that he had spoken with truth. To all my friends I was as dead as though twenty feet of earth lay on my body. What hope had I, shut in that grave of steel? What friend could hear me, battened in that prison on the sea? Should I tell the men frankly all I knew, and crave their mercy, or should I seek hope in the pretence that Roderick had information which might yet be fatal to them? I thought the position out, and this was the sum of it. These men had a home somewhere. If I had known where that home was, and had communicated the knowledge to Roderick, then the Governments of Europe could bring the ruffian crew to book with little difficulty. That, without a doubt was the question Black would put to me. He would wish to know all I knew; but, if I refused to tell him, he would proceed to extremes, and I shuddered when I remembered what his extremes had been in the case of Hall. The man undoubtedly had conceived a scheme daring beyond any known in the nineteenth century. The knowledge of his hiding-place was the key to his safety. If Roderick had it, then, indeed, I might have looked for life; but I knew that Hall had never discovered it, and what hope had Roderick where the greater skill had failed?
This consideration led me to one conclusion. I would pretend that I had some knowledge, and that my friends had it too. If that did not save my life, God alone could help me, and the home of Captain Black would be my grave. Nor did I know in any case that I had much expectation of life in such surroundings or in such company.