The Iron Pirate/Chapter 16

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter XVI



During some days I saw no more of the doctor, or of anyone about the ship save an old negro, who became my servant. He was not an unkindly-looking man, being of a great age, and somewhat feeble in his actions; but he never opened his lips when I questioned him, and gave a plain "Yes" or "No" to any demand. Those days would have been monotonous, had it not been for the ever-present sense of coming danger, of a future dark and threatening, likely to be fruitful in trial and in peril. Each morning at an early hour the age-worn black entered my cabin and told me that my bath was ready. When I was dressed, a breakfast, generous in quality and in quantity, was set upon my cabin table. At one o'clock luncheon of like excellence was served; and again at five o'clock and at eight, tea and dinner. Some thought evidently was given to my condition, for on the second morning I found clean linen with a neat suit of blue serge awaiting me in the bathroom, and when I had breakfasted, the black brought a parcel of books to me; I found amongst them, to my satisfaction, several light works by Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Max Adeler, as well as more solid literary food. The books saved me from much of that foreboding which I should have known wanting them, and after the first fears had passed I spent the hours in reading or looking through the port-hole over the deserted waste of a fretful sea. I had hoped to learn something of our destination from this diligent watching of the waves; but for the first forty hours, at any rate, I saw nothing—not so much as a small ship—though it felt much colder; and again on the third day the lower temperature was yet more marked, so that I welcomed fresh and warmer clothing which the negro brought me for my bed; and observed with satisfaction that there were means within the ship for heating the cabin during the daytime.

It must have been on the fourth day after my capture that the nameless ship, which hitherto had not been speeding at an abnormal pace, began to go very fast, the rush of water from the head of her rising frequently above my port, and permitting but rare views of the distant horizon. The greater speed was sustained during that day until the first dog-watch, when I was disturbed in my reading by the consciousness that the ship had stopped, and that there was great agitation on deck. I looked from my window and observed the cause of the confusion, for there, ahead of us a mile or more, was one of the largest icebergs I have ever seen. The mighty mass, from whose sides the water was rushing as in little cataracts, towered above the sea to a height of four or five hundred feet, rising up in three snow-white pinnacles which caught the crimson light of the sinking sun and gave it back in prismatic hues, all dazzling and beautiful. As a great island of ice, all rich in waving colour and superb majesty, the berg passed on, and the screw of the steamer was heard again. I watched intently, hoping to see other bergs, or, indeed, any ships that should tell me how far we had gone towards the north; but the night fell suddenly, and the negro served dinner, asking me if I had warmth enough? My curt answer seemed to astonish him but the truth was that I was thinking of the man Paolo's words when sick upon my own ship. He had cried, "Ice, ice," more than once in his delirium; but none of us then had the meaning of his cry. Yet I had it, and with it a notion of the second secret of Captain Black. For surely he was running to hiding; and his hiding-place lay to the north, far above the course even of Canadian-bound vessels, as I knew by the number of days we had been steaming.

This new surmise on strange openings did not in any way combat the terror which visited me so often in that floating prison. Every day, indeed, seemed to take me farther from humanity, from friends, from the lands and the peoples of civilisation. Every day confirmed me in the thought that I was hopelessly in this man's grip, the victim of his mercy, or his rigour; that none would know of my end when that end should come; no man say "God help you!" when at last the fellow should show his teeth. Such dire communings robbed me of my sleep at night; led me to books whose pages passed blurred before me; made me start at every rap upon the cabin door; brought me to fear death even in the very food I ate. Yet during the week I was a prisoner on the ship no harm of any sort befell me. I was treated with the hospitality of a great mansion, served with all I asked, unmolested save for the doctor's threat.

And so the time passed, the weather growing colder day by day, the bergs more frequent about my windows; until on the evening of the seventh day the ship stopped suddenly, and I heard the anchor let go. This was late in the watch, at the time when I was in the habit of going to bed; but hearing great movement and business on the deck I sat still, waiting for what should come; and after the lapse of an hour or more I found that we were moving very slowly again, and with but occasional movements of the screw. I opened my port, and could near loud shoutings from above, and although there was no light of the moon, I could see enough to conclude that we were passing by a great wall of rock, and so into some harbour or basin.

The work of mooring the ship was not a long one when once we had come to a stand. When all was done the noise ceased, and no one coming to me I went to bed as usual. On the next morning I got up at daybreak, and looked eagerly from my spying place; but I could discern only a blank cliff of rock, the ship being now moored against the very side of it. The negro came to me at the usual hour, but he brought a note with my breakfast; and I read an invitation to dine with Captain Black at eight o'clock on that evening. You may be sure that I welcomed even such a prospect of change, for the monotony of the cabin prison had become nigh unbearable; and when at a quarter to eight that evening the old man threw open the door and said, "The Master waits!" I went with him almost joyfully, even though the next step might have been to my open grave.

He led the way up the companion ladder, which was, in fact, a broad staircase, elaborately lit with the electric light; and so brought me to the deck, where there was darkness save in one spot above the fore-turret. There a lantern threw a great volume of white light which spread out upon the sea, and showed me at once that we were in a cove of some breadth, surrounded by prodigiously high cliffs; and the light being focussed right across the bay, disclosed a cleft in these rocks leading apparently to a farther cove beyond. I had scarce time to get other than a rough idea of the whole situation, for a boat was waiting at the gangway, and the negro motioned to me to pass down the ladder and take my seat in the stern. The men gave way at once, keeping in the course of the searchlight, and rowing straight to the cleft in the cliffs, through which they passed; and so left the light and entered a narrower fjord, which was ravine-like in the steepness of its sides, and so dark, that one could see but a narrow vista of the sky through the overhanging summits of the giant rocks. This second cove opened after a while into a lake; above whose shores, at a high spot in the side of the precipice on the left hand, I observed many twinkling lights, which seemed to come from windows far up the face of the cliff. These lights marked our destination, the men rowing straight to them; and I found, when we came near the precipitous shore which bound the fjord, that there was a rough landing-stage, cut in the rock, and that an iron stairway led thence to the chambers which evidently existed above.

When we had come to shore, and had been received there by several men who held lanterns, and had the look of Lascars, the negro conducting me pointed to the iron stairway and told me to mount: he following me to the summit, where there was a platform and an iron door. The door opened as we arrived before it, and there standing by it I found the young doctor, who greeted me very heartily and appeared to be altogether in a merry mood.

"Come in," he said, "they're waiting for you; and this infernal cold gives men appetites. This way—but it isn't very dark, is it?"

We were in a broad passage lit by electric light—a passage cut in a crystal-like rock, whose surface had almost the lustre of a mirror. At intervals facing the cove were incisions for windows, but these were now hung with heavy curtains; and there were cupboards and pegs against the rock wall on the opposite side to make the place serve the purposes of a hall. The passage led up to a second door—this one built of fine American walnut; and we passed through it at once into a room where I was astounded to see indisputable evidence of civilisation and of refinement. The whole chamber was hung round with superb skins, the white fur of the Polar bear predominating; but there were couches cushioned with deep brown seal; and the same glossy skin was laid upon the floor in so many layers that the footfall was noiseless and pleasantly luxuriant. The furniture otherwise was both modern and artistic. A heavy buhl-work writing-table opposite the door was littered with maps, books and journals; there was a sécretaire book-case in Chippendale by the side of the enormous fire-place, in which a great coal fire burned; and above this was an ivory overmantel of exquisite work. A grand piano, open and bearing music, was the chief ornament of the left-hand corner; while another Chippendale cabinet, filled with a multitude of rare curiosities, completed an apartment which had many of the characteristics of a salon and not a few of a study.

But I had not eyes so much for the room as for the solitary occupant of it, who sat before the writing-table, but rose after I had entered. One glance assured me that I was face to face with Captain Black—the Captain Black I had seen at the drunken orgie in Paris; but yet not the same, for all the bravado and rough speech which then fell from his lips was wanting; and his "Come in!" given in answer to the young doctor's knock, was spoken melodiously in a rich baritone voice that fell very pleasantly upon the ear. When he stepped forward and held out his hand to me, I had the mind almost to draw back from him, for I knew that the man had crime heavy upon him; but a second thought convinced me of the folly of making a scene at such a moment; so I took the great hard hand and looked him full in the face. He was not so tall as I was, but a man who appeared to possess colossal strength in his enormous arms and shoulders; and one not ill-looking, though his black beard fell upon his waistcoat, and his jacket of seal was loose and ill-fitting. The strange thing about our meeting was this, however. When he had taken my hand, he held it for a minute or more, looking me straight in the face with an interest I could not understand; and, indeed, he then forgot himself entirely, and continued to gaze upon me and to shake my hand until I thought he would never let it go.

When at last he recovered himself it was with a quick start.

"I am glad to see you," said he; "dinner waits us;" and with that we passed into another chamber, hung with skins as the first was, but containing a dining-table laid for four persons in a very elegant manner, with cut glass, and silver epergnes laden with luscious-looking fruit and the best of linen. The light came from electric lamps in the ceiling, and from other lamps cunningly placed in a great block of ice, which formed the central ornament. Nor have I eaten a better dinner than the one then served. The only servant was a black giant, who waited with a dexterity very singular in such a place; and the guests of the captain were the young doctor. the Scotsman known as Dick the Ranter, and myself. The Scotsman alone displayed signs of that rollicking spirit of dare-devil which had characterised the meeting in Paris; but the captain soon silenced him.

"D'ye ken that we've no said grace?" remarked the lantern-jawed fellow, as we sat to table; and then, raising his hands in impudent mockery, he began to utter some blasphemy, but Black turned upon him as with the growl of a wild beast.

"To the devil with that," said he. "Hold your tongue, man!"

The Scotsman looked up at the rebuke as though a thunderbolt had hit him.

"Verra weel, mon; Verra weel," he muttered; "but ye're unco melancholy the nicht, unco melancholy." And then he fell to the silence of consumption, eating prodigiously of all that was set before him; but in high dudgeon, as a man rebuked unworthily. Of the others, the doctor alone talked, chatting fluently of many European cities, and proving himself no mean raconteur. I listened in the hope of getting some idea of what was intended in my case; also, if that could be, of the situation of this strange place in which I found myself; for as yet I knew not if it were to the North of America; or, indeed, in what part of the Arctic Sea it might be. To my satisfaction the captain made no attempt to conceal the information from me. The first occasion of his speaking during dinner was in answer to a remark of mine that I found the room very pleasantly warm.

"Yes," he said, "you must feel the change, although you will feel it more when we get winter here. You know where you are, of course."

I said unsuspectingly that I had not the faintest idea, when he cast a quick glance at the doctor, and the latter slapped me on the back quite joyously.

"Bravo!" he cried. "That prevents our putting one unpleasant question to you, anyway. I knew that your innuendo in the cabin was all make-believe."

"Of course it was," added the captain: "but the knowledge of it saves our bustling you. However, this isn't the time for talk of that sort. I may tell you, since you do not know, that you are on the west coast of Greenland, and that there is a Danish settlement not fifty miles from you—although we don't leave cards on our neighbours."

He called for champagne then, and gave a toast—"The new recruit!" I did not raise my glass with the others, which he saw, and became stern.

"Well," said he, "I won't have you hurried, and you're my guest until I put the straight question to you. When that happens you won't think twice about the answer, for we can be very nasty, I assure you. Now try a cigar. These are good. They came from the collection of Lord Remingham, who was on his way to America a few weeks ago."

"And met with an unfortunate accident," said the doctor, with mock seriousness, which was taken up by the Scotsman, who remarked in his best drawl—"May his soul ken rest!" and they all shouted with infamous laughter, but I listened with a morbid interest when the doctor continued—

"It's astonishing how good the quality of the tobacco and the champagne is on board the ocean-going steamers; now this Bolinger '84 was the special pride of the skipper of the Catalania, which unhappily sank in the Atlantic through the sheer impudence of the man who commanded her. As he liked it so much, I broke a bottle over his head before we sent him to the devil, with five hundred others."

"You may say, in fact, that he made the acquaintance o' the auld man wi' the flavour o' this gude stuff on him," said the Scotsman, which made them laugh again; but Black was satiated with the banter, and he rose from the table suddenly as the man Four-Eyes entered.

"This pleasant party must disperse," he said to me; "you can go to the quarters we have provided for you, unless you would like to see more of us. We are well worth seeing, I think, and we may give you some idea of our other side."

"I should like to see everything you can show me," I replied, being aflame with curiosity to know all that the strange situation could teach me; and then he made a motion for the others to follow, and we passed from the room.