The Iron Pirate/Chapter 17

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The way from the dining-room was through a long passage, lighted with arc lamps at intervals, and having the doors of many rooms on the right-hand side of it. Several of these doors were open; and I saw the interiors of well-furnished bedrooms, of smaller sitting-rooms, and of a beautifully-furnished billiard-room. At the end of the passage, we descended a flight of stairs to another landing, where there was a steep rock-slope leading right through the cliff almost to the level of the water. This proved the way to a small stretch of beach which was at the uppermost end of the fjord; and here I found several substantial buildings of stone, evidently for the use of Black's company. The largest of the houses seemed to be a kind of a hall, well lighted by arc lamps. Into this we passed, lifting a heavy curtain of skins; and seated there, on all sorts of rough lounges and benches, were the men I had seen in Paris, with fifty or sixty others, no less ferocious-looking or more decently clad. There were negroes in light check suits and red flannel shirts; Americans in velveteen coats and trousers; Italians muffled up in jerseys; Spaniards playing cards before the roaring fire; half-castes smoking cheroots and drinking from china pots; Englishmen lying wrapped in rugs, asleep, or bawling songs to a small audience, which gave a chorus back in mellifluous curses; Russians drunk with spirits; Frenchmen chattering; Chinese mooningly silent; over all an atmosphere of smoke and foul odours, of fetid warmth and stifling heaviness.

As we entered the place the din was deafening, a medley of shouts and oaths, of songs and execrations; but it ceased when the captain bawled "Silence!" and an unusual stillness prevailed. The man Four-Eyes, who was always the immediate "go-between" so far as the captain and crew were concerned, at once put chairs for us near the huge fireplace, setting a great armchair for the skipper, with a small table whereon were many papers, and a small wooden hammer such as the chairman of a meeting commonly uses. Black took his seat in the great chair, with the doctor, the Scotsman, and myself around him; and then he harangued the men.

"Boys," he said, "we're home again. I give you luck on it—and swill it down in liquor."

I noticed that he had put on with his entry into the room all his old fierceness of manner and coarseness. He shouted out his words whenever he spoke, and emphasised them with bangs of the hammer upon the table. The call for wine was answered by some of the niggers fetching in cases of champagne, and soon the stuff was running in every part of the hall. The captain waited until the men were drinking, and then he continued—

"I guess, boys, the next thing to do is to make our calculations. We've had a smart month's work, and there's a matter of two hundred and fifty pounds a man waiting for you when next you foot it in New York. That's my calculation; and if there's one of you doubts it, he can see the figures."

He waited for them to speak, but they gave him only a great shout of approval, when he became more serious.

"You know, lads, there'll be a spell of holiday here for you, which you may reckon that I regret as much as any of you. The skipper of the American cruiser has made hell in Europe, and there's twenty cruisers out after us if there's one. That I snap my fingers at; but fighting isn't the game for you and me, who are looking for dollars; and we won't hurt to lie low until the spring. Has any man got anything to say against that?"

There was not a word in answer to the threatening question; and then Black, bracing himself up to anger, went on—

"I now come to speak of a bit of business which you all want to hear about. There was two of you refused a double watch when we left the Yankee cruiser. Let 'em step forward."

One man, a dark-visaged Russian, with a yellow beard, stepped to the table at the words, but he was alone.

"Where is Dave Skinner?" asked the captain in a calm, but horridly meaning, voice.

"I guess he's sleeping on it," said the man Roaring John, whom I noticed for the first time, curled up on a bench in the corner, the bandages still upon his face.

"Kick him awake, the blear-eyed bullock," said Black, and the kicking was done right heartily; the subject, a huge man with dark hair, closely cropped, and a stubbly beard, rising to his feet and looking round him like one dazed with strong drink.

"Wall," said he, speaking to Roaring John, "you big-booted swine, what d'ye reckon ez you want along o' me?"

"Ask the skipper, cuss," replied the other, pushing the sleepy man forward to the chair where the Russian stood; and then Black began to speak to them quite calmly—

"Boys," he said, "I got it agen you that you refused my orders, and refused them at a pinch when me and the rest of 'em ran for our lives. Each of you lays the blame for this on the other, and I'm not going to haggle about that. You know what we're bound by, and that I can't go beyond what's written any more than you can go beyond it. There are two of you in this, and you settle your own differences—one of you lives. John, give 'em knives!"

As I heard these words, amazed and doubting, the men, without any other incitement, and uttering no remark, stripped off their coats and stood naked to the waists. The crew about left off their games and drew near, forming a ring round the men, who had taken up great clasp-knives, and were evidently to fight for their very lives. I knew then the meaning of the words "One of you lives:" and an excitement, strange and full of morbid interest, took possession of me.

That the men were to fight, and fight to the death, was sufficiently terrible; but a savour of horror was added to the dish by the flagrant unfairness of the conditions under which they fought. The American, Skinner, was thickly built, and of a sturdy physique. He had the better of his man in height, in reach, in physical strength; for Tovotsky, as I heard the Russian called, was a man of small stature, rather a shred of a man, full hairy about his breast, yet giving small signs of hardihood, or of power. It seemed to me that he might well have protested against the manner of the contest, and urged that a fight with knives would go to the stronger, skill being no part of it; but he said nothing, wearing an air of sullen determination, while his antagonist bellowed at him as though to overawe him by cheap bravado.

"Stand up right here, so ez I ken stick you, boss," he cried, when they faced each other; adding as the Russian dodged him: "What, my hearty, have ye got the taste of it already?—now steady, ye yellow-haired buzzard; steady, ye skunk, while I make hog's meat of you."

They stood crouched like beasts, or revolved about each other, the gleaming blades poised in the air, their left hands seeking holding-place. Skinner struck first, his knife shining bright against the light as he slashed at Tovotsky's throat, but the Russian doubled down between his legs, and the pair fell heavily a yard away from each other.

"Slit him as he lies, Dave!" "End him, Tov!" "Do you reckon you're abed?" These and other equally elegant exclamations fell from the lips of the crew, as the men lay dazed, fearful of mischief if they rose. But the Russian was first up, and springing at the other, who rolled aside as he came, he sent his knife home in his opponent's back, and a great shout of "First blood!" turned me sick with the terror of it. Nor could I look at them for some minutes, fearing to see a more repulsive spectacle; but when next I saw them, they were crouching again, and the American was silent, undoubtedly suffering from his wound, which bled freely. Presently he made another spring at Tovotsky, who ducked down, but got a slit across his shoulder, whereon he set up a howl of pain, and ran round and round the ring; while the other followed him, making lunges terrible to see, but doing no more mischief. The effort took the breath out of both of them, and they paused at last, panting like dogs, and drinking spirits which their friends brought them. When they resumed again, it was by mutual agreement, rushing at each other and gripping. Each man then had got hold of the right hand of his antagonist, so that the deadly knives were powerless, while the pair struggled, trying to "back-heel" each other. Round and round they went, bumping against their fellows in the circle, straining their muscles so that they cracked, uttering fierce cries in the agony of the struggle for life. But the American had the strength of it, and he forced Tovotsky's hand back upon him, stabbing him with his own knife again and again, so that the man's breast was covered with wounds, and he seemed like soon to faint from weakness. It might have been that he would have died where he stood, but by some terrible effort he forced himself free; and with the howl of a wild beast, he thrust his own knife to the hilt in the American's side. It broke at the handle; but the long blade was left embedded in the flesh, and the force of the blow was so overwhelming that Skinner drew himself straight up with death written in his protruding eyes and distorted features. Yet he had strength to seek vengeance, for his antagonist had now no weapon left to him, which the American saw, and ran after him with a scream of rage; when Tovotsky fled, breaking the ring, and scudding round the great room like a maniac. There Skinner followed him, crying with pain at every movement, almost foaming at the mouth as his wiry enemy eluded him. At last the Russian approached the door, his opponent being within a few feet of him, but the smaller man fell headlong through the curtain, and at that the death-agony came upon Skinner. He stopped as though held in a vice, hurled his knife at the Russian, and fell down dead. The men gave a great shout, and rushed from the place to find the other; but they brought him in dead as he had fallen, and far from being moved at the ghastly sight, they holloaed and bellowed like bulls, coming to reason only at the skipper's cry.

"Take 'em up to the cavern, some of you there, and lay 'em side by side to cool," he said brutally, and his orders were instantly obeyed. Others of the crew brought buckets and swabs unbidden, and cleansed the place, after which Black addressed the men again as though the terrible scene was a thing of common happening.

"Before I give you good-night," he said, "I want to tell you that we've got a stranger with us; but he's here to stay, and he's my charge."

"Has he jined?" asked the blear-eyed Yankee, who had eyed me with much curiosity; but the captain answered—

"That's my affair, and you keep your tongue still if you don't want me to cut it out; he'll join us by-and-by."

"That's agen rules," said the man Roaring John, loafing up with others, who seemed to resent the departure.

"Agen what?" asked Black in a tone of thunder, turning on the fellow a ferocious gaze; "agen what, did you remark?"

"Agen rules," replied Roaring John; "his man broke my jaw, and I'll pay him, oh, you guess; it's not for you to go agen what's written no more than us."

Black's anger was evident, but he held it under.

"Maybe you're right," he said carelessly; "we've made it that no stranger stays here unless he joins, except them in the mines—but I've my own ideas on that, and when the time comes I'll abide by what's done. That time isn't yet, and if any man would like to dictate to me, let him step out—maybe it's you, John?"

The fellow slunk away under the threat, but there were mutterings in the room when we left; and I doubt not that my presence was freely discussed. This did not much concern me, for Black was master beyond all question, and he protected me.

We went back with him to the long passage where I had seen the doors of bed-chambers, and there he bade me good-night. The doctor showed me into a room in the passage, furnished both as a sitting-room and a bedroom, a chamber cut in the solid rock, but with windows towards the sea; and when he had seen to the provisions for my comfort, he, too, went his way. But first he said—

"You must have been born under a lucky star: you're the first man to whom Black ever gave an hour's grace."