The Iron Pirate/Chapter 19

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The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter XIX



For some days I saw no more of Doctor Osbart or of Captain Black. My existence in the rock house seemed to be forgotten by them, and where they were I knew not; but the negro waited on me every day, and I was provided with generous food and many books. I spent the hours wandering over the cliffs, or the grass plains; but I discovered that the place was quite surrounded by ice-capped mountains and by snow-fields, and that any hope of escape by land was more than futile. Once or twice during these days I saw the man "Four-Eyes," and from him gained a few answers to my questions. He told me that Captain Black kept up communication with Europe by two small screw steamers disguised as whalers; that one of them, the one I saw. was shortly to be despatched to England for information; and that the other was then on the American coast gleaning all possible news of the pursuit; also charging herself with stores for the colony.

"Bedad, an' we're nading 'em," he said in his best brogue, "for, wanting the victuals, it's poor sort av order we'd be keepin', by the Saints. Ye see, young 'un, it's yerself as is at once the bottom an' the top av it. 'Wot's he here for?' says half av 'em, while the other half, which is the majority, they says, 'When's the old 'un a-sending him to Europe to cut our throats?' they says; and there's the divil among 'em—more divil than I ever seed."

"It must be dull work wintering here," I said at hazard; and he took up the words mighty eagerly.

"Ay, an' ye've put yer finger on it; sure, it's just then that there's work to do combing ov 'em down, young 'un. If I was the skipper, I wudn't sit here with my feet in my pockets as it was, but I'd up an' run for it. Why, look you, we're short av victuals already; and we turn fifty av the hands in the mine ashore to-morrow!"

"Turn them ashore—how's that?"

"Why, giv' 'em their liberty, I'm thinking: poor divils, they'll die in the snow, every one av them."

I made some poor excuse for cutting short the conversation, and left him, excited beyond anything by the thought which his words gave me.

If fifty men were to be turned free, then surely I could count on fifty allies; and fifty-one strong hands could at least make some show even against the ruffians of the rock-house. Give them arms, and a chance of Surprise, and who knows? I said But it was evident beyond doubt that the initiative must be with me, and that, if arms and a leader were to be found, I must find them.

It might have been a mad hope, but yet it was a hope; and I argued: Is it better to clutch at the veriest shadow of a chance, or to sit down and end my life amongst scoundrels and assassins? Unless the man "Four-Eyes" deliberately deceived me, Black would connive at the murder of fifty British seamen before another twenty-four hours had sped. These men would have all the anger of desperation to drive them to the attack; and I felt sure that if I could get some arms into their hands, and help them to wise strategy, the attempt would at the least be justifiable. It remained only to ascertain the probability of getting weapons, and of joining the crew without molestation; and to this task I set myself with an energy and expectation which caused me to forget for the time my rascally environment, and the peril of my very existence in the ice-haven.

During the remaining hours of the day I engaged myself in searching the houses on the beach; but, although I looked into many of them, I found no sign of armoury, or, indeed, of anything but plain accommodation for living. Here and there in some rude dormitories I encountered lazy loafers, who cursed at the sight of me; and I did not approach the great common-room, for I knew the danger of that venture. But I made such a tour of the block of buildings as convinced me of the futility of any attempt to get arms from them; for such as were storehouses had iron doors and heavy locks upon them, and elsewhere there was scarce so much as a pistol. The discouragement of the vain search was profound, and in great gloom and abandoned hope I mounted the steep passage to my own apartment, and sat down to ask myself, if I should not at once surrender the undertaking, and preserve my own skin. That, no doubt, was the counsel of mere prudence; yet the knowledge that fifty men would stand by me to the assault on the citadel of crime and cruelty haunted me and drove me from the craven prompting. I remembered in a welcome inspiration that Black had a stand of Winchester rifles in his study; I had seen them when I dined with him; and although there were not more than half-a-dozen of them, I had hopes that they would suffice, if I could get them, with knives and any revolvers I might lay hands upon, to hold a ring of men against the company, or at least to warrant a covert attack on the buildings below. This thought I hugged to me all day, going often to the iron platform above the creek to know if there were any sign of the release of the men, or of preparation for getting rid of them; but I could see none, and I waited expectantly, for it were idle to move a hand until those who should be my allies had their so-called liberty.

Towards evening, when I was weary with the watching, I returned to my room and found that the negro had spread the tea-table as usual; and I drank a refreshing draught, and began to question him, if he knew anything of that which was going on below. He shook his head stupidly; but presently, when I had repeated the question, he said, laughing and showing his huge teeth—

"Begar, you wait—plenty fire jess now—plenty knock and squeal; oh yes, sar."

"Are they going to murder the men?" I asked aghast.

"No murder; oh no, sar, no murder, but plenty fight—ah, there he goes, sar!"

There was the sound of a gun-shot below in the creek; and I went to my window, and getting upon a chair, I saw the whole of a cruel scene. Some twenty of these seamen, black as they had come from the coal-shaft, were going ashore from a long-boat; while an electric launch was bringing twenty more from the outer creek where the nameless ship lay. But the men who had first landed were surrounded by the others of Black's company, and were being driven towards the hills at the back; and so to the great desolate plain of snow where no human being could long retain life. From my open window, I could hear the words of anger, the loud oaths, the shouts, could see the blows which were received, and the blows which were given. Anon the fight became very general. The pirates hit lustily with the butt-ends of their pistols; the honest fellows used their fists, and many a man they laid his length upon the rock. Yet there was no question of the sway of victory, for the prisoners were unarmed, and the others outnumbered them hopelessly. Inch by inch they gave way, were driven towards the ravines and the countless miles of snow-plain; and as the battle, if such you could call it, raged, the armed lost control of themselves and began to shoot with murderous purpose. Death at last was added to the horrors, and, as body after body rolled down the rocky slope and fell splashing into the water, those unwounded took panic at the sight, and fled with all speed away up the side of the glacier mount; and so, as I judged it must be, to their death in that frozen refuge beyond.

When all was quiet I shut my window, and sat in my chair to think. The negro had left me, and the whole place was very still. Neither Black nor the doctor had showed during the scene of the massacre (for I could call it nothing else); and in the rock-house itself there was not so much as a footfall. I began to hope that the master of the place might chance to be away; and when darkness had fallen I went into the long passage then deserted, and found the door of his sitting-room ajar, but the place was dim within; and I feared to make an attempt to get the arms until I knew that all slept. But one misfortune could lie between myself and the aid which I should bear to these men—it was the chance that Black locked the door of his study when he slept. If he did not, I could get the rifles, and convey them across the bay to the other fellows; if he did, all hope were gone.

At seven o'clock I dined as usual, no one coming to me; and at eight the negro had cleared away the repast, and had left me for the night. I closed my own door, and for three hours or more I paced my chamber, the fever of anticipation and of design burning me as with fire. It must have been eleven o'clock when at last I put out my light, and listened in the passage; yet heard nothing, not even the echo of a distant sound.

Of the doors about, the majority were closed; but the doctor's was open, and his room was in darkness, so that I began to fear that he was closeted with Black; and I went very stealthily, having left my boots behind me, to the man's study, and found that door ajar as it had been when I had come to it some hours before. This discovery set me almost drunk with hope. There was no doubt that both the men were away from their rooms, so that my time could not have been better chosen; and, more fearless in their absence, I pushed the door wide open and began to feel my way in the blinding dark.

My first proceeding was to run upon some slight article of furniture, and to overturn it. The crash that followed echoed through the vaulted passages, and I stood quite still, thinking that all chance of success had gone with the mishap. But no sound followed, and after many minutes I went on again with great care, feeling my way as a cat, quite sure that at last I should succeed. Twice I went round the room, and could not put my hand upon the rifles; but at the third attempt I found them, and gave a sigh of relief. Then an overwhelming terror struck me chill and powerless. My sigh was echoed from the corner by the window; and a low chuckle of laughter followed it. I stood as a man petrified, my hand upon a gun, but my nerves strained to a tension that was horrible to bear. Who was there with me? By whom was I watched?

Alas! I knew in another moment, when the electric light flooded the chamber, and I saw Black sitting at his writing-table, observing me, a jeer upon his lips, and all the terrible malice of his nature written in his keen and mocking eyes. I stood transfixed by that searching gaze, held spellbound by the fascination of the obvious danger, my hand still upon one of the rifles, yet trembling with the agitation of discovery. Words rose to my lips—excuses, pleadings; but they died away in my throat, and I could not utter them. Plans for the undoing of that which had been done, ways of escape, efforts to gain time, suggested themselves to me, but remained suggestions. I could do nothing but stand and sway my body as a victim before a python—the prey before a snake that is about to strike.

We must have watched each other thus for a minute or more. I saw during those moments when I was bereft of all power that the man had a revolver cocked at his left hand, but a pen in his right; while manuscript lay before him, so that he must have been in the room for some time, and had extinguished his light only at my coming. And he had heard me quit my own chamber, I did not doubt; yet this surprised me, for I had no shoes upon my feet, and had walked with the stealth of a cat. Indeed, he appeared to read the fleeting speculations of my thought, and at last to take pity on my position, for he leant over the table, and drew near to it a lounge on which the skin of a polar bear was spread.

"Sit here," he said, and at the bluff word my nerve came back to me. I sat before him, facing him with less fear. Yet it was humiliating to be treated almost as a child, and I knew from the inflexion of his voice that he spoke to me then as one would speak to a school-lad who had played truant. And in this tone he continued—

"You're a smart boy, and have ideas; but, like all little boys, your ideas don't go far enough. I was just the same when I was your age, always trying to climb perpendicular places, and always falling down again. When you're older, you look to see what your hold's like before you begin. Meanwhile, you're like a little dog barking at a bull, and you're precious lucky not to be over the hedge by this time—maybe the bull doesn't mind you, maybe he's waiting a day—but take his advice and go to kennel awhile."

He said this half-laughing, and in no sense fiercely; but his words angered me beyond restraint, and I could have struck him as he sat. He saw my anger, and ceased his provocation.

"Silly lad," he said again, "silly beyond expression to put your head into a business which never concerned you, and to stake your life on a struggle which must have only one end. Don't you think so?"

At this I plucked up courage and answered him—

"I came here to-night to stop your devilry in murdering fifty innocent men;" but he started up at the words and raved like a maniac.

"And who made you judge, you puppy?" he cried. "Who set you to watch me, or give your opinions on what I do or what I don't do? Who asked you whether you liked it or didn't like it, you sneaking little brat? I wonder I let you live to spit your dirty words in my face?"

His anger was fierce, terrible as a tornado. His teeth gnashed, his hands shook, he rolled in his chair like a great wounded beast; but when he saw that I was unmoved, he fell quiet again, and wiping his forehead, where the sweat had gathered thickly, he said in a low, coaxing voice—

"Don't compel me, lad, to do what I have meant not to do. You're here for good or ill, and if you wish to keep your life, put a control on your tongue. These men are nothing to you; they're lazy hogs that the world's well rid of—let 'em die, and save you're own carcass. You've been here days now—the first man that ever lived among us without signing our papers. But you can't stay that way any longer. You know this business. You've a straight notion that my hand's agen Europe, and, for the matter of that, agen the world, too; those that share with me shall swing with me, and if I burn when it's done, by the devil himself they shall burn too. It isn't of my asking that you're amongst us, or that you took up the work of the hound Hall, who put the first nail in his coffin that night he came to my bed at Spezia. I saw him there, though he thought me sleeping; and that night I wrote death against his name, as I wrote it against yours when you entered my room in Paris. There's reasons why I've broken my word in your case, though you'll never know 'em; but there's no reason why you shouldn't swear to go through it with me and mine, man for man, life with life, be it rope's-end or bullet, to rot among the fish, or to share every mate among us what's got upon the sea. That's my question, and you'll answer it now, yes or no, plain word and no shuffle; meaning to you whether you go on as you've gone on in the past, or freeze amongst the others lying up there in the cavern; whether you swim in money, as my lot swim in it, or get bullets in you thick as hail from northward. That's my question, I say again, and there's my papers. Sign 'em now, or you lie a corpse before an hour on the clock."

He leant over his writing-table and put the paper into my hands, a rough sheet of parchment, which he wished me to read. But my eyes were dimmed with the restless excitement of the situation, with the dread terror of the alternative put to me; and I saw nothing but lines of writing which swam before me. The silence of the room was terrible to bear; and it was as though I struggled for life while already in the tomb. My thoughts went hurriedly to Europe, to my home, to my friends; above all I recalled the night when Martin Hall went to his death, and his shadow seemed by me, his face beseeching me, his hand holding mine back from the pen that it would have clutched. During this time the man Black leant towards me, and watched me, expectancy in his face, threatening in his pose. Yet he did not speak, and my eyes left the paper and I gave him look for look, and from his face my glance passed to his right hand which held the pistol; and in that instant I took heart for a step which was the last mad design of a driven man.

"Give me the pen!" I said suddenly, rising and bending over the table.

He put the pen into my hands, and leant back with a chuckle of satisfaction; but the movement cost him the game. I clutched his pistol with a lightning grasp, and covered him with it—

"If you raise a finger I'll shoot you like a dog," I cried.

Then the man, who was no craven, sat motionless in his chair; and I saw the beads of terror falling from his forehead, but he betrayed no emotion, and his face might have been cut from marble. I had the muzzle of the pistol upon him, and I continued with greater confidence—

"If you raise your voice to call out, or if anyone comes to this room, you die where you sit."

He heard me then more calmly, and replied deliberately—

"Boy, you are the first that's bested Black."

"I'll take your word for that," I said; "but take care—you are moving your hand." He held it still at once and continued—

"I'm caught like a rat in the hole. What do ye want? Name it, and I'll know how we stand!"

"I want my life—my life, now that I refuse to sign that paper."

"Yes," he said, "that's a fair request, though I can't say it's in my power to make it that way."

"It's in your power to stand with me—you can give the order that no man's to lay a finger on me, and you will?"

He thought a moment, looking straight down the barrel of the Colt. Then he said—

"Yes, I can't avoid that—I'll give you that."

"And my liberty on the first occasion offering."

"No," he replied very slowly and sternly; "that's more than the devil himself could offer you; they'd tear me to pieces."

There was no doubt that he had right in this; and I reflected that I could gain nothing whatever by holding out. There was just the hope that he would abide by his word in the matter of my personal safety, but more I could not look for. The man could only die, and, it he gave me freedom, his own men would requite him as he said. I thought of this and put the pistol down; then I offered him my hand, and he jumped up from his seat, grasping it with a great clutch altogether painful to bear, while he dragged me to the light and looked at me with that curious expression I had noticed when first I met him in the room.

"You're a sound plank of a boy," he said: "shake my hand, young 'un, shake it hearty; go on, don't you think I mind; shake it right so, you beauty of a boy!"

What else he would have said or done, what new token of his repulsive favour he would have bestowed on me, I know not; but his wild antics were cut short by the sound of firing, rapid and oft repeated, which came to us from the shore of the cove below. At the first report he let go my hand and went to his window, from which he drew the curtain, so that I saw the whole bay lit with silver light from a full-risen moon, and the distant peaks as grim beacons above a land of rest; a land which once, perchance, flowered with exotic luxuriance, but which now wore the snow-silk mantle that had fallen upon countless centuries of its past. Yet the whole glory and entrancement of the perfect peace were for the moment ruined, for out on the snow there was a hungry crowd of starving souls, crying, I doubt not, for bread; and those to whom they cried answered them with their muskets, dyeing the glittering white with many a red stream, bringing many a hungered wretch to his last sleep in the frozen night of death. And out over the silence of the hills the cries for mercy rang as in bitterness to God, the dreadful cries of the weak, down trodden beneath the feet of those who knew not God, the last scream of perishing souls, the sobs of strong men in their agony. In vain I closed my ears, shut out the sight from my eyes. The picture came to me again and again, the sound of the voices would not be hushed, and in turn I cried to Black—

"For God's sake, help those men, if you have anything but the instincts of a brute in you!"

He shrugged his shoulders defiantly. "What am I to do?" he asked.

"Stop the devil's work, and give the men bread, as I've just given you your life!"

There was a pause before he answered me, and I could see that an old nature and a new impulse fought within him. He did not give me any direct answer to my earnest appeal, but he snatched a rifle from a case and said—

"Take that pistol, and come on; you've fooled me once, and we'll make it even numbers. But it ain't as easy as cutting cheese, and there's blood to let."

I followed him down the passage to the beach, where he blew a whistle sharp and shrill, and the note had a strange ring as it echoed through the cañon.

"That'll wake 'em on the ship," he explained. "I'm not afeard of these, but there's fighting to be done—now lie behind me, and don't show till you're wanted."

He advanced towards the snow-plain and sang out—

"John, you there, Dick—hands to quarters, do you hear me! Move right quick, or I'll move you, by thunder!"

They put down their arms from their shoulders in blank amazement, and listened to him as he went on—

"There's enough down for one night, I reckon, and I'm not going to be kept awake by your cursed firing—what's to be done can be done in the morning; why, you boat-load of night rats, ain't any of you got sleep in you?"

They came round him slowly and sulkily, and he drove them to the big houses with pleasant oaths and fine round phrases. I lurked near him, but an American saw me and cried—

"Say, Cap'en, hev ye took to nursin' that boy ez ye seems so fond of?"

"Shut your jaw, or I'll shut it for you!" replied Black. "Is the boy your affair?"

"He's the affair of all of us, I calcerlate, an' some of us wishes to know particler if he's signed or no."

Black was smothered in anger, but he showed it only with that terrible growling of the voice and his horrid calmness.

"Oh, you want to know, do you? Which of you, might I ask, is particler anxious about my business?"

There were thirty or forty of them round, and they pressed the closer at the question, as he continued—

"Let them as makes complaint step right here."

Only four joined the leader; but the captain suddenly snatched my revolver from me, and fired four shots; and for each shot a man dropped dead on the beach; but the American stood untouched. The appalling brutality of the action seemed to awe the rest of the crew. They stood motionless, dumb with their rage; but when they recovered themselves they rushed upon us with wild ferocity; and the Yankee fired at Black point-blank. I thought, truly, that the end was then; but I heard a shout from the water, and, looking there, I saw Dr. Osbart in the launch; and there was a Maxim gun in the bows of her.

"Clear that beach!" roared Black in awful passion; and instantly, as he dropped flat and I imitated him, there was a hail of bullets, and the main part of the crowd fell shrieking; but some threw themselves down, while many stiffened and rolled in death, and blood spouted from scores of wounds.

The victory was awful, instantaneous. As the men fled towards the hills, Black called after them—

"Bring to, you limp-gutted carrion, or I'll wipe you out, every one of you! Any man who'll save his throat, let him come here!"

At these words they turned back to a man, and came cowering to the water's edge. Thirty of their fellows lay dead or wounded on the stones, and many of those crawling towards us had bullets in their limbs. Yet Black had no thought for them.

"Where's your leader?" he asked, and they pointed to the American, who lay with the blood pouring from a wound in his left thigh.

"He's there, is he?" screamed the infuriated man. "The darned skunk's down, is he? Well, I'll cure him like a ham. Get torches, some of you, and ice him in."

He was swaying with passion; yet, even regarding it, I could not understand what his order meant, and I asked—

"What are you going to do with that man?"

"What am I going to do with him?" he yelled, scarce noticing who spoke to him; "I'm going to bury him."

It was wonderful in that moment to see how the men, who had before defied him, then became as slaves at his command. A silence deep and profound rested upon them; even those with the captain watched him in his outrageous anger and were dumb; but all helped him in his ghastly work, and brought shovels and picks, which they carried to the higher plane of snow. As for the American, who sat upon the beach groaning with the pain of his wound, I do not know how any man could have wished to add to his hurt; yet he asked for no sympathy, and it was plain that he knew what they meant to do with him. At one time feverish ravings seized him, and he shook his fist at all around him; then he poured his anger upon Black, who listened to him, gratified that he should provoke it. And the more the man cursed, the greater satisfaction did the other show.

"We've got to die, both of us," said the American at last, ceasing his wilder oaths; "you en me, Black, en there isn't much ez we kin look for; but, if there's en Almighty God, I reckon ez He'll place this yere off my score, and lay it on yours, or there ain't no hell, an' there ain't no justice, and what seamen dreams of is lies—lies as your word is lies, en everything about your cursed ship. Go on, lay me right here as I lay now; but I'll rize agen you, and the day'll come when you'd give every dollar ye're worth to dig me up, and give me life agen."

The softer speech availed the poor fellow as little as the other. I felt then an exceeding pity for him, and I touched Black on the arm and was about to plead with him; but at the sight of me he raised his fist, and I moved away, seeing by the light of his eyes that he was as much a madman in that moment as any maniac in Bedlam. For he stood foaming and muttering, his hands clenched, his hat upon the snow, great drops of sweat on his bronzed forehead. The haste of the men to get the picks was not half haste enough for him; and when they began to dig he hurried them the more, until a great pile of snow had been thrown out.

It was a weird scene—the most weird I have ever known. We stood in a snow-pit amongst the hills, and above us rose in grandeur the great pyramids of basalt and gneiss. There was no sign of living green thing, even of lichens or of moss, in that elevated plain above the sea; and the shrill call of the gulls was hushed in the greater stillness of the night. The moon, high in the unclouded sky, gave light far down into the crevasses—clear, silvered light that made a jewel of every higher point, and sprinkled the crests of the breakers as with floss of fire. Nor was there wind, even a breath of the night's breeze, but only the melancholy silence of the omnivorous frost, the boom of falling avalanche echoing in the ravines and the ice-caverns, the groans of the doomed man—a very Miserere amongst the hills, as down below amongst the dead upon the shore.

In the snow-plain, which was the centre of this northern desolation, they dug the grave of the living man. I watched from afar—held by what hideous power I knew not—and I saw them roll him over into the trench they had dug, and shovel the snow quickly upon him. He watched them, silent in his terror; but when his head only was uncovered he gave a shriek of agony, which rose like the great cry of a man going before his God, and ceased not to echo from height to height until long minutes had passed. Then all was hushed, for the cold mantle of death fell upon him. Slowly those who had done their work took up their tools and returned doggedly to the beach; but Captain Black was unable to move from the man who had put that last great curse upon him not five minutes gone. Bare-headed and alone, he stood at the snow-grave, and looked down upon the mound now sparkling with the crystals of the frost that bound it. And as he looked there came a great weird wailing from a distant hill, a piercing cry, as of another soul passing, and it echoed again and again from peak to peak and ravine to ravine a wild "ochone," that had sadness and grief and misery in it; and I knew that it was the cry from one of the seamen who had been turned from the mines—from one who mourned, perchance, the death of a friend or of a brother. Yet, at the cry, Black gave a great start, and shivering as a man struck down with a deadly chill, he passed from the grave to the beach. And this was the agony of his returning reason.