The Iron Pirate/Chapter 21

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The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter XXI



We dined that night in the saloon upon the deck, a commodious place lighted by electricity, and in every way luxuriously fitted. The walls of it were panelled in white and gold, and were covered with curious designs, old heroes fighting, old gods drawn by lions at their chariots; Bacchantes revelling, Jason seeking the fleece in a golden barque; Orestes fleeing the Furies. The long seats were covered in leather of a deep crimson, and there was a small piano, with many other appointments that were significant. The dinner itself was admirably served, and was partaken of by the deaf-and-dumb engineer, by the doctor, the Scotsman, and myself. We were waited on by a couple of negroes; and when the meats were removed we went above to an exquisitely-furnished little smoking-room, and there drank rich brown coffee and enjoyed some very fine cigars. I was all ears then to learn, if I could, what was the destination of the ship; and I found that Black talked without reserve before me, knowing well that I could do him no injury. He relied mostly on the doctor for advice, and discussed everything with him in the best of tempers.

"My plan is this," he said: "we're short of oil, and Karl here is beginning to get uneasy. I shall knock over a couple of whalers in these seas, and fill the tanks. Then, as they're looking for us in mid-Atlantic, we'll get south of Madeira, and run against two or three of the big ones making for Rio or Buenos Ayres. We shall pick up a good bit of money; and it'll be a month before they get on our course that way, for I mean to let 'em down light when it's not a case of saving our own skin."

The Scotsman gave a deep sigh at this, and said in a melancholy voice—

"Hoot, mon, the deid frichtened you."

"You're a liar," continued Black quite quietly, and then continued: "As Europe knows my game, it doesn't matter how often she hears of me. Let her hear, and come agen me, and I'll show my teeth. What we're out for this journey is money, specie, pieces in piles, and we'll get that on the lay of Rio-bound ships better than in any waters. It'll be quick work, one against the rest of 'em ; but I built this ship to fight, and fight she shall—you agree on that, doctor?"

"Of course. The more fighting the men see the less trouble we shall have with them."

"That's what I say—give 'em work to do, and they'll sleep like dogs when it's done; give 'em money and drink, and you've got hogs to drive. Now, let me get through the winter, and I'll run south a spell in hiding, and then make northward with ten thousand pounds a man when the fall comes. But first we'll have a week in Paris, I reckon, and stretch our legs amongst them as is most anxious to shake with us—what do you say, Dick?"

"Man," said the Scotsman deliberately, "if there's nae killing, I misdoubt me o't a' thegither."

"You're a fool," replied the skipper testily, "and if you don't go to bed, I'll kick you there."

The fellow rose at this, and coolly emptied half a tumbler of whisky; but before he could leave "Four-Eyes" came off the bridge and said laconically—

"Whaler on the port-bow."

"Signal 'em to come to, and drop a shot," cried Black rising; and then he called to the Scotsman and gave his orders—

"Stand by the gun!" and with that we all went out to the gallery, and saw by the clear power of the moon a full-rigged ship not a mile from the shore. She was homeward bound, and seemed by her build to be a Dane.

Upon our own deck there was already activity, some of the men getting away the launch, and others putting empty barrels into it before they swung it out over the sea. There was a method and quietness about it all which showed long habit at the same practice; and when at last the great gun before the funnel boomed out, the fine accuracy of the shooting scarcely caused comment. The shot appeared to drop into the water almost under the whaler's bob-stay, and sent up a cloud of foam and spray, glistening in the moonlight; but the ship answered to it as to a deadly summons; and the tide and wind setting off shore, she went into the breeze easily, and lay to at the first demand. Then Black gave his orders—

"You, John, go aboard and buy their oil up—I'm getting you notes from my chest."

At the word buy, the man John seemed astounded.

"Oh, I reckon," he said, "we'll pay 'em hard cash with a clout on the skull, cap'n; come right along, boys, and bring your shootin' irons. Oh, I guess we'll pay 'em, money down, and men a-top of it."

"You'll do nothing of the sort, you lubber!" roared Black; "but what you take you'll pay for, d'ye hear me?—then shut your mouth up and go aboard."

John was not the only man who was struck by the skipper's whim. There were mutterings on the deck below, and Dick, who had come from the conning-tower, was bold enough to make remark.

"It's a'most sinfu'," he said, "to be sae free wi' the siller; why man, ye could verra weel buy me a hundred pairs o' breeks wi' the same, and no be wanting it."

But Black was watching the launch, now speeding in the moonlight towards the rolling whaler. I watched it too, remembering how, not many weeks before, I had stood on the deck of my own yacht, and awaited the coming of the same craft with my heart in my mouth. Now the danger was not mine, but I felt for the men who had to face it, since Black's talk about purchase could scarcely soften the native ferocity of those who served him; and I feared that the scene would end in bloodshed.

Happily the surmise was quite incorrect. That which promised a tragedy gave us but a comedy. We saw from the platform that our men were taken aboard the ship, and we watched to see them hoist their barrels after them. But they did not, making no sign of having the oil, although there came shouts and sounds of altercation from the anchored vessel; and we saw the flash of pistols, and dark objects presently in the sea. To the surprise of us all, the launch returned after that; and when our men came aboard, they presented a shocking spectacle. "Roaring John" was covered from head to feet with a thick, black, oleaginous matter; two of the others had their faces smeared in tar; the rest were like drowned rats, and were chattering until their teeth clashed with the cold. Nor could they for some time, what with their spluttering and their anger, tell us what misfortune had overtaken them.

"The darned empty skunks" gasped John at last—"they haven't got a barrel aboard, not a barrel, I guess; and when I gave 'em play with my tongue, they put me in the waste-tub—oh, I reckon, up to my eyes in it——"

"Do you mean to say," asked Black, "that they've took no whales?"

"Except ourselves, yer honour," said a little Englishman, who was cowering like a drowned rat, "which they throw'd overboard, like the whales in the Scriptures, never a fish."

"Then we've wasted our time!" cried the skipper, stamping his great foot "and you're lazy varmin to stop so long aboard parleying with 'em. I'm going on; you can settle your scores among you."

He gave the order "Full steam ahead!" at which the third officer showed the temper of a whipped beast.

"You're going ahead leaving them swimming? Then darn me if I serve," said he. "What? They pitch me in their dirty tub, and you laugh! By thunder! I'll teach you."

Captain Black watched his anger with a pitying leer; but "Dick the Ranter" and "Four-Eyes" were overcome with laughter, and roared until the ship echoed.

"Houly Moses, it's a fine picture ye are, my beauty," said the mate; "and if oi'll be scraping ye down with a shovel, it's yer own fayther wouldn't know ye, so clane ye'll be."

"To the which I would add, man," said Dick, "that if ye'd let yersel' drip into the lubricators you'd be worth siller to us; not to say onything o' the discoorse I micht verra weel preach on Satan from yer present appearance."

The banter turned the man from his more meaning purpose. He stood gibbering for a moment, while the crowd pressed on him with gibes and jeers; but he had his revenge, after all, for there was a tar-bucket at the foot of the upper-deck ladder, and with this he armed himself. The brush was well-charged and dripping, the tar yet liquid, the Scotsman's face was all-inviting. With a fierce shout the enraged man went to the attack, and painted his lantern-jawed opponent merrily. In less time than I can tell of it, the Ranter dripped from head to foot; the black stuff poured from his hemp-like hair, from his ears; it oozed down his neck, it even ran through to his boots; and when his enemy could no longer wield the brush from fatigue, he emptied the bucket on the man's head as a last triumphant vindication of his strength.

"Now we're a pair!" he said, pausing for breath, and surveying his work as an artist surveys a finished picture; "and I guess you ain't going to take the biscuit in this beauty show."

"Man, I could hae weel dispensed wi't," spluttered the Scotsman; "but I thank ye for dyeing my breeks. They've been wanting colour since New Year."

The laughter had not yet died away when the men went to their cabins, and we posted the watches before turning in. We were at that time in Lat. 65° N. at a rough calculation, and we passed the Danish settlement of Godthaab early on the next morning, though so far out at sea that I could make nothing of it; while we lost the coast of Greenland altogether before the day had passed, a hazy shower of dust-like snow greeting our coming to the Atlantic and to a perceptibly warmer latitude. During this day, and until we sighted the Shetlands, the small screw tender kept our course, and we exchanged signals with her every morning, her purpose being explained to me by "Four-Eyes," on the fourth morning out, in his child-like phraseology.

"Faith, she's Liverpool bound, and we'll pick her up again south of the Scilly when she's tidings of ships out. Bedad, sir, there's fine times coming; what wi' the say full av big ones, and we one agen 'em, I'm like to believe as we'll step ashore with our throats cut, ivery man av us, and on the shore av me own counthry, which sorra a day I left for this job."

"Why did you leave it, 'Four-Eyes'?" I asked cheerfully; and he said—

"'Twas this way, sorr, but it's a long yarn, and ye don't nade more than the p'ints av it. When I was priest's bhoy in Tipperary, me and Mike Sullivan had atween us what you gents call a vendeny, and coming out av church—'twas Sunday mornin' five year ago—I met Mike, an' he puts coals av fire on me head. 'Begorra,' says I, ’it's lucky for ye I'm in the grace, but plase God I'll not be to-morrow;' but the spalpeen went to Cork next day, and it wasn't till a year that I run agen him, prepared to do my dooty."

"And you did it, I'll be bound!"

"Sorra a bit; I just fell in with the divil, being an aisy sort av sowl, and he made me as drunk as a gentleman—that's why I'm here, sorr. He shipped me aboard and got five pounds from me, me that meant to thread on his head, the dirty skunk—but it's the way av the world, sorr; help a man that's down, an' the moment the spalpeen's on his fate he'll dance on ye."

"Which is verra true," said Dick the Ranter, who after two days had still tar upon him, and was wrapped in a woman's shawl; "but will ye postpone your thirdly, and go below to the doctor, who's wanting ye to see the gear?"

They had not yet shown me the engines of the nameless ship, and I welcomed the opportunity, grown weary with watching the dull green of the sea, and the monotony of the sky-laden clouds. Dick led the way quickly from the gallery to the lower deck, and thence down an iron ladder to the great engine-room. Here truly was a wondrous sight; the sight of three sets of the most powerful engines that have yet been placed in a battle-ship. Each of them had four cylinders, eighty inches in diameter; and all were driven by the hydrogen from the huge gasometers which our holds formed. The gas itself was made by passing the steam from a comparatively small boiler through a coke and anthracite furnace, the coke combining with the oxygen and leaving pure hydrogen. The huge cylinders drove upwards with a double crank to carry their motion to the screw; and I found that the difficulty of starting and reversing was overcome by an intermediate bevel-wheel gearing and friction clutch, which could throw the motion off the shaft, and allow that instantaneous going astern otherwise impossible in a gas-engine. That day there was a huge fire in the furnace, emitting terrific heat and crackling sparks, for the men were making gas, in view of a run or two off the coast of Ireland. It was more pleasant than I can tell you to watch the entire absorption of the gifted engineer, in the maze of machinery which surrounded him, to paint the paternal pathos of his look as he watched every motion and eyed every bearing. The maker of an empire certainly he was; the man of mind who, for the time, had given these ruffians the kingship of the sea; had made mockery of the opposition of the nations; and, I could not help but reflect as I turned away sick at heart at the sight of so much power, had caused me to be a prisoner, perhaps for life, in that citadel of metal. Yet, he was a genius; and to the end of my days I shall think, as I thought then, of the superb gifts so wasted in their channel, of the masterful intellect devoted only to pillage and plunder.

In such a frame of mind I left the engine-room and mounted to the upper deck, to hear the cry, "Land on the port-bow."

It was the coast of Ireland, they told me; and I know not if I have ever had a greater pleasure than that distant view of my own country gave to me. For it was as though I had passed from a dead land to the land of man, from the silent ways of night to the first breaking of the God-sent day.