The Iron Pirate/Chapter 22

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The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter XXII



Our view of the distant shore of Ireland was a fleeting one; and we passed thence almost immediately to the open sea, steaming due S.W. for some hours, but at no great pace. It was not until daybreak on the following morning that we reached the track of ocean-bound ships; but our voyage was altogether in favour of Black, for the sun had scarce risen when Doctor Osbart got me from my bed to see what he called my first introduction to business.

"There's the Red Cross Line's Bellonic not a mile off on the starboard quarter," cried he exultingly, "and we're going to clear her. Come out, man, and get the finest breakfast you ever tasted."

I dressed anyhow, almost as excited as he was, and stepped on to the gallery, to see a rolling waste of dull-green breakers, and a sky washed with broken thunder-clouds, through which the risen sun was struggling. The wind was keen from the south, and drove a fine rain, which lashed the face as with a whip; while much spray broke upon us and there was moaning of the cowls and the shrouds, and many signs of more wind to come. These atmospheric difficulties troubled no one, however, for all eyes were turned to the north, where, now almost abreast of us, at a distance of half a mile or less, there was the long and magnificent hull of the great liner. She was then in the full sunlight, a fine spectacle; and I could see her bare decks, trodden only by the watch, while a solitary officer paced the bridge. The contrast between her sleepy inactivity and our keen alertness was very marked, for all hands trod our decks, and there was a restlessness and an evident ferocity amongst the little group upon the bridge which marked a purpose brooking no delay.

I had begun to ask myself when the work would be done, for the liner went at a tremendous pace and was rapidly leaving us, when I got my answer with the crash of the great gun forward, and the sight of a shell ploughing the sea fifty yards ahead of the Bellonic. The cries of "Well shot, Swearing Dick!" had not died away before the effect of the call was seen upon the great vessel, whose decks were soon dotted with black objects, while three more men appeared on the bridge, and the signal flags ran up, and were answered by us. "Four-Eyes" was at our mast, and interpreted the message to Black, who followed all that was done without betrayal of emotion, but only with the savage anticipation of the predatory instinct.

"Signal to 'em to lie to, if they don't want to go to hell," he said between his teeth, and "Four-Eyes" answered:

"Ay, ay, sorr"; then, as the signal came, "He sez uz he'll say us at blazes afore he bates a knot."

"Give it him for'ard then, and teach him," roared Black; and the shot that answered his command struck the quivering hull not twenty feet from the windlass, and you could see the splinters carried fifty feet in the air, while the shrieks of terror came over the sea to us, and were piercing then.

"What's he say now?" asked the Captain, cooler than even at the beginning of the work.

"Says as he'll make it warm for ye at New York, and if ye come aboard, it's on yer own head, an' ye swing fer it—he'll not stop till ye disable him."

"The thick-headed vermin," hissed Black; "give him another, amidships this time."

The second shot made us reel and shiver as she left us; but there was no hit, for we rolled much, and saw the shell burst on the far side of the liner. At this, and at the failure of a second attempt, the Captain lost patience, and gave the order—

"Full steam ahead, and clear the machine-guns."

It was almost superb, I admit now, and the excitement of it was then upon me, to feel our great ship quiver at the touch of the bell, and bound forward with waves of foam and spray running from her decks, and each plate on her straining as though the mighty force of the engines below would rend it from its fellows.

I had not before known the limit of her speed, or what she could do when driven as she then was; and the truth amazed me, while it filled me with a strange exultation. For we, who had dallied heretofore behind the other, sped beyond her as an express train passes the droning goods; and coming about, in a great circle, we descended upon her as a goshawk upon the quarry.

The machine-guns upon our decks were already cleared; the men were stripped, ready for the fray, as tigers for their food. Indeed, before I quite understood the purport bf the manoeuvre, we were passing the Bellionic at a distance of not more than fifty yards; and at that moment it seemed as if all the furies of hell were let loose upon our decks.

Screaming like wild beasts, the men turned the handles of the Maxim guns; the balls rained upon the defenceless liner as hail upon a sheepfold. I heard fierce curses and dull groans; I saw strong men reel and fall their length as death took them; the breeze bore to me the wailing of women and the sobs of children.

But we had done the foul work in the one passage, for the flag dropped at once upon the liner, and the signal was made to us to come aboard. We had gained a horrid triumph, if such you could call the murders, and it remained but to divide the spoil.

"Lower away the launch, you John!" cried Black, "and take every shilling you can lay hands on. You hear me?—and hang up that skipper for a thin-skinned fool."

"By thunder, I'm yours all along," replied "Roaring John"; and then he sang out, "Hands for the launch!"

"You'd better go as cox," said Osbart to me, "you'll be amused"; and suggested it to Black, who turned upon me a look almost of hate.

"Yes, he shall go," he cried; "if we swing, he shall swing, the preaching lubber! Let him get aboard, or I'll kick him there."

I had loathing at the thought of it, but might as well have put a pistol to my head there and then as to have refused. They bundled me into the launch, and I sat shivering at the prospect of the terrors on the deck; but they would not leave me when they came alongside, and "Roaring John" himself drove me up the ladder which was put out amidships. Seven of us at last stood on the bridge, and were face to face with the captain of the Bellonic, and four of his officers.

I have said that I feared the terrors of that deck, but the reality surpassed the conception.

It was a very babel of sounds, of groans, of weeping. The ship's surgeon himself seemed paralysed before the sight of the carnage around him. You looked along the length of the vessel, and it was as though you looked upon the scene of a bloody battle, for there were dead almost in heaps, and wounded screaming, and streams of blood, and fragments of wreckage as though the ship had been under fire for many hours. But above all this terror, I know of nothing which struck me with such fearful sorrow as the sight of a fair young English girl lying by the door of the great saloon, her arms extended, her nut-brown hair soaked in her own blood, while a man knelt over her, and you could see his tears falling upon her dead face, and his ravings were incoherent and almost those of a maniac. At the sight of us he jumped to his feet, and shrieked "Murderers!" so continuously that the echo of his cry rang in my ears that day and for many days.

Meanwhile another scene was passing on the bridge between the man John and the captain of the Bellonic.

"What do you want aboard of my ship?" cried the latter; and "Roaring John" answered him with a mocking leer:

"We've come aboard to hang you, to begin on!"

The men with the young officer cocked their revolvers at this, and I said in a mad frenzy which would not brook silence—

"You scoundrel, if you touch another soul here I'll shoot you myself!" for I had my revolver on me. "Do you make a business of killing children?" I cried again, and pointed to the dead body of the girl-child.

I don't know who was more surprised, the captain of the Bellonic, listening, or the man John.

"You cub," he cried; "if you talk to me I'll skin you alive!" But I said quickly—

"Gentlemen, these men want every shilling on this ship. Give it them now and save your lives, for you have no alternative. If you give the money up, you have my word that they won't touch you."

"If there's a God above," exclaimed the young captain, "they shall pay for this day's work with their lives. I hand my specie over under this protest; but don't deceive yourselves—half the war-ships in Europe shall follow you within a week."

He turned away, and presently the ruffians with me had lowered money to the value of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds into their launch. The third mate seemed then somewhat cowed by my interference, and though he went round the ship and cried "Bail up!" every time he met a passenger, he did not touch one of them. I remained on the bridge a silent spectator of it all; and when at last we put off again, and the launch was full of the jewels and the money, it seemed that I had passed through a hideous dream.

At the time, I shrank from the ruffians in the boat as from men who were savage fiends and a hundred times assassins; and their brutality of speech and threat fell upon ears that would not hear ; nor did their pretence of doing me violence then and there move me one jot. I maintained a stubborn indifference, my pistol still in my hand, my teeth shut in the defiance of them, until we reached the great craft, and joined Black upon the gallery. There, the man John explained that I had stood between him and his purpose of hanging the skipper of the Bellonic; indeed, with such warmth and anger, that I thought my end had come upon the spot.

"You barking cub," said Black, more quietly than usual, but none the less to be feared for that, "what d'ye mean by interfering with my men and my orders?"

"To save you from yourself," I answered, looking him full in the face; "you've killed children on that ship, if that's news to you!"

He had a spy-glass in his hand, and he raised it as though to strike me; but I continued to look him full in the face, and he remained swaying his body slightly, his arm still above his head. Then, suddenly it dropped at his side, as though paralysed; and he turned away from me.

"Get to your kennel," said he; "and don't leave it till I fetch you."

I was glad to escape, if only for a few moments, from the danger of it; and I went to my cabin in the upper gallery, but not before the angry shouts of the men convinced me that Black had risked much on my behalf for the second time. Even when my own door was locked upon me, such cries as "You're afeared of him!" "Is he going to boss you, skipper!" and other jeers were audible to me; and the uproar lasted for some time, accompanied at last by the sound of blows, and cries as of men whipped. But no one came to me except the negro who brought my meals; and whatever danger there was of a mutiny was averted, as Dr. Osbart told me later in the day, by the appearance of a second passenger ship on the horizon. The report of the single shot, by which we brought her to, shook me in my berth, where I lay thinking of the horrid scenes of the morning; and for some time I scarce dared look from my window, lest they should be repeated. Only after a long silence did I open the port, and see a majestic vessel, not a hundred yards from us, with our launch at her side; and I could make out the forms of our men walking amongst the passengers and robbing them.

The details of this attack Osbart told me with keen relish when he came in to smoke a cigar with me after my dinner.

"We stripped them without killing a man," said he with hilarious satisfaction, "and took fifty thousand. Black's pleased; for, to tell you the truth, there's an ugly spirit aboard amongst the men, and you upset them altogether this morning. I never saw another who could have said what you said to the skipper and have lived; but you mustn't show on deck for a day or two—they'd murder you to pass time; and, as it is, we've had to post a man at your door, or I doubt if you'd save your skin in here."

"You seem to be making a paying cruise," I said sarcastically.

"Yes; and it's funny, for the sea is swarming with war vermin. Don't you feel the pace we're going now? I expect we're showing our heels to one of them, and shall show them a good many times between this and the first of next month, though Karl below is grumbling about the oil again: you want gallons of it with gas-engines. If we don't pick up the tender tomorrow, it's a bad look-out."

He did not come to me again for three days, but I saw from my port early the following morning that the tender was with us; and I concluded regretfully that the difficulty of the oil was overcome. On the second day after the robbery of the Bellonic we stopped a third ship; though I saw nothing of it, as all the fighting was on the starboard side, and my cabin was to port; but there was a sharp fight on the third morning with a Cape-bound vessel, and again towards the afternoon with one of the North-German Lloyd boats homeward bound to Bremerhaven: as before, Osbart, coming to my rooms, delighted to give me the details of the captures; and that night he was unusually frivolous.

"Poor business to-day," he said, throwing himself into a lounge and lighting a cigar; "not an ounce of specie, and no jewellery to mention and there was no killing, so don't put on that face of yours. Why, my dear boy, it was a perfect farce! I, myself, argued for twenty minutes with an old woman, who sat mewing like a cat on her box, and when I got her off it, thinking she had a thousand in diamonds, it was full of baby linen. And I'll tell you a better thing. An old Dutch Jew threw a two-penny-halfpenny bundle into the sea, and then he was so sick with himself that he went in after it. We hooked him out by the breeches with a boat-hook; but I believe he wished himself dead with the bundle. As for 'Four-Eyes,' he took what he thought was five hundred in notes from a card-player, but they're bad, dear boy, bad every one of them."

"You don't seem very depressed about it," said I.

"Don't I?" replied he. "Well, things aren't all they should be. The tender we sent to Liverpool came out in a hurry, as they began to watch her, with a mere bucketful of oil aboard. We must get oil from somewhere or we shall all swing as sure as we're doing twenty-eight knots now. That's what I've come to tell you about to-night. The skipper can't stand it any more, and is going to run to England himself, and see what those mighty smart naval people of yours are doing. He'll take you with him, for it would be as good as signing your death-warrant to leave you here. Don't count upon it, though, for we shan't let you out of our sight, and you've got to swear a pretty big oath not to give us away before you set foot on the tender."

I was overjoyed at his saying, but I feared to let him see it, and asked with nonchalance—"How do you pick up this ship again?"

"Oh, we fix a position," he replied, "and they'll keep it every day at mid-day after ten days. Meanwhile we're running north out of the track of the cruisers."

"I can't quite understand why the skipper takes me with him this time," I remarked, endeavouring to draw him, but he answered—

"No more can I; between ourselves, he's been half daft ever since you came aboard. Do you know that the man's more fond of you, in his way, than of any living thing? I know it. I'm the only man on the ship who does know it, and why it is I can't tell you. I didn't think he was capable of a human feeling."

"It's very good of him to waste so much affection on me," said I, meaning to be derisive, but Osbart checked me.

"Don't laugh," he exclaimed; "you owe your life to him alone."