The Iron Pirate/Chapter 23

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The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter XXIII



It was a week after this conversation that Captain Black, Dr. Osbart, and myself entered the 7.30 train from Ramsgate; leaving in the outer harbour of that still quaint town the screw tender, now disguised, with the man John and eight of the most turbulent among the crew of the nameless ship aboard her. We had come without hindrance through the crowded waters of the Channel; and, styling ourselves a Norwegian whaler in ballast, had gained the difficult harbour without arousing suspicion. At the first, Black had thought to leave me on the steamer; but I, who had an insatiable longing to set foot ashore again, gave him solemn word that I would not seek to quit him, that I would not in any way betray him while the truce lasted, and that I would return, wherever I was, to the tender in the harbour at the end of a week. He concluded the conditions with the simple words, "I'm a big fool, but you can come." The others opened their eyes and tapped their foreheads, for they believed him to be a maniac.

I will not pause to tell you my own thoughts when I set foot on shore again. So great was my amazement at it all that I went some time without collecting myself to see that the invisible hand of God, which had led me all through, was leading me again—even, as I hoped, to the consummation of it. Fearless in this new thought, I sat in the corner of the first-class carriage reserved for us in such a state of exultation and of hope as few men can have known. Before me were the downs of Kent, the open face of an English landscape, the orchard-bound homesteads, the verdurous pasture-land. The hedges were bedecked with their late autumn flowers; the teams and smock-frocked men were going home to the gabled houses, and the warm-lit cottages. There was odour of the harvest yet in the air and the distant chiming of bells from the Gothic tower which rose above the hamlet and the knoll of green. Each little town we passed cast from its windows bright rays upon the tremulous twilight; a great bar of fiery redness cut the lower black of the coming night, showing me in shadow the rising of land towards Chatham and towards London. Yet it was the peace of the scene that came to me with the greatest power; the many tokens of home—above all, the thought "I am in England." I could not help but carry my memory at this time to the last occasion when, with Roderick and Mary, I had come to London in the very hope of getting tidings of this man who now sat with me in a Kent-Coast express. Where were the others then—the girl who had been as a sister to me, and the man as a brother; how far had the fear of my death made sad that childish face which had known such little sadness in its sixteen years of life? It was odd to think that Mary might be then returned to London, and that I, whom perchance she thought dead, was near to her, and yet, in a sense, more cut off from her than in the grave itself. And Black, whom all the Governments were pursuing so lustily, was at my side smoking a great cigar, apparently oblivious to all sense of danger or of hazard. Life has many contrasts, but it never had a stranger than that, I feel sure.

It was after ten o'clock that the ride terminated; and, following Black and Osbart into a closed carriage that awaited us, I was driven from the station. I should say that we drove for fifteen minutes or more, staying at last before a house in a narrow cul-de-sac, where we went upstairs to a suite of rooms reserved for us. After an excellent supper Osbart left us. but Black took me to a double-bedded room, saying that he could not let me out of his sight, and that I must share the sleeping-place with him.

"Boy, if you make one attempt to play me false," said he, "I'll blow your brains out, though you were my own son."

Then he went to bed at once in a morose and foreboding mood, and I followed his example quickly.

On the next morning Black quitted the house at an early hour after breakfast, but he locked the door of the room upon Osbart and myself. "Not," as he said, "because I can't take your word, but because I don't want anyone fooling in here." He returned in the evening, at seven o'clock, and found me as he had left me, reading a later novel of Paul Bourget's; for Osbart had slept all the afternoon, and was always complaining when on shore.

The view from the window upon a balcony of lead and the back windows of near houses was not inviting, and my bond had held me back from all idle thoughts of eluding him. Life in London under such conditions was little preferable to life on the ship, and I had no heart to hear Black's stories of things doing in town; or to examine the many purchases of miniatures and quaint old jewels, which he had laid on the dinner-table.

The day following was Thursday. I shall always remember it, for I regard it as one of the most memorable days in my life. Black went out as usual early in the morning; his object being, as on the preceding day, to find out, if he could, what the Admiralty were doing in view of the robbery of the Bellonic; and Osbart, refusing to get up to breakfast, lay in bed reading the morning papers. We had been left thus about the space of an hour when there came a telegram for the doctor, who read it with a fierce exclamation.

"The Captain wants me urgently," said he, "and there's nothing to do but to leave you here. We are trusting absolutely to you, now; but be quite sure, if you make half a move to betray us, it will be the last you will ever make. I may return here in ten minutes. You must put up with the indignity of being locked in; and, dear boy, don't trouble yourself to look for sympathy in this place, for the man who owns this house is one of us, and, if you call out, you'll get a rap on the head pretty quickly."

He went out jauntily, and I watched him, little thinking that I should never see him again. When he was gone I sat in the great armchair, pulling it to the window, and taking up my book. The sensation of being alone in the centre of London, and unable by my oath to make the slightest attempt to help myself, was most curious; yet with it all I could not but think that I had touched the culminating point, and was near to the ending of it for good or for ill. From the window of my room I could hear the hum of town, the rumbling of 'buses, and the subdued roar of London awake. I could even see people in the houses at the other side of the leads, and it occurred to me, What if I open that casement and call for help? I had given a pledge, it is true; but should a pledge bind under such conditions? The sanctity of an oath is a fine thing for theological subtlety. I had no such subtlety. I knew that the argument in favour of wrong is pleasing to the mental palate; and I put it from me, believing that the breaking of my bond would put me upon the immoral plane of the men to whom it had been given.

I was in the very throes of such a mental struggle when the strange event of the day happened. I chanced to look up from the book I had been trying to read, and I saw a remarkable object upon the leads outside my window. It was the figure of a man with a collapsible neck, a wonderful neck, which expanded appallingly, and again was withdrawn into a narrow and herring-like chest. The fellow might have been thirty years of age; he might have been fifty; there was no hair on his face, no colour in his hollow cheeks; only a nervous movement of the bony fingers, and that awful craning of the collapsible neck. I saw in a moment that he was looking into my room; and presently, when he had given me innumerable nods and winks, he took a knife from his pocket, and opened the catch, stepping into the chamber with the nimble foot of a goat upon a crag-path. Then he drew a chair up to mine, and, making more signs and inexplicable motions of the eye, he slapped me upon the knee, and said—

"In the name of the law!"

This was uttered with such ridiculous levity that I laughed at him.

"Yes," he went on, unmoved, "I take you by surprise; but business, Mr. Mark Strong," and he became very serious, while his neck went out like a yard-measure and he cast a quick glance round the room.

"Business," he said, when he had satisfied himself that we were alone, "and in two words. In the first place I have wired to your friend, Mr. Roderick Stewart, and I expect him from Portsmouth in a couple of hours; in the second, your other friend, the doctor, is under lock and key, on the trifling charge of murder in the Midlands, to begin with. When we have Captain Black, the little party will be complete."

I looked at him, voiceless from the surprise of it. The magical neck was absorbed in the chest again, and he went on—

"I needn't tell you who I am; but there's my card. We have six men in the street outside, and another half dozen watching the leads here. You will be sensible enough to follow my instructions absolutely. Black, we know, leaves the country to-night in his steamer—yesterday at Ramsgate; to-day we do not know where. The probability is that he will come to fetch you at seven o'clock—I have frightened it all out of the people down-stairs if he does, you will go with him. Otherwise, he's pretty sure to send someone for you, and, as you at the moment are our sole link between that unmitigated scoundrel and his arrest, I ask you to risk one step more, and return at any rate as far as the coast, that we may follow him for the last time. You'll do that for us?"

I looked at his card, whereon was the inscription, "Detective-Inspector King, Scotland Yard"; and I said at once—

"I shall not only go to the coast, but to his tender, for I've given my word. What you may do in the meantime is not my affair; but—"

"Yes," he said eagerly, craning his neck again, "’for God's sake keep your eye on me,' that's what you were going to say. Well, we shall do it. We owe it to you that we've got any clue to the man, and you're not likely to lose anything from the Government by what you've done."

"I suppose he's made a sensation?" I asked, in simplicity, and he looked as a man who has yesterday's news.

"Sensation! There's been no such stir since the French war. There isn't another subject talked of in any house in Europe—but, read that; and whatever you do, don't make a sign until we give you the cue. It's not safe for me to stay here; he may return any minute. I wish you luck of it; and it's ten thousand in my pocket, any way!"

Detective-Inspector King went as he had come, craning his neck and passing noiselessly over the leads; but he left me a newspaper, wherein there was column after column concerning the robbery of the Bellonic, and a dish worthy of all journalistic sensation-mongering. I read this with avidity; with sharp appetite for the extraordinary hope which had come so curiously into my life. At last, the police were on the trail of Captain Black; yet I saw at once that, lacking my help, he would elude them. It was strange that, after all, I, who had seemed to fail so hopelessly in my enterprise, should at last bring this giant in crime to justice. For, if he had not burdened himself with me, he would then have left in the tender, and, once on the nameless ship, would have defied the world. But now they watched him; and from the solitude of my imprisonment I seemed to be lifted in a moment to a joyous state of expectation and excitement.

It was then about three o'clock in the afternoon. I heard the hour from a neighbouring church; and I recalled the detective's words, "I have telegraphed for your friend, Roderick." If his anticipations were correct, I should see the one man I had the greatest love for within an hour. Yet, on recollection, I would have had it otherwise. If once I looked on Mary's face again, I knew that the task would be almost beyond my strength; and as it happened, it was well I had not this burden to bear in the last hours of the great struggle. For four o'clock struck, and five, and no one came; and it was half-past six when at last a man unlocked the door of my room and entered. He was one of Black's negroes.

"Sar will come quick," said he, "and leave his luggage. The master waits."

He gave me no time for any explanations, but took me by the arm, and, passing from the house by a back door, he went some way down a narrow street, and turned into Piccadilly. There a cab waited for us, and we drove away, but not before one, who stood on the pavement, had made a slight signal to me, and called another cab.

In him I recognised Detective-Inspector King, and I knew that we were followed.