The Iron Pirate/Chapter 24

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The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter XXIV



We drove rapidly, passing the Criterion, so into the Strand, and along the Thames Embankment. Thence, we went through Queen Victoria Street, past the Mansion House, and to Fenchurch Street Station, where we took a train for Tilbury.

The journey was accomplished in something under an hour; and when we alighted and got upon the bank of the river, I saw a steam-launch with the man John in the bows of her. I thought it strange that there was no sign of any watchers at this place; but I entered the launch without a word, and we started immediately, going at a great pace towards Sheerness; and reached the Nore after some buffet with the seas in the open. At this point we sighted the tender, and went aboard her, while they hauled up the launch, when we made full speed towards the North Foreland.

It was then quite dark, with a stiff breeze blowing right abaft. The night, a moonless and very black one, favoured us altogether for the run which, I did not doubt, we had to make against some Government vessel that would follow us. But I found to my surprise that the men on the ship knew nothing of the dangerous position in which they were, and worked with a calm disregard to the blackness of the night, and to the hazard of the moment. Black I did not meet, for they put me into a cabin aft, of which I was the sole occupant; and, being ordered by the man John, who was half-drunk and very threatening, to get below, I turned in shortly after coming aboard, and lay down to reckon with the strange probabilities of the hour.

One thing was very evident. Black had made a colossal mistake, from his point of view, in setting foot in England; but the crowning blunder of his life was that fatal act of folly by which he had sought to shield me from the men. How long the Government had been watching for him, or for tidings of me, I could not tell, but it must have been since Roderick had reached New York, and had told all he knew of the ship of mystery and of her owner.

Now the object of letting Black reach his vessel again was as clear as daylight; it was not so much the man as his ship which they wished to take, and, by following him to the Atlantic, they were giving him rope to hang himself.

But were we followed? I had seen nothing to lead me to that conclusion as I came down the Thames; and now, favoured by an intensely dark night, we promised, if nothing should intervene, to gain the Atlantic in two days, and to be aboard that strange citadel which was our stronghold against the nations.

This thought troubled me very much, so much that sleep was out of the question, and I went above again, undeterred by the probability of a difference with the men. The night was somewhat clearer when I reached the poop, and I could make out the fine flood of light that came from the North Foreland; while it was evident that we had taken the outer passage and should pass on the French side of the Goodwins. There were no men aft as I took my stand by the second wheel, but I heard the bawl of the watch forward, and a man who wore oilskins was pacing the bridge. I was able, therefore, to get a good notion of all things about us; and when the moon showed later, the Channel seemed full of ships. Away towards the Foreland I made out a fleet of French luggers standing in close to shore; there were two or three colliers returning to the Thames on our port-bow, and some English smacks lying-to right ahead of us, the moon showing them brightly in a lake of light, their men busy at the nets, or huddled at the tiller as the smacks rolled to a choppy sea. But there was no sign of any war-ship pursuing; no indication whatever that the tender, then steaming at thirteen knots towards Dover, was watched or observed by any living being.

I had just satisfied myself of this, and had become depressed accordingly, when I heard a step behind me. I turned round quickly, to find that the man John had come up to the poop. He was in his oilskins, for there was some sea shipped for'ard, and he greeted me with a savage ferocity which was meant to be pleasant.

"Keeping a watch on your own hook, my fine gentleman, eh?" said he; "and after my orders for you to be abed—that's pretty discipline, I reckon."

I made no sort of answer, but turned my back on him, and continued to watch the twinkling lights of Deal. This appeared to irritate him, for he put his hand on my shoulder roughly, and hissed savagely—

"Oh, I guess; you've got your fine coat, ain't you, and your pretty airs! Darn me if I don't take you down a peg, skipper or no skipper!"

His great hand was almost on my throat, and he shook me with fearful grip, so that I hit him with my right hand just below his heart, and bent him double like a reed. His terrible gasps for breath were so alarming that I thought at first he would never recover his wind; but when he did he drew his knife, and raised his arm to take aim at my throat. It is probable that my life had been ended there and then had not another watched the scene and suddenly clutched the extended wrist. Captain Black had come to us with noiseless step; and he gave me then my first knowledge of his prodigious physical strength, for he held John's arm as in a vice, and, giving the ruffian's wrist a peculiar turn, he sent the knife flying in the air, and it stuck quivering in the deck twenty feet from where we stood.

"You long-jawed bully, what d'ye mean by that?" cried the skipper, white with anger; and then he twisted the fellow's arm until I thought he would have broken it. Nor did he let him go until he had kicked him the length of the poop, and tumbled him, torn and bleeding, upon the main hatch below.

"Lay your finger on the boy again, and I'll give you six dozen,", he said quietly; and then he came to my side, and he stood for a long while leaning on the bulwarks and gazing over towards the receding shore. He spoke to me at last, but in a more gentle tone than I had ever heard from him—indeed, there was almost kindliness in his voice.

"Do you make out anything of a big ship yonder?" he asked, pointing almost abaft.

"I see nothing but the hull of a collier?" said I.

"Then it's my sight that's plaguing me again," and he continued to look as though he had some great purpose in satisfying himself, while from the fo'castle there came shouts of laughter and singing. When he heard this he spoke again, but almost to himself.

"Shout away, you scum," he muttered; "shout while you can. It'll be a different tune to-morrow."

I was leaning then on the bulwarks almost at his side, and presently he addressed himself directly to me, and earnestly.

"We had a narrow shave to-night. It's put me out to leave the doctor, for he was the best of them—one of the only men that I could reckon on. If it hadn't been for him and the Irishman, this lot would have swung long ago—maybe they'll swing now. The hounds have got the scent; and, God knows, they will follow it! It's lucky for some of them that I had twenty pairs of eyes open for me in London, and knew the Government's game in time to get this tender out of Ramsgate; but you mark me, boy, there's trouble coming, and thick. I've gone out without a gallon of oil again, and by-and-by we're going to run for our necks, every man of us."

"What makes you think that?" I asked.

"What makes me think that? why, my senses. They'll follow us from some port here, as sure as the wind's rising; maybe they'll let us get aboard the ship, and then that'll be the beginning of it. But if we only hold out with the oil, then let 'em take care of themselves——"

"And if not?"

He shrugged his shoulders and was silent; but anon he asked again what I thought of a long, rakish-looking steamer lying some miles away on the starboard quarter, and when I had satisfied him he said—

"Come downstairs and get some wine into you, boy"; and I went below to his small and not very elegant cabin, where he put champagne and glasses on the table.

"Let's drink against the thirst we'll have to-morrow," cried he, getting quite jovial, and pouring the Pommery down his throat as though it had been beer. "This is an occasion such as we shan't often know—the old ship against Europe, and one man against the lot of them! Why, lad, if it wasn't for the thought of the oil, I'd get up and dance. The lubbers could no more lay a finger on me, given fair fight, than they could touch the moon. You see, it's just the oil that Karl's feared all along; drive by gas, and you want twenty times the grease in your cylinders that you'll ever need in a steam-ship. If there hadn't been that break-up north, we'd never have been in this hole; but that's one of the risks of a game like this, and I'll play my hand out."

He went on to talk of many other things, but as he did not speak of his own past, or of the ship, I began to nod with sleep; and presently I found him covering me up with a rug and turning out the lamp. I was dead worn-out then, and must have slept twelve hours at the least, for it was afternoon when I awoke, and the sun streamed in through the skylight upon a table whereon dinner was set. But Black was not in the cabin, and I went above to him on the bridge, which he paced with a restless step and a betraying haste. There was no land then to be seen; but the clear play of sparkling waves shone away to the horizon over a tumbling sea, upon which were a few ships. Upon one of these he constantly turned his glass; she was a long screw steamer, showing two funnels and three masts, away some miles on the port quarter, and I saw at once that from this ship the Captain got all his fear.

"Do you make her out?" he said in a big whisper directly I came up to him, and then, hushing me, he added—"Keep your tongue still, and say nothing. That's a British cruiser in passenger paint. She's come out from Southampton."

This was about the very best bit of news he could have given me; but I did not let him see that I thought so, for I had eyes only for the ship in our wake. She was a long boat of the Northumberland class; but there was nothing whatever about her to betray her disguise, since she had all the look of an Orient, or a P. and O. liner, and was too far away from us to permit a reading of her flag. The men evidently had not seen her, or took no notice of her if they had; but John upon the bridge followed the movements of Black with curiosity, and once or twice turned his own glass on the black hull just visible above the horizon. He had forgotten the episode of the previous night—when, undoubtedly, he was full of drink—and was almost as troubled as the skipper.

"What's he up to?" he asked me in a whisper, as Black kept turning his glass towards the hull of the other ship. "Did he get any liquor in him last night? I never saw him this way before."

And again, after a pause—

"Have you got any eyes for that ship? What's he fixing her like that for? She's no more than an Orient boat by her jib, and if she lays on her course we'll make it warm for her outside."

Black heard his last words, and turned round upon him savagely—

"Yes," he said, "it'll be warm enough out there for them as lives as well as for the dead. Ring down for more firing; what's the lubber at?—he's not giving her thirteen knots."

By-and-by all the crew began to observe Black's anxiety and to crowd to the starboard side; but he told them nothing, although he never left the bridge, and cursed fiercely whenever the speed of the tender slacked at all. It was somewhat perplexing to me to observe that, while the great ship was undoubtedly following us, she did not gain a yard upon us. During the whole of that long afternoon, and through the watches of that early night, when I remained upon the bridge with Black, we kept our relative distances; but, do all we could, the other would not be shaken off; and when, after a few hours' sleep, I came on deck at the dawn of the second day, she was still on our quarter, following like the vulture follows the living man whose hours are numbered.

"There's no humbug about her game," cried Black, whose face was lined with the furrows of anxiety and pale with long watching; "she means to take us on the open sea, and she's welcome to the course. If I don't riddle her like a sieve, stretch me!"

This strange pursuit lasted three days and into the third night; when I was awakened from a snatch of sleep by the firing of a gun above my head. I dressed hurriedly and got on deck, where my eyes were almost blinded by a great volume of light which spread over the sea from a point some two miles away on our starboard bow. We had been in the Atlantic then for twenty-four hours, and I did not doubt for a moment that we had reached the nameless ship. Had there been any uncertainty, the wild joy of the men would have banished it. From windlass to wheel our decks presented a scene of wild excitement. Above all the shouting, the raucous laughter, and the threats against the cruiser—whose lights showed then less than a mile away—I heard the voice of Black, singing: "Hands, stand by to lower boats!" and the yelping of "Roaring John." It seemed at that moment that we should gain the impregnable citadel without suffering one shot, and while I should have been happier if the attack had been upon the tender, and my chances of gaining the Government ship thus more sure, I was in a measure carried away by the excitement of the position, and I verily believe that I cheered with the others.

At that moment the' cruiser showed her teeth. Suddenly there was a rush of flame from her bows, and a shell hissed above us—the first sign of her attempt to stop us joining our own ship. The poor shooting excited only the derision of the men, who set up their wild "halloas!" at it; and again, when a second shot struck the aft mast and shivered it, they were provoked to boisterous merriment. But we could make no reply, and those on the nameless ship could not fire, for we lay right between them and the other.

"Hands, lower boats!" yelled Black at this moment, and then, leaving no more than ten or fifteen men in the steamer, he led the way to the launch.

We were now no more than a quarter of a mile from safety, but the run was full of peril, and, as the launch stood out, the nameless ship of a sudden shut off her light, if possible to shield us in the dark. But the pursuer instantly flooded us with her own arc, and, following it with quick shots, she hit the jolly-boat at the third. Of the eight men there, only two rose when the hull had disappeared.

"Fire away, by thunder!" cried Black, shaking his fist, and mad with passion; "and get your hands in: you'll want all the bark you've got just now."

But we had hauled the men aboard as he spoke, and, though two shells foamed in the sea and wetted us to the skin in the passage, we were at the ladder of the nameless ship without other harm, and with fierce shouts the men gained the decks.

For them it was a glorious moment. They had weathered the perils of a city, and stood where they could best face the crisis of the pursuit. It was a spectacle to move the most stolid apathy: the sight of a couple of hundred demoniacal figures lighted by the great white wave of light from the enemy's ship, their faces upturned as they waited Black's orders, their hands flourishing knives and cutlasses, their hunger for the contest betrayed in every gesture. I stood upon the gallery high above the seas, and looked down upon the motley company, or along the space of the hazy arc to the other vessel, and I asked myself again and again, What if we shall win—what if this desperate adventurer shall again outwit those who have coped with him, and hold his mastery of the sea?

Nor did it seem so improbable that he would. Those upon the Government cruiser betrayed their uneasiness every moment by casting the beams of their searchlight on every point of the horizon; but their signal was unanswered, no assuring rays shone out in the distant blackness of the night. We two were alone upon the Atlantic, there to fight the duel of the nations; and I confess that in the unparalleled excitement of the moment I rejoiced that it was so; I hoped, even, that the nameless ship would carry the hour, so much had she fascinated me, so astounding were her achievements.

This truly was the critical moment in Black's career. He stepped on the bridge to find Karl wringing his hands, and "Four-Eyes" was no less uneasy.

"Faith, sorr," said he, as soon as we had come aboard, "it's bad times intoirely if ye've no oil—we've been working two engines for three days, and we'll be sore put to ut to kape the third going, if ye can't mend us."

Karl emphasised the words with stamps and tears and frantic gesticulation—not lost upon Black, who advanced to the front of the bridge. and called for silence in a voice that would have split a berg. A deathlike stillness succeeded; you could hear the wash of the waves and the moaning of the wind: two hundred upturned faces shone ghastly white under the spreading beams which the cruiser's lantern cast upon them.

"Boys," cried Black, "yonder's a Government ship. You know me, that I don't run after war-scum every day, for that's not my business. But we're short of oil, and the cylinders are heating. If we don't get it in twenty-four hours, there'll be devil's work, and we shan't do it. Boys, it's swing or take that ship and the oil aboard her—which'll you have?"

There was no doubt about their answer—there could be none. In one way it was almost as if the cruiser herself gave reply, for there was the roar of a great gun when Black had finished speaking, and a shot hissed from above our poop and burst in the seas beyond us. A mighty shout followed, but was converted instantly into a cry of warning, as the forward hands sang out—

"Look out aft—the torpedo!" and other hands took up the cry, yelling "The torpedo! The torpedo!"

The tiny line of foam was just visible for a second in the way of the light; but, the moment the cruiser had shot it from her tube, she extinguished her arc, leaving us to light the waters with our own. There was no difficulty whatever in following the line of the deadly message, and for a moment every heart, I doubt not, almost stood still.

"Full speed astern!" roared Black, forgetting himself, but instantly ringing the bell, and the nameless ship moved backwards, faster and yet faster. But the black death-bearer followed her, as a shark follows a death-ship; we seemed even to have backed into its course—it came on as though to strike us full amidships.

The excitement was almost more than I could bear; I turned away, waiting for the tremendous concussion; I heard awful curses from the men, the cowardly shouting of "Roaring John," the blasphemies of "Dick the Ranter." I knew that Black alone was calm; and at the last I fixed my eyes upon him when the head of the torpedo's foam was not thirty yards away from us. In that supreme moment the power of the man rose to a great height. He grasped the situation with the calmness of one thinking in bed; and waiting motionless for some seconds, which were seconds almost of agony to the rest of us, he cried of a sudden—

"Hard a-starboard!" and the helm went over with a run.

The movement was altogether superb. The great ship swung round with a majestic sweep, and as we waited breathlessly, the torpedo passed right under our bow, missing the ram by a hair’s-breadth. The reaction was nigh intolerable; the men waited for some seconds silent as the voiceless; then their cheers rang away over the seas in a great volume of sound, which must have re-echoed down in the caverns of the Atlantic.

"You, Dick," ordered Black, "return the lubbers that, or I'll whip you;" and Dick, who had got his wits back, replied—

"Skipper, if I dinna dive into their internals, gie me sax dozen."

"Hands to quarters," continued the skipper; "let no man show himself till I call, then him as doesn't fight for all he's worth, let him prepare to swing."

With this there fell a great busyness, the men going, some to the turrets, some to the magazines below.

Black had not noticed me during the episode of the torpedo, but he turned round now, and, seeing that I stood near him, he beckoned me into the conning-tower with him. It was a chamber lined with steel with a small glass for the look-out, and electric knobs which allowed communication with the engine-rooms, the wheelthe turrets, and the magazines. From that pinnacle of metal you could navigate the ship, and there Black fought the battle of that night and of the days following. And as I stood at his side I learned from his running comments much of the course of the fight.

"Boy," he said, "what I'm worth I'm going to show this night; and, as your eyes are younger than mine, I'm going to borrow the loan of them. That hen-coop yonder with the Government flag on her isn't far from company, you may be pretty sure. She's help near, and from that help I'm going to cut her off, and quick. Take your stand here by me, and watch the seas while I manage the light."

He had his hand upon a little tap which enabled him to throw the arc upon every point of the horizon, and, as the light travelled, he asked me—

"Do you make out anything? Is there more of 'em at her heels?"

"Nothing that I can see; she seems alone."

"Then God help her, though we're only running two engines. Now watch the shot."

The focus was then upon the cruiser, whose own light kept playing upon the horizon as though searching for a convoy she awaited. But when the conning-tower shook with the thunder of our fore gun, the other reeled, and her arc light went out with a great flash.

"That's a hit," I exclaimed with ridiculous want of control; "I believe you've hit her abaft the funnel. Yes, I can see the list on her; you've hit her clean."

His face never moved at the intelligence, but he rang the order "Hard to port!" and we weathered round, showing our aft turret to the enemy, whose bark for the moment was stilled.

"Watch again," said Black, as he rang to the turret chamber, and the aft gun roared; but I could not see that the shot struck, and I told him so.

"I'll give that parson a dozen if he does that again," he remarked, unmoved by the crash of a shot which struck us right under our turret. Then he took a cigar and spoke between his teeth when he had lighted it—

"There's twelve inches of steel there," he said with a laugh; "let 'em knock on it and welcome. Don't you smoke?—I always do; it keeps my head clear."

Two more shots, one right above the engine-room and the second at the ram, answered his levity.

"Come on, you devils!" he blurted out with glee. "Come in and dance, by thunder, while I play ye the tune! Now hearken to it."

We came up again, and fired at the cruiser, hitting her right under the funnel, and a second time near her fore gun, so that you could see her reel and shiver even under the rays of the search-light. Nor did she answer our firing, but rolled to the swell apparently out of action. All this I could see, and I answered the skipper's hurried and anxious questions as every fresh movement was visible.

"What's she doing, eh?" he asked. "Did that stop her? Is she coaling up, or does she signal? Lord, if I had the oil I'd sweep the sea from New York to Queenstown. What is it, boy?—why don't you answer me?"

"You don't give me time; but I can see now. She's coaling up, and there are men forward working with oars."

"Do you say that?" he said, pushing me away from the glass. "Do you say that she's coaling? By thunder, you're right! We'll have her oil yet; and then let them as come after me look to themselves!"

As he said the last word he stepped from the conning-tower on to the bridge, and I followed him.

There, at the distance of a third of a mile away on the starboard bow, was the crippled cruiser, helpless by her look; and our light fell full upon her, showing men in great activity upon her decks, and others running forward as though there were danger also in the fo'castle. The night around us was very dark, and the huge, heaving swell shone black as pitch in mountains and cavities below the gallery. We two were alone there upon the ocean, finishing that terrible duel—if, indeed, the end had not come, as I thought from the silence of the other.

"Skipper, are you going aboard her now?" asked the man "Roaring John," who came to us on the bridge. "She's done by her looks, and you'll get no oil if ye delay. Karl there, he ain't as comfortable as if he were in his bed."

The little German was very far from it. He was almost desperate when minute by minute his stock of oil grew less; and he ran from one to the other, as though we had grease in our pockets, and could give it to him.

Black took due notice, but did not lose his calm. His cigar was now glowing red, and he took it often from his mouth, looking at the lighted end of it as a man does who is thinking quickly.

"You're quite sure she's done, John?" he asked, turning to the big man.

"She's done, I guess, or why don't she spit? If she's got another kick in her, send me to the devil!"

The words had scarce left his lips when the cruiser's aft guns thundered out almost together, and one shell passed through the very centre of our group. It cut the man John in half as he might have been cut by a sword, and his blood and flesh splashed us, while the other half of him stood up like a bust upon the deck, and during one horrible moment his arms moved wildly, and there was a horrid quivering of the muscles of his face. The second shot struck the roof of the turret obliquely, and glanced from it into the sea. The destruction seemed to move Black no more than a rain shower. He simply cried: "All hands to cover; I'm going to give 'em a taste of the machine-guns;" and we re-entered the conning-tower. Then, as we began to move again, I swept the horizon with our light; but this time, far away over the black waste of water, the signal was answered.

"Number two! " said Black quite calmly, when I told him, "and this time a battle-ship. Well, boy, if we don't take that oil yonder in ten minutes you may say your prayers."