The Iron Pirate/Chapter 3

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The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter III



A warming glare of the fuller sun upon my eyes, the cracking of whips, the shouting of fierce-lunged coachmen, the hum of moving morning life in the city, stirred me from a deep sleep as the clocks struck ten. I sat up in bed, uncertain in the effort of wit-gathering if night had not given me a dream rather than an experience, a chance play of the brain's imagining, and not a living knowledge of true scenes and strange men. For in this mood does nature often play with us, tricking us to fine thoughts as we lie dreaming, or creating such shows of life as we slumber, that in our first moments of wakefulness we do not detect the cheat or reckon with the phantoms. I knew not for some while, as I lay back listening to the hum of busy Paris, if the Perfect Fool had or had not told me anything, if we had gone together to a house near the Rue Joubert, or if we had remained in the hotel, if he had begged of me some favour, or if I had dreamed it. All was but a confused mind-picture, changing as a kaleidoscope, blurred, shadowy. It might have remained so long, had I not, looking about the room, become aware that a letter, neatly folded, lay on the small table at my bedside. It was the letter which brought the consciousness of reality; and in that moment I knew that I had not dreamed but lived the curious events of the night. But these are the words which Martin Hall wrote:—

"Hôtel Scribe. Seven a.m.—I leave in ten minutes, and write you here my last word. We shall sail from Dieppe at midnight. Do not forget to cross to Plymouth if you have any friendship for me. I look to you alone.—Martin Hall."

He had left Paris then, and set out upon his great risk. The man's awe-inspiring courage, his immense self-reliance, his deep purpose, were marked strongly in those few simple words, and I had never felt so great an admiration for him. He looked to me alone, and assuredly he should not look in vain. I would follow him to Plymouth, losing no moment in the act; and I resolved then to go farther if the need should be, and to search for him in every land and on every sea, for he was a brave man whose like I had not often known.

I dressed in haste with this intention, and went to déjeûner in our private room below. Roderick was there, sleepy over his bottle of bad Bordeaux, and Mary, who insisted on taking an English breakfast, was in the height of a dissertation on Parisian tea.

"Did you ever see anything so feeble?" she said, being fond of Roderick's speech mannerisms and often mimicking them. "Isn't it pretty awful?" and she poured some from her spoon.

"'Pretty awful' is not the expression for a polite young woman," replied Roderick, with a severe yawn; "anyone who comes to Paris for tea deserves what he gets."

"Yes, and what he gets 'takes the biscuit.'"


"Well, you always say, 'takes the biscuit'; why shouldn't I?"

"Because, my child, because," said Roderick, slowly and paternally, "because—why, here's Mark. Hallo! you're a pretty fellow; I hope you enjoyed yourself last night."

"Exceedingly, thanks; in fact, I may say that I had a most delightful evening with men who suited me to the—tea—thank you, Mary! I'll take a cup—and now tell me, what has he bought you?"

I thought that a judicious policy of dissimulation was the wise course at that time, for I had not then determined to share my secret even with Roderick, as, indeed, by my word I was bound not to do until Hall should so wish. In this intent I hid all my serious mood, and continued the pleasant chatter.

Mary had soon poured out a cup of the decoction which Frenchmen call tea, an aqueous product, the fluid of chopped hay long stewed in tepid water, and then she answered—

"Let me see, now, what did Roderick buy me? Oh, yes! I remember, he bought me a meerschaum pipe and a walking-stick!"

"A what?" I gasped.

"A meerschaum pipe, and a walking-stick with a little man to hold matches on the top of it."

Roderick looked guilty, and admitted it.

"You see," he said in apology, "they sold only those things at the first place we came to, and you don't expect a fellow to walk in Paris, do you? Now, when I've rested after breakfast, I suggest that we all make up our minds for a long stroll, and get to the Palais Royal."

"Well, that's about three hundred yards from here, isn't it? Are you quite sure you're equal to it?"

He looked at me reproachfully.

"You don't want a man to kill himself on his holiday, do you? You're fatally energetic. Now, I believe that the science of life is rest, the calm survey of great problems from the depths of an armchair. It's astonishing how easy things are if you take them that way; never let anything agitate you—I never do."

"No, he don't, does he, Mary? But about this excursion to the Palais Royal; I'm afraid you'll have to go alone, for I have just had a letter which calls me back to the yacht. It's awfully unfortunate, but I must go, although I will return here in a week, if possible, and pick you up; otherwise, you will hear of my movements as soon as I know them myself."

Somewhat to my astonishment, they both looked at me, saying nothing, but evidently very much surprised. Mary's big eyes were wide open with amazement, but Roderick had a more serious look on his face. He did not question me, he did not say a word, but I felt his thought—"You hold something back"—and the mute reproach was keen. Perhaps some explanation would then have been demanded had not another interruption broken the unwelcome silence. One of the servants of the hotel entered to tell me that a man who wished to speak with me was waiting outside, and asked if I would see him there or in the privacy of our room. As I could not recall that anyone in Paris had any business with me, I said, "Send the man here"; and presently he entered, when to my intense surprise I found him to be no other than one of the ruffians—the one called "Four-Eyes" by the Captain of the company I had met on the previous evening. Not that he seemed in any way abashed at the meeting—he walked into the room with a seaman's lurch, and steadied himself only when he saw Mary. Then he rang an imaginary bell-rope on his forehead, and "hitched" himself together, as sailors say, looking for all the world like some great dog that has entered a house where dogs are forbidden. His first words were somewhat unexpected—

"Oi was priest's boy in Tipperary, bedad." said he, and then he looked round as if that information should put him on good terms with us.

"Will you sit down, please?" was my request as he stood fingering his hat, and looking at Mary as though he had seen a vision, "and permit me to ask what the fact of your serving a priest in Ireland has to do with your presence here now?"

"That brings us to the point av it, and thanking yer honor, it's meself that ain't aisy on them land-craft which don't carry me cargo on an even keel at all, so I'll be standin', with no offence to the Missy, sure, an' gettin' to the writin' which is fur yer honor's ear alone as me instruckthshuns goes."

He rang the bell-rope over his right eye again, and gave me a letter, well written on good paper. I watched him as I read it, and saw that in a power of eye that was astounding, he had fixed one orb upon Mary and one upon the ceiling, and that the two objects shared his gaze, while his body swayed as though he was unaccustomed to balance himself upon a fair floor. But I read his letter, and write it for you here—

"Captain Black presents his compliments to Mr. Mark Strong, whom he had the pleasure of receiving last night, and regrets the reception which was offered to him. Captain Black hopes that it will be his privilege to receive Mr. Strong on his yacht La France, now lying over against the American vessel Portland, in Dieppe harbour, at 11 to-night, and to extend to him hospitality worthy of him and his host."

Now, that was a curious thing indeed. Not only did it appear that my pretence of being Hall's partner in trade was completely unmasked by this man of the Rue Joubert; but he had my name—and, by his tone in writing, it was clear that he knew my position, and the fact that I was no trader at all. Whether such knowledge was good for me, I could not then say; but I made up my mind to act with cunning, and to shield Hall in so far as was possible.

"Did your master tell you to wait for any answer?" I asked suddenly, as the seaman brought his right eye from the direction of the ceiling and fixed it upon me; and he said—

"Is it for the likes of me to be advisin' yer honor? 'Sure,' says he, 'if the gentleman has the moind to wroite he'll wroite, if he has the moind to come aboard me—meanin' his yacht—he'll come aboard; and we'll be swimming in liquor together as gents should. And if so be as the gentleman' (which is yer honor), says he, 'will condescend to wipe his fate on me cabin shates, let him be aboard at Dieppe afore seven bells,' says he, 'and we'll shame the ould divil with a keg, and heave at daybreak'—which is yer honor's pleasure, or otherwise, as it's me juty to larn!"

It needed no very clever penetration on my part to read danger in every line of this invitation—not only danger to myself, who had been dragged by the heels into the business, but danger to Hall, whose disguise could scarce be preserved when mine was unmasked. And yet he had left Paris, and even then, perhaps, was in the power of the man Black and his crew! What I could do to help him, I could not think; but I determined if possible to glean something from the palpably cunning rogue who had come on the errand.

"I'll give you the answer to this in a minute," said I; "meanwhile, have a little whisky? A seaman like yourself doesn't thrive on cold water, does he?"

"Which is philosophy, yer honor—for could wather never warmed any man—yet me respects to the young lady"—here he looked deep into his glass, adding slowly, and as if there was credit to him in the recollection, "Oi was priest's boy in Tipperary, bedad"—and he drank the half of a stiff glass at a draught.

"Do you find this good weather in the Channel?" I inquired suddenly, looking hard at him over the table.

He made circles with his glass, and turned his eyes upon Mary, before he answered; and when he did, his voice died away like the fall of a gale which is tired. "Noice weather, did ye say—by the houly saints, it depends."

"On what?" I asked, driving the question home.

"On yer company," said he, returning my gaze, "and yer sowl."

"That's curious!"

"Yes, if ye have one to lose, and put anny price on it."

His meaning was too clear.

"Tell your master, with my compliments," I responded, "that I will come another time—I have business in Paris to-day!"

He still looked at me earnestly, and when he spoke again his voice had a fatherly ring. "If I make bold, it's yer honor's forgiveness I ask—but, if it was me that was in Paris I'd stay there," and putting his glass down quickly, he rolled to the door, fingered his hat there for one moment, put it on awry, and with the oft-repeated statement, "Oi was priest's boy in Tipperary, bedad," he swayed out of the room.

When he was gone, the others, who had not spoken, turned to me, their eyes asking for an explanation.

"One of Hall's friends," I said, trying to look unconcerned, "the mate on the yacht La France—the vessel he joins to-day."

Roderick tapped the table with his fingers; Mary was very white, I thought.

"He knows a queer company," I added, with a grim attempt at jocularity, "they're almost as rough as he is."

"Do you still mean to sail to-night?" asked Roderick.

"I must; I have made a promise to reach Plymouth without a moment's delay."

"Then I sail with you," said he, being very wide-awake.

"Oh, but you can't leave Paris; you promised Mary!"

"Yes, and I release him at once," interrupted Mary, the colour coming and going in her pretty cheeks. "I shall sail from Calais to-night with you and Roderick."

"It's very kind of you—but—you see——"

"That we mean to come," added Roderick quickly. "Go and pack your things, Mary; I have something to say to Mark."

We were alone, he and I, but there was between us the first shadow that had come upon our friendship.

"Well," said he, "how much am I to know?"

"What you choose to learn, and as much as your eyes teach you—it's a promise, and I've given my word on it."

"I was sure of it. But I don't like it, all the same—I distrust that fool, who seems to me a perfect madman. He'll drag you into some mess, if you'll let him. I suppose there's no danger yet, or you wouldn't let Mary come!"

"There can be no risk now, be quite sure of that—we are going for a three days' cruise in the Channel, that is all."

"All you care to tell me—well, I can't ask more; what time do you start?"

"By the club train. I have two hours' work to do yet, but I will meet you at the station, if you'll bring my bag——"

"Of course and I can rest for an hour. That always does me good in the morning."

I left him so, being myself harassed by many thoughts. The talk with Black's man did not leave me any longer in doubt that Hall had gone to great risk in setting out with the ruffian's crew; and I resolved that if by any chance it could be done, I would yet call him back to Paris. For this I went at once to the office of the Police, and laid as much of the case before one of the heads as I thought needful to my purpose. He laughed at me; the yacht La France was known to him as the property of an eccentric American millionaire, and he could not conceive that anyone might be in danger aboard her. As there was no hope from him, I took a fiacre and drove to the Embassy, where one of the clerks heard my whole story; and while inwardly laughing at my fears, as I could see, promised to telegraph to a friend in Calais, and get my message delivered.

I had done all in my power, and I returned to the Hôtel Scribe; but the others had left for the station. Thither I followed them, instructing a servant to come to me at the Gare du Nord if any telegram should be sent; and so reached the train, and the saloon. It was not, however, until the very moment of our departure that a messenger raced to our carriage, and thrust a paper at me; and then I knew that my warning had come too late. The paper said: "La France has sailed, and your friend with her."