The Iron Pirate/Chapter 8

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The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter VIII



We had left the Scilly Light two days; the Celsis steamed steadily on the great broad of the Atlantic. Night had fallen, and Mary had gone below, leaving me with Roderick upon the aft-deck, watching the veriest rim of a moon which gave no pretence of a picture, no ornament to the deck.

It was Paolo's watch; and the skipper had turned in, so that, save for the occasional ringing of a bell, or a call from the look-out, no sound but the whirring of the screw and the surge of the swell fell upon our ear. A night for dreamy thoughts of home, of kinsfolk, of the more tender things of life; but for us a night for the talk of that great "might be" which was then so powerful a source of speculation for both of us. And we were eager to talk, eager then as ever since the beginning of it all; eager, above all things for the moment, to know when we should next hear of Captain Black or of the nameless ship.

"I shouldn't wonder," said Roderick, after twenty surmises of the sort, "if we heard something of her as we cross. I have given York orders to keep well in the track of steamers; and if your friend Hall be right, that is just where the unknown ship will keep. I would give a thousand pounds to know the story of the man Black. What can he be? Is he mad? Is it possible that a man could commit piracy, to-day, in the Atlantic, where is the traffic of the world; where, if the Powers once learnt of it, they could hunt him down in a day? And yet, put into plain English, that is the tale your friend tells."

"It is; I have never doubted that from the first. Captain Black is either the most original villain living, or the whole story is a silly dream—besides, we have yet to learn if he is the commander of the nameless ship: we have also to learn if the nameless ship is not a myth. Time alone will tell, and our wits."

"If they are not knocked out of us in the attempt, for, see you, Mark, a man with a hole in his head is a precious poor person, and, of course, you are prepared either way, success or the other thing."

"For either; but I trust one of us may come out of it, for Mary's sake."

The thought made him very silent, and presently he turned in. I remained above for half an hour, gazing over the great sweep of the Atlantic. Paolo was on the bridge, as I have said, and, in accordance with my design, I took all opportunity of watching him. That night some inexplicable impulse held me awake when all others slept. I made pretence, first of all, to go to my cabin; and bawled a good-night to the mate as I went; but it was only to put on felt slippers and to get a warm coat, and, with these secured, I made my way stealthily amidships; and took a stand aft of the skipper's cabin, where I could pry, yet not be seen. Not that I got much for my pains; but I heard Paolo address several of the men forward, and it seemed to me that his mode of speech was not quite that which should be between officer and seaman. Perchance he was guilty of nothing more than common affability; but yet I would rather have had him gruff and meddlesome than free and intimate.

It chanced that in this watch the new men were on deck, my old crew being in the port watch, or I would have questioned them there and then. As it was, I let the matter go, and smoked; and, indeed, when another bell had struck, I was more than rewarded for my pains. Suddenly, on the far horizon over the starboard bow, I saw the flare of a blue light, bright over the water; and showing as it flared, the dark hull of a great ship. The light was unmistakably, I thought, the signal of an oceangoing steamer which had sighted another of hex company still far away from us; but I had no more than time to come to this conclusion when, to my profound amazement, Paolo himself struck light to a flare which he had with him on the bridge, and answered the signal, our own light showing far out, and lighting the great moving sea on which we rode so that one could count every crest about it.

The action completely staggered me. Without a thought I rushed up the ladder to the hurricane deck and stood beside him. He started as he saw me, and I could see him biting his lips, while an ugly look came into his eyes. But I charged him at once.

"Good-evening, Mister Mate," I said; "will you kindly tell me why you burnt that blue light?"

His excuse came readily.

"I burnt it to answer the signal yonder."

"But that was no affair of ours!"

He shrugged his shoulders, and muttered something about custom and something else, which he meant to be impudent. Yet in another moment he made effort to recall himself, and met me with an open, smiling face which covered anger. I began to upbraid myself for the folly of it, bursting out thus when there was no call for show; and I turned the talk to other things, searching to learn about him and his past; yet it was without reward, for he fenced in speech with all the point of a close Scotsman. But we came down the bridge together when the new watch was set; and he took a glass of wine with me in the saloon.

It was all well acted, a fine pretence of common civility, yet I believe that we two then took acquaintance of each other in the fullest measure; and he learnt, though he did not show it, that in the game of eavesdropping there may be two that play.

When I turned in at last, the little wind there was had fallen away, so that the yacht was almost without motion; save, indeed, that long roll from which an ocean-going ship is rarely free. I had the electric light in my cabin with a tap on the end of my bunk, mighty convenient for reading and waking; but I was full of sleep in spite of what had been above, and I turned out the lamp directly I fell upon my bed.

I think I must have slept very heavily for an hour, when a great sense of unrest and waking weariness took me, and I lay, now dozing, now dreaming, so that in all my dreams I saw the face of Paolo. I seemed to walk the deck of the Celsis, yet was Paolo there more strong and masterful than I; again I went to the stoke-hole, and he was charging the men with much authority; I hurried thence to the saloon, and in my silly dream I thought to see Captain Black upon the one hand and Paolo on the other, and a great friendship of manner and discourse between them.

Again I slept the black sleep; but it passed into other visions, so that in one of them I seemed to be lying awake in my own cabin, and the man Paolo stood over me, looking straight into my eyes; and when I would have risen up to question him I was powerless, held still in every limb, living, yet without life or speech—a horrid dream from which I seemed to rouse myself only at the touch of something cold upon my outstretched hand; and then at last I opened my eyes and saw, during the veriest reality of time, that others looked down into mine. I saw them for some small part of a second, yet in the faint light that came from the port I recognised the face and the form, and was certain of them; for the man who had been watching me as I slept was Paolo.

A quick sense of danger waked me thoroughly then. I put my hand to the tap of the electric light and the white rays flooded the cabin. But the cabin was empty and Roderick's dog sat by my trunk, and had, I could see, been licking my hand as I lay.

I knew not how to make out the meaning of it; but I was trembling from the horror of the dream, and went above in my flannels. It was dawn then; and day was coming up out of the sea, cold and bearing mists, which lay low over the long restful waves. Dan was aft on the quarter-deck, and the first officer was on the bridge, but I looked into Paolo's bunk, and he slept there, in so heavy a sleep that I began to doubt altogether the truth of what I had believed. How could this man have left my cabin as he had done, and yet now be berthed in his own? The dream had cheated me, as dreams often do.

But more sleep was not to be thought of. I fell to talk with Dan, and paced the deck with him, asking what was his opinion of our new second mate.

He scratched his head before he answered, and looked wise, as he loved to look——

"Lord, sir, it's not for me to be spoutin' about them as is above me; but you ask me a fair question, and I'll give you a fair answer. In course, I ain't the party to be thinking ill of any man—not Dan, which is plain and English, though some as is scholars say it should be Dan'el; but what I do know, I know—you won't be contradictin' that, will you?"

I told him to get on with it; but he was woefully deliberate, cutting tobacco to chew, and hitching himself up before he was under weigh again.

"Now," he said at last, "the fact about our second is this, in my opinion—which ain't mine, but the whole of 'em—he's no more'n a ship with a voice under the fore-hatch——"

I laughed at him as I asked, "And what's the matter with a ship like that? Why shouldn't there be a voice under the fore-hatch, Dan?"

He lit his pipe behind the aft skylight, and then answered, as he puffed clouds of smoke to the lee-side——

"Well, you see, sir, as there ain't nobody a-livin' in that perticler place, you don't go for to look to hearin' of voices, or, in plain lingo, there's something queer about it."

"And that's your opinion, Dan?"

"As true as this fog's a-liftin' to windward."

I looked as he jerked his thumb to port, and, sure enough, the curtain of the fog was drawn up from the sea as the wind's wand scattered it. Glorious and joy-giving the sun arose, and the whole horizon-bound expanse of rolling, green water lay beneath us. There is something of God in every daybreak, as most men admit, but I know nothing against the glory of a morn upon the Atlantic for bringing home to a man the delight in mere existence. The very sense of strength which the breeze bears, the limitless deep green of the unmeasured seas, the great arch of the zenith, the clear view of the sun's march, the purity and the stillness and the mastery of it all, the consciousness of the puny power of man, the mind message recalling the sublimity and the awe of the unseen Power beyond—all these things impress you, move in you the deepest thoughts, turn you from the little estimates of self as Nature only can in the holiest of her moods, which are sought yet never found in the cities. Nor can I ever welcome the breath of the great sea's vigour and refuse to listen to her voice, which comes with so powerful a message, even as a message from the great Unknown, whose hand controls, and whose spirit is on, the waters.

The sound of a gun-shot to leeward awoke me from my thoughts. The fog was yet lying there upon the sea, and for some while none of us, expectant as we were, could discern aught. But, fearing that some vessel lay in distress, we put the helm up and went half-speed for a time. We had cruised thus for five minutes or more when a terrific report burst upon our ears, and this time to the alarm of every man who trod deck. For this second report was not that of a small gun such as crippled ships may use, but the thunderous echoing of a great weapon which a man-of-war only could carry.

The sound died away slowly; but in the same minute the fog lifted; and I saw, away a mile on the starboard bow, a spectacle which brought a great flush upon my face, and let me hear the sound of my own heart beating.