The Iron Pirate/Chapter 9

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The Iron Pirate  (1905)  by Max Pemberton
Chapter IX



There were two great ships abreast of each other, and they were steaming with so great a pressure of steam that the dark green water was cleaved into two huge waves of foam before their bows; and the spray ran right over their fo'castles and fell in tons upon their decks.

The more distant of the two ships was long in shape and dark in colour; she had four masts upon which topsails and staysails were set, and two funnels painted white, but marked with the anchor which clearly set her down to be one of the famous Black Anchor fleet. My powerful spyglass gave me a full view of her decks, which I saw to be dark with the figures of passengers and crew all crowding to the port side, wherefrom the other ship was approaching her.

Yet was it this other ship which drew our gaze rather than the great steamer which seemed to be pursued. Almost of the same length as the passenger steamer, which she now approached obliquely, she rode the long swell with perfect grace, and many of her deck-houses and part of her prow shone with the brightness of pure gold. Full the sun fell upon her in a sheen of shimmering splendour, throwing great reflected lights which dazzled the eye so that it could scarce hold any continued gaze upon her. And, indeed, every ornament on her seemed to be made of the precious metal, now glowing to exceeding brilliance in the full power of the sunlight.

She was a very big ship, as I have said, and she had all the shape of a ship of war, while the turrets fore and aft of her capacious funnel showed the muzzles of two big guns. I could see by my glass a whole wealth of armament in the foretop of her short mast forward; and high points in her fo'castle marked the spot where many other machine guns were ready for action. At her towering and lofty prow there was indicated clearly the curve of the ram which now ploughed the dark water and curdled it into the fountains of foam which fell upon her decks; while amidships, the outline of a conning-tower showed more clearly for what aggressive purpose she had been designed. There was at this spot, too, a great deck erection, with a gallery and a bridge for navigation; but no men showed upon the platform, and, for the matter of that, no soul trod her decks, so far as our observation went. Yet her speed was such as I do not believe any ship achieved before. I have spent many years upon the sea; have crossed the Atlantic in some of the most speedy of those cruisers which are the just pride of a later-day shipbuilding art; I have raced in torpedo-boats over known miles; but of this I have no measure of doubt, that the speed of which that extraordinary vessel then proved herself capable was such as no other that ever swam could for one moment cope with. Now rising majestically on the long roll of the swell, now falling into the concave of the sea, she rushed onward towards the steamer she was evidently pursuing as though driven by all the furies of the deep.

As we watched her, held rooted to our places as men who are looking upon some strange and uncanny picture, the gun in her foremost turret belched out flame and smoke, and we observed the rise and fall of a shell, which cut the water a cable's length ahead of the straining steamer and sank hissing beneath the sea. At that moment she ran up a flag upon her signal mast, and, as I read it with my glass, I saw that it was the flag of the Chilian Republic.

Now, indeed, the pursuit became so engrossing that my own men began to sing out, and this reminded me that every soul aboard the Celsis had watched with me when I first set eyes on the nameless ship. I turned to our skipper, who stood near on the hurricane deck, and saw that he in turn was looking hard at me. Roderick had come up from his cabin, but rested at the top of the companion ladder in so dazed a mood that no speech came from him. The first officer had scarce his wits about him to steer our own course, and the whole of the hands forward in a little group upon the fo'castle now called out their views, then turned to ask what it meant.

It was a matter of satisfaction to me that Mary still slept, and I looked for the appearance of Paolo with some question. But he remained below through it all. And at that I wondered more.

The skipper was the first to speak.

"That ship yonder," said he, jerking his thumb to starboard; "is it any business of ours?"

"None that I know of," I replied; "but it's a mighty fine sight, skipper, don't you think, a Chilian warship running after a liner in broad daylight? What's your opinion?"

He shrugged his shoulders disdainfully, and took another sight through his glass. Then he answered me—

"It's a fine sight enough, God knows, but I would give half I'm worth to be a hundred miles away from it"; and here he suddenly wheeled, and, facing me roughly, he asked—

"Do you want me to get this boat into port again?"

"Of course. Is there any great need to answer a question like that?"

"At the moment, yes; for, with your pleasure, I'm going to put up the helm and sheer off. I'm not a man that loves fighting myself, and, with a ship and crew to look after, I've no business in any affair of that sort; but it's for you to say."

Before I could answer him, Roderick moved from his place and came up on the bridge where we stood.

"Hold on a bit, skipper," he cried, "as we are, if you please; why, man, it's a sight I wouldn't miss for a fortune."

The skipper searched him with his eyes with a keen, lasting gaze, that implied his doubt of the pair of us. His voice had a fine ring of sarcasm in it when he replied after the silence; but all he said was, "It's your affair," and then turned to the first officer.

"Don't you think he was right?" I asked Roderick in a low voice, when the chief's back was turned, but he whispered again—

"Not yet we must see more of it; and they're too much occupied to hunt after us. We'll be away long before those two have settled accounts; and, look now, I can see a man on the bridge of the yellow ship. Do you mark him?"

I had my glass to my eye in a moment, and the light was so full upon the vessel, which must then have been a mile and a half away from us, that I could prove his words; for, sure enough, there was now someone moving upon the bridge, and, as I fixed my powerful lens, I thought that I could recognise the shape of a man; but I would not speak my mind to Roderick until I had a nearer view.

"You are right," I answered; "but what sort of a man I will tell you presently. Did you ever see anything like the pace that big ship is showing? She must be moving at twenty-five knots."

"Yes, it's amazing; and what's more, there isn't a show of smoke at her funnel."

This was true, but I had not noticed it. Throughout the strange scene we saw, this vessel of mystery never gave one sign that men worked at her furnaces below. Neither steam nor smoke came from her, no evidence, even the most trifling, of that terrible power which was then driving her through the seas at such a fearful speed.

But of the activity of her human crew we had speedily further sign; for, almost as I answered, there was some belching of flame from her turret, and this time the shell, hurtling through the air with that hissing song which every gunner knows so well, crashed full upon the fore-part of the great liner, and we heard the shout of terror which rose from those upon her decks. The men appeared at the signal-mast of the pursuer, and rapidly made signals in the common code.

"Skipper, do you see that?—they're signalling," I cried out. "Get your glass up and take a sight"; but he had already done so.

"It's the signal to lie to, and wait a boat," he said; "there's someone going aboard."

The fulfilment of the reading was instant. While yet we had not realised that the onward rush of the two boats was stayed the foam fell away from their bows; and they rode the seas superbly, sitting the long swells with a beautiful ease. But there was activity on the deck of the nameless ship, the men were at the davits on the starboard side swinging off a launch, which dropped presently into the sea with a crew of some half-a-dozen men. For ourselves, we were now quite close up to them, but so busily were they occupied that I believed we had escaped all notice. Yet I got my glass full upon the man who walked the bridge; and I knew him.

He was the man I had met in the Rue Joubert at Paris, the one styled Captain Black by my friend Hall.

The last link in the long chain was welded then. The whole truth of that weird document, so fantastical, so seemingly wild, so fearful, was made manifest; the dead man's words were vindicated, his every deduction was unanswerable. There on the great Atlantic waste, I had lived to see one of those terrible pictures which he had conceived in his long dreaming; and through all the excitement, above all the noise, I thought that I heard his voice, and the grim "Ahoys!" of my own seamen on the night he died.

This strange recognition was unknown to Roderick, who had never seen Captain Black, nor had any notion of his appearance. But he waited for some remark from me; yet, fearing to be heard, I only looked at him, and in that look he read all.

"Mark," he said, "it's time to go; we'll be the next when that ship's at the bottom."

"My God!" I answered, "he can't do such a thing as that. If I thought so, I would stand by here at the risk of a thousand lives——"

"That's wild talk. What can we do? He would shiver us up with one of his machine guns—and, besides, we have Mary on board."

Indeed, she stood by us as we spoke, very pale and quiet, looking where the two ships lay motionless, the boat from the one now at the very side of the black steamer, whose name, the Ocean King, we could plainly read. She had, unnoticed by us, seen the work of the last shell, which splintered the groaning vessel, and made her reel upon the water, and Mary's instinct told her that we stood where danger was.

"Don't you think you're better below, Mary?" asked Roderick; but she had her old answer——

"Not until you go; and why should I make any difference? I overheard what you said. Am I to stand between you and those men's lives?"

She clung to my arm as she spoke, and her boldness gave us new courage.

"I am for standing by to the end," said I; "if we save one soul, it's an English work to do, anyway."

Roderick looked at Mary, and then he turned to the skipper—

"Do you wish to go on the other tack now?" he asked; but the skipper was himself again.

"Gentlemen," he said, "it's your yacht, and these are your men; if you care to keep them afloat, keep them. If it's your fancy to do the other thing, why, do it. It's a matter of indifference to me."

His words were heard by all the hands, and from that time there was something of a clamour amongst them; but I stepped forward to have out what was in my mind, and they heard me quietly.

"Men," I said, "there's ugly work over there, work which I make nothing of; but it's clear that an English ship is running from a foreigner, and may want help. Shall we leave her, or shall we stand by?"

They gave a great shout at this, and the skipper touched the bell, which stopped the engines. We lay then quite near both to the pursued and the pursuer, and there was no longer any doubt that we had been seen.

Glasses were turned upon us from the decks of the yellow ship, and from the poop of the Ocean King, whose men were still busy with the signal flags, and this time, as we made out, in a direct request to us that we should stand by.

I doubt not that the excitement and the danger of the position alone nerved us to this work of amazing foolhardiness, which was so like to have ended in our complete undoing; and, as I watched the captain of the steamer parleying with the men in the launch below him, I could but ask—What next? when will our turn be?

But the scene was destined to end in a way altogether different from what we had anticipated.

While a tall man with fair hair my glass gave me the impression that he was the fellow known as "Roaring John"—stood in the bows of the launch, and appeared to be gesticulating wildly to the skipper of the Ocean King, the nameless ship set up of a sudden a great shrieking with her deck whistle, which she blew three times with terrific power; and at the third sound of it the launch, which had been holding to the side of the steamer, let go, running rapidly back to the armed vessel, where it was taken aboard again.

The whole thing was done in so short a space of time that our men had scarce an opportunity to express surprise when the launch was hanging at the davits again. The great activity that we had observed on the decks of the war-vessel ceased as mysteriously as it had begun. Again there was no sign of living being about her; but she moved at once, and bounded past us at a speed the like of which I had never seen upon the deep.

So remarkable a face-about seemed to dumbfound our men. They stood staring at each other like those amazed, and seeking explanation. But the key to the riddle was given, not by one of them, but by Paolo, whom I now found at my elbow, his usually placid face all aglow with excitement.

"Ha!" he cried, "she's American!"

He made a wild point at the far horizon over our stern; and then I saw what troubled him. There was a great white steamer coming up at a high speed, and I knew the form of her at once, and of two others that followed her. She was one of the American navy, crossing to her own country from Europe, whither she had been to watch the British manœuvres. The secret of the flight was no longer inexplicable; the yellow ship had fled from the trap into which she was so nearly falling.

"You have sharp eyes, Paolo," said I; "I imagine it's lucky for the pair of us."

He shrugged his shoulders angrily, and then said very meaningly—


I had no time to reckon with him, for I was as much absorbed as he was in the scene which followed. The nameless ship, of a sudden, ceased her flight, and came almost to a stand some half a mile away on our port-bow. For a moment her purpose was hidden, yet only for a moment. As she swung round to head the seas, I saw at once that another cruiser, long and white, and seemingly well-armed had come up upon that side, and now barred her passage. At last, she was to cope with one worthy of her, and at the promise of battle, a hush, awful in its intensity, fell upon all of us.

For some minutes the two vessels lay, the one broadside to the other, the Americans making signals which were unanswered; but the nameless ship had now hundreds of men about her decks, and these were at the machine-guns and elsewhere active in preparation. It became plain that her captain had made up his mind to some plan, for the great hull swung round slowly, and passed at a moderate speed past the bow of the other. When she was nearly clear, her two great guns were fired almost simultaneously, and, as the shells swept along the deck of the cruiser, they carried men and masts and deck-houses with them, in one devilish confusion of wreckage and of death. To such an onslaught there was no answer. The cruiser was utterly unprepared for the treachery, and lay reeling on the sea; screams and fearful cries coming from her decks, now quivering under a torrent of fire as her opponent treated her to the hail of her machine-guns.

The battle could have ended but in one way, had not the other American warships now come so close to us that they opened fire with their great guns. The huge shells hissed over our heads, and all about us, plunging into the sea with such mighty concussions that fountains of green water arose in twenty places, and the near surface of the Atlantic became turbulent with foam. Such a powerful onslaught could have been resisted by no single vessel, and, seeing that he was like to be surrounded, the captain of the nameless ship, which had already been struck three times in her armour, fired twice from his turrets, and then headed off at that prodigious speed he had shown in the beginning of his flight. In five minutes he was out of gun-shot; in ten, the American vessels were taking men from their crippled cruiser, whose antagonists had almost disappeared on the horizon!

Upon our own decks the noise and hubbub were almost deafening. From a state of nervous tension and doubt our men had passed to a state of joy. Half of them were for going aboard the damaged vessels at once; half for getting under weigh and moving from such dangerous waters. Our talk upon the quarter-deck soon brought us to the first-named course, and we put out a boat with ease upon the still sea, and hailed the passenger steamer after twenty minutes' stout rowing. She was yet a pitiful spectacle; for as we drew near to her, I could see women weeping hysterically on the seats aft, and men alternately helping them and looking over in the direction whence the three American ironclads steamed. Indeed, it was a picture of great confusion and distress, and we hailed those on her bridge three times before we got any answer. When we did get up on her main-deck, Captain Ross, her commander, greeted us with great thanks; but he was a sorry spectacle of a man, being white as his own ensign with anger, and his voice trembled as the voice of a man suffering some great emotion. He took us to his chart-room, for he would have all particulars about us, both our names and addresses, with those of our officers, for a witness when he should call the British Government to take action.

"Twenty years," he said, with tears of anger in his eyes, "twenty years I have crossed the Atlantic, but this is the first time that I ever heard the like. Good God, sirs! it's nothing less than piracy on the high seas; and they shall swing, every man Jack of them, as high as Haman! What think ye? They signal me to lie to—me that has the mails and a hundred thousand pounds in specie aboard; they fire a shot across my bows, and when I signal that I'll see them in hell before I bate a knot, why—you watched it yourselves—they struck me in the fo'castle, and there's two of my dead men below now; but they shall swing"—and he brought his fist upon the table with a mighty thud"—they shall swing, if there's only one rope in Europe."

I had sorrow for the man who was thus moved—for the most part, I could see, at the loss of his two men. Then I went forward with the others to the place of wreckage, and for the first time in my life I observed the colossal havoc which a shell may leave in its path. The single shot which had struck the steamer had cut her two skins of steel as though they had been skins of cheese; had splintered the wood of the men's bunks, so that it lay in match-like fragments which a fine knife might have hewed; had passed again through the steel on the starboard side, and so burst, leaving the fo'castle one tumbled mass of torn blankets, little rags of linen, fragments of wood, of steel, of clothes which had been in the men's chests; and, more horrible to recount, particles of human flesh. Three men were below when the crash came, and two of them had their limbs torn apart; while, by one of the miracles which oft attend the passage of a shot, the third, being in a low bunk when the shell struck, escaped almost uninjured. This desolate and wrecked cabin was shown to us by Captain Ross, whose anger mounted at every step.

"What does it mean?" he kept asking. "Are we at war? You saw the Chilian flag. Is there no Treaty of Paris, then? Does he go out to filch every ship he meets? Will he do this, and our Government take no steps? Can't you answer me that?" But he poured out his questions with such rapidity, and he was so overcome, that we followed him in silence as he walked beneath the awnings of the upper decks, and showed us women still talking hysterically, men unnerved and witless as children, seamen yet finding curses for the atrocity that had been. By this time, the first of the American ships had come up with us, and the commander of her put out a boat, and having gone aboard the maimed cruiser, he came afterwards to the Black Anchor ship, and joined us in the chart-room. I will make no attempt to set down for you his surprise nor his incredulity. I believe that the scene in the fo'castle alone convinced him that we were not all raving madmen; but, when once he grasped our story, he was not a whit behind us, either in intensity of expression or of sympathy.

"It's an international question, I guess," he said; "and if he doesn't pay with his neck for the twenty men dead on my cruiser, to say nothing of the twenty thousand pounds or more damage to her, I will—why, we'll run her down in four-and-twenty hours. You took his course?"

"West by south-west, almost dead," said the captain; and I heard it agreed between them that the second cruiser of the American fleet should start at once in pursuit, while the iron-clads should accompany us to New York, so making a little convoy for safety's sake.

With this arrangement we left the ship and regained the Celsis. Paolo stood at the top of the ladder as I came on deck, and listened, I thought, to our protestations that the danger was over with something of a sneer on his face.

Indeed, I thought that I heard him mutter, as he went to his cabin, "Vedremro" but I did not know then how much the laugh was to be against us, and that we should leave the convoy long before we reached New York.