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If it has not been your privilege to hear a French guard utter these words, you have lost a lesson in the dignity of elocution which nothing can replace. En voiture, en voi ture; five minutes for Paris. At the well-delivered warning, the Englishman in the adjoining buffet raises on high the frothing tankard, and vaunts before the world his capacity for deep draughts and long; the fair American spills her coffee and looks an exclamation; the Bishop pays for his daughter's tea, drops the change in the one chink which the buffet boards disclose, and thinks one; the trav eled person, disdaining haste, smiles on all with a pitying leer; the foolish man, who has forgotten something, makes public his conviction that he will lose his train. The adamantine official alone is at his ease, and, as the minutes go, the knell of the train-loser sounds the deeper, the horrid jargon is yet more irritating.
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THE IRON PIRATE
by Max Pemberton
Published by Aeterna Classics 2018
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE PERFECT FOOL ASKS A FAVOUR.
"En voiture! en voiture!"
If it has not been your privilege to hear a French guard utter these words, you have lost a lesson in the dignity of elocution which nothing can replace. "En voiture, en voiture; five minutes for Paris." At the well-delivered warning, the Englishman in the adjoining buffet raises on high the frothing tankard, and vaunts before the world his capacity for deep draughts and long; the fair American spills her coffee and looks an exclamation; the Bishop pays for his daughter's tea, drops the change in the one chink which the buffet boards disclose, and thinks one; the travelled person, disdaining haste, smiles on all with a pitying leer; the foolish man, who has forgotten something, makes public his conviction that he will lose his train. The adamantine official alone is at his ease, and, as the minutes go, the knell of the train-loser sounds the deeper, the horrid jargon is yet more irritating.
I thought all these things, and more, as I waited for the Perfect Fool at the door of my carriage in the harbour station at Calais. He was truly an impossible man, that small-eyed, short-haired, stooping mystery I had met at Cowes a month before, and formed so strange a friendship with. To-day he would do this, to-morrow he would not; to-day he had a theory that the world was egg-shaped, to-morrow he believed it to be round; in one moment he was hot upon a journey to St. Petersburg, in the next he felt that the Pacific Islands offered a better opportunity. If he had a second coat, no man had ever seen it; if he had a purpose in life, no man, I hold, had ever known it. And yet there was a fascination about him you could not resist; in his visible, palpitating, stultifying folly there was something so amazing that you drew to the man as to that unknown something which the world had not yet given to you, as a treasure to be worn daily in the privacy of your own enjoyment. I had, as I have said, picked the Perfect Fool up at Cowes, whither I had taken my yacht, Celsis, for the Regatta Week; and he had clung to me ever since with a dogged obstinacy that was a triumph. He had taken of my bread and eaten of my salt unasked; he was not a man such as the men I knew—he was interested in nothing, not even in himself—and yet I tolerated him. And in return for this toleration he was about to make me lose a train for Paris.
"Will you come on?" I roared for the tenth time, as the cracked bell jangled and the guards hoisted the last stout person into the only carriage where there was not a seat for her. "Don't you see we shall be left behind? Hurry up! Hang your parcels! Now then—for the last time, Hall, Hill, Hull, whatever your confounded name is, are you coming?"
Many guards gave a hand to the hoist, and the Perfect Fool fell upon his hat-box, which was all the personal property he seemed to possess. He apologised to Mary, who sat in the far corner, with more grace than I had looked for from him, woke Roderick, who was in his fifth sleep since luncheon, and then gathered the remnants of himself into a coherent whole.
"Did anyone use my name?" he asked gravely, and as one offended. "I thought I heard someone call me Hull?"
"Exactly; I think I called you every name in the Directory, but I'm glad you answer to one of them."
"Yes, and I tell you what," said Roderick, "I wish you wouldn't come into a railway carriage on your hands and knees, waking a fellow up every time he tries to get a minute to himself; I don't speak for myself, but for my sister."
The Perfect Fool made a profound bow to Mary, who looked very pretty in her dainty yachting dress—she was only sixteen, I had known her all her life—and he said, "I cannot make your sister an apology worthy of her."
"If that isn't a shame, Mr. Hall," replied the blushing girl. "I never go to sleep in railway carriages."
"No, of course you don't," said Roderick, as he made himself comfortable for another nap, "but you may go to sleep in a railway carriage;" then with a grunt, "Wake me up at Amiens, old man," he sank to slumber.
The train moved slowly over the sandy marsh which lies between Calais and Boulogne, and the vapid talk of the railway carriage held us to Amiens, and after. During the second half of the long journey Roderick was asleep, and Mary's pretty head had fallen against the cushion as the swing of the carriage gave the direct negative to her words at Calais station. At last, even the maker of commonplaces was silent; and as I reclined at greater length on the cushions of the stuffy compartment, I thought how strange a company we were then being carried over the dull, drear pasture-land of France, to the lights, the music, and the life of the great capital. Of the man Martin Hall—I remembered his true name in the moments of repose—I knew nothing beyond that which I have told you; but of my friends Roderick and Mary, accompanying me on this wildaway journey, I knew all that was to be known. Roderick and I had been at Caius College, Cambridge, together, friends drawn the closer in affection because our conditions in kith and kin, in possession and in purpose, in ambition and in idleness, were so very like. Roderick was an orphan twenty-four years of age, young, rich, desiring to know life before he measured strength with her, caring for no man, not vital enough to realise danger, an Englishman in tenacity of will, a good fellow, a gentleman. His sister was his only care. He gave to her the strength of an undivided love, and just as, in the shallowness of much of his life, there was matter for blame, so in this increasing affection and thought for the one very dear to him was there the strength of a strong manhood and a noble work.
For myself, I was twenty-five when the strange things of which I am about to write happened to me. Like Roderick, I was an orphan. My father had left me £50,000, which I drew upon when I was of age; but, shame that I should write it, I had spent more than £40,000 in four years, and my schooner, the Celsis, with some few thousand pounds, alone remained to me. Of what was my future to be, I knew not. In the senseless purpose of my life, I said only, "It will come, the tide in my affairs which taken at the flood should lead on to fortune." And in this supreme folly I lived the days, now in the Mediterranean, now cruising round the coast of England, now flying of a sudden to Paris with one they might have called a vulgarian, but one I chose to know. A journey fraught with folly, the child of folly, to end in folly, so might it have been said; but who can foretell the supreme moments of our lives, when unknowingly we stand on the threshold of action? And who should expect me to foresee that the man who was to touch the spring of my life's action sat before me—mocked of me, dubbed the Perfect Fool—over whose dead body I was to tread the paths of danger and the intricate ways of strange adventure?
But I would not weary you with more of these facts than are absolutely necessary for the understanding of this story, surpassing strange, which I judge it to be as much my duty as my privilege to write. Let us go back to the Gare du Nord, and the compartment wherein Mary and Roderick slept, while the Perfect Fool and I faced each other, surfeited with meteorological observations, sick to weariness with reflections upon the probability of being late or arriving before time. I would well have been silent and dozed as the others were doing; of a truth, I had done so had it not become very evident that the man who had begun to bore me wished at last to say something, relating neither to the weather nor to the speed of our train. His restless manner, the fidgeting of his hands with certain papers which he had taken from his great-coat pocket, the shifting of the small grey eyes, marked that within him which suffered not show except in privacy; and I waited for him, making pretence of interest in the great plain of hedgeless pasture-land which bordered the track on each side. At last he spoke, and, speaking, seemed to be the Perfect Fool no longer.
"They're both asleep, aren't they?" he asked suddenly, as he put his hand, which seemed to tremble, upon my arm, and pointed to the sleepers. "Would you mind making sure—quite sure—before I speak?—that is, if you will let me, for I have a favour to ask."
To see the man grave and evidently concerned was to me so unusual that for a moment I looked at him rather than at Roderick or Mary, and waited to know if the gravity were not of his humour and not of any deeper import. A single glance at him convinced me for the second time that I did him wrong. He was looking at me with a fitful pleading look unlike anything he had shown previously. In answer to his request I assured him at once that he might speak his mind; that, even if Roderick should overhear us, I would pledge my word for his good faith. Then only did he unbosom himself and tell me freely what he had to say.
"I wanted to speak to you some days ago," he said earnestly and quickly, as his hands continued to play with the paper, "but we have been so much occupied that I have never found the occasion. It must seem curious in your eyes that I, who am quite a stranger to you, should have been in your company for some weeks, and should not have told you more than my name. As the thing stands, you have been kind enough to make no inquiries; if I am an impostor, you do not care to know it; if I am a rascal hunted by the law, you have not been willing to help the law; you do not know if I have money or no money, a home or no home, people or no people, yet you have made me—shall I say, a friend?"
He asked the question with such a gentle inflexion of the voice that I felt a softer chord was touched, and in response I shook hands with him. After that he continued to speak.
"I am very grateful for all your trust, believe me, for I am a man that has known few friends in life, and I have not cared to go out of my way to seek them. You have given me your friendship unasked, and it is the more prized. What I wanted to say is this, if I should die before three days have passed, will you open this packet of papers I have prepared and sealed for you, and carry out what is written there as well as you are able? It is no idle request, I assure you; it is one that will put you in the place where I now stand, with opportunities greater than I dare to think of. As for the dangers, they are big enough, but you are the man to overcome them as I hope to overcome them—if I live!"
The sun fell over the lifeless scene without as he ceased to speak. I could see a crimson beam glowing upon a crucifix that stood on the wayside by the hill-foot yonder; but the cheerless monotony of plough land and of pasture, stretching away leafless, treeless, without bud or flower, herd or herdsman, church or cottage, to the shadowed horizon, looming dark as the twilight deepened, was in sympathy with the gloom which had come upon me as Martin Hall ceased to speak. I had thought the man a fool and witless, flighty in purpose and shallow in thought, and yet he seemed to speak of great mysteries—and of death. In one moment the jester's cloak fell from him, and I saw the mail beneath. He had made a great impression upon me, but I concealed it from him, and replied jauntily and with no show of gravity—
"Tell me, are you quite certain that you are not talking nonsense?"
He replied by asking me to take his hand. I took it—it was chill with the icy cold as of death; and I doubted his meaning no more, but determined to have the whole mystery, then so faintly sketched, laid bare before me.
"If you are not playing the fool, Hall," said I, "and if you are sincere in wishing me to do something which you say is a favour to you, you must be more explicit. In the first place, how did you get this absurd notion that you are going to die into your head? Secondly, what is the nature of the obligation you wish to put upon me? It is quite clear that I can't accept a trust about which I know nothing, and I think that for undiluted vagueness your words deserve a medal. Let us begin at the beginning, which is a very good place to begin at. Now, why should you, who are going to Paris, as far as I know, simply as a common sightseer, have any reason to fear some mysterious calamity in a city where you don't know a soul?"
He laughed softly, looking out for a moment on the sunless fields, but his eyes flashed lights when he answered me, and I saw that he clenched his hands so that the nails pierced the flesh.
"Why am I going to Paris without aim, do you say? Without aim—I, who have waited years for the work I believe that I shall accomplish to-night—why am I going to Paris? Ha! I will tell you: I am going to Paris to meet one who, before another year has gone, will be wanted by every Government in Europe; who, if I do not put my hand upon his throat in the midst of his foul work, will make graves as thick as pines in the wood there before you know another month; one who is mad and who is sane, one who, if he knew my purpose, would crush me as I crush this paper; one who has everything that life can give and seeks more, a man who has set his face against humanity, and who will make war on the nations, who has money and men, who can command and be obeyed in ten cities, against whom the police might as well hope to fight as against the white wall of the South Sea; a man of purpose so deadly that the wisest in crime would not think of it—a man, in short, who is the product of culminating vice—him I am going to meet in this Paris where I go without aim—without aim, ha!"
"And you mean to run him down?" I asked, as his voice sank to a hoarse whisper, and the drops stood as beads on his brow; "what interest have you in him?"
"At the moment none; but in a month the interest of money. As sure as you and I talk of it now, there will be fifty thousand pounds offered for knowledge of him before December comes upon us!"
I looked at him as at one who dreams dreams, but he did not flinch.
"You meet the man in Paris?" I went on.
"To-night I shall be with him," he answered; "within three days I win all or lose all: for his secret will be mine. If I fail, it is for you to follow up the thread which I have unravelled by three years' hard work——"
"What sort of person do you say he is?" I continued, and he replied—
"You shall see for yourself. Dare you risk coming with me—I meet him at eight o'clock?"
"Dare I risk!—pooh, there can't be much danger."
"There is every danger!—but, so, the girl is waking!"
It was true; Mary looked up suddenly as we thundered past the fortifications of Paris, and said, as people do say in such circumstances, "Why, I believe I've been asleep!" Roderick shook himself like a great bear, and asked if we had passed Chantilly; the Perfect Fool began his banter, and roared for a cab as the lights of the station twinkled in the semi-darkness. I could scarce believe, as I watched his antics, that he was the man who had spoken to me of great mysteries ten minutes before. Still less could I convince myself that he had not many days to live. So are the fateful things of life hidden from us.
I MEET CAPTAIN BLACK.
The lights of Paris were very bright as we drove down the Boulevard des Capucines, and drew up at length at the Hôtel Scribe, which is by the Opera House. Mary uttered a hundred exclamations of joy as we passed through the city of lights; and Roderick, who loved Paris, condescended to keep awake!
"I'll tell you what," he exclaimed, after a period of profound reflection, "the beauty of this place is that no one thinks here, except about cooking, and, after all, cooking is one of the first things worthy of serious speculation, isn't it? Suppose we plan a nice little dinner for four?"
"For two, my dear fellow, if you please," said Hall, with mock of state—he was quite the Perfect Fool again. "Mr. Mark Strong condescends to dine with me, and in that utter unselfishness of character peculiar to him insists on paying the bill—don't you, Mr. Mark?"
I answered that I did, and, be it known, I was the Mark Strong referred to.
"The fact is, Roderick," I explained, "that I made a promise to meet one of Mr. Hall's friends to-night, so you and Mary must dine alone. You can then go to sleep, don't you see, or take Mary out and buy her something."
"Yes, that would be splendid, Roderick," cried Mary, all the girlish excitement born of Paris strong upon her. "Let's go and buy a hundred things"—Roderick groaned—"but I wish, Mark, you weren't going to leave us on our first night here; you know what you said only yesterday!"
"What did I say yesterday?"
"That there were a lot of bounders in Paris—and I want to see them bound!"
I consoled her by telling her that bounders never made display after six o'clock, and assured her that Roderick had long confessed to me his intention to buy her the best hat in Paris, at which Roderick muttered exclamations for my ear only. By that time we were at the hotel, and the Perfect Fool had much to say.
"Could any gentleman oblige me with the time, English or French?" he asked; "my watch is so moved at the situation in which it finds itself that it is fourteen hours too slow."
I told him that it was ten minutes to eight, and the information quickened him.
"Ten minutes to eight, and half-a-dozen Russian princes, to say nothing of an English knight, to meet; so ho, my toilet must remain! Could anyone oblige me with a comb, fragmentary or whole?"
He continued his banter as we mounted the stairs of the cozy little hotel, whose windows overlook the core of the great throbbing heart of Paris, and so until we were alone in my room, whither he had followed me.
"Quick's the word," he said, as he shut the door, and took several articles from his hat-box, "and no more palaver. One pair of spectacles, one wig, one set of curiosities to sell—do I look like a second-hand dealer in odd lots, or do I not, Mr. Mark Strong?"
I had never seen such an utter change in any man made with such little show. The Perfect Fool was no longer before me; there was in his place a lounging, shady-looking, greed-haunted Hebrew. The haunching of the shoulders was perfect; the stoop, the walk, were triumphs. But he gave me little opportunity to inspect him or to ask for what reason he had thus disguised himself.
"It's five minutes from here," he said, "and the clocks are going eight—you are right as you are, for you are a cipher in the affair yet, and don't run the danger I run—now come!"
He passed down the stairs with this blunt invitation, and I followed him. So good was his disguise and make-pretence that the others, who were in the narrow hall, drew back, to let him go, not recognising him, and spoke to me, asking what I had done with him. Then I pointed to the new Perfect Fool, and without another word of explanation went on into the street.
We walked in silence for some little distance, keeping by the Opera, and so through to the broad Boulevard Haussmann. Thence he turned, crossing the busy thoroughfare, and passing through the Rue Joubert, stopped quite suddenly at last in the mouth of a cul-de-sac which opened from the narrow street. He had something to say to me, and he gave it with quick words prompted by a quick and serious wit, for he had put off the rôle of the jester at the hotel.
"This is the place," he said; "up here on the third, and there isn't much time for talk. Just this; you're my man, you carry this box of metal"—he meant the case of curiosities—"and don't open your mouth, unless you get the fool in you and want the taste of a six-inch knife. That's my risk, and I haven't brought you here to share it; so mum's the word, mum, mum, mum; and keep a hold on your eyes, whatever you see or whatever you hear. Do I look all right?"
"Perfectly—but just a word; if we are going into some den where we may have a difficulty in getting out again, wouldn't it be as well to go armed?"
"Armed!—pish!"—and he looked unutterable contempt, treading the passage with long strides, and entering a house at the far end of it.
Thither I followed him, still wondering, and passing the concierge found myself at last on the third floor, before a door of thick oak. Our first knocking upon this had no effect, but at the second attempt, and while he was pulling his hat yet more upon his eyes, I heard a great rolling voice which seemed to echo on the stairway, and so leapt from flight to flight, almost like the rattle of a cannon-shot with its many reverberations. For the moment indistinct, I then became aware that the voice was that of a man singing and walking at the same time, and seemingly in no hurry to give us admission, for he passed from room to room bellowing this refrain, and never varying it by so much as a single word:—
"There was a man of Boston town,
With his pistols three,
With his pistols three, three, three;
And never a skunk in Boston town
That he didn't chaw but me!"
When the noise stopped at last, there was silence, complete and unbroken, for at least five minutes, during which time Hall stood motionless, waiting for the door to be opened. After that we heard a great yell from the same voice, with the words, "Ahoy, Splinters, shift along the gear, will you?" and then Splinters, whoever he might be, was cursed in unchosen phrases as the son of all the lubbers that ever crowded a fo'cas'le. A mumbled discussion seemed to tread on the heels of the hullabaloo, when, apparently having arranged the "gear" to satisfaction, the man stalked to the door, singing once more in stentorian tones:
"There was a man of Boston town,
With his pistols three,
With his pistols——"
"Hullo—the darned little Jew and his kick-shaws; why, matey, so early in the morning?"
The exclamation came as he saw us, putting his head round the door, and showing one arm swathed all up in dirty red flannel. He was no sort of a man to look at, as the Scots say, for his head was a mass of dirty yellow hair, and his face did not seem to have known an ablution for a week. But there was an ugly jocular look about his rabbit-like eyes and a great mark cut clean into the side of his face which were a fit decoration for the red-burnt, pitted, and horribly repulsive countenance he betrayed. His leer, too, as he greeted Hall, was the evil leer of a man whose laugh makes those hearing hush with the horror of it; and, on my part, forgetting the warning, I looked at him and drew back repelled. This he saw, and with a flush and a display of one great stump of a tooth which protruded on his left lip, he turned on me.
"And who may you be, matey, that you don't go for to shake hands with Roaring John? Dip me in brine, if you was my son I'd dress you down with a two-foot bar. Why don't you teach the little Hebrew manners, old Josfos? but there," and this he said as he opened the door wider, "so long as our skipper will have to do with shiners to sell and land barnacles, what ken you look for?—walk right along here."
The room indicated opened from a small hall, for the place was built after the Parisian fashion—akin to that of our flats—and was a house in itself. The man who called himself "Roaring John" entered the apartment before us, bawling at the top of his voice, "Josfos, the Jew, and his pardner come aboard!" and then I found myself in the strangest company and the strangest place I have ever set eyes on. So soon as I could see things clearly through the hanging atmosphere of tobacco smoke and heavy vapour, I made out the forms of six or eight men, not sitting as men usually do in a place where they eat, but squatting on their haunches by a series of low narrow tables, which were, on closer inspection, nothing but planks put upon bricks and laid round the four sides of the apartment. Of other furniture there did not seem to be a vestige in the place, save such as pertained to the necessities of eating and sleeping. Each man lolled back on his own pile of dirty pillows and dirtier blankets; each had before him a great metal drinking-cup, a coarse knife, which I found was for hacking meat, long rolls of plug tobacco, and a small red bundle, which I doubt not was his portable property. Each, too, was dressed exactly as his fellow, in a coarse red shirt, seamen's trousers of ample blue serge, a belt with a clasp-knife about his waist, and each had some bauble of a bracelet on his arm, and some strange rings upon his fingers. In the first amazement at seeing such an assembly in the heart of civilised Paris, I did no more than glean a general impression, but that was a powerful one—the impression that I saw men of all ages from twenty-five years upwards; men marked by time as with long service on the sea; men scarred, burnt, some with traces of great cuts and slashes received on the open face; men fierce-looking as painted devils, with teeth, with none, with four fingers to the hand, with three; men whose laugh was a horrid growl like the tumult of imprisoned passions, whose threats chilled the heart to hear, whose very words seemed to poison the air, who made the great room like a cage of beasts, ravenous and ill-seeking. This and more was my first thought, as I asked myself, into what hovel of vice have I fallen, by what mischance have I come on such a company?
Martin Hall seemed to have no such ill opinion of the men, and put himself at his ease the moment we entered. I had, indeed, believed for the moment that he had brought me there with evil intent, distrusting the man who was yet little more than a stranger to me; but recalling all that passed, his disguise, his evident fear, I put the suspicion from me, and listened to him, more content, as he made his way to the top of the room and stood before one who forced from me individual notice, so strange-looking was he, and so deep did the respect which all paid him appear to be. We shall meet this man often in our travels together, you and I, my friends, so a few words, if you please, about him. He sat at the head of the rude table, as I have said, but not as the others sat, on pillows and blankets, for there was a pile of rich-looking skins—bear, tiger, and white wolf—beneath him, and he alone of all the company wore black clothes and a white shirt. He was a short man, I judged, black-bearded and smooth-skinned, with a big nose, almost an intellectual forehead, small, white-looking hands, all ablaze with diamonds, about whose fine quality there could not be two opinions; and, what was even more remarkable, there hung as a pendant to his watch-chain a great uncut ruby which must have been worth five thousand pounds. One trade-mark of the sea alone did he possess, in the dark, curly ringlets which fell to his shoulders, matted there as long uncombed, but typical in all of the man. This then was the fellow upon whose every word that company of ruffians appeared to hang, who obeyed him, as I observed presently, when he did so much as lift his hand, who seemed to have in their uncouth way a veneration for him, inexplicable, remarkable—the man of whom Martin Hall had painted such a fantastic picture, who was, as I had been told, soon to be wanted by every Government in Europe. And so I faced him for the first time, little thinking that before many months had gone I should know of deeds by his hand which had set the world aflame with indignation, deeds which carried me to strange places, and among dangers so terrible that I shudder when the record brings back their reality.
Hall was the first to speak, and it was evident to me that he cloaked his own voice, putting on the nasal twang and the manner of an East-end Jew dealer.
"I have come, Mister Black," he said, "as you was good enough to wish, with a few little things—beautiful things—which cost me moosh money——"
"Ho, ho!" sang out Captain Black, "here is a Jew who paid much money for a few little things! Look at him, boys!—the Jew with much money! Turn out his pockets, boys!—the Jew with much money! Ho, ho! Bring the Jew some drink, and the little Jew, by thunder!"
His merriment set all the company roaring to his mood. For a moment their play was far from innocent, for one lighted a great sheet of paper and burnt it under the nose of my friend, while another pushed his dirty drinking-pot to my mouth, and would have forced me to drink. But I remembered Hall's words, and held still, giving banter for banter—only this, I learnt to my intense surprise that the pot did not contain beer but champagne, and that, by its bouquet, of an infinitely fine quality. In what sort of a company was I, then, where mere seamen wore diamond rings and drank fine champagne from pewter pots?
The unpleasant and rough banter ceased on a word from Captain Black, who called for lights, which were brought—rough, ready-made oil flares, stuck in jugs and pots—and Hall gathered up his trinkets and proceeded to lay them out with the well-simulated cunning of the trader.
"That, Mister Black," he said, putting a miniature of exquisite finish against the white fur on the floor, "is a portrait of the Emperor Napoleon, sometime in the possession of the Empress Josephine; that is a gold chain—he was eighteen carat—once the property of Don Carlos; here is the pen with which Francis Drake wrote his last letter to the Queen Elizabeth—beautiful goods as ever was, and cost moosh money!"
"To the dead with your much money," said the Captain with an angry gesture, as he snatched the trinkets from him, and eyed them to my vast surprise with the air of a practised connoisseur; "let's handle the stuff, and don't gibber. How much for this?" He held up the miniature, and admiration betrayed itself in his eyes.
"He was painted by Sir William Ross, and I sell him for two hundred pounds, my Captain. Not a penny less, or I'm a ruined man!"
"The Jew a ruined man! Hark at him! Four-Eyes"—this to a great lanky fellow who lay asleep in the corner—"the little Jew can't sell 'em under two hundred, I reckon; oh, certainly not; why, of course. Here, you, Splinters, pay him for a thick-skinned, thieving shark, and give him a hundred for the others."
The boy Splinters, who was a black lad, seemingly about twelve years old, came up at the word, and took a great canvas bag from a hook on the wall. He counted three hundred gold pieces on the floor—pieces of all coinages in Europe and America, as they appeared to be by their faces, and Hall, who had squatted like the others, picked them up. Then he asked a question, while the little black lad, who bore a look of suffering on his worn face, stood waiting the Captain's word.
"Mister Captain, I shall have waiting for me at Plymouth to-morrow a relic of the great John Hawkins, which, as I'm alive, you shouldn't miss. I have heard them say that it is the very sword with which he cut the Spaniards' beards. Since you have told me that you sail to-morrow, I have thought, if you put me on your ship across to Plymouth, I could show you the goods, and you shall have them cheap—beautiful goods, if I lose by them."
Now, instead of answering this appeal as he had done the others, with his great guffaw and banter, Captain Black turned upon Hall as he made his request, and his face lit up with passion. I saw that his eyes gave one fiery look, while he clenched his fists as though to strike the man as he sat, but then he restrained himself. Yet, had I been Hall, I would not have faced such another glance for all that adventure had given me. It was a look which meant ill—all the ill that one man could mean to another.
"You want to come aboard my boat, do you?" drawled the Captain, as he softened his voice to a fine tone of sarcasm. "The dealer wants a cheap passage; so ho! what do you say, Four-Eyes; shall we take the man aboard?"
Four-Eyes sat up deliberately, and struck himself on the chest several times as though to knock the sleep out of him. He seemed to be a brawny, thick-set Irishman, gigantic in limb, and with a more honest countenance than his fellows. He wore a short pea-jacket over the dirty red shirt, and a great pair of carpet slippers in place of the sea-boots which many of the others displayed. His hair was light and curly, and his eyes, keen-looking and large, were of a grey-blue and not unkindly-looking. I thought him a man of some deliberation, for he stared at the Captain and at Hall before he answered the question put to him, and then he drank a full and satisfying draught from the cup before him. When he did give reply, it was in a rich rolling voice, a luxurious voice which would have given ornament to the veriest common-place.
"Oi'd take him aboard, bedad," he shouted, leaning back as though he had spoken wisdom, and then he nodded to the Captain, and the Captain nodded to him.
The understanding seemed complete.
"We sail at midnight, tide serving," said the Captain, as he picked up the miniature and the other things; "you can come aboard when you like—here, boy, lock these in the chest."
The boy put out his hand to take the things, but in his fear or his clumsiness, he dropped the miniature, and it cracked upon the floor. The mishap gave me my first real opportunity of judging these men in the depth of their ruffianism. As the lad stood quivering and terror-struck, Black turned upon him, almost foaming at the lips.
"You clumsy young cub, what d'ye mean by that?" he asked; and then, as the boy fell on his knees to beg for mercy, casting one pitiful look towards me—a look I shall not soon forget—he kicked him with his foot, crying—
"Here, give him a dozen with your strap, one of you."
He had but to say the words, when a colossal brute seized the boy in his grip, and held his head down to the table board, while another, no more gentle, stripped his shirt off, and struck him blow after blow with the great buckle, so that the flesh was torn while the blood trickled upon the floor. The brutal act stirred the others to a fine merriment, yet for myself, I had all the will to spring up and grip the striker as he stood, but Hall, who had covered my hand with his, held it so surely, and with such prodigious strength, that my fingers almost cracked. It was the true sign-manual for me to say nothing, and I realised how hopeless such a struggle would be, and turned my head that I should not see the cruel thing to the end.
When the lad fainted they gave him a few kicks with their heavy boots, and he lay like a log on the floor, until the ruffian named "Roaring John" picked him up and threw him into the next room. The incident was forgotten at once, and Captain Black became quite merry.
"Bring in the victuals, you, John," he said, "and let Dick say us a grace; he's been doing nothing but drink these eight hours."
Dick, a red-haired, penetrating-looking Scotsman, who carried the economy of his race even to the extent of flesh, of which he was sparse, greeted the reproof by casting down his eyes into the empty can before him.
"Is a body to cheer himself wi' naething?" he asked; "not wi' a bit food and drink after twa days' toil? It's an unreasonable man ye are, Mister Black, an' I dinna ken if I'll remain another hoor as meenister to yer vessel."
"Ho, ho, Dick the Ranter sends in his resignation; listen to that, boys," said the Captain, who had found his humour again. "Dick will not serve the honourable company any longer. Ho, swear for the strangers, Dick, and let 'em hear your tongue."
The man, rascal and ill-tongued as I doubt not he was at times, refused to comply with the demand as the food at length was put upon the table. It was rich food, stews, with a profuse display of oysters, chickens, boiled, roast, à la maître d'hôtel, fine French trifles, pasties, ices—and it was to be washed down, I saw, by draughts from magnums of Pommery and Greno. I was, at this stage, so well accustomed to the scene that the novelty of a company of dirty, repulsive-looking seamen banqueting in this style did not surprise me one whit, only I wished to be away from a place whose atmosphere poisoned me, and where every word seemed garnished with some horrible oath. I whispered this thought to Hall, and he said, "Yes," and rose to go, but the Captain pulled him back, crying—
"What, little Jew, you wouldn't eat at other people's cost! Down with it, man, down with it; fill your pockets, stuff 'em to the top. Let's see you laugh, old wizen-face, a great sixty per cent. croak coming from your very boots—here, you, John, give the man who hasn't got any money some more drink; make him take a draught."
The men were becoming warmed with the stuff they had taken, and furiously offensive. One of them held Hall while the others forced champagne down his throat, and the man "Roaring John" attempted to pay me a similar compliment, but I struck the cup from his hand, and he drew a knife, turning on me. The action was foolish, for in a moment a tumult ensued. I heard fierce cries, the smash of overturned boards and lights, and remembered no more than some terrific blows delivered with my left, as Molt of Cambridge taught me, a sharp pain in my right shoulder as a knife went home, the voice of Hall crying, "Make for the door—the door," and the great yell of Captain Black above the others. His word, no doubt, saved us from greater harm; for when I had thought that my foolhardiness had undone us, and that we should never leave the place alive, I found myself in the Rue Joubert with Hall at my side, he torn and bleeding as I was, but from a slight wound only.
"That was near ending badly," he said, looking at the skin-deep cut on my shoulder. "They're wild enough sober, but Heaven save anyone from them when they're the other way!"
I looked at him steadily for a moment; then I asked—
"Hall, what does it mean? Who are these men, and what business carries you amongst them?"
"That you'll learn when you open the papers; but I don't think you will open them yet, for I'm going to succeed." He was gay almost to frivolity once more. "Did you hear him ask me to sail with him from Dieppe to-morrow?"
"I did, and I believe you're fool enough to go. Did you see the look he gave you when he said 'Yes'?"
"Never mind his look. I must risk that and more, as I have risked it many a time. Once aboard his yacht I shall have the key which will unlock six feet of rope for that man, or you may call me the Fool again."
It was light with the roseate, warm light of a late summer's dawn as we reached the hotel. Paris slept, and the stillness of her streets greeted the life-giving day, while the grey mist floated away before the scattered sunbeams, and the houses stood clear-cut in the finer air. I was hungry for sleep, and too tired to think more of the strange dream-like scene I had witnessed; but Hall followed me to my bedroom, and had yet a word to say.
"Before we part—we may not meet again for some time, for I leave Paris in a couple of hours—I want to ask you to do me yet one more service. Your yacht is at Calais, I believe—will you go aboard this morning and take her round to Plymouth? There ask for news of the American's yacht—he has only hired her, and she is called La France. News of the yacht will be news of me, and I shall be glad to think that someone is at my back in this big risk. If you should not hear of me, wait a month; but if you get definite proof of my death, break the seal of the papers you hold and read—but I don't think it will come to that."
So saying, he left me with a hearty handshake. Poor fellow, I did not know then that I should break the seal of his papers within three days.
"FOUR-EYES" DELIVERS A MESSAGE.
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—
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