The Stone Chest by G. A. Henty
Chapter VI.--The Madman.
Taking the things with them, they hastily descended the companionway.
It was not without a shudder that they passed the many bodies.
As they were preparing supper they noticed the sick man stirring.
"Who are you?" he suddenly muttered.
"We are Americans, like yourself," replied Bob. "Here, have something to eat?"
The man's eyes glistened.
"Give it me--quick!" he exclaimed, in a hoarse voice.
Jack, who had warmed some of the soup, brought it in a basin he had found, with a spoon and a piece of bread.
Bob took it from him and fed the invalid slowly.
"More," cried the latter, when it was finished.
"Not yet," replied our hero. "Have a doze, and you shall have as much as you want next time."
Giving him a glass of wine, they left him, and in a few minutes his regular breathing showed that he slept again.
By this time the joint of seal was roasted, and the little party of three sat down together.
"What can that noise come from?" exclaimed our hero, as he stayed his fork halfway to his mouth to listen.
"I heard it once or twice before," returned Jack, "but thought it rats."
"Faith, but I hope there's no ghosts here," cried Bok. "Heaven stand between us and harm."
"Bah! don't be foolish. It's rats, sure enough."
It was not long after this that the sick man sat up to partake of more food.
This done, he told his story.
He said he belonged to the whaler, Cross of Gold, which had been caught in a large icepack.
"This pack we attempted to cross," continued the sailor, "by dragging our boats over rollers we had brought with us.
"On the third day, however, a snow-storm set in, and continued for hours.
"Knowing as how time was valuable, after a rest, we tried to make our way through the drifting snow.
"But, after toiling for a long while, we found ourselves back where we started from.
"The captain, I and one or two others wanted to try again, but the rest outvoted us.
"We, therefore, tried to turn the pack by coasting along it, but, although we ran over a hundred miles along its edge, in a westerly direction, never a lead did we come across which offered any hopes of getting through.
"At length we came to the end, where it was joined on to another pack, which extended to the south.
"This we ran along till we saw high land before us.
"But all the shore was a rampart of old ice, so that it was next to impossible to approach.
"However, we killed quantities of seals and saw many whales floating in the open water.
"We then determined to make once more for the brig and start anew, taking an easterly route.
"But our luck was out. We lost many days in finding these islands, and when we did get back to them, hardly had we got on board than the weather broke up.
"For days the snow was driven in whirling clouds all around us.
"The decks were covered feet deep.
"It was impossible to get out in search of food, and we were almost starved.
"At length the weather cleared up, and we, with difficulty, forced our way on deck.
"The whole view was changed.
"A sharp frost had set in, and bound the snow-covered country with iron bands.
"Fresh ice had formed round the brig.
"I don't want to tell of the horrors of that winter.
"Some of us were mad, I guess."
"But what of the men frozen to death in the cabin?" asked Bob.
"Well, sir, we had built this kitchen, and the fireplace, and most of us in an evening would sit here and smoke.
"But dinner and supper was mostly taken in the cabin, where the big table was.
"It was the very bitterest of weather.
"Food at last there was none, except a lump of seal.
"It had been so awfully cold that none had dared venture out hunting.
"It was my day for being cook, and as soon as the joint was done we carried it into the cabin, which was warmed with a stove."
"Well, go on, man," exclaimed our hero, for the sailor had suddenly stopped in his narrative, as if some distant sound had caught his ear.
"Beg pardon, sir. Well, in spite of the stove, the meat was no sooner cut in slices than it was cold.
"I took mine back to the fire and rewarmed it.
"There was still a good supply of rum, and I took a swig at the bottle, and then, whether because of the cold or the rum, I don't know, but I fell sound asleep in front of the blaze.
"I woke up numbed with cold.
"The fire was nearly out, and the first thing I did was to make it up.
"Then, after heating myself a drop of grog, I fell to wondering what had become of my comrades.
"I stumbled along the passage, which felt as cold as the grave, and there, just as you see them now, sat our cap'n and his crew, frozen to death.
"The fire in the stove was out, and the companion door open.
"I took up one of the bodies, after I had recovered my nerve a bit, and dragged it along the passage into the kitchen.
"But I could not restore it to life, though I tried hard.
"So you see, sir, here have I been--Heaven in mercy! what's that?"
The sick sailor had risen to his feet.
Bob and Jack had done the same.
Bok crouched near the fire, with a horror-struck look in his eyes.
"It's the dead walking, maybe," he gasped.
A muffled thump, thump, thump! was again heard.
A minute or more passed.
Then our hero again seized a brand, and made a rush along the cabin passage.
Jack followed, and after him Bok.
A glance sufficed.
The body from the head of the table had disappeared.
"What can it mean?" exclaimed Jack. "I don't think I am a coward, but this is horrible."
"Something in that sick man's face tells me he has not spoken all the truth. We must have it out of him," said our hero.
But at that moment a mournful howl came from above.
Rushing to where their arms were stacked, Bob and Jack seized each a rifle and made their way on deck, not heeding, in their excitement, a cry not to fire from Horton, the sick man.
On lifting their eyes aloft they beheld a singular-looking object gazing at them over the edge of the foretop.
It appeared to be some huge animal, though of what kind they could not make out.
Scarcely waiting to consider what they were doing, Bob and Jack prepared to fire.
A wild shriek echoed along the deck.
"Stop that noise!" cried Bob, glancing round and seeing that Horton had managed to ascend the companion ladder.
Bob had thrown up his rifle to his shoulder, when the weak voice of the sailor arrested him in the act of firing.
"For heaven's sake, sir, don't fire! It's murder, nothing else."
As Horton spoke, the object of his solicitude, with incredible speed, slid down the forestay and disappeared through the scuttle of the forecastle.
"Please, sir, listen to me."
"All right; only be quick, and don't talk such nonsense about it's being murder."
With their guns in their hands, and taking good care to shut the door both at the top and bottom of the companionway, the two lads followed Bok and Horton through the dark death-cabin and passage to the kitchen, lit up by the cheerful firelight.
"Now, say what you have to, and be quick about it," cried our hero. "I can't rest quiet when a huge wild animal is within a few yards of us, though how it got there I can't imagine, for I thought there were no such things in the polar regions."
"That animal, as you call him, is Charlow, one of our sailors. He has gone mad."
No more was just then seen or heard of the crazy sailor, and the party retired for the balance of the night.
When the captain came from the yacht he brought Mrs. Cromwell and Viola with him, but left them in the small boat.
Bob quickly repeated Horton's tale.
"We must capture that madman and bind him with ropes," said Captain Sumner.
To this all, including Horton, agreed.
The descent to where the madman had disappeared was quickly made, but he could not be found.
"Hark!" cried Bob suddenly.
A wild cry of alarm arose on the cold air, coming from off the water.
"It's my mother and Miss Viola crying for help!" Bob went on.
"We must get to them at once!" returned Captain Sumner.
The party were quickly on the snow, running toward the small boat, Bob and Jack leading.
When they came in sight of the craft a scene met their gaze which filled them with horror.
The madman had boarded the boat and was in the act of shoving off.
Terror-stricken, Mrs. Cromwell and Viola shrank back on the stern sheets.
"Stop! stop!" yelled Bob.
With a snarl the madman bent to his work. Soon the boat was in deep water.
In desperation Bob leaped into the water after it.
Ere he could reach the craft the madman picked up the long ice pole and aimed a vicious prod with it at our hero's breast.
Bob was struck squarely, and on the instant disappeared beneath the surface with the shrill laugh of the crazy sailor ringing in his ears.