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The extraordinary prisoner - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

Zurita removed Ichthyander’s manacles as he had promised, gave him some clothes and took him to the river where he even let him collect his gloves and goggles. But as soon as they were on board the Jellyfish Ichthyander was seized by the crew, acting on Zurita’s orders, and locked in the hold. At Buenos Aires Zurita made a short stop to take on stores. He went to see Baltasar to show off his luck and then pulled out of harbour and hugged the coast, making for Rio de Janeiro. He intended to run north the length of South America and only start pearl-diving in the Caribbean Sea.

Gutierrez he had accommodated in the captain’s cabin. He had assured her that he had let Ichthyander go in the Rio de la Plata. However she soon knew it wasn’t true. In the evening Gutierrez heard faint cries and recognized Ichthyander’s voice. She was alone in the cabin and when she tried to go out she found the door locked. She drummed with her fists on it and shouted but nobody paid the least attention.

Hearing Ichthyander’s cries Zurita let out a string of coarse oaths, left the bridge and, followed by an Indian sailor, went down below into the dark and stuffy hold.

“What the hell are you yelling for?” Zurita asked.

“I’m-I’m suffocating,” Ichthyander’s voice came up to him. “I can’t live without water. It’s too stuffy here. Let me swim away. I won’t last to see the morning.”

Zurita clanged the hatch in place and came on deck. Suppose he really does croak, he thought worriedly. There’s no good in that.

He ordered a barrel to be lowered into the hold and pumped full of water.

“Here’s a bath for you,” Zurita said to Ichthyander. “You can have your swim. And tomorrow I’ll let you swim in the sea.”

Ichthyander got into the barrel. The Indian crew pressed round the hatch, in goggle-eyed wonder. They did not know yet that the prisoner was the “sea-devil “in flesh.

“Get the hell out of here! “ Zurita shouted at them from the hatchway.

Far from being able to swim Ichthyander could not even stretch full-length in the barrel and had to crouch for a full dip. Besides the barrel had been used for keeping salt pork in and the water in it was soon giving off a foul stench, making things not much better for Ichthyander than they had been before.

Meanwhile the schooner sped north, running before a fresh south-easterner.

Zurita went down to Ms cabin from the bridge in the bleary pre-dawn hour. He hoped his wife would have been long in bed. But he found her sitting up at the narrow table, her head resting on her arms. On his entry Gutierrez rose and in the dim light of the lamp hanging from the ceiling he saw a pale determined face.

“You deceived me,” she said in a hollow voice.

Somewhat disconcerted, even embarrassed, under Ms wife’s glaring eyes, yet anxious to conceal it, Zurita affected an I’m-sure-I-don’t-know-what-you-mean expression and gave his moustache a smart twist.

“Ichthyander chose to stay on board the Jellyfish to be near you,” he said ban-teringly.

“That’s a lie! You’re a mean and despicable man. I hate you! “ Without warning she snatched a dagger from its place on the wall and swung it at Zurita.

“Oho,” said Zurita as he caught her hand and gave it a savage squeeze that made her drop the weapon.

Then he kicked the dagger out of the cabin and let go of his wife’s hand.

“That’s better,” he said. “A drink of iced water should do your nerves a power of good.”

And he went out and locked the door.

As he came out on deck the eastern horizon was turning rosy while the still hidden sun had set the flimsy clouds afire. Salty and fresh, the morning breeze filled the sails. Sea-gulls wheeled above, on the look-out for unwary fish.

When the sun had come up Zurita was still pacing the deck, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Well, I’ve managed worse things, haven’t I,” he finally said to himself.

Then he ordered the crew to furl the sails. Presently the Jellyfish was riding at anchor on the lumpy seas.

“Fetch the prisoner and the chain,” Zurita ordered. He’d been itching to test Ichthyander’s performance as pearl-diver since he’d brought him on board. Besides hell perk up a bit in the water, he thought.

Two Indians frogmarched Ichthyander out on deck to the mizzen and stopped there. He threw a glance round him. The ship’s rail was only a few paces away. Without warning Ichthyander lunged for the rail and was about to jump overboard when Zurita’s heavy fist caught him on the side of his head. He dropped without as much as a groan.

“Haste doesn’t pay,” Zurita said sententiously.

There was a clang of iron as one of the sailors lugged out on deck a coil of thin chain ending in a band, also made of iron. Zurita adjusted the band round the still unconscious amphibian’s middle and locked it.

“Pour some water on his head,” he told the sailors.

After a while the young man came to himself and stared, bewildered, at the chain to which he was shackled.

“That’s to stop you running away,” Zurita explained. “I’m going to let you into the sea. Youll be looking for pearl shells for me. The more pearls you find the longer you stay in the sea. But no funny business, mind, or back you go into your barrel. Understand? Now, is that a bargain?”

Ichthyander nodded.

He was willing to get for Zurita all the treasures of the sea, so long as he could stay in its clean waters.

Zurita, the chained Ichthyander and his Indian escort went to the rail again. Gutierrez’s cabin was on the other side of the ship: Zurita did not particularly wish her to see Ichthyander in irons.

Ichthyander was lowered into the water and onto the sea-bottom. If he could only break the chain! But it was too strong for him and, resignedly, Ichthyander set to collecting pearl shells and putting them into the bag that hung from hisside. The iron band pressed his sides, making breathing rather difficult. And yet Ichthyander felt almost happy after having been doubled up for a whole night in that reeky barrel.

Up on deck the sailors, all agog, watched the happening. Minutes passed but the man on the sea-bed showed no sign of coming up. At first bubbles of air had appeared on the surface but soon even these ceased.

“Ill be eaten up by a shark if he’s got a gasp of air left in them lungs of his. Looks he feels hisself as much at home down there as a fish,” an old pearl-diver said in amazement, peering into the water below where the young man could be easily seen crawling on all fours along the sea-bed.

“May be it’s the ‘sea-devil’ himself?” a sailor said softly.

“Sea-devil or no sea-devil, the captain’s made a jolly good bargain,” said the first mate. “A diver like this is worth a dozen.”

The sun was close to the zenith when Ichthyander tugged at the chain to be pulled up. His bag was brim-full and he wanted to empty it so that he could go on with his work.

The Indian sailors hauled up the wonder diver in a trice. Everybody was dying to see the catch.

Ordinarily pearl shells are left alone for some days to rot but this time Zurita and his crew were far too impatient. So everybody set to work, prising the shells open with knives.

When they had finished with the shells everybody began to speak at once. A clamour of eager voices broke on deck. Perhaps Ichthyander had been lucky to strike a paying spot, but anyway what he had brought up in his very first bag surpassed everybody’s expectations. Among the numerous pearls there were a score of heavies, of excellent shape and exquisite colouring. Indeed his very first catch had brought Zurita a fortune. For the price of one of the bigger pearls he could buy a new schooner. Zurita was on the road to wealth. His dreams were coming true.

Then Zurita became aware of the greedy glances the sailors were throwing at the pearls. He didn’t like it and hastened to scoop the pearls into his straw hat.

“It’s time we all had breakfast,” he said dismissing the crew. “You’re not a bad diver, Ichthyander. I’ve got a spare cabin. I’m going to give it over to you. It won’t be so close there. And I’ll have a zinc tank made for you, though, you may not need it, seeing as you’re likely to swim in the sea every day. Chained, to be sure. But what can I do? You’d swim away of me otherwise, back to your crabs.”

Ichthyander hated to speak with Zurita. But so long as he was that man’s prisoner he should at least try and get decent lodgings out of him.

“A tank’s better than a stinky barrel,” he said to Zurita, “but youll have to change water often for me to breathe comfortably.”

“How often?” “Every half hour,” said Ichthyander. “Running water’d be still better.”

“I can see your head’s turned with success. I’ve praised you a little and here you are, demanding things, picking and choosing.”

“I’m not picking and choosing,” Ichthyander said in a hurt voice. “I’m-don’t you see, if you put a big fish into a pail of water it soon goes to sleep. A fish breathes oxygen out of the water and I–I’m no more than a very big fish really,” Ichthyander said with a self-conscious smile.

“I don’t know about oxygen but I do know that fish croak if you don’t change their water. Perhaps you’re right. But pumping water into your tank round the clock will cost me a pretty penny, more than your pearls are worth. You’ll ruin me that way.”

Now Ichthyander had no clear idea about the prices pearls fetch, neither did he know that Zurita paid his crew next to nothing. He believed what he said.

“If you find it too expensive to keep me, let me swim away! “ exclaimed Ichthyander and looked longingly at the ocean.

“Smart, aren’t you,” Zurita guffawed.

“Please. I will bring you pearls of my own free will. I’ve collected a heap of smooth round pearls, this high”, and Ichthyander touched his knee, “all alike and as big as a bean. Ill give you all of them, to the last one, if you only let me go.”

That virtually took Zurita’s breath away.

“Can’t be true,” he managed to say, trying to sound cool.

“I’ve never lied in my life,” Ichthyander flared up.

“Where’s that treasure of yours buried?” Zurita asked, no longer able to conceal his excitement.

“In a cave under the sea. Save for Leading nobody knows where it is.”

“Who’s Leading?”

“My dolphin.”

“Oh, is that so?”

What devilry is this? he thought. But if what he says is true — and I’ve a hunch it is-why, it’s bigger than anything I’ve ever dreamed of. I’ll be rich beyond imagination. Rothschilds and Rockefellers will look a bunch of beggars in comparison. I’ve a feeling the young fellow can be trusted. Shall I risk it?

But Zurita wasn’t one to treat any man’s word as sufficient security. And then doing Ichthyander out of his treasure and keeping him had a greater appeal for Zurita anyhow. Then his plan flashed on him. If Gutierrez asks Ichthyander to fetch his pearls hell do it, he thought.

“Perhaps I will let you go,” said Zurita, “but not straightway. Ill keep you for a while. Yes. I’ve got my reasons, of course. And I fancy you won’t have cause to regret a little delay either. And while you’re my guest, even if an unwilling one, I will see to it that you’re comfortable. Perhaps a big iron cage’d be just the job for you, seeing as a tank ‘d involve too much expense. You’d be lowered overboard in it-good for keeping the sharks off you too.”

“Yes, but I must sometimes breathe air as well.”

“Well, we’ll have you pulled up for that. That’ll be cheaper than pumping water into a tank. In a word, I’ll see to everything, you’ll be pleased.”

Zurita was in excellent spirits. He even ordered a tot of rum to be issued to all hands at breakfast — something that was never done on board his schooner.

While Ichthyander was being taken back into the hold awaiting a tank or cage, Zurita went below and unlocked the captain’s cabin. Not sure he was welcome, he halted in the doorway, showing his hatful of pearls to Gutierrez.

“I keep my promises,” he began, beaming at her, “and I know that my wife is fond of pearls — plenty of pearls. But you need a good diver for that. That’s why I’ve kept Ichthyander. Look, this is just one morning’s catch.”

Gutierrez affected a casual glance at the pearls. It was all she could do to suppress an exclamation of surprise. But Zurita sensed it and gave a complacent laugh.

“Youll be the richest woman in Argentina, in the whole of America. Youll have everything money can buy. Ill build a palace for you that will make kings gape with envy. Please accept the first instalment — half of these pearls.”

“No. I won’t touch a single one of those pearls got at the cost of a crime,” Gutierrez retorted sharply. “And, please, leave me alone.”

Zurita was dismayed and annoyed. He had not expected anything like that.

“Wait a minute. There’s something I wanted to ask you. Would you like me to let Ichthyander go?”

Gutierrez looked at Zurita distrustfully as she tried to guess what new ruse he had thought up.

“What next?” she asked him coldly.

“His fate’s in your hands. You have only to bid Ichthyander bring on board the Jellyfish the pearls he’s hiding somewhere under the water and hell be free to go where he pleases,”

“Now listen to me, Zurita. I don’t believe a single word of yours. You’re out to have the pearls and Ichthyander. I’m as sure of that as of the fact that I’m the wife of the biggest liar and double-crosser that ever walked in shoeleather. Remember this and never try again to make me party to your evil doings. Once more-leave me alone, please.”

There didn’t seem to be anything more Zurita could say, so he went out. Back in his own cabin he poured the pearls into a pouch, put it carefully into the chest, locked it and went up on deck. What his wife had just said to him did not affect him much. In his mind’s eye he saw himself a rich man with people crowding to pay homage to him.

He mounted the bridge and lit a cigar. The dreams of riches to come were warming him pleasantly. Usually alert, he did not see the sailors gather in groups to discuss something.

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