"How about the others?"
"Why, to tell the truth, I was thinking that sharks are good enough for them."
"They deserve no better, Tom, and I think we may as well get rid of them first. The tide's running out strong and we won't have them knocking about for long."
So it was done as we said, and carrying them by the feet and shoulders to the edge of the bluff—George, and Silly Theodore, and the nameless giant who had knocked me down so opportunely—we skilfully flung them in, and they glided off with scarce a splash.
"See that fin yonder!" cried Tom eagerly; and next minute one of the floating figures was drawn under. "Got him already!" (with a certain grim satisfaction). "That's what I call quick work."
Then we turned to the poor captain, and carried him as gently as we could over the rough ground to the biggest of the banana holes, as the natives call them, and there we were able to dig him a fairly respectable grave.
"Do you know the funeral service, Tom?" I asked.
"No, sar, can't say as I do, though I seem to have heard it pretty often."
"Wait a minute. I've got a Bible aboard, I'll go and get it."
"I'd rather go with you, sar, if you don't mind."
"Why, you're surely not frightened of the poor fellow here, are you, Tom?"
"Well, sar, I don't say as I'm exactly that; but somehow he seems kind of lonesome; and, if you don't mind—"
So we went off, and were back in a few moments with the Bible, and I read those passages, from Job and the Psalms, immemorially associated with the passage of the dead:
"Man, that is born of woman, is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: He fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not—; and again:
Behold Thou hast made my days as a hand-breadth: and mine age is as nothing before Thee: Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Surely every man walketh in a vain show: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. When Thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, Thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man is vanity. Have mercy, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry: hold not thy peace at my tears, for I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were—."
And, by the time we had got to the end, our tears were falling like rain into a brave man's grave.
In Which Tom and I Seriously Start in Treasure Hunting.
Tom and Sailor and I were now, to the best of our belief, alone on the island, and a lonesomer spot it would be hard to imagine, or one touched at certain hours with a fairer beauty—a beauty wraith-like and, like a sea-shell, haunted with the marvel of the sea. But we, alas!—or let me speak for myself—were sinful, misguided men, to whom the gleam and glitter of God's making spoke all too seldom, and whose hearts were given to the baser shining of such treasure as that of which I for one still dreamed—with an obstinacy all the more hardened by the opposition we had encountered, and by the menace of danger the enterprise now held beyond peradventure—a menace, indeed, to which Tobias's words had given the form of a precise challenge. Perhaps but for that, remembering the count of so many dead men—men who had lost their lives in the prosecution of my probably vain desire—I would have given the whole thing up, and sailed the boat back to less-haunted regions, which Tom and I might easily have done, and as Tom, I could plainly see, would himself have preferred.
But Tobias's challenge made such a course impossible for any man worthy of the name, and I never gave the alternative a moment's consideration. But I did give Tom his choice of staying or going—a choice made possible that day by a schooner sailing close in shore and easy to signal. Yet Tom, while making no secret of his real feelings, would not hear of quitting.
"I sha'n't think a cent worse of you, Tom," I assured him. "Indeed, I won't. It's no doubt a mad business anyway, and I'm not sure I've the right to endanger in it any other lives than my own."
"No, sar," said Tom; "I came with you, you have treated me right, and I am going to see you through."
"You're the real thing; God bless you, Tom," I exclaimed. "But I doubt if I've the right to take advantage of your goodness. I'm not sure that I oughtn't to signal those fellows to take you off with them willy-nilly."
"No, sar, you wouldn't do that, I'm sure. I'm a free man, God be praised, though my mother and father were slaves"—and he drew himself up with pathetic pride—"and I can choose my own course, as they couldn't. Besides, there's no one needs me at home; all my girls and boys are well fixed; and if I have to go, perhaps there's some one needs me more in heaven."
"All right, Tom, and thank you; we'll say no more about it." And so we let the schooner go by, and turned to the consideration of our plans.
First we went over our stores, and, thanks to those poor dead mouths that did not need to be reckoned with any more, we had plenty of everything to last us for at least a month, not to speak of fishing, at which Tom was an expert.
When, however, we turned to our plans for the treasure-hunting, we soon came to a dead stop. No plans seemed feasible in face of that rocky wilderness, all knives to the feet, and writhing serpents of fanged and toothed foliage to the eye, with brambles like barbed-wire fences at every yard.
The indications given by Tobias seemed, in the face of such a terrain, naive to a degree. Possibly the land had changed since his day. Some little, of course, it must have done. Tom and I went over Tobias's directions again and again. Of course, there was the compass carved on the rock, and the cross. There was something definite—something which, if it was ever there at all, was there still—for in that climate the weather leaves things unperished almost as in Egypt.
Sitting on the highest bluff we could find, Tom and I looked around.
"That compass is somewhere among these infernal rocks—if it ever was carved there at all—that's one thing certain, Tom; but look at the rocks!"
Over twenty miles of rocks north and south, and from two to six from east to west. A more hopeless job the mind of man could not conceive. Tom shook his head, and scratched his greying wool.
"I go most by the ghost, sar," he said. "All these men had never been killed if the ghost hadn't been somewhere near. It's the ghost I go by. Mark me, if we find the treasure it'll be by the ghost."
"That's all very well," I laughed. "But how are we going to get the ghost to show his hand? He's got such bloodthirsty ways with him."
"They always have, sar," said Tom, no doubt with some ancestral shudder of voodoo worship in his blood. "Yes, sar, they always cry out for blood. It's all they've got to live on. They drink it like you and me drink coffee or rum. It's terrible to hear them in the night."
"Why, you don't mean to say you've heard them drinking it, Tom," I asked. "That's all nonsense."
"They'll drink any kind,—any they can get hold of,—chickens' or pigs' or cows'; you can hear them any night near the slaughterhouse." And Tom lowered his voice. "I heard them from the boat, the other night, when I couldn't sleep—heard them as plain as you can hear a dog lapping water. And it's my opinion there was two of them. But I heard them as plain as I hear you."
As Tom talked, I seemed to hear Ulysses telling of his meeting with Agamemnon in Hades, and those terrible ghosts drinking from the blood-filled trench, and I shuddered in spite of myself; for it is almost impossible entirely to refuse credence to beliefs held with such certitude of terror across so many centuries and by such different people.
"Well, Tom," I remarked, "you may be right, but of one thing I'm certain; if the ghost's going to get any one, it sha'n't be you."
"We've both got one good chance against them—" Tom was beginning.
"Don't tell me again about that old sucking fish."
"Mind you keep it safe, for all that," said Tom gravely. "I wouldn't lose mine for a thousand pounds."
"Well, all right, but let's forget the damned old ghosts for the present," and I broke out into the catch we had sung on so momentous an occasion—
Some gave a nickel, some gave a dime; But I didn't give no red cent— She was no girl of mine— Delia's gone! Delia's gone!
And it did one good to hear Tom's honest laughter resounding in that beautiful haunted wilderness, as the song brought back to both of us the memories of that morning which already seemed so long ago.
"I wonder what's become of our friend of 'the wonderful works of God,'" I queried.
"Wherever he is, he's up to no good, we may be sure of that," answered Tom.
At last we decided to try a plan that was really no plan at all; that is to say, to seek more or less at random, till we consumed all our stores except just enough to take us home. Meanwhile, we would, each of us, every day, cut a sort of radiating swathe, working single-handed, from the cove entrance. Thus we would prospect as much of the country as possible in a sort of fan, both of us keeping our eyes open for a compass carved on a rock. In this way we might hope to cover no inconsiderable stretch of the country in the three weeks, and, moreover, the country most likely to give some results, as being that lying in a semi-circle from the little harbour where the ships would have lain. It wasn't much of a plan perhaps, but it seemed the most possible among impossibles.
So the next morning, bright and early, we started work, I letting Tom take Sailor with him as company and protection against the spirits of the waste; also we took a revolver apiece and cartridge belts, and it seemed to me that the old fellow showed no little courage to go alone at all, with such hair-raising beliefs as he had. We each took food and a flask of rum and water to last us the day, and we promised to halloo now and again to each other for company, as soon as we got out of sight of each other. This, however, did not happen the first day. Of course, we carried a machete and a mattock apiece, though the latter was but little use, and, if either of us should find any spot worth dynamiting, we agreed to let the other know.
Harder work than we had undertaken no men have ever set their hands to. It would have broken the back of the most able-bodied navvy; and when we reached the boat at sunset, we had scarce strength left to eat our supper and roll into our bunks. A machete is a heavy weapon that needs no little skill in handling with economy of force, and Tom, who had been brought up to it, was, in spite of his years, a better practitioner than I.
I have already hinted at the kind of devil's underbrush we had to cut our way through, but no words can do justice to the almost intelligent stubbornness with which those weird growths opposed us. It really seemed as though they were inspired by a diabolic will-force pitting itself against our wills, vegetable incarnations of evil strength and fury and cunning.
Battalions of actual serpents could scarcely have been harder to fight than these writhing, tormented shapes that shrieked and hissed and bled strangely under our strokes, and seemed to swarm with new life at each onset! And the rock was almost more terrible to grapple with than they. Jagged and pointed, it was like needles and razors to walk on; and it was brittle as it was hard. While it could sometimes resist a hammer, it would at others smash under our feet like a tea-cup. It looked like some metallic dross long since vomited up from the furnaces of hell.
Only once in a while was a softer, limestone, formation—like the pit in which we had buried the captain—with hints at honeycombing, and possibilities that invariably came to nothing. Now again we would come upon a rock of this kind that seemed for a second to hint at mysterious markings made by the hand of man, but they proved to be nothing but some decorative sea-fossilisation, making an accidental pattern, like the marking you sometimes come across on some old weathered stone on a moor. Nothing that the fondest fancy could twist into the likeness of a compass or a cross!
Day after day, Tom and I returned home dead-beat, with hardly a tired word to exchange with each other.
We had now been at it for about a fortnight, and I loved the old chap more every day for the grit and courage with which he supported our terrible labours and kept up his spirits. We had long since passed out of sight of each other, and much time was necessarily wasted by our going to and from the place where we left off each day. Many a time I hallooed to the old man to keep his heart up, and received back his cheery halloo far and far away.
Once or twice we had made fancied discoveries which we called off the other to see, and once or twice we had tried some blasting on rocks that seemed to suggest mysterious tunnellings into the earth. But it had all proved a vain thing and a weariness of the flesh. And the ghost of John P. Tobias still kept his secret.
An Unfinished Game of Cards.
One evening, as I returned to the ship unusually worn-out and disheartened, I asked Tom how the stores were holding out. He answered cheerfully that they would last another week, and leave us enough to get home.
"Well, shall we stick out the other week, or not, Tom? I don't want to kill you, and I confess I'm nearly all in myself."
"May as well stick it out, sar, now we've gone so far. Then we'll have done all we can, and there's a certain satisfaction in doing that, sar."
Good old Tom! and I believe that the wise old man had the thought behind, that, perhaps, when there was evidently nothing more to be done, I might get rid of the bee in my bonnet, and once more settle down to the business of a reasonable being.
So next morning we went at it again; and the next, and the next again, and then on the fourth day, when our week was drawing to its close, something at last happened to change the grim monotony of our days.
It was shortly after the lunch hour. Tom and I, who were now working too far apart to hear each other's halloes, had fired our revolvers once or twice to show that all was right with us. But, for no reason I can give, I suddenly got a feeling that all was not right with the old man, so I fired my revolver, and gave him time for a reply. But there was no answer. Again I fired. Still no answer. I was on the point of firing again, when I heard something coming through the brush behind me. It was Sailor racing toward me over the jagged rocks. Evidently there was something wrong.
"Something wrong with old Tom, Sailor?" I asked, as though he could answer me. And indeed he did answer as plainly as dog could do, wagging his tail and whining, and turning to go back with me in the direction whence he had come.
But I stopped to shoot off my revolver again. Still no answer.
"Off we go then, old chap," and as he ran ahead, I followed him as fast as I could over those damnable rocks.
It took me the best part of an hour to get to where Tom had been working. It was an extent of those more porous limestone rocks of which I have spoken, almost cliff-like in height, and covering a considerable area. Sailor brushed his way ahead, pushing through the scrub with canine importance. Presently, at the top of a slight elevation, I came among the bushes to a softer spot where the soil had given way, and saw that it was the mouth of a shaft like a wide chimney flue, the earth of which had evidently recently fallen in. Here Sailor stopped and whined, pawing the earth, and, at the same time, I heard a moaning underneath.
"Is that you, Tom?" I called. Thank God, the old chap was not dead at all events.
"Thank the Lord, it's you, sar," he cried. "I'm all right, but I've had a bad fall—and I can't seem able to move."
"Hold on and keep up your heart—I'll be with you in a minute," I called down to him.
"Mind yourself, sar," he called cheerily, and, indeed, it was a problem to get down to him without precipitating the loose earth and rock that were ready to make a landslide down the hole, and perhaps bury him for ever.
But, looking about, I found another natural tunnel in the side of the hill. Into this I was able to worm myself, and in the dim light found the old man, and put my flask to his lips.
"Anything broken, do you think?"
Tom didn't think so. He had evidently been stunned by his fall, and another pull at my flask set him on his feet. But, as I helped him up, and, striking a light, we began to look around the hole he had tumbled into, he gave a piercing shriek, and fell on his knees, jabbering with fear.
"The ghosts! the ghosts!" he screamed.
And the sight that met our eyes was certainly one to try the nerves. We had evidently stumbled upon a series of fairly lofty chambers hollowed out long ago first by the sea, and probably further shaped by man—caverns supported here and there by rude columns of the same rock, and dimly lit from above in one or two places by holes like mine shafts, down one of which fell masses of snake-like roots of the fig tree, a species of banyan.
Within the circle of this light two figures sat at a table—one with his hat tilted slightly, and one leaning sideways in his chair in a careless sort of attitude. They seemed to be playing cards, and they were strangely white—for they were skeletons.
I stood hushed, while Tom's teeth rattled at my side. The fantastic awe of the thing was beyond telling. And, then, not without a qualm or two, which I should be a liar to deny, I went and stood nearer to them. Nearly all their clothes had fallen away, hanging but in shreds here and there. That the hat had so jauntily kept its place was one of those grim touches Death, that terrible humorist, loves to add to his jests. The cards, which had apparently just been dealt, had suffered scarcely from decay—only a little dirt had sifted down upon them, as it had into the rum glasses that stood too at each man's side. And, as I looked at the skeleton jauntily facing me, I noticed that a bullet hole had been made as clean as if by a drill in his forehead of bone—while, turning to examine more closely his silent partner, I noticed a rusty sailor's knife hanging from the ribs where the lungs had been. Then I looked on the floor and found the key to the whole story. For there, within a few yards, stood a heavy sailor's chest, strongly bound around with iron. Its lid was thrown back, and a few coins lay scattered at the bottom, while a few lay about on the floor. I picked them up.
They were pieces of eight!
Meanwhile, Tom had stopped jabbering, and had come nearer, looking on in awed silence. I showed him the pieces of eight.
"I guess these are all we'll see of one of John P. Tobias's treasure, Tom," I said. "And it looks as if these poor fellows saw as little of it as ourselves. Can't you imagine them with it there at their feet—perhaps playing to divide it on a gamble; and, meanwhile, the other fellows stealing in through some of these rabbit runs—one with a knife, the other with a gun—and then: off with the loot and up with the sails. Poor devils! It strikes me as a very pretty tragedy—doesn't it you?"
Suddenly—perhaps with the vibration of our voices—the hat toppled off the head of the fellow facing us, in the most weird and comical fashion—and that was too much for Tom, and he screamed and made for the exit hole. But I waited a minute to replace the hat on the rakish one's head. As I was likely often to think of him in the future, I preferred to remember him as at the moment of our first strange acquaintance.
The dotted cays, With their little trees, Lie all about on the crystal floor; Nothing but beauty— Far off is duty, Far off the folk of the busy shore.
The mangroves stride In the coloured tide, With leafy crests that will soon be isles; And all is lonely— White sea-sand only, Angel-pure for untrodden miles.
In sunny bays The young shark plays, Among the ripples and nets of light; And the conch-shell crawls Through the glimmering halls The coral builds for the Infinite.
And every gem In His diadem, From flaming topaz to moon-hushed pearl, Glitters and glances In swaying dances Of waters adream like the eyes of a girl.
The sea and the stars, And the ghostly bars Of the shoals all bright 'neath the feet of the moon; The night that glistens, And stops and listens To the half-heard beat of an endless tune.
Here Solitude To itself doth brood, At the furthest verge of the reef-spilt foam; And the world's lone ends Are met as friends, And the homeless heart is at last at home.
Once More in John Saunders's Snuggery.
Need I say that it was a great occasion when I was once more back safe in John Saunders's snuggery, telling my story to my two friends, comfortably enfolded in a cloud of tobacco smoke, John with his old port at his elbow, and Charlie Webster and I flanked by our whiskies and soda, all just as if I had never stirred from my easy chair, instead of having spent an exciting month or so among sharks, dead men, blood-lapping ghosts, card-playing skeletons and such like?
My friends listened to my yarn in characteristic fashion, John Saunders's eyes more like mice peeping out of a cupboard than ever, and Charlie Webster's huge bulk poised almost threateningly, as it were, with the keenness of his attention. His deep-set kind brown eyes glowed like a boy's as I went on, but by their dangerous kindling at certain points of the story, those dealing with our pock-marked friend, Henry P. Tobias, Jr., I soon realised where, for him, the chief interest of the story lay.
"The —— rebel!" he roared out once or twice, using an adjective peculiarly English.
When I come to think of it, perhaps there is no one in His Britannic Majesty's dominions so wholeheartedly English as Charlie Webster. He is an Englishman of a larger mould than we are accustomed to to-day. He seems rather to belong to a former more rugged era—an Englishman say of Elizabeth's or Nelson's day; big, rough, and simple, honest to the core, slow to anger, but terrible when roused—a true heart of oak, a man with massive, slow-moving, but immensely efficient, "governing" brain. A born commander, utterly without fear, yet always cool-headed and never rash. If there are more Englishmen like him, I don't think you will find them in London or anywhere in the British Isles. You must go for them to the British colonies. There, rather than at home, the sacred faith in the British Empire is still kept passionately alive. And, at all events, Charlie Webster may truly be said to have one article of faith—the glory of the British Empire. To him, therefore, the one unforgivable sin is treason against that; as probably to die for England—after having notched a good account of her enemies on his unerring rifle—would be for him not merely a crown of glory, but the purest and completest joy that could happen to him.
Therefore it was—somewhat, I will own, to my disappointment—that for him my story had but one moral—the treason of Henry P. Tobias, Jr. The treasure might as well have had no existence, so far as he was concerned, and the grim climax in the cave drew nothing from him but a preoccupied nod. And John Saunders was little more satisfactory. Both of them allowed me to end in silence. They both seemed to be thinking deeply.
"Well?" I said, somewhat dashed, as one whose story has fallen down on an anti-climax. Still no response.
"I must say you two are a great audience," I said presently, perhaps rather childishly nettled.
"What's happened to your imagination!"
"It's a very serious matter," said John Saunders, and I realised that it was not my crony, but the Secretary to the Treasury of his Britannic Majesty's Government at Nassau that was talking. As he spoke, he looked across at Charlie Webster, almost as if forgetting me. "Something should be done about it, eh, Charlie?" he continued.
"—— traitor!" roared Charlie, once more employing that British adjective. And then he turned to me:
"Look here, old pal, I'll make a bargain with you, if you like. I suppose you're keen for that other treasure, now, eh?"
"I am," said I, rather stiffly.
"Well then, I'll go after it with you—on one condition. You can keep the treasure, if you'll give me Tobias!"
"Give you Tobias?" I laughed.
"Yes! if you go after the treasure, he'll probably keep his word, and go after you. Now it would do my heart good to get him, as you had the chance of doing that afternoon. Whatever were you doing to miss him?"
"I proposed to myself the satisfaction of making good that mistake," I said, "on our next meeting. I feel I owe it to the poor old captain."
"Never mind; hand the captain's rights over to me—and I'll help you all I know with your treasure. Besides, Tobias is a job for an Englishman—eh, John? It's a matter of 'King and Country' with me. With you it would be mere private vengeance. With me it will be an execution; with you it would be a murder. Isn't that so, John?"
"Exactly," John nodded.
"Since you were away," Charlie began again, "I've bought the prettiest yawl you ever set eyes on—the Flamingo—forty-five over all, and this time the very fastest boat in the harbour. Yes! she's faster even than the Susan B. Now, I've a holiday due me in about a fortnight. Say the word, and the Flamingo's yours for a couple of months, and her captain too. I make only that one condition."
"All right, Charlie," I agreed, "he's yours."
Whereat Charlie shot out a huge paw like a shoulder of mutton, and grabbed my hand with as much fervour as though I had saved his life, or done him some other unimaginable kindness. And, as he did so, his old broad sweet smile came back again. He was thinking of Tobias.
In Which I Learn Something.
While Charlie Webster was arranging his affairs so that he might be able to take his holiday with a free mind, I busied myself with provisioning the Flamingo, and in casually chatting with one and another along the water front, in the hope of gathering some hint that might guide us on our coming expedition. I thought it possible, too, that chance might thus bring me some information as to the recent movements of Tobias.
In this way, I made the acquaintance of several old salts, both white and black, one or two of whom time and their neighbours had invested with a legendary savour of the old "wrecking days," which, if rumour speaks true, are not entirely vanished from the remoter corners of the islands. But either their romantic haloes were entirely due to imaginative gossip, or they themselves were too shrewd to be drawn, for I got nothing out of them to my purpose. They seemed to be more interested in talking religion than the sea, and as navigators of Biblical deep seas little visited except by professional theologians they were remarkable. Generally speaking, indeed, piety would seem to have taken the place of piracy among the sea-going population of Nassau; a fact in which, no doubt, right-thinking folk will rejoice, but which I, I am ashamed to say, found disappointing.
Those who would master the art of talking to the Nassau negro should first brush up on their Bibles; for a pious salutation might almost be said to be Nassau etiquette for opening a conversation. Of course, this applies mainly to negroes or those "conchs" in whom negro blood predominates. The average white man in Nassau must not be considered as implicated in this statement, for he seems to take his religion much as the average white man takes it in any other part of the world.
One afternoon, in the course of these rather fruitless if interesting investigations among the picturesque shipyards of Bay Street, I had wandered farther along that historic water front than is customary with sight-seeing pedestrians; had left behind the white palm-shaded houses, the bazaars of the sellers of tortoise-shell, the negro grog-shops and cabins, and had come to where the road begins to be left alone with the sea, except for a few country houses here and there among the surrounding scrub—when my eye was caught by a little store that seemed to have strayed away from the others—a small timber erection painted in blue and white with a sort of sea-wildness and loneliness about it, and with large naive lettering across its lintel announcing itself as an "Emporium" (I think that was the word) "of Marine Curiosities."
A bladder-shaped fish, set thick with spines like a hedgehog, swung in the breeze over the doorway, and the windows on each side of the doorway displayed, without any attempt at arrangement, all sorts of motley treasures of the sea: purple sea-fans; coral in every fairy shape, white as sea-foam; conches patterned like some tessellated pavement of old Rome; monster star-fish, sharks' teeth, pink pearls, and shells of every imaginable convolution and iridescence, and many a weird and lovely thing which I had not the knowledge to name; objects, indeed, familiar enough in Nassau, but here amassed and presented with this attractive difference—that they had not been absurdly polished out of recognition, or tortured into horrible "artistic" shapes of brooch, or earring, or paper-knife, or ash-tray, but had been left with all their simple sea-magic upon them—as they might have been heaped up by the sea itself in some moonlit grotto, paved with white sand.
I pushed open the door. There was no one there. The little store was evidently left to take care of itself. Inside, it was like an old curiosity shop of the sea, every available inch of space, rough tables and walls, littered and hung with the queer and lovely bric-a-brac of the sea. Presently a tiny girl came in as it seemed from nowhere, and said she would fetch her father. In a moment or two he came, a tall weathered Englishman of the sailor type, brown and lean, with lonely blue eyes.
"You don't seem afraid of thieves," I remarked.
"It ain't a jewelry store," he said, with the curious soft sing-song intonation of the Nassau "conch."
"That's just what I was thinking it was," I said.
"I know what you mean," he replied, his lonely face lighting up as faces do at unexpected understanding in a stranger. "Of course, there are some that feel that way, but they're few and far between."
"Not enough to make a fortune out of?"
"O! I do pretty well," he said; "I mustn't complain. Money's not everything, you see, in a business like this. There's going after the things, you know. One's got to count that in too."
I looked at him in some surprise. I had met something even rarer than the things he traded in. I had met a merchant of dreams, to whom the mere handling of his merchandise seemed sufficient profit: "There's going after the things, you know. One's got to count that in too."
Naturally we were neck-deep in talk in a moment. I wanted to hear all he cared to tell me about "going after the things"—such "things"!—and he was nothing loth, as he took up one strange or beautiful object after another, his face aglow, and he quite evidently without a thought of doing business, and told me all about them—how and where he got them, and so forth.
"But," he said presently, encouraged by my unfeigned interest, "I should like to show you a few rarer things I have in the house, and which I wouldn't sell, or even show to every one. If you'd honour me by taking a cup of tea, we might look them over."
So we left the little store, with its door unlocked as I had found it, and a few steps brought us to a little house I had not before noticed, with a neat garden in front of it, all the garden beds symmetrically bordered with conch-shells. Shells were evidently the simple-hearted fellow's mania, his revelation of the beauty of the world. Here in a neat parlour, also much decorated with shells, tea was served to us by the little girl I had first seen and an elder sister, who, I gathered, made all the lonely dreamer's family. Then, shyly pressing on me a cigar, he turned to show me the promised treasures. He also told me more of his manner of finding them, and of the long trips which he had to take in seeking them, to out-of-the-way cays and in dangerous waters.
All this I really believe the reader would find as attractive as I did; still, as I am under an implied contract to tell him a story, I am not going to palm off on him merely descriptive or informative matter, except in so far as such matter is necessary, and I have only introduced him to my dreamer in "marine curiosities" for a very pertinent reason, which will immediately appear.
He was showing me the last and rarest of his specimens. He had kept, he said, the best to the last. To me, as a layman, it was not nearly so attractive as other things he had shown me—little more to my eye than a rather commonplace though pretty shell; but he explained—and he gave me its learned name, which I confess has escaped me, owing, doubtless, to what he was next to say—that it was found, or had so far been found, only in one spot in the islands, a lovely, seldom-visited cay several miles to the north-east of Andros Island.
"What is it called?" I asked, for it was part of our plan for Charlie to do a little duck-shooting on Andros, before we tackled the business of Tobias and the treasure.
"It's called —— Cay nowadays," he answered, "but it used to be called Short Shrift Island."
"Short Shrift Island!" I cried, in spite of myself, immediately annoyed at my lack of presence of mind.
"Certainly," he rejoined, looking a little surprised, but evidently without suspicion. He was too simple, and too taken up with his shell.
"It is such an odd name," I said, trying to recover myself.
"Yes! those old pirate chaps certainly did think up some of the rummiest names."
"One of the pirate haunts, was it?" I queried with assumed indifference.
"Supposed to be. But one hears that of every other cay in the Bahamas. I take no stock in such yarns. My shells are all the treasure I expect to find."
"What did you call that shell?" I asked.
He told me the name again, but again I forgot it immediately. Of course I had asked it only for the sake of learning more precisely about Short Shrift Island. He told me innocently enough just where it lay.
"Are you going after it?" he laughed.
"After what?" I enquired in alarm.
"The ——"; (again he mentioned the name of the shell.)
"O! well," I replied, "I am going on a duck-shooting trip to Andros before long, and I thought I might drop around to your cay and pick a few of them up for you."
"It would be mighty kind of you, but they're not easy to find. I'll tell you just exactly—" He went off, dear fellow, into the minutest description of the habitats of ——, while all the time I was eager to rush off to Charlie Webster and John Saunders, and shout into their ears—as, later, I did, at the first possible moment, that evening: "I've found our missing cay! What's the matter with your old maps, John? Short Shrift Island is ——; (I mentioned the name of a cay, which, as in the case of "Dead Men's Shoes," I am unable to divulge.)
"Maybe!" said Charlie, "maybe! We can try it. But," he added, "did you find out anything about Tobias?"
In Which I am Afforded Glimpses into Futurity—Possibly Useful.
Two or three evenings before we were due to sail, at one of our snuggery conclaves, I put the question whether any one had ever tried the divining rod in hunting for treasure in the islands. Charlie took his pipe out of his mouth, the more comfortably to beam his big brotherly smile at me.
"What a kid you are!" he said. "You want the whole bag of tricks, eh?"
But I retorted that he was quite behind the times if he considered the divining rod an exploded superstition. Its efficacy in finding water, I reminded him, was now admitted by the most sceptical science, and I was able to inform him that a great American railway company paid a yearly salary to a "dowser" to guide it in the construction of new roads through a country where water was scarce and hard to find.
Old John nodded, blinking his mischievous eyes. He had more sympathy than Charlie with the foolishness of old romance. It was true enough, he said, and added that he knew the man I wanted, a half-crazy old negro back there in Grant's Town—the negro quarter spreading out into the brush behind the ridge on which the town of Nassau proper is built.
"He calls himself a 'king,'" he added, "and the natives do, I believe, regard him as the head of a certain tribe. Another tribe has its 'queen' whom they take much more seriously. You must not forget that it is not so long ago since they all came from Africa, and the oldest negroes still speak their strange African languages, and keep up their old beliefs and practices. 'Obeah,' of course, is still actively practised.
"Why," he resumed presently, "I may even be said to practise it myself; for I protect that part of my grounds here that abuts on Grant's Town by hanging up things in bottles along the fences, which frighten away at least a percentage of would-be trespassers. You should go and see the old man, if only for fun. The lads call him 'Old King Coffee'—a memory I suppose of the Ashantee War. Any one will tell you where he lives. He is something of a witch-doctor as well as 'king,' and manages to make a little out of charms, philtres and such like, I'm told—enough to keep him in rum anyway. He has a name too as a preacher—among the Holy Jumpers!—but he's getting too old to do much preaching nowadays. He may be a little off his head, but I think he's more of a shrewd old fraud. Go and see him for fun anyway."
So, next morning, I went.
I had hardly been prepared for the plunge into "Darkest Africa" which I found myself taking, as, leaving Government House behind, perched on the crest of its white ridge, I walked a few yards inland and entered a region which, for all its green palms, made a similar sudden impression of pervading blackness on the mind which one gets on suddenly entering a coal-mining district, after travelling through fields and meadows.
There were far more blacks than whites down on Bay Street, but here there were nothing but blacks on every side. The wood of the cabins—most of them neat enough and pleasantly situated in their little gardens of bananas and cocoa-nut palms—was black, as with age or coal dust; and the very foliage, in its suggestion of savage scenes in one's old picture-books, suggested "natives." The innumerable smart little pigs that seemed free of the place were black. The innumerable goats, too, were black. And everywhere, mixed in with the pigs and the goats, were the blackest of picaninnies. Everywhere black faces peered from black squares of windows, most of them cheery and round and prosperous looking, but here and there a tragically old crone with witch-like white hair.
The roads ran in every direction, and along them everywhere were figures of black women shuffling with burdens on their heads, or groups of girls, audaciously merry, most of them bonny, here and there almost a beauty. There were churches, and dance-halls, and saloons—all radiating, so to say, a prosperous blackness. It was from these dance-halls that there came at night that droning and braying of barbaric music, as from some mysterious "heart of darkness," as one turned to sleep in one's civilised Nassau beds—a music that kept on and on into the inner blackness of the night.
At first the effect of the whole scene was a little sinister, even a little frightening. The strangeness of Africa, the African jungle, was here, and one was a white man in it all alone among grinning savage faces. But for the figures about one being clothed, the illusion had been complete; but for that and the kind-hearted salutations from comely white-turbaned mammies which soon sprang up about me, and the groups of elfish children that laughingly blocked one's progress with requests—not in any weird African dialect but in excellent national-school English—for "a copper please."
This request was not above the maidenly dignity of quite big and buxom lasses. One of these, a really superb young creature, not too liberally clothed to rob one's eyes of her noble contours, caught my attention by the singularity of something she carried. It was an enormous axe, the shining blade balanced easily on her head, and the handle jutting out horizontally like some savage head-dress. She looked like a beautiful young headswoman. Even she asked for "a copper, please," but with a saucy coquetry befitting her adolescence.
"A big girl like you too!" I ventured. She gave a fine savage laugh, without in the least jeopardising the balance of the axe.
"I'll give you one if you'll tell me where the 'King' lives," said I.
"Ole King Coffee?" she asked, and then fell into a very agony of negro laughter. The poor old king was evidently the best of all possible jokes to this irreverent young beauty. Then, recovering, she put her finger to her lips, suggesting silence, and said:
"Come along, I'll show you!"
And, walking by my side, lithe as a young animal, evidently without giving a thought to her gleaming headdress, she had soon brought me to a cabin much like the rest, though perhaps a little poorer looking. Stopping a little short of it, she once more put her finger to her lips.
"Shh! There he is!" and she shook all over again with suppressed giggles.
I gave her a sixpence and told her to be a good girl. Then I advanced up a little strip of garden to where I had caught a glimpse of a venerable white-haired negro seated at the window, as if for exhibition, with a great open book in his hands. This he appeared to be reading with great solemnity, through enormous goggles, though I thought I caught a side-glint of his eye, as though he had taken a swift reconnoitring glance in my direction—a glance which apparently had but deepened his attention and increased the dignity of his demeanour. That dignity indeed was magnificent, and was evidently meant to convey to the passers-by and the world at large that they were in the presence of royalty.
As I approached the doorway, my eye was caught by a massive decoration glittering immediately above it. It was a design of large gilt wooden letters which I couldn't make out at first, as it had been turned upside down. I didn't realise its meaning till afterward, but I may as well tell the reader now.
Shortly before, King Coffee, feeling in need of some insignia to blazon forth his rank, had appealed to a friend of his, a kindly American visitor, who practically kept the old fellow alive with his bounty. This kind friend was a wag too, and couldn't resist the idea that had come to him. The old man wanted something that glittered. So the American had bethought him of those big lettered signs which on the face of saloons brighten the American landscape—signs announcing somebody or other's "extra." This it was that now glittered in front of me as—the royal arms!
That it was upside down merely added to its mysterious impressiveness for the passer-by, and in no way afflicted the old king since, in spite of that imposing book at the window, he was quite unable to read. That book, a huge, much-gilded family Bible, was merely another portion of the insignia—presented by the same kind friend; as also was the magnificent frock coat, three sizes too big for the shrunken old figure, in which I found him—installed, shall I say?—as I presently stood before him in response to a dignified inclination of his head, welcoming me, at the window.
Remembering that he was not merely royal, but pious also, I made my salutation at once courtier-like and sanctimonious.
"Good day to Your Majesty," I said; "God's good, God looks after his servants."
"De Lord is merciful," he answered gravely; "God takes care of his children. Be seated, sar, and please excuse my not rising, my rheumatism is a sore affliction to me. But de Lord is good, de Lord giveth and de Lord He taketh away—and de holy text includes rheumatism too—as I have told my poor wandering flock many a Sabbath evening."
And he smiled in a sly self-satisfied way at his pious pun. "The old fellow is far from being crazy," I said to myself.
I was not long in getting to the subject of my visit. The old man listened to me with great composure, but with a marked accession of mysterious importance in his manner. So mediaeval astrologers drew down their brows with a solemn assumption of supernatural wisdom when consulted by some noble client—noble, but pitiably mortal in the presence of their hidden knowledge. He had put his book down as I talked. I noticed that he had been holding it—like his royal arms—upside down.
"It's true, sar," he said, when I had finished, "I could find it for you. I could find it for you, sure enough; and I'm de only man in all de islands dat could. But I should have to go wid you, and it's de Lord's will to keep me here in dis chair wid rheumatics. O! I don't murmur. It is de Lord's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes. De rods has turned in dese old hands many a time, and I have faith in de Lord dey would turn again—yes. I'd find it for you; sure enough. I'd find it if any man could—and it was de Lord's will. But mebbe I can see it for you widout moving from dis chair. For when de Lord takes away one gift from his servants, he gives dem another. It is His will dat dese 'ere old legs are stiff and can carry me round no more. So wot does de good Lord do? He says: 'Nebber mind dem ole legs; nebber mind dem ole weary eyes; sit jus' whar yuh are,' says de Lord, 'nebber min' no movin' round.' De Lord do wondrous things to his faithful followers; He opens de eyes of de spirit, so, having no eyes, dey shall see. Hallelujah! Glory be to de Lord!—see down into de bowels of de earth, see thousands of miles away just as plain as dis room—"
He had worked himself up to a sort of religious ecstasy, as I had seen the revivalist sect he belonged to, known as the Holy Jumpers, do at their curious services.
"Do you mean, brother, that the Lord has given you second sight?"
"Dat am it! Glory to His name, Hallelujah!" he answered. "I look in a glass ball—so; and if de spirit helps me I can see clear as a picture far under de ground, far, far away over de sea. It's de Lord's truth, sar—Blessed be His Name!"
I asked him whether he would look into his crystal for me. With a burst of profanity, as unexpected as it was vivid, he cursed "dem boys" that had stolen from him a priceless crystal which once had belonged to his old royal mother, who, before him, had had the same gift of the spirit. But, he added—turning to a table by his side, and lifting from it a large cut-glass decanter of considerable capacity, though at present void of contents—that he had found that gazing into the large glass ball of its stopper produced almost equally good results at times.
He said this with perfect solemnity, though, as he placed the decanter on top of his Bible in front of him, I observed, with an inner smile, that he tilted it slightly on one side, as though remarking, strictly to himself, that, save for a drain of dark-coloured liquid in one corner, it was painfully empty.
Then, with a sigh, he applied himself to his business of seer. First, he asked me to be kind enough to shut the door.
We had to be very quiet, he declared; the spirit could work only in deep silence. And he asked me to be kind enough to close my eyes. Then I heard his voice muttering, in a strange tongue, a queer dark gobbling kind of words, which may have been ancient African spell-words, or sheer gibberish such as magicians in all times and places have employed to mystify their consultants.
I looked at him through the corner of my eye—as, doubtless, he had anticipated, for he was glaring with an air of inspired abstraction into the ball of the decanter stopper. So we sat silent for, I suppose, some ten minutes. Then I heard him give another deep sigh. Opening my eyes, I saw him slowly shaking his head.
"De spirits don't seem communicable dis afternoon," he muttered, once more tilting the decanter slightly on one side and observing it drearily as before.
I had been rather slow, indeed, in taking the hint, but I determined to take it, and see what would happen.
"Do you think, Your Majesty," I asked, with as serious a face as I could assume, "the spirits might work better—if the decanter were to be filled?"
The old man looked at me a little cautiously, as though wondering how to take me. I tried to keep grave, but I couldn't quite suppress a twinkle; catching it, he took courage—seemed to feel that he could trust me. Slapping his knee, he let himself go in a rush of that deep, chuckling, gurgling, child-like negro laughter which is one of the most appealing gifts of his pathetic race.
"Mebbe, sar; mebbe. Spirits is curious things; dey need inspiration sometimes, just like ourselves."
"What kind of inspiration, do you think, gets the best results, Your Majesty?"
"Well, sar, I can't say as dey is very particular, but I'se noticed dey do seem powerful 'tached to just plain good old Jamaica rum."
"They shall have it," I said.
I had noticed that there was a saloon a few yards away, so before many more minutes had passed, I had been there and come back again, and the decanter stood ruddily filled, ready for the resumption of our seance. But before we began, I of course accepted the seer's invitation to join him and the spirits in a friendly libation.
Then—I having closed my eyes—we began again, and it was astonishing with what rapidity the thick-coming pictures began to crowd upon that inner vision with which the Lord had endowed his faithful follower!
Of course, I was inclined now to take the whole thing as an amusing imposture; but presently, watching his face and the curious "seeing" expression of his eyes, and noting the exactitude of one or two of his pictures, I began to feel that, however much he might be inventing or elaborating, there was some substratum of truth in what he was telling me. I had had sufficient experience of mediums and clairvoyants to know that, except in cases of absolute fraud, there was usually—beneath a certain amount of conscious "imaginativeness"—a mysterious gift at work, independent of their volition; something they did see, for which they themselves could not account, and over which they had no control. And as he proceeded I became more and more convinced that this was the case also with Old King Coffee.
The first pictures that came to him were merely pictures, though astonishingly clear ones, of Webster's boat, the Flamingo, of Webster himself, and of the men and the old dog Sailor; but in all this he might have been visualising from actual knowledge. Yet the details were curiously exact. We were all bathed in moonlight, he said—very bright moonlight, moonlight you could read by. Pictures of us out at sea, passing coral islands and so forth followed, all general in character. But presently, his gaze becoming more fixed:
"I see you anchored under a little settlement. You are rowing ashore. Dere are little pathways running up among de coral rock, and a few white houses. And, yes! Dere is a man in overalls, on de roof of a building, seeming like a little schoolhouse. He waves to you; he is getting down from de roof to meet you. But his face is in a mist, I can't see him right. Now he is gone."
He stopped and waited awhile. Then he resumed:
"Seems to be a forest; big, big trees—not like Nassau trees—and thick brush everywhere; all choked up so thick and dark, can't see nut'n. Wait a minute, dough. Dere seems to be old houses all sunk in and los', like old ruins. Can't see dem right for de brush. And wait—Lord love you, sar, but I'se afraid—I seem to see a big light coming up trough de brush from far under de ground—just like you see old rotten wood shining in de dark—deep, deep down. Didn't I tell you de Lord gave me eyes to see into de bowels of de earth?—it's de bowels of de earth for sure—all lit up and shining. Praise de Lord!—it am de gold, for certain, all hidden away and shining dere under de ground—"
"Can't you see it closer, clearer?" I exclaimed involuntarily; "get some idea of the place it's in?"
The old man gazed with a renewed intensity.
"No," he said presently, and his disappointed tone seemed to me the best evidence yet of his truth, "I only see a little golden mist deep, deep down under de ground; now it is fading away. It's gone; I can only see de woods and de ruins again."
This brought his visions to an end. The spirits obstinately refused to make any more pictures, though the old man continued to gaze on in the decanter stopper for fully five minutes.
"De wind of de spirit bloweth as it listeth," said he at length, with the note of a more genuine piety in his voice than at the beginning; and there was a certain hushed gravity in his manner as we said good-bye, which made me feel that there had been something in his visions that had even surprised and solemnised himself.
In Which We Take Ship Once More.
The discovery which—through my friend the dealer in "marine curiosities"—I had made, or believed myself to have made, of the situation of Henry P. Tobias's second "pod" of treasure, fitted in exactly with Charlie Webster's wishes for our trip, small stock as he affected to take in it at the moment.
As the reader may recall, "Short Shrift Island" lay a few miles to the northwest of Andros Island. Now Andros is a great haunt of wild duck, not to speak of that more august bird, the flamingo. Attraction number one for the good Charlie. Then, though it is some hundred and fifty miles long and some fifty miles broad at its broadest, it has never yet, it is said, been entirely explored.
Its centre is still a mystery. The natives declare it to be haunted, or at all events inhabited by some strange people no one has yet approached close enough to see. You can see their houses, they say, from a distance, but as you approach them, they disappear. Here, therefore, seemed an excellent place for Tobias to take cover in. Charlie's duck-shooting preserves, endless marl lakes islanded with mangrove copses, lay on the fringe of this mysterious region. So Andros was plainly marked out for our destination.
But, when Charlie was ready for the start, the wind, which is of the essence of any such contract in the Bahamas, was contrary. It had been blowing stormily from the southwest, the direction we were bound for, for several days, and nothing with sails had, for a week, felt like venturing out across the surf-swept bar. It is but forty miles across the Tongue of Ocean which divides the shores of New Providence and Andros, but you need to pick your weather for that, if you don't want to join the numerous craft that have vanished in that brief but fateful strip of water. However, the wind was liable to change any minute now, Charlie said, so he warned me to hold myself in readiness to jump aboard at an hour's notice.
The summons came at last. I had been out for dinner, and returned home about ten to find the message: "Be ready to sail at midnight."
There was a thrilling suddenness about it that appealed to one's imagination. Here I had been expecting a landsman's bed, with a book and a reading-lamp, surrounded by the friendly security of houses; instead, I was to go faring with the night wind into the mystery of the sea.
It was a night of fitful moonlight, and Nassau, with its white houses and white streets, seemed very hushed and spectral as I made my way down to the wharf, vivid in black and silver.
There is always something mysterious about starting a journey at night, even though it be nothing more out-of-the-way than catching a midnight train out of the city; and the simple business of our embarkation breathed an air of romantic secrecy. The moon seemed to have her finger on her lip, and we talked in lowered voices as though we were bound on some midnight raid. The night seemed to be charged with the expectancy of the unknown, and Sailor, who, of course, was to be a fellow-voyager, whined restlessly from the wharf side at the little yawl that awaited us in the whispering, lapping water.
Sailor had watched his master getting his guns ready for some days, and, doubtless, memories stirred in him of Scotch moors they had shot over together. He raised his head to the night wind, and sniffed impatiently, as though he already scented the wild duck on Andros Island. He was impatient, like the rest of us, because, though it was an hour past sailing-time, we had still to collect two of the crew. The same old story! I marvelled at the good humour with which Charlie—who is really a sleeping volcano of berserker rage—took it. But he reminded me of his old advice as I started for my first trip: "No use getting mad with niggers—till you positively have to!"
Well, the two loiterers turned up at last, and, all preliminaries being at length disposed of, we threw off the mooring ropes, and presently there was heard that most exhilarating of sounds, to any one who loves sea-faring, the rippling of the ropes through the blocks as our mainsail began to rise up high against the moon which was beginning to look out over the huge block of the Colonial Hotel, the sea-wall of which ran along as far as our mooring. A few lights in its windows here and there broke the blank darkness of its facade, glimmering through the avenues of royal palms. I am thus explicit because of something that presently happened, and which stayed the mainsail in its rippling ascent.
A tall figure was running along the sea-wall from the direction of the hotel, calling out, a little breathlessly, in a rich young voice as it ran:
"Wait a minute there, you fellows! Wait a minute!"
We were already moving, parallel with the wall, and at least twelve feet away from it, by the time the figure—that of a tall boy, cow-boy hatted, and picturesquely outlined in the half light—stopped just ahead of us. "Like the herald Mercury," I said to myself. He raised something that looked like a bag in his right hand, calling out "catch" as he did so; and, a moment after, before a word could be spoken, he took a flying leap and landed amongst us, plump in the cock-pit, and was clutching first one of us and then the other, to keep his balance.
"Did it, by Jove!" he exclaimed in a beautiful English accent, and then started laughing as only absurd dare-devil youngsters can.
"Forgive me!" he said, as soon as he could get his breath, "but I had to do it. Heaven knows what the old man will say!"
He seemed to take it all for granted in a delightful, nonchalant way, so that the angry protest which had already started from Charlie's lips stopped in the middle. That fearless leap had taken his heart.
"You're something of a long jump!" said Charlie.
"O! I have done my twenty-two and an eighth on a broad running jump, but I had no chance for a run there," answered the lad, carelessly.
"But suppose you'd hit the water instead of the deck?"
"What of it? Can't one swim?"
"I guess you're all right, young man," said Charlie, softened; "but ... well, we're not taking passengers."
The words had a familiar sound. They were the very ones I had used to Tobias, as he stood with his hand on the gunwale of the Maggie Darling. I rapidly conveyed the coincidence—and the difference—to Charlie. It struck me as odd, I'll admit, that our second start, in this respect, should be so like the first. Meanwhile, the young man was answering, or rather pleading, in a boyish way.
"Don't call me a passenger; I'll help work the boat. I'm strong, you'll see—not afraid of hard work; and anyway, won't you help a chap to an adventure?... I'll tell the truth. I heard—never mind how—about your trip, and I'm just nutty about buried treasure. Come, be a sport; I've been watching for you all day. Pretty late starting, aren't you?... We can let the old guv'nor know, somehow ... and it won't kill him to tear his hair for a day or two. He knows I can take care of myself."
"Well!" said Charlie, after thinking awhile in his slow way, "we'll think it over. You can come along till the morning. Then I can get a good look at you. If I don't like your looks, we'll still be able to put you off at West End; and if I do—well—right-ho!"
"My looks!" exclaimed our young stranger, with a peculiar mellow laugh.
"What's the joke?" demanded Charlie.
"O! I only wondered what my looks had to do with it!"
"Well," laughed Charlie, entering into the spirit of the lad, "you might be pock-marked for all I know in this light—and I have a peculiar prejudice against pock-marked gentlemen."
"Unfeeling of you!" retorted the boy. "Anyhow," he added, with the same curiously attractive laugh, "I'm not pock-marked."
"We'll see at sunrise," said Charlie. "Now, boys," he shouted, "go ahead with the sails."
Once more there was that rippling of the ropes through the blocks, as our mainsail rose up high against the moon and filled proudly with the steady northeast breeze we had been waiting for. The water began to talk along our sides, and the immense freshness of the nocturnal sea took us in its huge embrace. The spray began to fly over our bows as we nosed into the glassy rollers, one of which, on the starboard side, admonished us, by half swallowing us, that only the mighty-limbed immortals might dance with safety on the bar that night, and that it were wise for even 45-foot yawls to hug the land till daylight. So, reluctantly, we kept the shadowy coast-line for our companion, as we steered for the southwestern end of the island; to our right, companions more of our mood, parallel ridges of savage whiteness, where the surf boiled and gleamed along the coral shoals.
How good it seemed to all of us to be out thus in the freedom of the night and the sea—not least to the great noble-headed hound sitting up on his haunches, keen and watchful by the steersman's side. What a strange waste of a life so short to be sleeping there on the land, when one might be out and away on such business as ours!
So two or three hours went by, as we plunged on, to the seething sound of the water, and the singing of our sails, and all the various rumour of wind and sea. After all, it was a good music to sleep to, and, for all my scorn of sleeping landsmen, an irresistible drowsiness stretched me out on the roof of the little cabin, wonderfully rocked into forgetfulness.
My nap came to an end suddenly, as though some one had flung me out through a door of blue and gold into a new-born world. There was the sun rising, the moon still on duty, and the morning star divinely naked in the heaven. And, with these glories, there rushed in again upon my ears the lovely zest and turmoil of the sea, heaving huge and tumultuous about us in gleaming hills and foam-flecked valleys.
And there was Charlie, his broad face beaming with boyish happiness, and something like a fatherly gentleness in his eyes, as he watched his companion at the tiller, whom, for a half-asleep moment of waking, I couldn't account for, till our start all came back to me, when I realised that it was our young scapegrace of over-night. Charlie and he evidently were on the best of terms already.
"Nice sailor you are!" Charlie laughed, as I sat up rubbing my eyes. "Falling asleep on watch! Our young friend here is worth ten of you."
I smiled good morning to our young passenger.
"How about the court-martial on his looks you spoke of last night, Charlie?" I asked.
"Well, he's not pock-marked, at all events, is he?—he told the truth so far. But I've still a question or two to ask him before we leave West End. We'll have breakfast first—to give him courage."
The lad made a humorous face to suggest his fear of the ordeal; as he did so, I took a good look at him. Charlie might easily have said a little more about his looks, had it been in his line, for, so far from being only "not pock-marked," he was something more like a young Apollo: some six feet in height, upstanding like the statue of a Greek athlete; a rich olive skin, through which the pink of youth came and went; and splendid blue-green eyes, fearless, and yet shy as a lad's eyes often are—at that moment of development when a good-looking lad, in spite of his height and muscles, has something of the bloom and purity of a girl, without in the least suggesting effeminacy. So, many tall athletic girls, for a brief period, suggest boys—without there being the least danger of mistake as to their real sex.
He was evidently very young—scarcely more than eighteen—and had a great tendency to blush, for all his attempt at nonchalant grown-up airs. He was the very embodiment of youth, in its sun-tipped morning flower. What Charlie could have to "question" this artless young being—as incapable of plotting, it seemed to me, as a young faun—passed my conjecture; but, as Charlie had given me a quiet wink, as he spoke of the after-breakfast examination, I suspected that it was one of those jokes of his which are apt to have something of the simplicity and roughness of seafaring tradition.
Meanwhile, old Tom had been busy with breakfast, and soon the smells of coffee and freshly made "johnny-cake" and frying bacon competed not unsuccessfully with the various fragrances of the morning. Is there anything to match for zest a breakfast like that of ours at dawn on the open sea?
Breakfast over, Charlie filled his pipe, assuming, as he did so, a judicial aspect. I filled mine, and our young friend followed suit by taking a silver cigarette-case from his pocket, and striking a match on the leg of his khaki knickerbockers with a professional air.
"All set?" asked Charlie, and, after a slight pause, he went on:
"Now, young man, you can see we are nearing the end of the island. Another half-mile will bring us to West End. Whether we put you ashore there, or take you along, depends on your answers to my questions."
"Fire away," answered the youth, blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke in a delicate spiral up into the morning sky; "but I've really told you all I have to tell."
"No; you haven't told us how you came to know of our trip, what we were supposed to be after, and when we were starting."
"That's true!" flushed the lad, momentarily losing his composure. Then, partly regaining it: "Is it necessary to answer that question?"
"Absolutely," answered Charlie, beginning to look really serious.
"Because, if you don't mind ... well, I'd just as soon not."
The boy's cheeks were burning with confusion, and he looked more than ever like a girl.
"For that very reason, I want to know. We are out on a more serious business than perhaps you realise, and your answer may mean more to us than you think."
"I'm sure it cannot be of such importance to you. Really it's nothing—a mere accident; and, besides, it's hardly fair for me to tell. I should have to give away a friend, and that, I'm sure you'll agree, is not cricket."
The boy had such a true innocent air, not to speak of his taking ways which had already quite won my heart, that I protested with Charlie on his behalf. But Charlie was adamant. He'd got Tobias so on the brain that there was no reasoning with him, and the very innocent air of the lad seemed to have deepened his suspicions.
"I'm sorry, but I shall have to insist," replied Charlie, looking very grim, and more and more like an Elizabethan sea-rover.
"All right, then," answered the youth, looking him straight in the eyes, "put me ashore."
"No; I won't do that now, either," declared Charlie, sternly setting his jaw. "I'll put you in irons, rather—and keep you on bread and water—till you answer my questions."
"You will, eh?" retorted the youth, flashing fire from his fine eyes. And as he spoke, quick as thought, he leaped up on to the gunwale, and, without hesitation, dived into the great glassy rollers.
But Charlie was quick too. Like a flash, he grabbed one of the boy's ankles, so that the beautiful dive was spoiled; and there was the boy, hanging by an imprisoned leg over the ship's side, a helpless captive—his arms in the water and his leg struggling vainly to get free. But he might as well have struggled against the grip of Hercules. In another moment Charlie had him hauled aboard again, his eyes full of tears of boyish rage and humiliation.
"You young fool!" exclaimed Charlie. "The water round here is thick with sharks; you wouldn't have gone fifty yards without one of them getting you." ...
"Sharks!" gasped out the boy, contemptuously. "I know more about sharks than you do."
"You seem to know a good many things I don't," said Charlie, whose grimness had evidently relaxed a little at the lad's display of mettle. Meanwhile, my temper was beginning to rise on behalf of our young passenger.
"I tell you what, Charlie," I interposed; "if you are going to keep this up, you'd better count me out on this trip and set us both ashore at West End. You're making a fool of yourself. The lad's all right. Any one can see with half an eye there's no harm in him."
The boy shot me a warm glance of gratitude.
"All right," agreed Charlie, beginning to lose his temper too, "I'm damned if I don't." And, his hand on the tiller, he made as if to turn the boat about and tack for the shore.
"No! no!" cried the boy, springing between us, and appealingly laying one hand on Charlie's shoulder, the other on mine. "You mustn't let me spoil your trip. I'll compromise. And, skipper, I'll tell your friend here all there is to tell—everything—I swear—if you will leave it to his judgment."
Charlie gloomed for a moment or two, thinking it over, while I stood aloof with an injured air.
"Right-O," agreed Charlie at last; so our passenger and I thereupon withdrew for our conference.
It was soon over, and I couldn't help laughing aloud at the simplicity of it all.
"Just as I told you, Charlie," I exclaimed; "it's innocence itself." Turning to the lad, I said: "Dear boy, there is really no need to keep such a small secret as that from the skipper here. You'll really have to let me tell him."
The boy nodded acquiescence.
"All the same, I gave my word," he said
When I told Charlie the innocent secret, he laughed as I had done, and his usual good humour instantly returned.
"But to think, you young scapegrace," he exclaimed, "that you might either have been eaten by a shark, or have broken up an old friendship, for such nonsense as that." And, turning to me, and stretching out his huge paw, "My hand, old man; forgive my bad temper."
"Mine too," said I.
So harmony was restored, and the stubbornly held secret had merely amounted to this: Our lad was acquainted with my conchologist, and had paid him a visit the very afternoon I did, had in fact seen me leaving the house. Answering to the boy's romantic talk of buried treasure and so forth, the shell enthusiast had thought no harm to tell him of our projected trip; and that was the whole of the mysterious matter.
Yet the day was not to end without a little incident which, slight though indeed it was, was momentarily to arouse Charlie's suspicions of our charming young companion once more.
By this we had shaken off the unwelcome convoy of the coast-line, and, having had a thrilling minute or two running the gauntlet of the great combers of the southwest bar, we were at last really out to sea, making our dash under a good sailing breeze, with the engine going, too, across the Tongue of Ocean.
This Tongue of Ocean is but a narrow strip of sea—so narrow indeed that you scarcely lose sight of one coast before you sight the other—yet the oldest sailors cross it with fear, for its appalling depth within its narrow boundaries make it subject to sudden "rages" in certain winds. Even Charlie, who must have made the trip half a hundred times, scanned the western horizon with an anxious eye.
Presently, in the far southwest, tiny points like a row of pins began very faintly to range themselves along the sky-line. They were palm trees, though you could not make them out to be such, or anything in particular, till long after. One darker point seemed closer than the rest.
"There's High Cay!" rang out the rich young voice of our passenger, whom we'd half forgotten in our tense scanning of the horizon. Charlie and I both turned to him together in surprise—and his face certainly betrayed the confusion of one who has let something slip involuntarily.
"Ho! ho! young man," cried Charlie, his face darkening again, "what do you know about High Cay? I thought this was your first trip."
"So it is," answered the boy, with a flush of evident annoyance, "on the sea."
"What do you mean by 'on the sea'?"
"I mean that I've done it many a time—on the chart. I know every bluff and reef and shoal and cay around Andros from Morgan's Bluff to Washerwoman's Cut—"
"You do, eh?"
"On the chart. Why, I've studied charts since I was a kid, and gone every kind of voyage you can think of—playing at buccaneering or whaling, or discovering the North Pole. Every kid does that."
"They do, eh?" said Charlie, evidently quite unimpressed. "I never did."
"That's because you've about as much imagination as a turnip in that head of yours," I broke in, in defence of my young Apollo.
"Maybe, if you're so smart," continued Charlie, paying no attention to me, "you can navigate us through the North Bight?"
"Maybe!" answered our youngster pertly, with an odd little smile. He had evidently recovered his nerve, and seemed to take pleasure in piquing Charlie's bearish suspicions.
In Which We Enter the Wilderness.
Andros, as no other of the islands, is surrounded by a ring of reefs stretching all around its coasts. The waters inside this ring are seldom more than a fathom or two deep, and, spreading out for miles and miles above a level coral floor, give something of the effect of a vast natural swimming-bath. Frequently there is no more than four or five feet of water, and in calm weather it would be almost possible to walk for miles across this strange sea-bottom.
Darker and solider grew the point on which our eyes were set, till at length we were up with a thick-set, little scrub-covered island which, compared with the low level of the line of coast stretching dimly behind it, rose high and rocky out of the water. Hence its name, "High Cay," and its importance along a coast where such definite landmarks are few.
We were now inside the breakwater of the reefs, and the rolling swell of ocean gave way at once to a millpond calmness. Through this we sped along for some ten miles or so, following a low, barren coast-line till at length, to our right, the water began to spread out inland like a lake. We were at the entrance of North Bight, one of the three bights which, dotted with numerous low-lying cays, breaks up Andros Island in the middle, and allows a passage through a mazelike archipelago direct to the northwest end of Cuba. Here on the northwest shore is a small and very lonely settlement—one of the two or three settlements on the else-deserted island—Behring's Point.
Here we dropped anchor, and Charlie, who had some business ashore, proposed our landing with him; but here again our passenger aroused his suspicions—though Heaven knows why—by preferring to remain aboard. If Charlie has a fault, it is a pig-headed determination to have his own way—but our passenger was politely obstinate.
"Please let me off," he requested, in his most top-lofty English accent. "You can see for yourself that there's nothing of interest—nothing but a beastly lot of nigger cabins, and dirty coral rock that will cut your boots to pieces. I'd much rather smoke and wait for you in peace;" and, taking out his case and lighting a cigarette, he waved it gaily to us as we rowed off.
He had certainly been right about Behring's Point—Charlie was absurdly certain that he had known it before, and had some reason for not landing—for a more forlorn and poverty-stricken foot-hold of humanity could hardly be conceived; a poor little cluster of negro cabins, indeed, scrambling up from the beach, and with no streets but craggy pathways in and out among the grey clinker-like coral rock.
But it was touching to find even here that, though the whole worldly goods of the community would scarcely have fetched ten dollars, the souls of men were still held worth caring for—one handsome youth's contempt notwithstanding—for presently we came upon a pretty little church, with a schoolhouse near by, while from the roof of an adjacent building we were hailed by a pleasant-faced white man, busy with some shingling.
It was the good priest of the little place, Father Serapion, disguised in overalls and the honest grime of his labour; like a true Benedictine, praying with his strong and skilful hands. He was down from his roof in a moment, a youngish man with the face of a practical dreamer, strangely happy-looking in what would seem to most an appalling isolation; there alone, month after month, with his black flock. But evidently his was no such thought, for he showed us with pride the new schoolhouse he was building out of the coral limestone with his own hands, as he had built the church, every stone of it, and the picturesque well, and the rampart-like wall round the churchyard. His garden, too, he was very proud of, as he well might be, wrested as it was out of the solid rock.
Father Serapion and Charlie were old friends, and, when we had accepted the Father's invitation to step into his neat little house—also built with his own hands—and dissipate with him to the extent of some grape juice and an excellent cigar, Charlie took occasion to confide in him with regard to Tobias, and, to his huge delight, discovered that a man answering very closely to his description had dropped in there with a large sponger two days before. He had only stopped long enough to buy rum at the little store near the landing, and had been off again through the bight, sailing west. He might have been making for Cuba or for a hiding-place—of which there were plenty on the western shore of the island itself. Father Serapion, who knew Charlie Webster's shooting ground, promised to send a swift messenger, should anything further of interest to us come to his knowledge within the next week or so. As he was, naturally, in close touch with the natives, this was not unlikely.
And then we had to bid the good priest farewell—not without a reverent hush in our hearts as we pondered on the marvel of noble lives thus unselfishly devoted, and as we thought, too, of the loneliness that would once more close around him when we were gone.
It was not until we had left him that I suddenly recalled King Coffee's first vision. Clearly, Father Serapion was the man in overalls shingling the roof! If only his other visions should prove as true!
Then we sailed away from Behring's Point, due west through the North Bight. But we had spent too much time with the good Father, and in various pottering about—making another landing at a lone cabin in search of fresh vegetables and further loading up our much-enduring craft with three flat-bottomed skiffs, for duck-shooting, marvellously lashed to the sides of the cabin deck—to do much more sailing that day. So at sunset we dropped anchor under the lee of Big Wood Cay, and, long before the moon rose, the whole boat's crew was wondrously asleep.
Morning found us sailing through a maze of low-lying desert islands of a bewildering sameness of shape and size, with practically nothing to distinguish one from another. Even with long experience of them, one is liable to go astray; indeed Charlie and the captain had several friendly disputes, and exchanged bets, as to which was which. Then, too, the curious milky colour of the water (in strange contrast to the jewel-like clearness of the outer sea) makes it hard to keep clear of the coral shoals that shelve out capriciously from every island. In the daylight, the deeper water is seen in a bluish track (something like the "bluing" used in laundry work), edged on either side by "the white water." One has to keep a sharp lookout every foot of the way, and many a time our keel gave an ominous grating, and we escaped some nasty ledges by the mere mercy of Heaven.
We had tried bathing at sunrise, but the water was not deep enough to swim in. So we had paddled around picking up "conches"—those great ornamental shells which house with such fanciful magnificence an animal something like our winkle, the hard white flesh of which, cut up fine, makes an excellent salad; that is, as old Tom made it.
There is no fishing to speak of in these inclosed waters; nothing to go after except sponges, which you see dotting the coral floor in black patches. We gathered one or two, but the sponge in its natural state is not an agreeable object. It is like a mass of slimy india-rubber, and has to "die" and rot out its animal life, which it does with a protesting perfume of great power, the sponge of our bath-tubs being the macerated skeleton of the once living sponge.
We had hoped to reach our camp, out on the other side of the island, that evening, but that dodging the shoals and sticking in the mud had considerably delayed us. Besides, though Charlie and the captain both hated to admit it, we had lost our way. We had been looking all afternoon for Little Wood Cay, but as I said before, one cay was so much like another—all alike flat, low-lying, desolate islands covered with a uniform scrub and marked by no large trees—not unbeautiful if one has a taste for melancholy levels, but unpicturesquely depressing and hopeless for eyes craving more featured and coloured "scenery."
So night began to fall, and, as there is no sailing in such waters at night, we once more cast anchor under a gloomy, black shape of land, exceedingly lonesome and forgotten-looking, which we agreed to call "Little Wood Cay"—till morning.
Soon all were asleep except Sailor and me. I lay awake for a long time watching the square yard of stars that shone down through the hatch in our cabin ceiling like a little window looking into eternity, while the waters lapped and lapped outside, and the night talked strangely to itself. It was a wonderful meeting-place of august lonely things—that nameless, dark island, that shadowy water heaving vast and mournful, that cry of the wind, that swaying vault of the stars, and, framed in the cabin doorway, the great black head of the old dog, grave and moveless and wondering.
Next morning Charlie and the captain were forced to own up that the island, discovered to the day, was not Little Wood Cay. No humiliation goes deeper with a sailing man than having to ask his way. Besides, who was there to ask in that solitude? Doubtless a cormorant flying overhead knew it, but no one thought to ask him.
However, we were in luck, for, after sailing about a bit, we came upon two lonely negroes standing up in their boats and thrusting long poles into the water. They were sponging—most melancholy of occupations—and they looked forlorn enough in the still dawn. But they had a smile for our plight. It was evidently a good joke to have mistaken Sapodilla Cay for Little Wood Cay. Of course, we should have gone—"so." And "so" we presently went, not without rewarding them for their information with two generous drinks of old Jamaica rum. I never before saw two men so grateful for a drink. Their faces positively shone with happiness. Certainly it must have seemed as if that rum had fallen out of the sky, the last thing those chilled and lonesome men could have hoped for out there in the inhospitable solitude.
One of our reasons for seeking Little Wood Cay, which it proved had been close by all the time, was that it is one of the few cays where one can get fresh water. "Good water here," says the chart. We wanted to refill some of our jars, and so we landed there, glad to stretch our legs, while old Tom cooked our breakfast on the beach, under a sapodilla tree. The vegetation was a little more varied and genial than we had yet seen, and some small white flowers, growing in long lines, as if they had been planted, wafted a very sweet fragrance across our breakfast table of white coral sand. While we were eating, two or three little lizards with tails curiously twirled round and round, like a St. Catherine wheel, made themselves friendly, and ate pieces of bread from our hands without fear.
Now that we knew where we were, it was clear, but by no means careless sailing to our camp. By noon we had made the trip through the bight and, passing out of a narrow creek known as Loggerhead Creek, were on the southwest side of the island. A hundred and fifty miles or so of straight sailing would have brought us to Cuba, but our way lay north up the coast, as we had come down the other. Here was the same white water as the day before, with the bluish track showing the deeper channel; the same long, monotonous coast; the same dwarf, rusty-green scrub; not a sign of life anywhere. Nothing but the endless blue-streaked white water and the endless desert shore. We were making for what is known as the Wide Opening, a sort of estuary into which a listless stream or two crawl through mangrove bushes from the interior swamps.
But there is one startlingly pleasant river, curiously out of place in its desolate surroundings, which, after running through several miles of marl swamps, enters upon an oasis of fresher foliage and even such stately timber as mahogany, lignum vitae, and horseflesh; and it was in this oasis, at the close of the third day out, we found ourselves. Here, a short distance from the bank, on some slightly ascending rocky ground, under the spreading shade of something like a stretch of woodland, Charlie, several years ago, had built a rough log shanty for his camp—one of two or three camps he had thus scattered for himself up and down the "out islands," where nearly all the land is no man's, and so every man's, land. The particular camp at which we had now arrived he had not visited for a long time.
"Last time I was here," said Charlie, laughing, as, having dropped anchor, we rowed ashore, "I thought of what seemed to me an infallible test of the loneliness of the place. Let's see how it has worked."
The log shanty stood before us, doorless, comfortably tucked in under an umbrella-headed tamarind tree. There was no furniture in it but a rough table. On the table was a bottle, fallen over on its side. This Charlie snatched up, with a cry of satisfaction.
"What do you think of this?" he said. "Not a soul has been here but the turkey-buzzards. The beggars knocked this over, but otherwise it is just as I left it. Do you want better proof than this?"—and he held out the bottle for me to look at.
It was a quart of Scotch whisky, corked and sealed as it had left the distillery. And it had been there for two years! The more the reader ponders this striking fact, the better will he be able to realise the depth of the solitude in which we now found ourselves. While the boys slung the beds, and Tom busied himself with dinner, we sat and smoked, and savoured together our satisfaction in our complete and grandiose isolation.
"It might well be weeks before any one could find us!" said my friend, eager as a boy lapping up horrors from his favourite author. "Yes, weeks!" And then he added: "It was creeks like this the old pirates used to hide in."
And so we talked of pirates and buried treasure, while the sun set like a flight of flamingoes over a scene that was indeed like a picture torn from a Boy's Own Book of Adventure.
Then Tom brought us our dinner, and the dark began to settle down upon us, thrillingly lonely, and full of strange, desolate cries of night creatures from the mangrove swamps that surrounded our little oasis for miles. Not even when Tom and I had been alone on "Dead Men's Shoes" had I felt so utterly out of and beyond the world.
Charlie smacked his big smiling lips at the savage solitude of it.
"It's great to get away from everything—like this—isn't it?" he remarked, looking round with huge satisfaction into the homeless haunted wild, with its brooding blackness as of primeval chaos.
Sailor lay at our feet, dreaming of to-morrow's duck. His master's thoughts were evidently in the same direction.
"How are you with a gun?" he asked, turning to the boy.
"O! I won't brag. I had better wait till to-morrow. But, of course, you will have to lend me a gun."
"I have a beauty for you—just your weight," replied Charlie, his face beaming as it did only at the thought of his guns, which he kept polished like jewels and guarded as jealously as a violinist his violin, or an Arab his harem.
Dawn was just breaking as I felt Charlie's great paw on my shoulder next morning. He was very serious. For a moment, as I sat up, still half asleep, I thought he had news of Tobias. But it was only duck. He had heard a great quacking during the night, and was impatient to make a start. So was Sailor.
I was scarcely dressed when Tom arrived with breakfast, and in a few minutes we had shouldered our guns, and were crossing the half mile of peaty waste that divided us from the marl lakes from which the night wind had carried that provocative quacking. Ahead of us, the crew were carrying the skiffs on their shoulders, and very soon we were each seated in regulation fashion on a canvas chair in front of our respective skiffs, with our guns across our knees, and a negro behind us to do the poling.