Charlie went ahead, with Sailor standing in the bow quivering with excitement. The necessity of absolute silence, of course, had been impressed upon us all by the most severe of all sportsmen. But the admonition was scarcely necessary, for, as the sun rose, the scene that spread before us was beautiful enough to have hushed the most garrulous tongue. Far and near stretched misty levels of milkwhite water, in which the mangrove trees made countless islands, sometimes of considerable extent, impenetrable coppices often thirty or forty feet high. From horizon to horizon there was nothing but white water and these coppice-islands of laurel green—one so like another that I marvelled how Charlie expected to find his way back to camp again in the evening. As the sun rose, flooding the wide floors with lonely splendour, it smote upon what at first I took to be gleaming clouds of purest silver unrolling before it. It was an angelic host of white herons soaring and circling, stainless spirits of the dawn high up in the fathomless blue. As we stole silently along in our skiffs, it seemed to me that we were invading some sanctuary of morning, "occult, withdrawn," at the far limits of the world.
I looked around to see how it was all affecting my young friend. He was close behind, almost at my shoulder—his beautiful young face like that of a Greek god in a dream.
"Isn't it wonderful?" he mused, in that voice like a musical instrument. My heart went out to him in gratitude, for, as I caught sight of Charlie's serious figure ahead—with no thought, I was sure, but duck—I realised how lonely I would have been amid all that solemn morning without my young fellow-worshipper.
Presently, the herons alighted on one of the near-by mangrove coppices, and it was as though the green bushes had suddenly been clothed with miraculous white flowers—or been buried under a fall of virgin snow. High up against the sun, several larger birds were uncouthly gambolling in morning joy. It was hard to believe that they were pelicans—such different birds they seemed from their foolish moping fellows at the Zoo. And ah! yonder, riding innocent of danger, filling the morning air with their peaceful quacking, a huge glittering fleet of—teal.
At the sight, Charlie turned with solemn warning hand—at which I heard my young friend behind me smothering his profane laughter—and made various signs by which Tom (who was poling me) and I understood that our job, and also that of my companion, was to steal behind one mangrove copse after another till we had got on the other side of that unsuspecting squadron—which might then be expected to take flight in Charlie's direction and rush by him in a terrified whirlwind. This not very easy feat of stalking we were able to accomplish, thereby winning Charlie's immense approval and putting him a splendid temper for the rest of the day; for, as the wild cloud swept over him, he was able to bring down no less than seven. Like a true sportsman, in telling the story afterward in John Saunders's snuggery, he averred that the number was nine!
I don't know who was happier; he, or Sailor, again and again splashing through the water and returning with a bird in his mouth. As for me, I'm afraid I am but a half-hearted sportsman, for I noticed that, as the bang-bang-bang of the gun shivered the silence like a crystal mirror, those white spirits of the morning, till then massed in dazzling purity on the mangrove coppice, rose once more in a silver cloud and vanished. It was as though beauty were leaving the world.
And once more I was thankful for the presence of dreaming and worshipful youth.
"I shall hate him in a minute," said the boy, but just then came across the water to him Charlie's jovial challenge to show his marksmanship, and he took it forthwith with the same nonchalant skill as he did everything, making, by long odds, as Charlie generously admitted, the most brilliant shot of the day.
Now duck-hunting, while exciting enough in itself, makes unexciting reading, and when I have recorded that Charlie's bag for the day was no less than seven and a half dozen (I am not sure that our figures will agree) and related one curious incident of the day, I shall leave the reader to imagine the rest. The incident was this:
Early in the afternoon, Charlie had made one notable killing (five, I think it was; he will correct me if I am wrong), but one of the birds, not quite dead, had fluttered away into a particularly dense coppice. Sailor had been sent in after it, but, after a lot of fussing about, came out without his bird. Twice Charlie sent him in; with the same result. So, growing impatient, he got out of his skiff, went splashing through the marl water himself, and disappeared in the coppice. Presently we heard his big laugh, and the next second, his gun. A moment or two after, he reappeared, shouldering a huge black snake. No wonder Sailor had been unable to find his bird, for, as Charlie had entered the coppice, the first thing he saw was this snake coiled up in the centre, with a curious protuberance bulging out his neck. Flying from Charlie's gun, the unfortunate duck had landed right into the jaws of the snake! As Charlie ripped open the snake's side—there, sure enough, was the duck. So he was added to the day's bag; and, if he was among those Tom cooked for dinner when we reached camp again that evening, he had the somewhat unusual experience of being eaten twice in one day.
More Particularly Concerns Our Young Companion.
The days that now followed for a week might be said to be accurate copies of that first day. Had one kept a diary, it would have been necessary to write only: "ditto," "ditto," "ditto" under the happenings of the first. Wonderful dawn—ditto; white herons and pelicans—ditto; duck—ditto. But they were none the less delightful for that—for there is a sameness that is far indeed from monotony—though I will confess that, for my own tastes, toward the week-end, the carnage of duck began to partake a little of that latter quality. Still, Charlie and Sailor were so happy that I wouldn't have let them suspect that for the world.
Besides, I had my wonderful young friend, to whom I grew daily more attached. He and I, of course, were of the same mind on the subject of duck, and, as often as possible, would give Charlie the slip and explore the ins and outs of the mangrove islands—merely for beauty's sake, or in study of the queer forms of life dimly and uncouthly climbing the ladder of being in those strange solitudes. In these comradely hours together, I found myself feeling drawn to him as I can imagine a young father is drawn to a young son; and sometimes I seemed to see in his eyes the suggestion of a confidence he was on the edge of making me—a whimsical, pondering expression, as though wondering whether he dare to tell me or not.
"What is it, Jack?" I asked him for once when, early in our acquaintance, we had asked him what we were to call him, he had answered with a laugh: "O! call me Jack—Jack Harkaway." We had laughed, reminding him of the schoolboy hero of that name and he had answered: "Never mind. One name is as good as another. That is my name when I go on adventures. Tell me your adventure names. I don't want your prosaic every-day names." "Well," I had replied, entering into the lad's humour, "my friend here is Sir Francis Drake, and I, well—I'm Sir Henry Morgan."
"What is it, Jack?" I repeated.
But he shook his head.
"No!" he replied, "I like you ever so much—and I wish I could; but I mustn't."
"Somebody else's secret again?" I ventured.
"Yes!" And he added: "This time it's mine too. But—some day perhaps; who knows?—" He broke off in boyish confusion.
"All right, dear Jack," I said, patting his shoulder, "take your own time. We're friends anyway."
"That we are," responded the lad, with a fine glow.
We left it so at the moment, and had ourselves poled in the direction of Charlie's voice, which was breaking mirror after mirror of exquisite lagoon-like silence with demands for our return to camp. He evidently had shot all the duck he wanted, for that day, and was beginning to be hungry for dinner.
Yet, I mustn't be too hard on Charlie, for, as we know, even Charlie had another object in his trip besides duck. As a certain poet brutally puts it, he had anticipated also "the hunting of man." In addition, though it is against the law of those Britannic islands, he had promised me a flamingo or two for decorative purposes. However, flamingoes and Tobias alike kept out of gunshot, and, as the week grew toward its end, Charlie began to grow a little restive.
"It looks," he murmured one evening, as we had completed our fourteenth meal of roast duck, and were musing over our after-duck cigars, "it looks as if I am not going to have any use for this."
He had taken a paper from his pocket. It was a warrant with which he had provided himself, empowering him to arrest the said Henry P. Tobias, or the person passing under that name, on two counts: First, that of seditious practices, with intent to spread treason among His Majesty's subjects, and, second, that of wilful murder on the high seas. I should say that, following my recital of the eventful cruise of the Maggie Darling, old Tom and I had been required to make sworn depositions of Tobias's share in the happenings of that cruise, the murder of the captain and so forth, and I too had surrendered as evidence that eloquent manifesto which I had seen Tobias reading to the ill-fated George and "Silly" Theodore, and had afterward discussed with him.
The probabilities were that the Government would treat Tobias's case as that of a dangerous madman, rather than as a hanging matter, but, whatever its point of view, it was clearly undesirable for such an individual to remain at large. So the governing powers in Nassau, with whom Charlie Webster was persona grata, had been glad to take advantage of his enthusiastic patriotism and invest him with constabulary powers, hoping that he might have an opportunity of using them. Personally, he was rather ashamed of having to employ such tame legal methods. From his point of view, shooting at sight was all that Tobias deserved, and to give him a trial by jury was an absurdity of legal red-tape. In this respect he agreed with the great Mr. Pickwick, that "the law is a hass." It was always England's way, he said, and, if she didn't mind, this leniency to traitors would some day be her undoing!
Charlie put the despised, yet precious, warrant back into his pocket, and gazed disgustedly across the creek, where the loveliest of young moons was rising behind a frieze of the homeless, barbaric brush.
"There was never such a place in the world," he asserted, "to hide in—or get lost in—or to starve in. I have often thought that it would make the most effective prison in the world. Instead of spending good public money in housing and feeding scoundrels behind bars, and paying officials to keep them there, supporting expensive establishments at Dartmoor and so forth, why doesn't the British Government export her convicts over here, land them on one of those mangrove shoals, and—give them their freedom! Five per cent. might succeed in escaping. The mangrove swamps would look after the rest."
As I have said, Charlie was a terrifying patriot. For most offences he had the humanity of a vast forgiveness. He was, generally speaking, the softest-hearted man I have ever met. But for any breach of the sacred laws of England he was something like a Spanish Inquisitor. England, in fact, was his religion. I have heard of worse.
The young moon rose and rose, while Charlie sat in the dusk of our shanty, like a meditative mountain, saying nothing, the glowing end of his cigar occasionally hinting at the circumference of his broad Elizabethan face.
"I'll get him, all the same," he said presently, coming out of a sort of trance, in which, as I understood later, his mind had been making a geographical survey of our neighbourhood, going up and down every creek and corner on a radius of fifty miles.
"If," he added, "he knows this island better than I do, I'll give him this warrant to eat for his breakfast.... But let's turn in. I'll think it out by the morning. Night brings counsel."
So we sought our respective cots; but I had scarcely begun to undress, when a foolish accident for which I was responsible happened, an accident that might have had serious consequences, and which, as a matter of fact did have—though not at the moment.
As I told the reader at the beginning of this story, I am not accustomed to guns—being too afraid of my bad temper. Charlie knew this, and was all the time cautioning me about holding my gun right and so on, and especially about shaking out any unused cartridges at the end of the day's shoot.
Well, this special night, I had forgotten his warnings. Neglecting everything a man should do to his gun when he is finished with it for the day, I had left two cartridges in it, left the trigger on the hair-brink of eternity, and other enormities for which Charlie presently, and quite rightly, abashed me with profanity; in short, my big toe tripped over the beast as it stood carelessly against the wall of my cabin, and, as it fell, I received the contents in the fleshy part of my shoulder.
The explosion brought the whole crew out of their shanty, in a state of gesticulating nature, and, as Charlie, growling like a bear, was helping to bring first aid, suddenly our young friend Jack—whose romantic youth preferred sleeping outside in a hammock slung between two palm trees—put him aside.
"I know better how to do this than you, Sir Francis," he said, laughing.
"Same as the sharks, eh?" said Charlie.
"Just the same ... but, let's have a look at your medicine chest, and give me the lint quick."
So Jack took charge, and acted with such confidence and skill,—finally binding up my wound, which was but a slight one—that Charlie stood by dumbfounded and with a curious soft look in his face which I didn't understand till later. The tears came into my eyes at the wonderful tenderness of the lad, as he bent over me.
"Do I hurt you?" he kept saying. "You and I are pals, you know."
"You don't hurt me a bit, dear Jack," I answered; "what a clever lad you are!"
Then Jack looked up for a moment, and caught Charlie's wondering look; and, it seemed to me that he changed colour, and looked frightened.
"Sir Francis is jealous," he said; "but I've finished now. I guess you'll sleep all right after that dose I gave you. Good night...." And he slipped away.
Jack had proved himself a practised surgeon, and, as he predicted, I slept well—so well and so far into next morning that Charlie at last had to waken me.
"What do you think?" were his first words.
"Why, what?" I asked, sitting up, and wincing from my wounded shoulder.
"Our young friend has skipped in the night!"
"'Skipped?'" I exclaimed, with a curious ache at my heart.
"Sure enough! Gone off on that little nigger sloop that dropped in here yesterday afternoon, I guess."
"You don't mean it?"
"No doubt of it—I wonder whether you've had the same thought as I had."
"What do you mean?"
"You know I always said there was a mystery about that boy?"
"Well, what of it?"
"Did you notice the way he bound your shoulder last night?"
"What of it?"
"Did you ever see a man bind a wound like that?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean simply that the mystery about our Jack Harkaway was just this: Jack Harkaway was no boy at all—but just a girl; a brick of a dare-devil girl!"
Better Than Duck.
Charlie Webster's discovery—if discovery it was—of "Jack Harkaway's" true sex seemed so far plausible in that it accounted not only for much that had seemed mysterious about him and his manner, but also (though this I did not mention to Charlie) it accounted for certain dim feelings of my own, of which, before, I had been scarcely conscious.
But we were not long left to continue our speculations, being presently interrupted by the arrival of exciting news—news which, I need hardly say, promptly drove all thought of "Jack Harkaway" out of Charlie Webster's head, though it was not so soon to be banished from mine.
The news came in the form of a note from Father Serapion. He had sent it by the captain of a sponging schooner, who, in turn, had sent it by two of his men in a rowboat, not being able to venture up the creek himself owing to the northeast wind which was blowing so hard, that, as sometimes happens on that coast, he might have been left high and dry.
Father Serapion's note simply confirmed his conjecture that it was Tobias who had bought rum at Behring's Point, and that he was probably somewhere in the network of creeks and marl lagoons in our neighbourhood. Telling Tom to give the men a good breakfast, Charlie thought the news over.
"I'll tell you what we'll do," he said presently. "I'm going to leave you here—and I'm going to charter the sponger out there. This river we are on comes out of a sound that spreads directly south—Turner's Sound. Turner's Sound has two outlets: this, and Goose River ten miles down the shore. Now, if Tobias is inside here, he can only get out either down here, or down Goose River. I am going down in the sponger to the mouth of Goose River, to keep watch there; and you must stay where you are, and keep watch here. Between the two of us, a week will starve him out. Or, if not, I'll chase after him up Goose River; and in that case, he'll have to come down here—and it will be up to you, for I don't believe he'll have the nerve to try walking across the marl ponds to the east coast."
So it was settled, and, presently, Charlie went along with two of his best guns and Sailor, in the rowboat, and I saw him no more for a week. Meanwhile, I kept watch and studied the scenery, and old Tom and I talked about the strange people who inhabited the interior—those houses that moved away into the mist as soon as you caught sight of them. Some day old Tom and I are going to explore the interior, for he is not so much afraid of ghosts as he was, since we tried them out together.
At the end of the week, the wind was blowing strong from the west and the tides ran high. About noon we caught sight of triumphant sails making up the river. It was Charlie back again.
"Got him!" was all he said, as he rowed ashore.
Sailor was with him in the rowboat, but I noticed that he was limping, going on three legs.
"Yes!" said Charlie. "It's lucky for Tobias he only got Sailor's foot, or, by the living God, I'd have stood my trial for manslaughter, or whatever they call it. It'll soon be all right, old man," he said, taking Sailor's wounded paw in his hand, "soon be all right." Sailor wagged his tail vigorously, to show that a gunshot through one of his legs was a mere nothing.
"Yes!" said Charlie, as we sat at lunch in the shack, under the tamarind tree; "we've got him safe there under decks all right; chained up like a buoy. If he can get away, I'll believe in the Devil."
"Won't you tell me about it?" I asked.
"Not much to tell; too easy altogether. I waited a couple of days at the mouth of Goose River. Then I got tired, and left the sponger with the captain and two or three men, while I went up the river with a couple of guns and Sailor, and a man to pole the skiff—just for some duck-shooting, you know. We lay low, for two days, on the marshes, and then Sailor got sniffing the wind one morning, as if there was something around he didn't care much for. The day before, we had heard firing a mile or so inland, and had come upon some duck that some one or other had shot and hadn't had time to pick up. So, that morning, I let Sailor lead the way. We had been out about an hour, and were stealing under the lee of a big mangrove island, after some duck we had sighted a little to the eastward, when, suddenly, apparently without anything to alarm them, they rose from the water and came flying in our direction. But evidently something, or somebody, had startled them. They came right by me. It was hard luck not to be able to take a shot at them. I could have got a dozen of them at least."
"Probably more," I suggested.
"I really believe I could," agreed Charlie, in entire innocence. "Well, as I have said, it was hard luck; but Sailor seemed to have something on his mind, beside duck. As we poled along silently in the direction from which the duck had risen, he grew more and more excited, and, at last, as we neared a certain mangrove copse to which all the time he had been pointing, he barked two or three times, and, I let him go. Poor old fellow!"
As he told the story, Sailor, who seemed to understand every word, rubbed his head against his master's hand.
"He went into the mangroves, just as he'd go after duck, but he'd hardly gone in, when there were two shots, and he came out limping, making for me. But, by this, I was close up to the mangroves myself, and in another minute, I was inside; and there, just like that old black snake you remember, was Tobias—his gun at his shoulder. He had a pot at me, but, before he could try another, I knocked him down with my fist—and—Well, we've got him all right. And now you can go after your treasure, as soon as you like. I'll take him over to Nassau, and you can fool around for the next month or so. Of course we'll need you at the trial, but that won't come off for a couple of months. Meanwhile, you can let me know where you are, in case I should need to get hold of you."
"All right, old man," I said, "but I wish you were coming along with me."
"I've got all the treasure I want," laughed Charlie. "But don't you want to come and interview our friend? He might give you some pointers on your treasure hunt."
"How does he take it?" I asked.
"Pretty cool. He talked a little big at first, but now he sits with his head between his hands, and you can't get a word out of him. Something up his sleeve, I dare say."
"I don't think I'll bother to see him, Charlie," I said. "I'm kind of sorry for him." Charlie looked at me.
"Sorry for him?"
"Yes! In fact, I rather like him."
"Like him?" Charlie bellowed; "the pock-marked swine!"
"I grant," I said, smiling, and recalling Charlie's own words of long ago, "that his face is against him."
"Rather like him? You must be crazy! You certainly have the rummiest taste."
"At least you'll admit this much, Charlie," I said; "he has courage—and I respect courage even in a cockroach—particularly, perhaps, in a cockroach ..."
"He's a cockroach, all right," said Charlie.
"Maybe," I assented. "I don't pretend to love him, but—"
"If you don't mind," interrupted Charlie, "we'll let it go at 'but'—". And he rose. "The tide's beginning to run out. Send me word where you are, as soon as you get a chance; and good luck to you, old chap, and your doubloons and pieces of eight!"
Then we walked down to his row-boat, and soon he was aboard the sponger. Her sails ran up, and they were off down stream—poor Tobias, manacled, somewhere between decks.
"See you in Nassau!" I shouted.
"Right-O!" came back the voice of the straightest and simplest Englishman in the world.
Across the scarce-awakened sea, With white sail flowing, And morning glowing, I come to thee—I come to thee.
Past lonely beaches, And gleaming reaches, And long reefs foaming, Homing—homing— A-done with roaming, I come to thee.
The moon is failing, A petal sailing Down in the west That bends o'er thee; And the stars are hiding, As we go gliding Back to the nest, Ah! back to thee.
In Which We Gather Shells—and Other Matters.
With Charlie gone, and duck-shooting not being one of my passions, there was nothing to detain me in Andros. So we were soon under way, out of the river, and heading north up the western shore of the big monotonous island. We had some fifty miles to make before we reached its northern extremity—and, all the way, we seldom had more than two fathoms of water, and the coast was the same interminable line of mangroves and thatch palms, with occasional clumps of pine trees, and here and there the mouth of a creek, leading into duck-haunted swamps.
It was evident that the island kept its head above water with difficulty, and that the course we were running over was all the time aspiring to be dry land, right away from the coast to the Florida channel. For miles west and north, it would have been impossible to find more than three fathoms. As I said of the east coast, inside the reef, it was a vast swimming bath, but of greater dimensions, a swimming bath with a floor of alabaster, and water that seemed to be made of dissolved moonstones.
For a while, our going seemed very much as though we were sailing a big toy-boat in an illimitable porcelain bathtub. There were no rocks to look out for, no shoals in what was really one vast shoal, and all was smooth as milk. All the afternoon, till the sun set and the stars came out and we dropped our anchor in a luminous nothingness, a child could have navigated us; but, when the next day brought us up to the northwest corner of Andros, we found ourselves face to face with a variety of difficulties: glimmering sandbars, reaches of moon-white shoals, patches of half-made land with pines struggling knee-deep in the tide; here and there a mile of mangroves, and delusive channels of blue water; beauty everywhere spreading out her sweeping laces of foam—a welter of a world still in its making, with no clear passages for any craft drawing more than a canoe. Loveliness everywhere—again the waving purple fans, and the heraldic fish, and the branching coral mysteriously making the world. Loveliness everywhere!—in fact a labyrinth of beauty with no way out.
And the captain, like nearly every captain I have met in the Bahamas, knew as little about it as I did. Charlie had been right; you must know how to sail your own boat when you hoist your sails in Bahaman waters. I confess that I began to regret Charlie's preoccupation with Tobias—for, in spite of his missing his way that day in the North Bight, Charlie seems to know his way in the dark wherever one happens to be on the sea.
However, there was really nothing to worry us. There was no wind. The weather was calm, and there was lots of time. At last, after studying the chart and talking it over with Tom, who though he had only shipped as cook, was the best sailor on board, we decided to run north, and take a channel described on the chart as "very intricate."
At last we came to a little foam-fringed cay, where it was conceivable that the shyest and rarest of shells would choose to make its home—a tiny aristocrat, driven out of the broad tideways by the coarser ambitions and the ruder strength of great molluscs that feed and grow fat and house themselves in crude convolutions of uncouthly striving horn; a little lonely shore, kissed with the white innocence of the sea, where pearls might secretly make themselves perfect, untroubled by the great doings of wind and tide—merely rocked into beauty by ripple and beam, with a teardrop falling, once in a while, into their dim growing hearts, from some wavering distant star.
It was impossible to imagine a cay better answering to my conchologist's description of Short Shrift Island. Its situation and general character, too, bore out the surmise. On landing, also, we found that it answered in two important particulars to Tobias's narrative. We found, as he had declared, that there was good water there for passing ships. Also, we found, in addition to the usual scrub, that cabbage-wood trees grew there very plentifully, particularly, as he said, on the highest part of the island. Our conjectures were presently confirmed by the captain of a little sponging boat that, an hour after our arrival, put in for water. Yes, he said, it was —— Cay (giving it the name by which it was generally known, and by which the conchologist had first mentioned it to me). So, having talked it all over with Tom, I decided that here we would stay for a time, and try our luck.
But, first, having heard from the sponging captain, that he was en route for Nassau, I gave him a letter to Charlie Webster, telling him of our whereabouts, in case he should have sudden need of me with regard to Tobias.
It was too late to begin treasure-hunting that day, but Tom and I made an early start, the following morning, prospecting the island—I having set the men to work gathering shells, in the hope of being able to oblige my shell-loving friend. The island was but a small cay compared with that of Dead Men's Shoes,—on which we had so memorably laboured side by side—some five miles long and two broad. It was a pretty little island, rising here and there into low hills, and surprising us now and again with belts of pine trees. But, of course, the cabbage-wood tree was our special tree; and, as I said before, this grew plentifully. All too plentifully, indeed; and cabbage-wood stumps, alas! were scarcely more rare.
The reader may recall that Tobias's narrative, in reference to his second "pod" of one million dollars, had run: "On the highest point of this Short Shrift Island is a large cabbage-wood stump, and twenty feet south of that stump is the treasure, buried five feet deep and can be found without difficulty." But which was the highest point? There were several hillocks that might claim to be that—all about equal in height.
We visited them all in succession. There was a "large cabbage-wood stump" on each and all of them! It had seemed an absurdly inadequate direction, even as we had talked the narrative over in John Saunders's snuggery. But, confronted with so many "large cabbage-wood stumps," one began to suspect Henry P. Tobias of having been a humourist, and to wonder whether John Saunders was not right after all, and the whole manuscript merely a hoax for the benefit of buried-treasure cranks like myself.
However, as the high points of the island were only seven in all, it was no difficult matter to try them all out, one by one, as we had plenty of time and plenty of hands for the work. For, of course, it would have been idle to attempt any concealment of my object from the crew. Therefore, I took them from their shell-gathering, and, having duly measured out twenty feet south from each promising cabbage-wood stump, set them to work. They worked with a will, for I promised them a generous share of whatever we found.
Alas! it was an inexpensive promise, for, when we had duly turned up the ground, not only twenty feet, but thirty, forty, and fifty feet, not only south but north, east and west of the various cabbage-wood stumps on the seven various eminences, we were none of us the richer by a single piece of eight. Then we tried the other cabbage-wood stumps on lower ground, and any other likely looking spots, till, after working for nearly a fortnight, we must have dug up most of the island.
And then Tom came to me with the news that our provisions were beginning to give out. As it was, he said, before we returned to Nassau, we should have to put in at Flying Fish Cove—a small settlement on the larger island some five miles to the nor'ard,—for the purchase of various necessities.
"All right, Tom," I said, "I guess the game is up! Let's start out to-morrow morning."
And then I betook myself, like the great philosopher, to gathering shells on the sea-shore, finding some specimens which, to my unlearned eye, seemed identical with that shell so dear to the learned conchologist's heart.
The following afternoon we put in at Flying Fish Cove, a neat little settlement, with a pretty show of sponging craft at anchor, a few prosperous-looking houses on the hill-side, and a sprinkling of white, or half-white, people in the streets. I instructed Tom and the Captain to stock in whatever we needed. We would lie there that night, and in the morning we would make a start, homeward-bound, for Nassau.
"You may as well have your sucking fish back, Tom," I said, laughing in self-disgust. "I shall have no more need of it. I am through with treasure-hunting."
"I'd keep it a little longer, sar," answered Tom; "you never know."
In Which I Catch a Glimpse of a Different Kind of Treasure.
I had, as I have said, made up my mind to start on the homeward trip early the following morning, but something happened that very evening to change my plans. I had dropped into the little settlement's one store, to buy some tobacco, the only kind that Charlie Webster—who carried his British loyalty into the smallest concerns of life, declared fit to smoke—some English plug of uncommon strength, not to say ferocity, a real manly tobacco such as one might imagine the favourite chew of pirates and smugglers.
I stayed chatting with the storekeeper—a lean, astute-looking Englishman, with the un-English name of Sweeney—who made a pretty good thing of selling his motley merchandise to the poor natives, on the good old business principle of supplying goods of the poorest possible quality at the highest possible prices. He was said to hold a mortgage on the lives of half the population, by letting them have goods on credit against their prospective wages from sponging trips, he himself being the owner of three or four sponging sloops, and so doubly insured against loss. His low-ceilinged, black-beamed store, dimly lit with kerosene lamps, was a wilderness of the most unattractive merchandise the mind of man can conceive, lying in heaps on trestles, hanging from the rafters, and cluttering up every available inch of space, so that narrow lanes only were left among dangling tinware, coils of rope, coarse bedding, barrels in which very unappetising pork lay steeping in brine, other barrels overflowing with grimy looking "grits" and sailors' biscuits, drums of kerosene and turpentine, cans of paint, jostling clusters of bananas, strings of onions, dried fish, canned meats, loaves of coarse bread, tea and coffee, and other simple groceries.
Two rough planks laid on barrels made the counter, up to which from time to time rather worn-looking, spiritless negro women and girls would come to make their purchases, and then shuffle off again in their listless way. Once in a while a sturdy negro would drop in for tobacco, with a more independent, well-fed air. The Englishman served them all with a certain contemptuous indifference in which one somehow felt the presence of the whip-hand.
While he was thus attending a little group of such customers, I had wandered toward the back of the store, curiously examining the thousand and one commodities which supplied the strange needs of humanity here in this lost corner of the world; and, thus occupied, I was diverted by a voice like sudden music, a voice oddly rich and laughing and confident for such grim and sinister surroundings. It was one, too, which I seemed to have heard before, and not so very long ago. When I turned in its direction, I was immediately arrested, as one always is by any splendour of vitality; for a startling contrast indeed—to the spiritless, furtive figures that had been coming and going hitherto—was this superb young creature, tall and lithe with proudly carried head on glorious shoulders. Her skin was a golden olive, and it had been hard to say which was the more intensely black—her hair, or the proud eyes which, turning presently in my direction, seemed to strike upon me as with an actual impact of soft fire. I swear I could feel them touch me, as it were, with a warm ray, the radiating glow of her fragrant vitality enfolding me as in a burning golden cloud.
I wondered whether her glance enfolded everything she looked on in the same way. Perhaps it was but the unconsciously exerted force of her superb young womanhood intensely alive. Yet—there was too a significant wild shyness about her. My presence seemed at once to put her on her guard. The music of her voice was suddenly hushed, as though she had hurriedly, almost in terror, thrown a robe of reticence about an impulsive naturalness not to be displayed before strangers. As for the storekeeper, he was evidently a familiar acquaintance. He had known her—he said, after she was gone—since she was a little girl.
While he spoke, my eyes had accidentally fallen on the coin still in his hand, with which she had just paid him.
"Excuse me," I said, "but that is a curious-looking coin."
I thought that a shade of annoyance passed over his face, as though he had been better pleased if I had not noticed it. However, it was too late, and he handed it to me to examine—a large antique-looking gold coin.
"Why!" I said, "this is a Spanish doubloon!"
"That's what it is," said the Englishman laconically.
"But doesn't it strike you as strange that she should pay her bills with Spanish doubloons?" I asked.
"It did at first," he answered; and then, as if annoyed with himself, he was attempting to retrieve an expression that carried an implication he evidently didn't wish me to retain, he added: "Of course, she doesn't always pay in Spanish doubloons."
"But she does sometimes?"
"O! once in a great while," he answered, evasively. "I suppose they have a few old coins in the family, and use them when they run out of others."
It was as lame an explanation as well could be, and no one could doubt that, whatever his reason for so doing, he was lying.
"But haven't you trouble in disposing of them?" I enquired.
"Gold is always gold," he answered, "and we don't see enough of it here to be particular as to whose head is stamped upon it, or what date. Besides, as I said, it isn't as if I got many of them; and you can always dispose of them as curiosities."
"Will you sell me this one?" I asked.
"I see no harm in your having it," he said, "but I'd just as soon you didn't mention where you got it."
"Certainly," I answered, disguising my wonder at his secretiveness. "What is it worth?"
He named the sum of sixteen dollars and seventy-five cents. Having paid him that amount, I bade him good-night, glad to be alone with my eager, glowing thoughts. These I took with me to a bit of coral beach made doubly white by the moon, rustled over by giant palms, and whispered to by the vast living jewel of the sea. Surely my thoughts had a brightness to match even this glitter of the night. I took out my strange doubloon, and flashed it in the moon.
But, brightly as it shone, it hardly seemed as bright as it would have seemed a short while back; or, perhaps, it were truer to say that in another, newer aspect it shone a hundred times more brightly. The adventure to which it called me was no longer single and simple as before, but a gloriously confused goal of cloudy splendours, the burning core of which—suddenly raying out, and then lost again in brightness—were the eyes of a mysterious girl.
Under the Influence of the Moon.
My days now began to drift rather aimlessly, as without apparent purpose I continued to linger on an island that might well seem to have little attraction to a stranger—how little I could see by the mystification of the good Tom, in whom, for once, of course, I could not confide. Yet I had a vague purpose; or, at least, I had a feeling that, if I waited on, something would develop in the direction of my hopes. That doubloon still suggested that it was the key to a door of fascinating mystery to which Chance might at any moment direct me.
And—why not admit it?—apart from my buried treasure, to the possible discovery of which the doubloon seemed to point, I was possessed with a growing desire for another glimpse of those haunting eyes. They needed not their association with the mysterious gold, they were magnetic enough to draw any man, with even the rudiments of imagination, along the path of the unknown. All the paths out of the little settlement were paths into the unknown, and, day after day, I followed one or another of them out into the wilderness, taking a gun with me, as an ostensible excuse for any spying eye, and bringing back with me occasional bags of the wild pigeons which were plentiful on the island.
One day I had thus wandered unusually far afield, and at nightfall found myself still several miles from home, on a rocky path overhanging the sea. The coast-line had been gradually mounting in a series of precipitous headlands, at the foot of which the sea made a low booming that suggested hidden caves. Looking over the edge in places, one could see that it had hollowed out the porous rock well under the base of the cliffs, and here and there fallen masses of boulder told of a gradual encroachment which, in course of time, would topple down into the abyss the precarious pathway on which I stood. Inland the usual level scrub gave place to a stretch of wild forest, very dense, and composed of trees of many varieties, loftier than was usual on the island.
There was no sign of habitation anywhere. It was a wild and lonely place, and presently over its savage beauty stole the glamour of the moon rising far over the sea. I sat down on a ledge of the cliffs, and watched the moonlight grow in intensity, as the darkness of the woods deepened behind me. It was a night full of witchcraft; a night on which the stars, the moon, and the sea together seemed hinting at some wonderful thing about to happen.
Far down in the clear water I could see the giant sea-fans waving in a moony twilight, touched eerily in those glassy depths with sudden rays of the spectral light; soft bowers of phosphorescence spread a secret radiance about dimly branching coral groves. And, all the while, the path of the moon over the sea was growing stronger—laying, it would seem, an even firmer pathway of silver stretching to the very foot of the cliff-side.
I am not given to quoting poetry, but involuntarily there came to my mind some lines remembered from boyhood:
If on some balmy summer night You rowed across the moon-path white, And saw the shining sea grow fair With silver scales and golden hair— What would you do?
"What would you do?" I repeated dreamily, thinking very likely as I said them, of two eyes of mysteriously enfolding fire; and then, as if the fairy night were matching the words with a challenge, what was this bright wonder suddenly present on one of the boulders far down beneath me?—a tall shape of witchcraft whiteness, standing, full in the moon, like a statue in luminous marble of some goddess of antiquity. Only once before, and but for a moment, had I seen a woman's form so proudly flowerlike in its superb erectness!
My eyes and my heart together told me it was she; and, as she hung poised over the edge of the water, in the attitude of one about to dive, a turn of her head gave me that longed-for glimpse of those living eyes filled with moonlight. She stood another moment, still as the night, in her loveliness; and the next, she had dived directly into the path of the moon. I saw her eyes moon-filled again, as she came to the surface, and began to swim—not, as one might have expected, out from the land, but directly in toward the unseen base of the cliffs. The moon-path did lead to a golden door in the rocks, I said to myself, and she was about to enter it. It was a secret door known only to herself; and then, for the first time that night, I thought of that doubloon.
Perhaps if I had not thought of it, I should not have done what then I did. There will, doubtless, be those who will censure me. If so, I am afraid they must. At all events, it was the thought of that doubloon that swayed the balance of my hesitation in taking the moon-path in the track of that bright apparition. The pursuit of my hidden treasure had long been so fixed an idea in my mind that a scruple would have had to be strong indeed to withstand my impulse to follow up so exciting a clue. (When, alas! has the pursuit of gold heeded any scruples?) Or it is quite possible that a radically different inclination held this materialistic excuse as a cloak for itself. A moment of such glamorous excitement may well account for some confused psychology.
I leave it to others who, less fortunate than I, were not exposed to the breathless enchantments of that immortal night, those sorceries of a situation lovely as the wildest dreams of the heart. I looked about for a way down to the edge of the sea. It was not easy to find, but after much perilous scrambling, I at length found myself on the boulder which had so lately been the pedestal of that Radiance; and, in another moment, I had dived into the moon-path and was swimming toward the mysterious golden door.
Before me the rocks opened in a deep narrow crevasse, a long rift, evidently slashing back into the cliff, beneath the road on which I had been treading. I could see the moonlit water vanishing into a sort of gleaming lane between the vast overhanging walls. In a few moments I was near the entrance, but, as yet, I could not touch bottom with my feet, and so I swam on into the giant portal, into a twilight which was still luminous with reflections, and to which my eyes readily accustomed themselves.
Presently I felt my feet rest lightly on firm sand, and, still shoulder deep in the water, I walked on another yard or two—to be brought to a sudden stop. There she was coming toward me, breast high in that watery tunnel! The moon, continuing its serene ascension, lit her up with a sudden beam. O! shape of bloom and glory!
For a moment we both stood looking at each other, as if transfixed. Then she gave a frightened cry, and put her hands up to her bosom; as she did so, a stream of something bright—like gold pieces—fell from her mouth, and two like streams from her opened hands. Then, as quick as light, she had darted past me, and dived into the moon-path beyond. She must have swam under the water a long way, for when I saw her dark head rise again in the glimmering path, it was at a distance of many yards.
I had no thought of following her, but stood in a dream among the watery gleams and echoes.
So, once in a lifetime, for a few fortunate ones, all the various magics of the earth, all the mysterious hints and promises of her loveliness that make the heart overflow with a prophetic sense of some supernatural happiness on the brink of coming to pass, combine in one supreme shape of beauty, given to us by divine ordering, on the starlit summit of one immortal hour.
For me had come that hour of wonder; for me out of that tropic sea, into whose flawless deeps my eyes had so often gone adream, had risen the creature of miracle.
O! shape of moonlit marble! O! holiness of this night of moon and stars and sea!
In Which I Meet a Very Strange Individual.
Yes! I was in love. Yet I hope, and think, that the reader will not resent this unexpected incursion into the realms of sentiment when he considers that my sudden attack was not, like most such sudden attacks, an interruption in the robuster course of events, but, instead, curiously in the direct line of my purpose. Because the eyes of an unknown girl had thus suddenly enthralled me, I was not, therefore, to lose sight of that purpose.
On the contrary, they had suddenly shone out on the pathway along which I had been blindly groping. But for the accident of being in the dirty little store at so psychological a moment, hearing that strangely familiar voice and catching sight of that mysterious doubloon as well as those mysterious eyes, I should have set sail that very night, and given up John P. Tobias's second treasure in final disgust. As it was, I was now warmly on the track of some treasure—whether his or not—with two bright eyes further to point the way. Never surely did a man's love and his purpose make so practical a conjunction.
When I reached my lodging at last in the early morning following that night of wonders, my eyes and heart were not so dazed with that vision in the cave that I did not vividly recall one important detail of the strange picture—those streams of gold that had suddenly poured out of the mouth and hands of the lovely apparition.
Need I say that over and over again the picture kept coming before me?—haunting me like that princess from my childhood's fairy-book, from whose mouth, as she spoke, poured all manner of precious stones. We all remember that—and had I not seen the very thing itself with my own grown-up eyes? No wonder it all seemed like a dream, when, late next forenoon, I woke from a deep sleep that had been long in overtaking me. Yet, there immediately in my mind's eye, without any shadow of doubt, was the beautiful picture once more, vivid and exact in every detail. Without doubting the evidence of my senses, I was forced to believe that, by the oddest piece of luck, I had stumbled upon the hiding-place of that hoard of doubloons, on which my fair unknown drew from time to time as she would out of a bank.
But who was she?—and where was her home? There had seemed no sign of habitation near the wild place where I had come upon her, though, of course, a solitary house might easily have escaped my notice hidden among all that foliage, particularly at nightfall.
To be sure, I had but to enquire of the storekeeper to learn all I wanted; but I was averse from betraying my interest to him or to any one in the settlement—for, after all, it was my own affair, and hers. So I determined to pursue my policy of watching and waiting, letting a day or two elapse before I again went out wandering with my gun.
Probably she would be making another trip to the settlement, before long. Doubtless, it was for that purpose that she was visiting her very original safety-deposit vault when I had come so embarrassingly upon her.
However, inaction, in the circumstances, was difficult, and when two days had gone without bringing any sign of her, I determined to follow the trail of my last expedition, and find out whether that strip of rocky coast, with its hidden cavern, actually did stand firm somewhere on the solid earth, or was merely a phantom coast fronting
"The foam of perilous seas in faery-land forlorn."
As a matter of fact, I did find it, after having lost my way in the thick brush several times before doing so. I reckoned, when at last I emerged upon it, that it was a distance of some six or seven miles from the settlement, though, owing to my ignorance of the way, it had taken me a whole morning to cover it. Did she have to thread these thorny thickets every time she came to the little town? No; doubtless she was acquainted with some easier and shorter path.
However, here was the cliff-bastioned sea-front, and down there was the boulder on which she had stood like a statue in the moonlight. I craned my neck over the edge of the cliffs to catch sight of the entrance to her cave—but in vain. Nor was there apparent any way of reaching it from above. Evidently it was only approachable from the sea.
Then I looked about for some signs of a house; but, though it was full noon-day, the forest presented an unbroken front of close-growing trees, and a rich confusion of various foliage uncommon on those islands. I counted at least a dozen varieties, among which were horseflesh, wild tamarind, redwood, pigeon-plum, poison wood, gum-elemi, fig, logwood, and mahogany.
Evidently there was an unusually thick layer of soil over the coral rock in this part of the island, which was in the main composed of the usual clinker and scrub—where it was not mangrove swamp. Yet in spite of appearances, it was certain that there must be some sort of dwelling there-about, and not so very far off either—unless, indeed, my mysterious girl was but a mermaid after all.
So I left the craggy bluff facing the sea, and plunged into the woods. I had no idea how dark it was going to be, but, coming out of the sun, I was at once bewildered by the deep and complicated gloom of massed branches overhead, and the denser darkness of shrubs and vines so intricately interwoven, as almost to make a solid wall about one. Then the atmosphere was so close and airless that a fear of suffocation combined at once with the other fear of being swallowed up in all this savage green life, without hope of finding one's way out again into the sun. I had fought my way in but a very few yards when both these fears clutched hold of me with a sudden horror, and the perspiration poured from me; I could no longer distinguish between the way I had come and any other part of the wood! Indeed, there was no way anywhere!
It was now only a question of sturdy fighting and squirming one's way through the meshes of a gigantic basketwork of every variety of fantastic branch and stem and stout strangling thorn-set vine, made the denser with snaky roots—not merely twisting about one's feet, but dropping from the boughs in nooses and festoons for one's neck; air-plants too, like birds' nests, further choking up the meshes, and hanging moss, like rotting carpets, adding still more to the murk and curious squalor of a foul fertility where beauty, like humanity, found it impossible to breathe.
I must have battled through this veritable inferno of vegetation for at least an hour—though it seemed a life-time. Clouds of particularly unpleasant midges filled my eyes, not to speak of mosquitoes, and a peculiar kind of persistent stinging fly was adding to my miseries, when at last, begrimed and dripping with sweat, I stumbled out, with a cry of thankfulness, on to comparatively fresh air, and something like a broad avenue running north and south through the wood. It was indeed densely overgrown, and had evidently not been used for many years. Still, it was comparatively passable, and one could at least see the sky, and take long breaths once more.
The rock here emerged again in places through the scanty soil, but it had evidently been levelled here and there, so as to make it serve as a rough but practicable road, though plainly it was years since any vehicles had passed that way. Still, there was no sign of a house anywhere. Presently, however, as I stumbled along, I noticed something looming darkly through the matted forest on my left, that suggested walls. Looking closer, I saw that it was the ruin of a small stone cottage, roofless, and indescribably swallowed up in the pitiless scrub. And then, near by, I descried another such ruin, and still another—all, as it were, sunk in the terrible gloom of the vegetation, as sometimes, at low tide, one can discern the walls of a ruined village at the bottom of the sea.
As I struggled on, and my eyes grew accustomed to looking for them, I detected still more of these ruins, of various shapes and sizes, impenetrably smothered but a few yards inward on each side of the road.
Evidently I had come upon a long-abandoned settlement, and presently, on some slightly higher ground to the left, I thought I could make out the half-submerged walls of a much more ambitious edifice. Looking closer, I noted, with a thrill of surprise, the beginning of a very narrow path, not more than a foot wide, leading up through the scrub in its direction. Narrow as it was, it had clearly been kept open by the not-infrequent passage of feet. With a certain eerie feeling, I edged my way into it, and, after following it for a hundred yards or so, found myself close to the roofless ruin of a spacious stone house with something of the appearance of an old English manor house. Mullioned windows, finely masoned, opened in the shattered wall, and an elaborate stone staircase, in the interstices of which stout shrubs were growing, gave, or once had given, an entrance through an arched doorway—an entrance now stoutly disputed by the glistening trunk of a gum-elemi tree and endless matted rope-like roots of giant vines and creepers that writhed like serpents over the whole edifice. Forcing my way up this staircase, I found myself in a stone hall some sixty feet long, at one end of which yawned a huge fireplace, its flue mounting up through a finely carved chimney, still standing firmly at the top of the southern gable. Sockets in the walls, on either side, where massive beams had once lodged, showed that the building had been in three stories, though all the floors had fallen in and made a mound of rubble in the centre of the hall where I stood.
At my entrance something moved furtively out of the fireplace, and shot with a rustle into the surrounding woods. It looked like a small alligator, and was indeed an iguana, one of the few reptiles of these islands.
At the base of a tall fig tree—flourishing in one of the corners, its dense, wide branching top making a literal roof for the otherwise roofless hall—an enormous ant's nest was plastered, a black excrescence looking like burnt paper, and which crumbled like soft crisp cinder as I poked it with the barrel of my gun, to the dismay of its myriad little red inhabitants—the only denizens it would seem of this once-magnificent hall.
How had this almost baronial magnificence come to be in this far-away corner of a desert island? At first I concluded that here was a relic of the brief colonial prosperity of the Bahamas, when its cotton lords lived like princes, with a slave population for retainers—days when even the bootblacks in Nassau played pitch-and-toss with gold pieces; but as I considered further, it seemed to me that the style of the architecture and the age of the building suggested an earlier date. Could it be that this had been the home of one of those early eighteenth-century pirates who took pride in flaunting the luxury and pomp of princes, and who had perhaps made this his headquarters and stronghold for the storage of his loot on the return from his forays on the Spanish Main? This, as the more spirited conjecture, I naturally preferred, and, in default of exact information, decided to accept.
Who knows but that in this hall where the iguana lurked and the ants laboured at their commonwealth, the redoubtable "Blackbeard"—known in private life as Edward Teach—had held his famous "Satanic" revels, decked out in the absurd finery of crimson damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, and a diamond cross hanging from a gold chain at his neck? There, perhaps, glass in hand, and "doxy on his knee," he had roared out many a blood-curdling ditty in the choice society of ruffians only less ruffianly than himself. Perhaps, too, this other spacious building adjacent to the great hall, and connected with it by a ruinous covered way, had been the sybarite's "harem"; for "Blackbeard"—like that other famous gentleman whose beard was blue—collected from his unfortunate captive ships treasure other than doubloons and pieces of eight, and prided himself on his fine taste in ladies.
The more I pondered upon this fancy, and remarked the extent of the ruins—including several subsidiary out-houses—and noted, too, one or two choked stone staircases that seemed to descend into the bowels of the earth, the more plausible it seemed. In one or two places where I suspected underground cellars—dungeons for unhappy captives belike, or strong vaults for the storage of the treasure—I tested the floors by dropping heavy stones, and they seemed unmistakably to reverberate with a hollow rumbling sound; but I could find no present way of getting down into them. As I said, the staircases that promised an entrance into them were choked with debris. But I promised myself to come some other day, with pick and shovel, and make an attempt at exploring them.
Meanwhile, after poking about in as much of the ruins as I could penetrate, I stepped out through a gap in one of the walls and found myself again on the path by which I had entered. I noticed that it still ran on farther north, as having a destination beyond. So leaving the haunted ruins behind, I pushed on, and had gone but a short distance when the path began to descend slightly from the ridge on which the ruins stood; and there, in a broad square hollow before me, was the welcome living green of a flourishing plantation of cocoanut palms! It was evidently of considerable extent—a quarter of a mile or so, I judged—and the palms were very thick and planted close together. To my surprise, too, I observed, as at length the path brought me to them after a sharp descent, that they were fenced in by a high bamboo stockade, for the most part in good condition, but here and there broken down with decay.
Through one of these gaps I presently made my way, and found myself among the soaring columns of the palms, hung aloft with clusters of the great green nuts. Fallen palm fronds made a carpet for my feet—very pleasant after the rough and tangled way I had travelled, and now and again one of the cocoa nuts would fall down with a thud amid the green silence. One of these, which narrowly missed my head, suggested that here I had the opportunity of quenching very agreeably the thirst of which I had become suddenly aware. My claspknife soon made an opening through the tough shell, and, seated on the ground, I set my mouth to it, and, raising the nut above my head, allowed the "milk"—cool as spring water—to gurgle deliciously down my parched throat. When at length I had drained it, and my head once more returned to its natural angle, I was suddenly made aware that my poaching had not gone unobserved.
"Ha! ha!" called a pleasant voice, evidently belonging to a man of an unusually tall and lean figure who was approaching me through the palm trunks; "so you have discovered my hidden paradise—my Alcinoues garden, so to say"; and he quoted two well-known lines of Homer in the original Greek, adding: "or if you prefer it in Pope's translation, which I think,—don't you?—remains the best:
"Close to the gates a spacious garden lies, From storms defended and inclement skies—
"and so on. Alas! for an old man's memory! It grows shorter and shorter—like his life, eh? Never mind, you are welcome, sir stranger, mysteriously tossed up here like Ulysses, on our island coast."
I gazed with natural wonderment at this strange individual, who thus in the heart of the wilderness had saluted me with a meticulously pure English accent, and welcomed me in a quotation from Homer in the original Greek. Who, in the devil's name, was this odd character who, I saw, as I looked closer at him, was, as he had hinted, quite an old man, though his unusual erectness and sprightliness of manner, lent him an illusive air of youth? Who on earth was he?—and how did he happen in the middle of this haunted wood?
Of course a glance, and the first sound of his voice, had told me that I had to do with a gentleman, one of those vagabond English gentlemen in exile who form a type peculiar, I think, to the English race; men that are a curious combination of aristocrat and gipsy, soldier, scholar, and philosopher; men of good family, who have drifted everywhere, seen and seen through everything, but in all their wanderings have never lost their sense and habit of "form," their boyish zest in living, their humorous stoicism, and, above all, their lordly accent.
"Now that you have found us, Sir Ulysses"—continued my eccentric host, motioning me, with an indescribably princely wave of the hand to accompany him—"you must certainly give us the pleasure of your company to luncheon. Visitors are as rare as black swans on this Ultima Thule of ours—though, by the way, the black swan, cygnus atratus, is nothing like so rare as the ancients believed. I have shot them myself out in Australia. Still they are rare enough for the purpose of imagery, though really not so rare as a human being one can talk intelligently to on this island."
Talk! My friend, indeed, very evidently was a talker—one of those fantastic monologists to whom an audience is little more than a symbol. I saw that there was no need for me to do any of the talking. He was more than glad to do it all. Plainly his encounter with me was to him like a spring in a thirsty land.
"Solitude," he continued, "is perhaps the final need of the human soul. After a while, when we have run the gamut of all our ardours and our dreams, solitude comes to seem the one excellent thing, the summum bonum."
I murmured that he certainly seemed to have come to the right place for it.
"Very true, indeed," he assented, with a courtly inclination of his head, as though I had said something profound; "very true, indeed, and yet, wasn't it the great Bacon who said: 'Whoever is delighted with solitude is either a beast or a god'?—and this particular solitude, I confess, sometimes seems to me a little too much like that enforced solitude of the Pontic marshes of which Ovid wailed and whimpered in the deaf ears of Augustus."
I could not help noticing at last as he talked on with this fantastic magnificence, the odd contrast between his speech and the almost equally fantastic poverty of his clothing. The suit he wore, though still preserving a certain elegance of cut, was so worn and patched and stained that a negro would hardly have accepted it as a gift; and his almost painful emaciation gave him generally the appearance of an animated framework of rags and bones, startlingly embodying the voice and the manners of a prince. Yet the shabby tie about his neck was bound by a ring, in which was set a turquoise of great size and beauty. Evidently he was a being of droll contrasts, and I prepared myself to be surprised at nothing concerning him.
Presently, as we loitered on through the palms, we came upon two negroes chopping away with their machetes, trimming up the debris of broken and decaying palm fans. They were both sturdy, ferocious-looking fellows, but one of them was a veritable giant.
"Behold my bodyguard!" said my magnificent friend, with the usual possessive wave of his hand; "my Switzers, my Janissaries, so to say."
The negroes stopped working, touched their great straw hats, and flashed their splendid teeth in a delighted smile. Evidently they were used to their master's way of talking, and were devoted to him.
"This chap here is Erebus," said my host, and the appropriateness of the name was apparent, for he was certainly the blackest negro I had ever seen, as superbly black as some women are superbly white.
"And this is Samson. Let's have a look at your muscles, Samson—there's a good boy!"
And, with grins of pleasure, Samson proudly stripped off his thin calico jacket and exposed a torso of terrifying power, but beautiful in its play of muscles as that of a god.
"But since my name is Hercules, the man Who owes me hatred hides it if he can,
"eh, Samson?" was his master's characteristic comment.
"Yaas, sar!" said Samson, as pleased as a flattered bulldog, and understanding the compliment precisely in the same instinctive fashion.
Leaving Samson and Erebus to continue their savage play with their machetes, we walked on through the palms, which here gave a particularly jungle-like appearance to the scene, from the fact of their being bowed out from their roots, and sweeping upward in great curves. One involuntarily looked for a man-eating tiger at any moment, standing striped and splendid in one of the openings.
Then suddenly to the right, there came a flash of level green, suggesting lawns, and the outlines of a house, partly covered with brilliant purple flowers—a marvellous splash of colour.
"Bougainvillea! Bougainvillea spectabilis—of course, you know it. Was there ever such a purple? Not Solomon in all his glory, et cetera. And here we are at the house of King Alcinoues—a humble version of it indeed."
It was evidently quite impossible for my friend to speak otherwise than in images, picturesque scraps from the coloured rag-bag of a mind stored with memories of the classics, all manner of romantic literature, and tags of Greek and Latin which he mouthed with the relish of an epicure.
It was a large rambling stucco house, somewhat decayed looking, and evidently built on the ruins of an older building. We came upon it at a broad Italian-looking loggia, supported by stone pillars bowered in with vines—very cool and pleasant—with mossy slabs for its floor, here and there tropical ferns set out in tubs, some wicker chairs standing about, and a table at one side on which two little barelegged negro girls were busy setting out yellow fruit, and other appurtenances of luncheon, on a dazzling white cloth.
"Has your mistress returned yet, my children?" asked the master.
"No, sar," said the older girl, with a giggle, twisting and grimacing with embarrassment.
"My daughter," explained my host, "has gone to the town on an errand. She will be back at any moment. Meanwhile, I shall introduce you to a cooling drink of my own manufacture, with a basis of that cocoanut milk which I need not ask you whether you appreciate, recalling the pleasant circumstance of our first acquaintance."
Motioning me to a seat, and pushing toward me a box of cigarettes, he went indoors, leaving me to take in the stretch of beautiful garden in front of me, the trees of which seemed literally to be hung with gold—for they were mainly of orange and grapefruit ranged round a spacious beautifully-kept lawn with the regularity of sumptuous decoration. In the middle of the lawn, a little rock foundation threw up a jet of silver, falling with a tinkling murmur into a broad circular basin from which emerged the broad leaves and splendid pink blossoms of an Egyptian lotus. Certainly it was no far-fetched allusion of my classical friend to speak of the garden of Alcinoues; particularly connected as it was in my mind with the white beach of a desert isle, and that marble statue in the moonlight.
As I sat dreaming, bathed in the golden-green light of the orange trees, and lulled by the tinkling of the fountain, my host returned with our drinks, his learned disquisition on which I will spare the reader, highly interesting and characteristic though it was.
Suffice it that it was a drink, whatever its ingredients—and there was certainly somewhere a powerful "stick" in it—that seemed to have been drawn from some cool grotto of the virgin earth, so thrillingly cold and invigorating it was.
While we were slowly sipping it, and smoking our cigarettes, in an unwonted pause of my friend's fanciful verbosity, I almost jumped in my chair at the sound of a voice indoors. It was instantly followed by a light and rapid tread, and the sound of a woman's dress. Then a tall beautiful young woman emerged on the loggia.
"Ah! there you are!" cried my host, as we both rose; and then turning to me, "this is my daughter—Calypso. Her real name I assure you—none of my nonsense—doesn't she look it? Allow me, my dear, to introduce—Mr. Ulysses!"—for we had not yet exchanged each other's names....
I am a wretched actor, and I am bound to say that she proved herself no better. For she gave a decided start as she turned those glowing eyes on me, and the lovely olive of her cheeks glowed as with submerged rose-colour. Our embarrassment did not escape the father.
"Why you know each other already!" he exclaimed, with natural surprise.
"Not exactly,"—I was grateful for the sudden nerve with which I was able to hasten to the relief of her lovely distress—"but possibly Miss—Calypso recalls as naturally as I do, our momentary meeting in Sweeney's store, one evening. I had no expectation, of course, that we should meet again under such pleasant circumstances as this."
She gave me a grateful look as she took my hand, and with it—or was it only my eager imagination?—a shy little pressure, again as of gratitude.
I had tried to get into my voice my assurance that, of course, I remembered no other more recent meeting—though, naturally, as she had given that little start in the doorway, there had flashed on me again the picture of her standing, moonlit, in another resounding doorway, and of the wild start she had given then, as the golden pieces streamed from her lovely surprised mouth, and her lifted hands. And her eyes—I could have sworn—were the living eyes of Jack Harkaway! Had she a brother, I wondered. Yet my mind was too dazzled and confused with her nearness to pursue the speculation.
As we sat down to luncheon, waited upon by the little barelegged black children—waited on, too, surprisingly well, despite the contortions of their primitive embarrassment—my host once more resumed his character of the classic king welcoming the storm-tossed stranger to his board.
"Far wanderer," he said, raising his glass to me, "eat of what our board affords, welcome without question of name and nation. But if, when the food and wine have done their genial office, and the weariness of your journeying has fallen from you, you should feel stirred to tell us somewhat of yourself and your wanderings, what manner of men call you kinsman, in what fair land is your home and the place of your loved ones, be sure that we shall count the tale good hearing, and, for our part, make exchange in like fashion of ourselves and the passage of our days in this lonely isle."
We all laughed as he ended—himself with a whinny of laughter. For, odd as such discourse may sound in the reading, it was uttered so whimsically, and in so spirited and humorous a style that I assure you it was very captivating.
"You should have been an actor, my lord Alcinoues," I said, laughing. I seemed already curiously at home, seated there at that table with this fantastic stranger and that being out of fairyland, toward whom I dared only turn my eyes now and again by stealth. The strange fellow had such a way with him, and his talk made you feel that he had known you all your life.
"Ah! I have had my dreams. I have had my dreams!" he answered, his eyes gazing with a momentary wistfulness across the orange trees.
Then we talked at random, as friendly strangers talk over luncheon, though we were glad enough that he should do all the talking—wonderful, iridescent, madcap talk, such as a man here and there in ten thousand, gifted with perhaps the most attractive of all human gifts, has at his command.
And, every now and again, my eyes, falling on the paradoxical squalor of his clothing, would remind me of the enigma of this courtly vagabond; though—need I say it?—my eyes and my heart had other business than with him, throughout that wonderful meal, enfolded as I felt myself once more in that golden cloud of magnetic vitality, which had at first swept over me, as with a breath of perfumed fire, among the salt pork and the tinware of Sweeney's store.
Luncheon over, the Lady Calypso, with a stately inclination of her lovely head, left us to our wine and our cigars. For, as I realised, we were very much in England, in spite of all the orange trees and the palms, the England of two or three generations ago, and but seldom nowadays to be found in England itself.
The time had come, after the Homeric formula which my host had whimsically applied to the situation, for the far-travelled guest to declare himself, and I saw in my host's eye a courteous invitation to begin. While his fantastic tongue had gone a-wagging from China to Peru, I had been pondering what account to give of myself, and I had decided, for various reasons—of which the Lady Calypso was, of course, first, but the open-hearted charm of her father a close second—to tell him the whole of my story. Whatever his and her particular secret was, it was evident to me that it was an innocent and honourable one; and, besides, I may have had a notion that before long I was to have a family interest in it. So I began—starting in with a little prelude in the manner of my host, just to enter into the spirit of the game:
"My Lord Alcinoues; your guest, the far wanderer, having partaken of your golden hospitality, is now fain to open his heart to you, and tell you of himself and his race, his home and his loved ones across the wine-dark sea, and such of his adventures as may give pleasure to your ears" ... though, having no talents in that direction, I was glad enough to abandon my lame attempt at his Homeric style for a plain straightforward narrative of the events of the past three months.
I had not, however, proceeded very far, when, with a courteous raising of his hand, King Alcinoues suggested a pause.
"If you would not mind," he said, "I would like my daughter to hear this too, for it is of the very stuff of romantic adventure in which she delights. She is a brave girl, and, as I often tell her, would have made a very spirited dare-devil boy, if she hadn't happened to be born a girl."
This phrase seemed to flash a light upon the questionings that had stirred at the back of my mind since I had first heard that voice in Sweeney's store.
"By the way, dear King," I said, assuming a casual manner, "do you happen to have a son?"
"No!" he answered, "Calypso is my only child."
"Very strange!" I said, "we met a whimsical lad in our travels whom I would have sworn was her brother."
"That's odd!" said the "King" imperturbably, "but no! I have no son"; and he seemed to say it with a certain sadness.
Then Calypso came in to join my audience, having, meanwhile, taken the opportunity of twining a scarlet hibiscus among her luxuriant dark curls. I should certainly have told the story better without her, yet I was glad—how glad!—to have her seated there, an attentive presence in a simple gown, white as the seafoam—from which, there was no further doubt in my mind, she had magically sprung.
I gave them the whole story, much as I had told it in John Saunders's snuggery—John P. Tobias, Jr.; dear old Tom and his sucking fish, his ghosts, sharks, skeletons, and all; and when I had finished, I found that the interest of my story was once more chiefly centred in my pock-marked friend of "The wonderful works of God."
"I should like to meet your pock-marked friend," said King Alcinoues, "and I have a notion that, with you as a bait, I shall not long be denied the pleasure."
"I am inclined to think that I have seen him already," said Calypso, using her honey-golden voice for the base purpose of mentioning him.
"Impossible!" I cried, "he is long since safe in Nassau gaol."
"O! not lately," she answered to our interrogative surprise, and giving a swift embarrassed look at her father, which I at once connected with the secret of the doubloons.
"Seriously, Calypso?" asked her father, with a certain stern affection, as thinking of her safety. "On one of your errands to town?"
And then, turning to me, he said:
"Sir Ulysses, you have spoken well, and your speech has been that free, open-hearted speech that wins its way alike among the Hyperboreans that dwell in frozen twilight near the northern star, and those dwarfed and swarthy intelligences that blacken in the fierce sunlight of that fearful axle we call the equator. Therefore, I will make return to you of speech no less frank and true ..."
He took a puff at his cigar, and then continued:
"I should not risk this confession, but that it is easy to see that you belong to the race of Eternal Children, to which, you may have realised, my daughter and I also belong. This adventure of yours after buried treasure has not seriously been for the doubloons and pieces of eight, the million dollars, and the million and a half dollars themselves, but for the fun of going after them, sailing the unknown seas, coral islands, and all that sort of blessed moonshine. Well, Calypso and I are just like that, and I am going to tell you something exciting—we too have our buried treasure. It is nothing like so magnificent in amount as yours, or your Henry P. Tobias's—and where it is at this particular moment I know as little as yourself. In fact it is Calypso's secret...."
I looked across at Calypso, but her eyes were far beyond capture, in un-plummeted seas.
"I will show you presently where I found it, among the rocks near by—now a haunt of wild bees.
"Can you ever forget that passage in the Georgics? It makes the honey taste sweeter to me every time I taste it. We must have some of it for dinner, by the way, Calypso."
I could not help laughing, and so, for a moment, breaking up the story. The dear fellow! Was there any business of human importance from which he could not be diverted by a quotation from Homer or Virgil or Shakespeare? But he was soon in the saddle again.
"Well," he resumed, "one day, some seven years ago, in a little cave below the orange trees, grubbing about as I am fond of doing, I came upon a beautiful old box of beaten copper, sunk deep among the roots of a fig tree. It was strong, but it seemed too dainty for a pirate—some great lady's jewel box more likely—Calypso shall show it to us presently. On opening it—what do you think? It spilled over with golden doubloons—among which were submerged some fine jewels, such as this tie ring you see me wearing. Actually, it was no great treasure, at a monetary calculation—certainly no fortune—but from our romantic point of view, as belonging to the race of Eternal Children, it was El Dorado, Aladdin's lamp, the mines of Peru, the whole sunken Spanish Main, glimmering fifty fathoms deep in mother-of-pearl and the moon. It was the very Secret Rose of Romance; and, also, mark you, it was some money—O! perhaps, all told, it might be some five thousand guineas, or—what would you say?—twenty-five odd thousand dollars; Calypso knows better than I, and she, as I said, alone knows where it is now hid, and how much of it now remains."
He paused to relight his cigar, while Calypso and I—Well, he began again:
"Now my daughter and I," and he paused to look at her fondly, "though of the race of Eternal Children, are not without some of the innocent wisdom which Holy Writ countenances as the self-protection of the innocent—Calypso, I may say, is particularly endowed with this quality, needing it as she does especially for the guardianship for her foolish talkative old father, who, by the way, is almost at the end of his tale. So, when this old chest flashed its bewildering dazzle upon us, we, being poor folk, were not more dazzled than afraid. For—like the poor man in the fable—such good fortune was all too likely to be our undoing, should it come to the ears of the great, or the indigent criminal. The 'great' in our thought was, I am ashamed to say, the sacred British Treasury, by an ancient law of which, forty per cent. of all 'treasure-trove' belongs to His Majesty the King. The 'indigent criminal' was represented by—well, our coloured (and not so very much coloured) neighbours. Of course, we ought to have sent the whole treasure to your friend, John Saunders, of His Britannic Majesty's Government at Nassau, but—Well, we didn't. Some day, perhaps, you will put in a word for us with him, as you drink his old port, in the snuggery. Meanwhile, we had an idea, Calypso and I—"