"Impossible!" he said faintly, as if to himself; then aloud: "The man was a friend of yours, too, wasn't he?"
"Yes, sir; if you mean Captain Coffin, he was a friend of mine."
"And of mine; and, as you say, he came to me to learn navigation. Now, what connection there can be between that and his being murdered a dozen miles inland—"
But here he broke off, and we both looked up and across the stream as, with a click of the latch, the door there creaked and opened, and Miss Belcher entered the garden. She wore an orange-coloured dressing-gown, top-boots to guard her ankles from the morning dew, a red kerchief tied over her brow to keep her iron-grey locks in place, and over it her customary beaver hat—et vera incessu patit dea. Even thus attired did Miss Belcher, a goddess of the dawn, come striding over the footbridge and across the turf to us; and the effect of the apparition upon Captain Branscome's nerves, after a night of travel alongside Russell's van, I can only surmise. I did not observe it, having for the moment no eyes for him.
"Hallo!" said Miss Belcher, walking straight up to us, and halting, with a hand planted, washerwoman fashion, on either hip, as Captain Branscome staggered to his feet and saluted. "Hallo! who's this?"
"Captain Branscome, ma'am," stammered I.
"I thought as much. And what is Captain Branscome doing here?"
"By your leave, ma'am," said Captain Branscome, "I—I was just dropping in for a talk here with my friend Harry Brooks."
"H'm!" sniffed Miss Belcher, and eyed him up and down for a full ten seconds with an uncompromising stare. "As an explanation, sir, you will allow that to be a trifle unsatisfactory. What have you been eating lately?"
Captain Branscome stared at her in weak bewilderment; and, indeed, the snort which accompanied Miss Belcher's question seemed to accuse him of impregnating the morning air with a scent of onions.
"You can answer a plain question, I hope?" said she. "When did you eat last, and what was it?"
"To be precise, ma'am—though I don't understand you—it was an apple, and about—let me see—seven hours ago."
Miss Belcher turned to me and nodded.
"In other words, the man's starving. I don't blame you, Harry Brooks. One can't look for old heads on young shoulders. But, for goodness' sake, take him into the house and give him something to eat!"
"Madam—" again began Captain Branscome, still a prey to that mental paralysis which Mrs. Belcher's costume and appearance ever produced upon strangers, and for which she never made the smallest allowance.
"Don't tell me!" she snapped. "I breed stock and I buy 'em. I know the signs."
"I was about to suggest, ma'am, that—travel-stained as I am—a wash and a shave would be even more refreshing."
"H'm! You're one of those people—eh?—that study appearances?" (In the art of disconcerting by simple interrogation I newer knew Miss Belcher's peer, whether for swiftness, range, or variety.) "Brought a razor with you?"
"Take him to the house, Harry; but first show me where the hens have been laying."
Half an hour later, as Captain Branscome, washed, brushed, and freshly shaven, descended to the breakfast-parlour, Miss Belcher entered the house by the back door, with her hat full of new-laid eggs.
"Nothing like a raw egg to start the day upon," she announced. "I suck 'em, for my part; but some prefer 'em beaten up in a dish of tea."
She suited the action to the word, and beat up one in the Captain's teacup while Plinny carved him a slice of ham.
"Ladies," he protested, "I am ashamed. I do not deserve this hospitality. If you would allow me first to tell my story!"
"You're all right," said Miss Belcher. "Couldn't hurt a fly, if you wanted to. There! Eat up your breakfast, and then you can tell us all about it."
The two ladies had, each in her way, a knack of making her meaning clear without subservience to the strict forms of speech.
"It will be a weight off one's mind," declared Plinny, "even if it should prove to be the last straw."
"There's one thing to be thankful for," chimed in Miss Belcher, "and that is, Jack Rogers has gone to St. Mawes. When there's serious business to be discussed I always thank a Providence that clears the men out of the way."
I glanced at Captain Branscome. Assuredly he had come with no intention at all of unbosoming himself before a couple of ladies. He desired—desired desperately, I felt sure—to confide in me alone. But Miss Belcher's off-handish air of authority completely nonplussed him; he sat helplessly fidgeting with his breakfast-plate.
"To tell you the truth, ladies," he began, "I had not expected this— this audience. It finds me, in a manner of speaking, unprepared." He ran a finger around the edge of his saucer after the manner of one performing on the musical glasses, and threw a hunted glance at the window, as though for a way of escape. "My name, ladies, is Branscome. I was once well-to-do, and commanded a packet in the service of his Majesty's Postmasters-General. But times have altered with me, and I am now an usher in a school, and a very poor man."
He paused; looked up at Miss Belcher, who had squared her elbows on the table in very unladylike fashion; and cleared his throat before proceeding—
"You will excuse me for mentioning this, but it is an essential part of my story."
"The Stimcoes," suggested Miss Belcher, "didn't pay up—eh?"
"Mr. Stimcoe—though a scholar, ma'am—has suffered from time to time from pecuniary embarrassment."
"—Traceable to drink," interpolated Miss Belcher, with a nod towards Plinny. "No, sir; you need not look at Harry: he has told us nothing. I formed my own conclusions."
"Mrs. Stimcoe, ma'am—for I should tell you she keeps the purse—is too often unable to make two ends meet, as the saying is. I believe she paid when she could, but somehow my salary has always been in arrear. I have used remonstrance with her, before now, to a degree which it shames me to remember; yet, in spite of it, I have sometimes found myself on a Saturday, after a week's work, without a loaf of bread in the cupboard. I doubt, ma'am, if any one who has not experienced it can wholly understand the power of mere hunger to degrade a man; to what lengths he can be urged, willy-nilly, as it were, by the instinct to satisfy it. There were Sabbaths, ma'am, when to attend divine worship seemed a mockery; the craving drove me away from all congregations of Christian men and out into the fields, where—I tell it with shame, ma'am—I have stolen turnips and eaten them raw, loathing the deed even worse than I loathed the vegetable, for the taste of which—I may say—I have a singular aversion. Well, among my pupils was Harry here, whom I discovered to be the son of an old friend of mine. I dare to call the late Major James Brooks a friend in spite of the difference between our stations in life—a difference he himself was good enough to forget. Our acquaintance began on the Londonderry transport, which I commanded, and in which I brought him home from Corunna to Plymouth in the January of 1809. It ended with the conclusion of that short and anxious passage. But I had always remembered Major Brooks as one who approached, if ever man did, the ideal of an officer and a gentleman. Now at first, ladies, the discovery suggested no thought to me beyond the pleasure of knowing that my old friend was alive and hale, and the hope of seeing Harry grow up to be as good a man as his father. But by-and-by I found a thought waking and growing, and awake again and itching after I had done my best to kill it, that the Major might be moved by the story of an old shipmate brought so low. God forgive me, ladies!" Captain Branscome put up a hand to cover his brow. "The very telling of it degrades me over again; but I came here to make a clean breast, and there is no other way. I had cross-examined Harry about the Major and his habits—not always allowing to myself why I asked him many trivial questions. And then suddenly the temptation came to a head. Certain Englishmen discharged from the French war-prisons were landed at Plymouth. The town turned out to welcome the poor fellows home, and the Mayor entertained them at a banquet, to which also he invited some two hundred townsmen. Among the guests he was good enough to include me; for it has been a consolation to me, ladies, and a source of pride, that my friends in Falmouth have not withdrawn in adversity the respect which in old days my uniform commanded."
"Captain Branscome is not telling you the half of it," I broke in eagerly. "Every one in Falmouth knows him to be a hero. Why, he has a sword of honour at home, given him for one of the bravest battles ever fought!"
"Gently, boy—gently!" Captain Branscome corrected me, with a smile, albeit a sad one. "Youth is generous, ladies; it sees these things through a haze which colours and magnifies them, and—and it's a very poor kind of hero you'll consider me before I have done. Where was I? Ah, yes, to be sure—the banquet. His Worship can little have guessed what his invitation meant to me, or that, while others thanked him for a compliment, to me it offered a satisfying meal such as I had not eaten for months. Mr. Stimcoe had given the school a holiday. In short, I attended.
"I fear, ladies, that the food and the generous wine together must have turned my head—there is no other explanation; for when the meal was over and I sat listening to the speeches, but fumbling with a glass of port before me, scarcely with the half-crown in my pocket which must carry me over another week's house-keeping, all of a sudden the man inside me rose in revolt. I felt such poverty as mine to be unendurable, and that I was a slave, a spiritless fool, to put up with it. There must be hundreds of good, Christian folk in the world who had only to know to stretch out a hand of help and gladly, as I would have helped such a case in the days of my own prosperity. Remember, I am not putting this forward as a sober plea. I know it now to be false, self-cheating, the apology that every beggar makes for himself, the specious argument that every poor man must resist who would hold fast by his manhood. But there, with the wine in me and the juices of good meat, the temptation took me at unawares and mastered me as I had never allowed it to master me while I hungered. I saw the world in a sudden rosy light; I felt that my past sufferings had been unnecessary. I thought of Major Brooks—"
"Bless the man!" interjected Miss Belcher. "He's coming to the point at last."
"Your pardon, ma'am. I will be briefer. I thought of Major Brooks. I took a resolve there and then to extend my holiday; to walk hither to Minden Cottage, and lay my case before him. The banquet had no sooner broken up than I started. I reached Truro at nightfall, and hired a bed there for sixpence. Early next morning I set forward again. By this time the impulse had died out of me, but I still walked forward, playing with my intention, always telling myself that I could relinquish it and turn back to Falmouth, cheating—yes, I fear deliberately cheating—myself with the assurance until more than half the journey lay behind me, and to turn back would be worse than pusillanimous. At St. Austell a carrier offered me a lift, and brought me to Liskeard. Thence I walked forward again, and in the late afternoon came in sight of Minden Cottage.
"I recognized it at once from Harry's description, and at first I was minded to walk up and knock boldly at the front door. But remembering also the lad's account of the garden and how the Major would spend the best part of his day there—and partly, I fancy, being nervous and uncertain with what form of words to present myself—I pulled up at the angle of the house, where the lane comes up alongside the garden wall to join the road, and halted, to collect myself and study my bearings.
"The time was about twenty minutes after five, and the light pretty good. But the lane is pretty well overgrown, as you know. I looked down and along it, and it appeared to end in a tangle or brambles. I turned my attention to the house, and was studying it through my glasses, taking stock of its windows and chimneys, and generally (as you might say) reckoning it up, along with the extent of its garden, when, happening to take another glance down the lane, to run a measure of the garden wall—or perhaps a movement caught my eye— I saw a man step across the path between the brambles, out of the garden, as you might say, and into the plantation opposite. The path being so narrow, I glimpsed him for half a second only. But the glimpse of him gave me a start, for, if to suppose it had been anywise possible, I could have sworn the man was one I had known in Falmouth and left behind there."
"Captain Coffin!" I exclaimed.
"Ay, lad, Captain Coffin—Captain Danny Coffin. But what should he be doing at Minden Cottage?"
"The quicker you proceed, sir," said Miss Belcher, rapping the table, "the sooner we are likely to discover."
 Russell's waggons—"Russell and Co., Falmouth to London"—were huge vehicles that plied along the Great West Road under an escort of soldiers, and conveyed the bullion and other treasure landed at Falmouth by the Post Office packets. They were drawn, always at a foot-pace, by teams of six stout horses. The waggoner rode beside on a pony, and inside sat a man armed with pistols and blunderbuss. Poor travellers used these waggons, walking by day, and sleeping by night beneath the tilt.
CAPTAIN BRANSCOME'S CONFESSION—THE FLAG AND THE CASHBOX.
"Well, ma'am," resumed Captain Branscome, "so strong was the likeness to old Coffin, and yet so incredible was it he should be in these parts, that, almost without stopping to consider, I turned down the lane on the chance of another glimpse of the man. This brought me, of course, to the stile leading into the plantation; but the path there, as you know, takes a turn among the trees almost as soon as it starts, and runs, moreover, through a pretty thick undergrowth. The fellow, whoever he was, had disappeared.
"I can't say but what I was still puzzled, though the likeliest explanation—indeed, the only likely one—seemed to be that my eyes had played me a trick. I had pretty well made up my mind to this when I turned away from the stile to have a look at the garden gate on the other side of the lane; and over it, across the little stretch of turf, I caught sight of the summer-house and of Major Brooks standing there in the doorway with a bundle between his hands-a bundle of something red, which he seemed to be wrapping round with a piece of cord.
"Here, then, was the very man I had come to see; and here was a chance of getting speech with him and without the awkwardness of asking it through a servant, perhaps of having to invent an excuse for my visit. Without more ado, therefore, I made bold to lift the latch of the gate and step into the garden.
"At the sound of the latch—I can see him now—Major Brooks lifted his head with a curious start, and tucked the bundle under his arm. The movement was like that of a man taken at unawares, and straightening himself up to meet an attack. I cannot describe it precisely, but that was just the impression it made on me, and it took me aback for a moment, so that I paused as the gate fell-to and latched itself behind me.
"'Halt there!' the Major commanded, facing me full across the turf. 'Halt, and tell me, please, why you have come back!'
"This puzzled me worse for a moment, for the light was good, though drawing towards sunset, and it seemed impossible that, looking straight at me, he could mistake me for the man who had just left the garden. Then I remembered what Harry had told me of his father's blindness.
"My silence naturally made him more suspicious.
"'Who is it there? Your name, please?' he demanded sharply.
"' Sir,' I answered, 'I beg your pardon for coming thus unannounced, but my name is Branscome, and I had once the honour to be shipmate with you on board the Londonderry transport.'
"For a while he continued to stare at me in his blind way.
"'Yes,' he said slowly, at length; 'yes; I remember your voice, sir. But what in the name of wonder brings you to my garden just now?'
"'Your son Harry, sir,' said I, 'some time ago gave me a message from you. If ever (he said) I found myself in the neighbourhood of Minden Cottage you would be pleased to receive a visit from me.'
"'Yes,' said he, but still with a something in his voice between wonder and suspicion; 'that's true enough. I have always retained the highest respect for Captain Branscome, and by your voice you are he. But—but—' He hesitated, and fired another question point-blank at me: 'You come from Falmouth?'
"'I do, sir.'
"'Yes, sir. I have walked all the way from Falmouth, and without a companion.'
"'Look here, my friend,' he said, after seeming to ponder for a moment, 'if you mean ill, you must have altered strangely from the Captain Branscome I used to know, and if you mean well you have timed your visit almost as strangely.' He paused again. 'Either you know what I mean, or you do not; if you do not, you will have to forgive a great deal in this reception; and you will, to begin with, forgive my asking you, on your word of honour, if on your journey hither you have overtaken or met or recognized any one hailing from Falmouth. You do not answer,' he added, after yet another pause.
"'Why, as to that, sir,' said I, 'since leaving Falmouth I have neither met nor overtaken any one of my acquaintance. But, since you put it to me precisely, I will not swear that I have not recognized one. A few minutes ago, standing at the head of the lane here, I saw a man cross it, presumably from this garden, and take the path leading through the plantation yonder. It certainly strikes me that I knew the man, and I followed him down the lane here to make sure.'
"'Why?' the Major asked me.
"'Because, sir,' said I, 'it did not seem possible to me that the man I mean could have any business here; besides which, an hour or two before leaving Falmouth I had passed him in the street, and though he had, indeed, the use of his legs, he was too far gone in liquor to recognize me.'
"'His name?' the Major asked.
"'Coffin, sir,' said I; 'usually known as Captain Coffin, or Captain Danny.'
"'A drunkard?' he asked.
"'A man given to liquor,' said I, 'by fits and starts; but mild enough in an ordinary way. You might call him the least bit touched in the upper story; of a loose, rambling head, at all events, as I can testify, who have taught him navigation—or tried to.'
"The Major, though he could not see me, seemed to study me with his blind eyes. He stood erect, with the bundle clipped under his left arm; and the bundle I made out to be a flag, rolled up and strapped about with its own lanyard.
"'One more question, Captain Branscome,' said he. 'This Captain Coffin, as you call him—is he, to the best of your knowledge, an honest man?'
"I answered that I had heard question of Coffin's sanity, but never of his honesty.
"'His sanity, eh?' said the Major; and I could see he was hung in stays, but he picked up his wind after a second or two, and paid off on another tack. 'Well, well,' he said, 'we'll drop talking of this Coffin, and turn to the business that brings you here. What is it? For I take it you've walked all the way from Falmouth for something more than the sake of a chat over old times.'
"I remember, ladies, the words he used, though not the tone of them. To tell the truth, though my ears received 'em, I was not listening. I stood there, wishing myself a hundred miles away; but his manner gave me no chance to fob him off with an excuse, or pretend I had dropped in for a passing call. There was nothing for it but to out with my story, and into it I plunged somehow, my tongue stammering with shame. He listened, to be sure, but without offering to help me over the hard places. Indeed, at the first mention of my poverty, I saw all his first suspicions—whatever they had been—return and show themselves in his blind eyes. His mouth was set like a closed trap. Yet he heard me out, and, when I had done, his suspicions seemed to have faded again, for he answered me considerately enough, though not cordially.
"'Captain Branscome,' he said, 'I may tell you at once that I never lend money; and my reason is partly that good seldom comes of it, and partly that I am a poor man—if you can call a man poor who is by a few pounds richer than his needs. But I have a great respect for you'—the ladies will forgive me for repeating his exact words—'and your voice seems to tell me that you still deserve it; that you have suffered more than you say before being driven to make this appeal. I can do something—though it be little—to help an old comrade. Will you oblige me by stepping into the summer-house here, and taking a seat while I go to the house? I will not keep you waiting more than a few minutes.'
"He picked up his walking-stick, which rested against a chair, just within the doorway, and stood for a moment while I stepped past him and entered the summer-house; and so, with a nod of the head, turned and walked towards the house, using his stick very skilfully to feel his path between the bushes, and still keeping the flag tucked under his left arm.
"So I sat and waited, ladies, on no good terms with myself. The way of the borrower was hard, I found, and the harder because the Major's manner had not been unkindly, but—if you'll understand my meaning— only just kindly enough. In short, I don't know but that I must have out and run rather than endure his charity, had not my thoughts been distracted by this mystery over Captain Coffin. For the Major had said too much, and yet not enough. The man I had seen crossing the lane was certainly Coffin, but to connect him with Minden Cottage I had no clue at all beyond the faint one, Harry, that you and he were acquaintances. Besides, I had seen him, the morning before, in the crowd around the prisoners, and could have sworn he was then—saving your presence, ladies—as drunk as a fiddler. If vehicle had brought him, it could not be any that had passed me on the road, or for certain I should have recognized him. Well, here was a riddle, and I had come no nearer to guessing it when the Major returned.
"He had left his bundle in the house, and in place of it he carried a cashbox, which he set on the table between us, but did not at once open. Instead, he turned to me with a complete change of manner, and held out his hand very frankly.
"'I owe you an apology, Captain,' said he. 'To be plain with you, at the moment you appeared, I was half expecting a different kind of visitor, and I fear you received some of the welcome prepared for him. Overlook it, please, and shake hands; and, to get our business over,'—he unlocked the cashbox—'here are ten guineas, which I will ask you to accept from me. We won't call it a gift; we will call it an acknowledgement for the extra pains you have put into teaching my son. Tut, man!' said he, as I protested. 'Harry has told us all about that. I assure you the youngster came near to wearying us, last holiday, with praise of you.'"
"And so he did," Plinny here interrupted. "That is to say, sir—I—I mean we were only too glad to listen to him."
"I thank you, ma'am." Captain Branscome bowed to her gravely. "I will not deny that the Major's words gave me pleasure for the moment. He, for his part, appeared to be quite another man. 'Twas as if between leaving me and returning to the summer-house a load had been lifted from his mind. He counted out the guineas, locked the cashbox again, lit his pipe, and then, seeming to recollect himself, reached down a clean one from a stack above the doorway, and insisted upon my filling and smoking with him. 'Twas a long while since I had tasted the luxury of tobacco. We talked of old days on the Londonderry, of Sir John Moore's last campaign, of Falmouth and the packets, of the peace and the overthrow of Bonaparte's ambitions; or, rather, 'twas he that talked and questioned, while for me 'twas pleasure enough, and a pleasure long denied me, to sit on terms with a well-read gentleman and listen to talk of a quality which—"
"Which differed from that of the Rev. Philip Stimcoe's," suggested Miss Belcher, as he hesitated. "Proceed, sir."
"I shall add, madam, that the Major very kindly invited me to sleep that night under his roof. I could pick up the coach in the morning (he said). But this I declined, professing that I preferred the night for travelling, and maybe, before tiring myself, would overtake one of Russell's waggons and obtain a lift; the fact being that, grateful though I found it to sit and converse with him, my conscience was accusing me all the while.
"Towards the end of our talk he had let slip by accident that he was by no means a rich man. The money from that moment began to burn in my pockets, and I had scarcely shaken hands with him and taken my leave—which I did just as the sun was sinking behind the plantation across the lane—before his guineas fairly scorched me. I held on my way for a mile or more. You may have observed, ladies, that I limp in my walk? It is the effect of an old wound. But, I declare to you, my limp was nothing to the thought I dragged with me—the recollection of the Major's face and the expression that had come over it when I had first confessed my errand. All his subsequent kindness, his sympathy, his hospitality, his frank and easy talk, could not wipe out that recollection. I had sold something which for years it had been my pride to keep. I had forced it on an unwilling buyer. I had taken the money of a poor man, and had given him in exchange—what? You remember, ladies, those words of Shakespeare— good words, although he puts them into the mouth of a villain—that:
"' . . . He who filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.'
"No one had filched my honour—I had sold it to a good man, but yet without enriching him, while in the loss of it I knew myself poor indeed. At the second milestone I turned back, more eager now to find the Major and get rid of the money than ever I had been to obtain it.
"My face was no sooner turned again towards the cottage than I broke into a run, and so good pace I made between running and walking that it cannot have been more than an hour from my leaving the garden before I arrived back at the head of the lane. The evening was dusking in, but by no means dark as yet, even though a dark cloud had crept up from the west and overhung the plantation to the right. I looked down the lane as I entered it, and again—yes, ladies, as surely as before—I saw a man cross it from the garden gate and step into the plantation!
"Who the man was I could not tell, the light being so uncertain. Although he crossed the lane just where Coffin had crossed it and disappeared in just the same manner, I had an impression that he was not Coffin, and that his gait, for one thing, differed from Coffin's. But I tell you this for what it is worth: I was startled, you may be sure, and hurried down the lane after him even quicker than I had hurried after the first man; but when I came to the stile, he, like the first man, had vanished, and within the plantation it was impossible by this time to see more than twenty yards deep.
"Again I turned and crossed the lane to the garden gate. A sort of twilight lay over the turf between me and the summer-house, and beneath the apple-trees skirting my path to it on the left you might say that it was night; but the water at the foot of the garden threw up a sort of glimmer, and there was a glimmer, too, on the vane above the flagstaff. I noted this and that, though my eyes were searching for Major Brooks in the dark shadow under the pent of the summer-house.
"Towards this I stepped; but in the dark I must have walked a few feet wide of the straight line, for I remember brushing against a low-growing branch of one of the apple-trees, and this must have caught in my eyeglass-ribbon and torn it, for when I came to fumble for them a few seconds later to help my sight, the glasses were gone.
"By this time I had reached the summer-house and come to a halt, three paces, maybe, from the doorstep. 'Major Brooks!' I called softly, and then again, but a thought louder, 'Major Brooks!'
"There was no answer, ladies, and I turned myself half about, uncertain whether to go back up the lane and knock at the front door or to seek my way to the house through the garden. Just then my boot touched something soft, and I bent and saw the Major's body stretched across the step close beside my ankles. I stooped lower and put down a hand. It touched his shoulder, and then the ground beneath his shoulder, and the ground was moist. I drew my hand back with a shiver, and just at that moment, as I stared at my fingers, the heavy cloud beyond the plantation lifted itself clear of the trees and let the last of the daylight through—enough to show me a dark stain running from my finger-tips and trickling towards the palm.
"And then, ladies—at first I thought of no danger to myself, but ran for the gate, still groping as I went, for my eyeglasses; stumbled across the lane somehow, and over the stile in vain chase of the man I had glimpsed two minutes before. I say a vain chase, for I had not plunged twenty yards into the plantation before—short-sighted mole that I am—I had lost the track. I pulled up, on the point of shouting for help, and with that there flashed on me the thought of the Major's guineas in my pocket. If I called for help I called down suspicion on myself, and suspicion enough to damn me. How could I explain my presence in the garden? How could I account for the money—straight from the Major's cashbox?"
Captain Branscome paused and gazed around upon us as if caught once more in that terrible moment of choice. Miss Belcher met his gaze and nodded.
"So the upshot was that you ran for it? Well, I can't say that I blame you. But, as it happens, if you had stood still the cashbox might have helped to clear you; for it was found next morning, half a mile away in the brook, below my lodge-gate."
"And there's one thing," said Plinny, "we may thank God for, if it is possible to be thankful for anything in this dreadful business. The murderer, whoever he was, got little profit from his crime, for I know pretty well the state of your poor father's finances, Harry; and if, as Captain Branscome tells us, he had taken ten guineas from the box, there must have been very few left in it."
"My good soul," said Miss Belcher, "the man wasn't after money! He wanted the map this Captain Coffin had left in the Major's keeping. That's as plain as the nose on your good, dear face. If the map happened to be in the cashbox, and I'll bet ten to one it wasn't—"
"You may bet ten thousand to one!" I cried. "It was never in the cashbox at all. It was wrapped up in the flag my father carried into the house."
"Bless the boy," said Miss Belcher; "he's not half a fool, after all! Yes, yes—where is the flag?"
"On the flagstaff," said I. "I hoisted it there this morning."
"And here," I panted, jumping up in my excitement, "here is Captain Coffin's map!"
I heard Miss Belcher breathing hard as I lugged out the oilskin packet, tore open the knotted string which bound it, and, drawing forth the parchment, spread it, with shaking fingers, on the table.
THE CHART OF MORTALLONE.
While the others drew their chairs closer, and while I spread flat the parchment—which was crinkled (by the action of salt water, maybe)—I had time to assure myself that this was the selfsame chart of which Captain Coffin had once vouchsafed me a glimpse. I remembered the shape of the island, the point marked "Cape Alderman," the strange, whiskered heraldical monster depicted in the act of rising from the waves off the north-western coast, the equally impossible ship, decorated with a sprit-top-mast and a flag upon it, and charging up under full sail for the southern entry, the name of which ("Gow's Gulf") I must have missed to read in the short perusal Captain Coffin had allowed me. At any rate, I could not recall it. But I recalled the three crosses which showed (so he had told me) where the treasure lay. They were marked in red ink, and I explained their meaning to Miss Belcher, who had pounced upon them at once.
"Fiddlestick-end!" said that lady, falling back on her favourite ejaculation. "Great clumsy crosses of that size! How in the world could any one find a treasure by such marks, unless it happened to be two miles long?"
She pointed to the scale at the head of the chart, which, to be sure, gave six miles to the inch. By the same measurement the crosses covered, each way, from half a mile to three-quarters. Moreover, each had patently been dashed in with two hurried strokes of the pen and without any pretence of accuracy. The first cross covered a "key" or sand-bank off the northern shore of the island; the second sprawled athwart what appeared to be the second height in a range of hills running southward from Cape Alderman, and down along the entire eastern coast at a mean distance of a mile, or a little over, from the sea; while the third was planted full across a grove of trees at the head of the great inlet—Gow's Gulf—to the south, and, moreover, spanned the chief river of the island, which, running almost due south from the back of the hills or mountains (their size was not indicated) below Cape Alderman, discharged itself into the apex of the gulf.
"Without bearings of some sort," said Miss Belcher, "these marks are merely ridiculous."
"You may well say so, ma'am," Captain Branscome answered, but inattentively. "Mortallone—Mortallone," he went on, muttering the word over as if to himself. "It is curious, all the same."
"What is curious?" demanded Miss Belcher.
"Why, ma'am, I have never myself visited the Gulf of Honduras, but among seamen there are always a hundred stories floating about. In a manner of speaking, there is no such shop for gossip as the sea. In every port you meet 'em, in taverns where sailors drink and brag— the liquor being in them—and one man talks and the rest listen, not troubling themselves to believe. It is good to find one's self ashore, you understand? And a good, strong-flavoured yarn makes the landlord and all the shore-keeping folk open their eyes—"
"Bless the man!" Miss Belcher rapped her knuckles on the table. "This is not a 'longshore tavern."
"Then why not come to the point?"
"The point, ma'am—well, the point is that every one—that is to say, every seaman—has heard tell of treasure knocking about, as you might put it, somewhere in the Gulf of Honduras."
"What sort of treasure?"
"Why, as to that, ma'am, it varies with the story. Sometimes 'tis bar silver from the isthmus, and sometimes 'tis gold plate and bullion that belonged to the old Kings of Mexico; but by the tale I've heard offtenest, 'tis church treasure that was run away with by a shipful of logwoodmen in Campeachy Bay. But there again you no sooner fix it as church treasure, and ask where it came from, than you have to choose between half a dozen different accounts. Some say from the Spanish islands—Havana for choice; others from the Main, and I've heard places mentioned as far apart us Vera Cruz and Caracas. The dates, too—if you can call them dates at all—vary just as surprisingly."
"The date on this chart is 1776," said Miss Belcher, who had been peering at it while the Captain spoke.
"Then, supposing there's something in poor Coffin's secret, that gives you the year to start from. We'll suppose this is the very chart used by the man who hid the treasure. Then it follows the treasure wasn't hidden before 1776, and that rules out all the yarns about Hornigold, Teach, Bat Roberts, and suchlike pirates, the last of whom must have been hanged a good fifty years before: though here's evidence"—Captain Branscome laid a forefinger on the chart— "that these gentry had dealings with the island in their day. 'Gow's Gulf,' 'Cape Fea'—Gow was a pirate and a hard nut at that; and Fea, if I remember, his lieutenant or something of the sort; but they had gone their ways before ever this was printed, and consequently before ever these crosses came to be written on it. You follow me, ma'am?"
Miss Belcher gave a contemptuous sniff which, I doubt not, would have prefaced the remark that an unweaned child would arrive unaided at the same conclusions; but here I interposed.
"Captain Coffin," said I, "told me that a part of the treasure was church plate, and that he had seen it. He showed me a coin, too, and said it came from the island."
"Hey, lad? What sort of coin?"
But to this I could give no answer, except that it was a piece of gold, and in size perhaps a trifle smaller than a guinea.
"That's a pity, lad. The coin might have helped us. You're sure now that you can't remember? It hadn't a couple of pillars engraved on it, for instance?"
I shook my head. I had taken no particular heed of the stamp on the coin.
Captain Branscome sighed his disappointment.
"The church plate don't help us at all," he said, "or very little. Why, I've heard this Honduras treasure dated so far back as Morgan's time, when he sacked Panama. The tale went that the priests at Panama or Chagres, or one of those places, on fright of Morgan's coming, clapped all their treasure aboard ship under a guard of militia—soldiers of some sort, anyway—and that the seamen cut the soldiers' throats, slipped cable, and away-to-go. But Morgan! He must have died before Queen Anne was born—well, not so far back as that maybe, but then or thenabouts. I tell you, ma'am, this story hangs around every port and every room where seamen gather and drink and take their ways again. 'Tis for all the world like the smell of tobacco-smoke, that tells you some one has come and gone, but leaves you nothing to get hold of. Hallo!—"
As the exclamation escaped him, Captain Branscome, who had casually picked up a corner of the parchment between finger and thumb, with a nervous jerk drew the whole chart from under my outspread palms and turned it over face-downwards.
"Eh? But see here!"
He fumbled with his glasses, while Miss Belcher and I, snatching at the chart, almost knocked our heads together as we bent over a corner of it—the left-hand upper corner—and a dozen lines of writing scrawled there in faded ink. They ran thus—
1. Landed by cuttar when wee saw a sail. Lesser Kay N. of Gable. Get open water between two kays S.W. and W. by S., and N. inner point of Gable (where is green patch, good watering) in line with white rock (birds), neer as posble. S. a point E. 3 feet bare, being hurried.
2. Bayse of cliff second hill S.S.W. from Cape Alderman. Here is bank over 2 waterfals. Neer lower fall, 12 paces back from egge, getting island open N.E. beyond rock W. of inlet, and first tree Misery Swamp over Crabtree, W.S.W Bush above rock to rt of fall. Shaddow 1/4 to 4, June 21st, when we left digging.
3. R. bank river, 1 and 1/2 mile up from Gow crikke. Centre tree in clump 5 branch bearing N. and by E. 1/2 point, two forks. R. fork 4ft. red cave under hill 457yds. foot of tree N.N.W. N.B.—The stones here, under rock 4 spans L side.
That was all, except two short entries. The first scribbled aslant under No. 1, and in Captain Coffin's own handwriting—so Captain Branscome, who knew it, assured us.
N.B.—Took out 5 cases Ap. 5, 1806, besides the boddies. Avging 3/4 cwt. 1 case jewels. We left the clothes, wh. were many.
The second entry appeared to have been penned by the same hand as the original, but more neatly and some while later. The ink, at any rate, was blacker and fresher. It ran:
S.W. ann. aetat. 37. R.I.P.
The handwriting, though rugged—and the indifferent ink may have been to blame for this—was well formed, and, but for the spelling, might have belonged to an educated man.
The reader, if he choose, may follow our example and discuss the above directions for half an hour—I will warrant with as little result. Miss Belcher ended by harking back to the summer-house and to the latest crime—if we might guess, the latest of many—for which this document had been responsible.
"What puzzles me is this: Since the Major had pockets in his coat, why should he have hidden the parcel as he did? So small a parcel, too!"
"Captain Coffin," I suggested, "may have known that he was being followed."
"And in handing it over he may have warned my father that there was danger."
"I believe the boy is right," said Captain Branscome. "Now I recall the Major's face at the moment when I rattled the latch, I feel sure he was on his guard. Yes—yes, he had been warned against carrying this on his person—he was wrapping it away for the time—"
"Why, what ails the man?" demanded Miss Belcher, as Captain Branscome stopped short with a groan.
"I was thinking, ma'am, that but for my visit he might never have relaxed his guard—that it was I who helped the murderer to take him at unawares. Nay—worse, ma'am, worse—his last thought may have been that I was the traitor—that the blow he took was from the hand he had filled with gold—that I had returned to kill him in his blindness!"
Captain Branscome bowed his head upon his hands. I saw Plinny—who all this while had sat silent, content to listen—rise, her face twitching, and put out a hand to touch the captain's shoulder. I saw her hand hesitate as her sense of decorum overtook her pity and seemed to reason with it. And with that I heard the noise of wheels on the road.
"Hallo!"—Miss Belcher pricked up her ears. "Here's that nuisance Jack Rogers turning up again!"
THE CONTENTS OF THE CORNER CUPBOARD.
Mr. Jack Rogers, as he pulled up by the porch and directed me to stand by the young mare's head, wore a look of extreme self-satisfaction. Beside him, also beaming, sat Mr. Goodfellow, with the corner cupboard nursed between his knees.
"Capital news, lad!" announced Mr. Rogers, climbing down from the tilbury. "The filly's pretty near dead-beat, though—must see to her and cool her down before telling it. Now, then, Mr. Goodfellow, if you'll hand out the cupboard. By the way, sonny, I hope Miss Plinlimmon can give us breakfast. I'm as hungry as a hunter, for my part, and deserve it, too, after a good night's work. With my fol-de-rol, diddledy—" He started to hum, but checked himself shamefacedly. "There I go again, and I beg your pardon! 'Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to behave myself in a house of mourning."
Mr. Goodfellow by this time had clambered down, and was embracing the corner cupboard as though he had parted from it for an age, instead of for fifty seconds at the farthest.
"Carry it indoors, but don't open it till I'm ready," commanded Mr. Rogers, stooping under the filly to loosen her belly-band. "I'm a magistrate, remember, and these things must be done in order. You come along with me, Harry; that is, if you have the key in your pocket."
"I have, sir."
"Right! Then come along with me, and you'll be out of harm's way."
So, while Mr. Goodfellow carried the cupboard into the house, Mr. Rogers and I attended to the filly.
This took, maybe, twenty minutes; but Mr. Rogers was a sportsman, and thought of his horse before himself. Not till all was done, and well done, did he announce again that he was devilish peckish; nor did I take the measure of his meaning until, returning to the breakfast-room where Mr. Goodfellow sat before a plate of bread and cream, he helped himself to a mass of veal pie fit for a giant, and before attacking it drained a tankard of cider at a single pull, while he nodded over the rim to Captain Branscome, to whom Plinny introduced him.
"Jack," said Miss Belcher, with a jerk of her thumb towards the Captain, "I'll lay you two to one in guineas, that our news is more important than yours!"
"I take you," said Mr. Rogers.
"It will save time if we tell it while you're eating, and will save you the trouble of talking with your mouth full."
Once or twice, while she abridged Captain Branscome's narrative, Mr. Rogers set down knife and fork, and stared at her with round eyes, his jaws slowly chewing.
"And I reckon," concluded Miss Belcher, "that you won't dispute your owing me a guinea."
"Wait a bit!" Mr. Rogers pushed his empty plate away, selected a clean one, and helped himself to six slices of ham. "To begin with, I've found scent and laid on the hounds."
"At St. Mawes. Captain Coffin, the murdered man, landed there from the ferry on the night of the 11th, at a few minutes before nine, and walked straight to the Lugger Inn, above the quay. There he borrowed fifteen shillings off the landlord, who knew him well; ordered two glasses of hot gin-and-water, drank them, paid down sixpence, and took the road that leads east through Gerrans village. His tale was that he had a relative to visit at Plymouth Dock, and meant to push on that night so far as Probus, and there sleep and wait for Russell's waggon."
"But his road," I objected, "wouldn't lie through Gerrans village, unless he went by the short cut through the field beyond St. Mawes, and took the ferry at Percuil."
"Right, lad; and that is precisely what he did; for—to push ahead a bit—we overran his track on the main road, and, learning of that same short cut, drove back along the other side of the creek to Percuil, and had a talk with the ferryman. The ferryman told us that at ten o'clock, or thereabouts, he was going to bed having closed the ferry, when a voice on the other shore began bawling 'Over!' He slipped on his boots again, rowed across, and took over a man who was certainly Captain Coffin."
"He was alone?" I asked.
"He came across the ferry alone," said Mr. Rogers, "and I dare say he had no idea of being followed. But back at St. Mawes, while he was drinking gin-and-water in the taproom, another man came to the door of the Lugger. This man sent for the landlord—Bogue by name—and asked to be shown into a private room. He was dressed in odds-and-ends of garments, including a soiled regimental coat and dirty linen trousers."
"The French prisoner!" said I.
"That's the man. He told Bogue, fair and straight, he was an ex-prisoner, and off the Wellinboro' transport, arrived that day in harbour. He had money in his pocket—in Bogue's presence he pulled out a fistful of gold—and he pitched a tale that he was bound for his home, a little this side of Saltash, but couldn't face the road in the clothes he wore. You'll admit that this was reasonable when you've seen 'em, for I brought the suit along in the tail of the tilbury. For a pound, Bogue fitted him up with an old suit of his own—coat and waistcoat of blue sea-cloth, not much the worse for wear, duck trousers, a tarpaulin hat, and a flannel shirt marked J. B. (Bogue's Christian name is Jeremiah). The fellow had no shirt when he presented himself—nothing between the bare buff and the uniform coat that he wore buttoned across his chest. And here our luck comes in. He was shy of stripping in Bogue's presence, and, on pretence of feeling chilly, sent him out of the room for a glass of hot grog. As it happened, Bogue met the waiting-maid in the passage, coming out of the bar with a tray and half a dozen hot grogs that had been ordered by customers in the tap-room. He picked up one, and, sending the maid back to fetch another to fill up her order, returned at once to the private room. My gentleman there was standing with his back to the door, stripped to the waist, with the shirt in his hand, ready to slip it on. He wasn't expecting Bogue so soon, and he turned about with a jump, but not before Bogue had sight of his back and a great picture tattooed across it—Adam and Eve, with the tree between 'em, and the serpent coiled around it complete."
"The man Bogue must have quick sight," commented Miss Belcher.
"So I told him, but his answer was that it didn't need more than a glance, because this picture is a favourite with seamen. Bogue has been a seaman himself."
"That is so," Captain Branscome corroborated. "The man must have been a seaman, and at one time or another in the Navy. There's a superstition about that particular picture: tattooed across the back and loins it's supposed to protect them, in a moderate degree, against flogging."
"Well," said Miss Belcher, "his belonging to the Navy seems likely enough. It accounts, in one way, for his finding himself in a French war-prison. Go on, Jack."
"The man (said Bogue) faced about with a start, catching his hands— with the shirt in 'em—towards his chest, and half covering it, but not so as to hide from Bogue that his chest, too, was marked. Bogue hadn't time to make out the design, but his recollection is there were several small ones—ships, foul-anchors, and the like— besides a large one that seemed to be some sort of a map."
"You haven't done so badly, Jack," Miss Belcher allowed. "If the man hasn't given us the slip at Plymouth you have struck a first-class scent. Only I doubt 'tis a cold one. You sent word at once?"
"By express rider, and with orders to leave a description of the man at all the ferries. But there's more to come. The man, that had seemed at first in a desperate hurry, was no sooner in Bogue's clothes than he took a seat, made Bogue fetch another glass of grog and drink it with him, and asked him a score of questions about the best road eastward. It struck Bogue that, for a man whose home was Saltash, he knew very little about his native county. All this while he appeared to have forgotten his hurry, and Bogue was thinking to make him an excuse to go off and attend to other customers, when of a sudden he ups and shakes hands, says good night, and marches out of the house. Bogue told me all this in the very room where it happened. It opens out on the passage leading from the taproom to the front door. I asked Bogue if he could remember at what time Coffin left the house, and by what door; also, if the prisoner-fellow heard him leave; but at first he couldn't tell me anything for certain except that Coffin went out by the front door—he remembered hearing him go tapping down the passage. The old man, it seems, had a curious way of tapping with his stick."
Here Mr. Rogers looked at me, and I nodded.
"Where was the landlord when he heard this?" asked Miss Belcher.
"That, my dear Lydia, was naturally the next question I put to him. 'Why, in this very room,' said he, 'now I come to think of it.' 'Well, then,' said I, 'how long did you stay in this room after the prisoner (as we'll call him) had taken his leave?' 'Not a minute,' said he; 'no, nor half a minute. Indeed, I believe we walked out into the passage together, and then parted, he going out to the door, and I up the passage to the taproom.' 'Was Coffin in the taproom when you reached it?' I asked. 'No,' says Bogue; 'to be sure he wasn't.' 'Why, then, you thickhead,' says I, 'he must have left while you were talking with the prisoner; and since you heard him go, the odds are the prisoner heard him, too.' That's the way to get at evidence, Lydia."
"My dear Jack," said Miss Belcher, "you're an Argus!"
"Well, I flatter myself it was pretty neat," resumed Mr. Rogers, speaking with his mouth full; "but, as it happens, we don't need it. For when, as I've told you, we drove around to the ferry at Percuil, and the ferryman described Coffin and how he'd put him across, the first question I asked was 'Did you put any one else across that night?' He said, 'Yes; and not twenty minutes later.' 'Man or woman?' I asked. 'Man,' said he, 'and a d—d drunk one'—saving your presence, ladies. I pricked up my ears. 'Drunk?' I asked. How drunk?' 'Drunk enough to near-upon drown himself,' said the ferryman. 'It was this way, sir: I'd scarcely finished mooring the boat again, and was turning to go indoors, when I heard a splash, t'other side of the creek, where; the path comes down under the loom of the trees, and, next moment, a voice as if some person was drowning and guggling for help. So I fit and unmoored again, and pushed across for dear life, just in time to see a man scrambling ashore. He was as drunk as a fly, sir, even after his wetting. Said he was a retired seaman living at Penzance, had come round to Falmouth on a lime-barge bound for the Truro river, and must get along to St. Austell in time to attend his sister's wedding there next morning. Told me his sister's name, but I forget it. Said he'd fallen in with some brave fellows at Falmouth just returned from the French war-prisons, and had taken a glass or two. Gave me half a crown when I brought him over and landed him,' said the ferryman, 'and too far gone in liquor to understand the mistake if I'd explained it to him, which I didn't.' He was dressed in what appeared to be a dark cloth jacket, duck trousers of sea-going cut, and a tarpaulin hat. 'There was just moon enough,' said the ferry-man, 'to let a man take notice of his trousers, they being white; and maybe I took particular notice of his legs, because they were dripping wet. As for his face, by the glimpse I had of it he was a middle-aged man that had seen trouble.' I asked if he would know the man again. He said, 'Yes,' he was pretty sure he would. So there, Lydia, you have the villain dogging Coffin, tracking him to Percuil, and shamming drunk to get carried over the ferry in pursuit. On Bogue's testimony he was as sober as a judge at St. Mawes, and drank but one glass of grog there, and from St. Mawes to Percuil is but a step, mainly by footpath over the fields, with no public-house on the way."
"H'm," said Miss Belcher; "and yet he couldn't have been following the man to murder him, or he must have taken more care to cover up his traces. All his concern seems to have been to follow Coffin without being seen by him. Is that all?"
"My dear Lydia, consider the amount of time I've had! Almost before I'd finished with Bogue, and certainly before the filly was well rested, Mr. Goodfellow here had crossed to Falmouth and was back again, bringing the cupboard—"
"Yes, Jack; you have done very well—surprisingly well. But I'll not hand over my guinea until we've examined the cupboard. Here, Mr. Goodfellow"—she cleared a space amid the breakfast things—"be so good as to lift it on to the table. Harry, where's the key?"
I produced it.
"A nice bit of work—and Dutch, by the look of it," she commented, pausing to admire the inlaid pattern as she inserted the key. She turned it, and the door fell back, askew on its broken hinges.
Mr. Goodfellow had carried the cupboard with infinite care, but the contents, I need not say, had mixed themselves up in wild disorder, though nothing was broken—not even the pot of guava-jelly. They included a superannuated watch in a loose silver case, a medal (in bronze) struck to commemorate Lord Howe's famous victory of the First of June, two pieces-of-eight and a spade guinea (much clipped); a small china mug painted with libellous portraits of King George III. and his consort; a printed pamphlet on Admiral Byng; two strings of shells; a mourning-ring with a lock of hair set between two pearls under glass; another ring with a tiny picture of a fountain and urn, and a weeping willow; a paper containing a baby's caul and a sampler worked with the A.B.C. and the Lord's Prayer and signed "A.C., 1785;" a gourd, a few glass beads, and a Chinese opium-pipe; and lastly, a thick paper roll bound in yellow-stained parchment. The roll was tied about with string, and the string was sealed, in coarse wax without imprint.
Miss Belcher dived a hand into a fold of her skirt, and drew forth a most unladylike clasp-knife.
"Now for it!" said Miss Belcher.
CAPTAIN COFFIN'S LOG.
As she severed the string the roll fell open and disclosed itself as a book of small quarto shape, bound in limp parchment, with strings to tie the covers together. Its pages, measuring 9 and 3/4 by 8 in., were 64, and numbered throughout; but a bare third of them were written on, and these in an unformed hand which yet was eloquent of much. A paragraph would start with every letter drawn as carefully as in a child's copy-book; would gradually straggle and let its words fall about, as though fainting by the way; and so would tail into incoherence, to be picked up—next day, no doubt—by a new effort, which, after marching for half a dozen lines, in its turn collapsed. There were lacunae, too, when the shaking hand had achieved but a few weak zigzags before it desisted. The two last pages were scribbled over with sums—or, to speak more correctly, with combinations of figures resembling sums. Here is a single example—
Ode to W. Bate
To bacca 9 and 1/2d Haircutt 1s Bliddin ...... 18d. To more bacca Oct. 10th do. Ditto and shave ditto ditto ————————- Mem. do. to him 2s. 6d.
The fly-leaf started bravely with "D. Coffin, His Book." After this the captain had fallen to practising his signature by way of start. "D. Coffin," "Danl. Coffin," "Danyel Coffin," over and over, and once "D. Coffin, Esq.," followed by "Steal not this Book for fear of shame."
Danl. Coffin is my name England is my nation Falmth ditto ditto dwelling-place And hopes to see Salvation.
After these exercises came a blank page, and then, halfway down the next, abruptly, without title, began the manuscript which I will call Captain Coffin's statement.
"Pass it to Lydia," said Mr. Rogers. "She reads like a parson."
"Better than most, I hope," said Miss Belcher, taking the book; and this—I omit the faults of spelling—is what she read aloud—
Mem. Began this August 15th, 1812. Mem. Am going to tell about the treasure, and what happened. But it will be no use without the map. If any one tries to bring up trouble, this is the truth and nothing else. Amen. So be it. Signed, D. Coffin.
My father followed the sea, and bred me to it. He came from Devonshire, near Exmouth. N.B.—He used to say the Coffins were a great family in Devonshire, and as old as any; but it never did him no good. He was an only son, and so was I, but I had an older sister, now dead. She grew up and married a poultryman in Quay Street, Bristol. I remember the wedding. Died in childbed a year later, me being at that time on my first voyage.
We lived at Bristol, at the foot of Christmas Stairs, left-hand side going up, two doors from the bottom. My mother from Stonehouse, Gloster, where they make cloth, specially red cloth for soldiers' coats. Her maiden name Daniels. She was a religious woman, and taught me the Bible. My father was lost at sea, being knocked overboard by the boom in half a gale, two miles S.W. of Lundy. I was sixteen at the time, and apprentice as cabin-boy on board the same ship, the Caroline, bound from Hayle to Cardiff with copper ore. I went home and broke the news to my mother, and she told me then what I didn't know before, that she was very poorly provided for. I will say this, that I made her a good son; and likewise, that I never had no luck till I struck the Treasure.
I was born in the year 1750. My father's death happened 1766. From that time till my twenty-seventh year, I supported my mother. She died of a seizure in 1777, and is buried by St. Mary's Redclyf— we having moved across the water to that parish. Married next year, Elizabeth Porter, in service with Soames Rennalls, Esquire, Alderman of the City. She had been brought up an orphan by the Colston Charity; a good pious woman, and bore me one child, a daughter, christened Ann—a dear little one. She lived and throve up to the year 1787, me all the time coming and going on voyages, mostly coasting, too numerous to mention. Then the small-pox carried her off with my affectionate wife, the both in one week. At which I cursed all things, and for several years ran riot, not caring what I said or did.
Was employed, from 1790 on, in the slave trade, by W. S., merchant of Bristol. Must have made as many as a dozen passages before leaving him and shipping on the Mary Pynsent, Pink, Bristol-owned by a new company of adventurers. She was an old boat, and known to me, but not the whole story of her. I signed as mate. We were bound for the W. Coast, about 50 leagues E. of Cape Corse Castle, with gunpowder and old firearms for the natives, that were most always at war with one another. Ran coastwise and touched at three or four places on the way, and at each of them peddled powder and muskets, the muskets being most profitable, by reason the blacks have no notion of repairing a gun. So we, carrying a gunsmith on board, bought up at one place the guns that wanted repairs, and sold them at the next for new pieces. In this way we came to our destination, which was the mouth of a river full of slime and mosquitoes, and called the Popo River. There a whole tribe of niggers put out to receive us.
They knew the Mary Pynsent, and worse luck. Her last trip, when owned by Mr. W. S., aforesaid, she had sold them 1500 kegs of sifted sea-coal dust, passing it off for gunpowder, and had made off with 7000 pounds worth of gold dust, besides ivory, white and black, before they discovered the trick. We being without knowledge of what had happened, and having real gunpowder to sell, let the niggers swarm on board, and welcome. Whereupon, in revenge for past usage, they attacked us on the spot and clubbed all the crew but me, that was getting out the boat under the seaward quarter and baling her, but dived as soon as the murder began, and swam to the shore. The shore was mudbanks and reeds and mangroves, and all sweating with heat and mosquitoes. I spent that day in hiding. Towards sunset the savages rafted a good third of the cargo ashore, and, having stacked the kegs and built a fire about them, started to dance, making a silly mock of the powder, till it blew up. Which it did, and must have killed hundreds.
I heard the noise of it at about two miles' distance, having crept out of my hiding when I saw them busy, and started to tramp it along shore to Cape Corse Castle. I had no food, and must have died but that next morning I fell in with a tribe that seemed pleased to see me; which was lucky, me having no strength left to run. They took me to their kraal, a mile inland, and to a hut where was a man lying in a fever. He was a man covered with dirt and vermin, but at first sight of his face I knew him to be a white man and English. Ever since my first voyage to these parts I carried a small box in my pocket, filled with bark of Peru, which is the best cure for coast fever. I took out some of this bark and managed to make myself understood that I wanted a fire lit and some water fetched; boiled up the bark and made him drink it. After that I nursed him for three days before he died.
The second day he sits up and says in English: "Who are you?" So I told him. Then he says: "Why are you doing this for me? You wouldn't do it if you knew who I am." "I'd do it," I said, "if you were the devil." "I am next door to him," he says. "I am Melhuish, of the Poison Island Treasure." "I never heard of it," said I. "There's others call it the Priests' Treasure," says he; "and if you have never heard of it, you cannot have sailed anywhere near the Bay of Honduras." "Never in my life," I said. "My business has lain along the coast for years. But what of it?" "What of it?" he says, sitting up, his eyes all shining with the fever, "why, nothing, except that I am one of the richest men in the world." I set this down to raving. "You don't believe me?" he asks after some time. "Why," I answers him, "this is a funny sort of place for a nabob, and that you must allow; not to mention," I adds, "that from here to Honduras is a long step." "You fool!" said he, "that is the very reason of it. I don't believe in a hell on the t'other shore of this life, whatever your views may be. You go to sleep and have done with it—that's my belief. But I believe in hell upon earth, because I have lived in it. And I believe in a devil upon earth, because I lived months in his company; but he can't be as clever as the priests make out, because I came here to hide from him, and hidden I have."
With that he fell into cursing and raving, but after a time he grew quiet again, and said he: "Daniel Coffin, if that is your name, there's hundreds of thousands of men walking this world would envy you at this moment. And why? Because I can make you richer than any Lord Mayor in his coach; and, what's more, I will."
He said no more that evening, but next day woke up in his wits, and asked me to slip a hand under his pillow and take out what I found there. Which I took out a piece of parchment. He said: "Coffin, I am going to be as good as my word. That there which you hold in your hand is a map of the Island of Mortallone, where the treasure lies. I will tell you how I come by it.
"My home," he said, "was St. Mary's, in Newfoundland, which is but a small harbour and a few wood houses gathered about a factory. The factory belonged to a firm at Carbonear, and employed, one way and another, all the people in the place, in number less than two hundred. The women worked at the fish-curing, along with the children and some old men, but the able-bodied men belonged mostly to the Labrador fleet, or manned a two-three small vessels that made regular voyages to the Island of St. Jago to fetch home salt for the pickling. My mother, besides working at the factory, kept a boarding-house for seamen. In this she was helped by my only sister, a middle-aged woman and single. My mother was a widow. She kept her house very respectable, but the business was slight, the town being empty of men most of the year.
"In the autumn of 'ninety-eight, arriving home with salt as usual from St. Jago, I found a stranger lodging in the house. He had come over from Carbonear with a party of clerks, and had taken a fancy to the place—or so he said; besides which, it had been recommended to him for his health, which was delicate. He was a common-spoken man, aged between fifty and sixty, and looked like a skipper that had hauled ashore; but he never talked about the sea in my hearing, and he never mixed with the few seamen who came to the house. He rented a separate room and kept to it. His habits were simple enough, and his manner very quiet and friendly, though he spoke as little as he could help, unless to my sister. My mother liked him because he paid his way and seemed content with whatever food was put before him. The only thing he complained about was the cold.
"I had been at home for three weeks and a little more when one evening, as I was passing downstairs from my bedroom in the attic, this Mr. Shand—that was the name he gave us—called me into his room and showed me a small bird he had picked up dead on the beach. He did not know its name, and I was too ignorant to tell him. He stood there looking at it under the lamp when my sister came upstairs with a note and word that the messenger was waiting outside for an answer. Mr. Shand took the note and read it under the lamp. Then he turned to the fire, and stood with his back to us for a moment. I saw him drop the note into the fire. He faced round to us again and said he to my sister: 'Mary, my dear, here is something I want you to keep for me. Do not look at it to-night; and when you do, show it to no one but your brother here.' With that he gave her the very packet you have in your hand, shook hands with us both, and went downstairs. We never saw him again. The weather was thick, with some snow falling, and the snow increased towards midnight. We waited up till we were tired, but he did not return that night or the next day. Three days later his body was found in a drift of snow, halfway down a cliff to the west of the town. The right leg and arm were broken and two ribs on the same side."
I asked: "Who was the man that brought the message?" Melhuish said: "My sister could not tell, except that he was a stranger. She supposed he belonged to one of two ships that had arrived in harbour the day before. She saw nothing of his face to remember; his jacket-collar being turned up against the snow, and the flaps of his fur cap pulled down over his ears."
I asked: "Did the man's chest tell nothing when you came to examine it?" Melhuish said: "Nothing at all. It was full of new clothes, and very good clothes; but they had no mark upon them, and, besides the clothes, there was not so much as a scrap of paper."
He went on: "About two weeks later there called a clerk from the factory to claim the chest, the firm having acted as Mr. Shand's agents. He was a foreign-looking man, and older than most of the clerks employed by Davis and Atchison—which was the firm's name. He gave his own name as Martin. He had been sent over from Carbonear about ten days before to teach the factory a new way of treating seal-pelts by means of chemicals. We learnt afterwards that he earned good wages. He had brought two hands from the factory to carry the chest, which we gave up to him as soon as he presented a letter from Mr. Hughes, the firm's chief agent. He said: 'Is this all you have?' And we said, 'Yes.' We Kept quiet about the map, which we had examined, but could not make head nor tail of it. He went away with the chest, and we heard no more of the matter. The winter closing in, I took service in the factory. I used to run against this Martin almost every day, but being my superior he never got beyond nodding to me.
"So it went on, that winter. The next spring I sailed with the salting fleet as usual. I was mate by this time, and had learned to navigate. I came back, to find Martin seated in the parlour and talking, and my mother told me he had asked my sister to marry him. They had met at the factory and fixed it up between them. He appeared to be very fond of my sister, who was usually reckoned a plain-featured woman, and there couldn't be a doubt she was fond of him. Later on, I heard that she had told him all about the chart, but had not shown it to him, being afraid to do so without my leave.
"He opened the subject himself about a week later, during which I had become very thick with him. He said that, in his belief, there was money in it, and I was a fool not to take it up. I answered, What could I do? He said there was ways and means that a lad of spirit ought to be able to discover. With that he talked no more of it that day, but it cropped up again, and by little and little he so worked me up that I took to dreaming of the cursed thing.
"This went on for another fortnight, during which time he told me a deal about himself, very frank—as that he was the son of an English sea-captain and a Spanish woman, and was born in Havana; that he had been educated by the Jesuits, who had meant to make a priest of him; that, not being able to abide the Spaniards, he had chased over to Port Royal and studied chemistry in the college there. It was there, he said, he had discovered a preparation for curing the hides of animals so that the hair never dropped off, but remained as firm and fresh as life. He told me that for this secret Davis and Atchison paid him better than any of their clerks.
"At the end of a fortnight he sailed for Carbonear. He returned as I was making ready for the summer trip, and laid a scheme before me that took my breath away. He had spoken to Mr. Atchison, the junior partner, and engaged a schooner, the Willing Mind; likewise a crew. I was to command her, being the only one of the lot that understood navigation. For the crew he had picked up a mixed lot at Carbonear and St. John's—good seamen, but mostly unknown to one another. They were the less likely, he said, to smell out our purpose until we reached the island, and for the rest I might trust to him. He had laid our plans before Mr. Atchison, who approved. If I listened to him without arguing, he would make my fortune and my sister's as well.
"I had never met a man of his quality before. I was a young fool, yet not altogether such a fool but I had persuaded my sister to hand the map over to me, and wore it always about me. She told me that she had shown it twice to Martin, but never for more than two minutes at a time, and had never let it go out of her hands. I wonder now that he didn't murder her for it; and the only reason must be that he reckoned to use me for navigating the ship, and then to get rid of me.
"A fool I was even to the extent of letting him talk me over when I found he had engaged twelve hands for the cruise. There was no reason on earth for this number except that these were the gang after the treasure, and that he was playing with the lot of them, same as with me.
"The upshot was that we said goodbye to my mother and sister, and crossed over to Carbonear, where I made acquaintance with my crew. The number of them raised no suspicion in the port, because it was taken for granted the Willing Mind, an old salt ship, was bound for St. Jago, where ten or a dozen hands are nothing unusual to work the salt; and this was the argument he had used to make me carry so many. Our pretence was we were all bound for St. Jago, and the crew seemed to take this for understood. I didn't like their looks. Martin said they were an ignorant lot, and chosen for that reason. All I had to do was to run south, and he undertook to give them the slip at the first point we touched.
"He had a wonderful command over them, considering that he was but one plotter in a dozen; and for reasons of his own he kept them off me and the map. On our way he proposed to me that I should teach him a little navigation; helped me take the reckonings; and picked it up as easy as a child learns its letters. But his keeping watch over me and the map was what broke up the crew's patience. I was holding the schooner straight down for the Gulf of Honduras, and, by my reckoning, within a few hours of making a landfall, wondering all the while that they took the courses I laid without grumbling—though by this time our course was past all explaining—when the quarrel broke out.
"I was standing by the wheel with a seaman, Dick Hayling by name, a civil fellow, and more to my liking than the most of them, when we heard a racket in the forecastle, and by-and-by Martin—he was too fond, to my taste of going down into the forecastle and making free with the men—comes up the hatchway, very serious, with half a dozen behind him.
"'Melhuish,' says he, 'there's trouble below. The men will have it that we are steering for treasure. I tell them that, if you are, they are bound to know as soon as we sight it, and neither you nor I—being two to twelve—can prevent their having the game in their own hands. I have told them, over and above this,' he went on, pitching his voice loud—but having his back towards them he winked at me—'that by your reckoning we shall sight land in a few hours at the farthest, and are willing to serve out a double tot of rum; that, as soon as ever land is sighted, you will call all hands aft and tell them our intention, as man to man; and that then, if they have a mind, they can elect whatever new captain they choose.'
"The impudence of this took me fair between wind and water. I saw, of course, that I was trapped, and naturally my first thought was to suspect the man speaking to me. I looked at him, and he winked again, not seeming one bit abashed.
"'You may tell them,' said I, with my eyes on his face, 'that as soon as we sight land I shall have a statement to make to them.' I wondered what it would be; but I said it to gain time. 'As for the rum,' I went on, 'they can drink their fill. If we sight land, I will steer the ship in.'
"'Better go and draw the liquor yourself,' said he, and, picking up a ship's bucket, came aft to me. 'The second barrel in the afterhold,' he whispered. 'And don't drink any yourself.'
"I nodded, as careless as I could. It seemed a rash thing to go down to the afterhold, where any one might batten me down. But, there being no help for it, I took the bucket and went. I filled it well up to the brim from the second cask, returned to deck, and handed it to the man who stood behind Martin. They took it, pretty respectfully, and went below, Martin still standing amidships, where he had stood from the first.
"'And now,' said I, turning back to him, 'perhaps you will explain.'
"'Keep your eye on the helmsman,' was his answer, 'and pistol him if he gives trouble.'
"He walked forward and stood leaning over the forehatch, seeming to listen." . . .
 Qy. "Bleeding."
CAPTAIN COFFIN'S LOG—CONTINUED.
Up to this Melhuish had been making good weather of his tale, though forced to break off once or twice by reason of his weakness. But here he came to a dead stop, which at first I set down to the same. But by-and-by I looks up. He was making a curious noise in his throat, and fencing with both hands to push something away from him.
"I never done it!" he broke out. "Take them away! I never done it! Oh, my God! never—never—never!"
With that he ran off into a string of prayers and cursings, all mixed up together, the fever shaking him like a sail caught head-to-wind, and at every shake he screeched louder.
"I won't, I won't!" he kept saying. "Hayling, take that devil off and cover them up. The boat, Hayling! Fetch the boat and cover them up!" Then, a little after: "Who says the anchor's fouled? How can I tell for the noise? Tell them, less noise below. I never done it, tell them! And take his grinning face out of the way, or you'll never get it clear! 'Tisn't Christian burial—look at their fins! D—n them, Hayling, look at their fins! Three feet of sand, or they'll never stay covered. Who says as I poisoned them? Hayling knows. Where is Hayling?"
I am writing down all I can remember; but there was more—a heap of it—that I did not catch, being kept busy holding him down till the strength went out of him and he lay quiet; which he did in time, the shivers running down through him between my hands, and his voice muttering on without a stop.
For an hour I sat, hoping he would fall asleep; for his voice weakened little by little, and by-and-by he just lay and stared up at the roof, with only his lips moving. After that I must have dropped off in a doze; for I came to myself with a start, thinking that I heard him speak to me. It was the rattle in his throat. He lay just the same, with his eyes staring, but, putting out a hand to him, I knew at once that the man was dead as a nail.
I had now to think of myself, for I knew that the niggers in the kraal had not spared me out of kindness, but only that I might attend to the white man, who was their friend. They were even ignorant enough to believe that I had killed him. I worked out my plan: (1) I must run for it; (2) the village was asleep, and the sooner I ran the better; (3) they had met me heading for Cape Corse Castle, and would hunt me in that direction—therefore I had best go straight back on my steps; (4) they were less likely to chase me that way because it led into the Popo country, and Melhuish had told me that these men were Alampas, and afraid of the Popo tribes. True, if I headed back, there was the river between me and Whydah, the nearest station to eastward; but to get across it I must trust to luck.
I crept out of the hut. The night was black as my hat, almost, and no guard set. At the edge of the kraal I made a dash for it, and kept running for three miles. After that I ran sometimes, and sometimes walked. The sun was up and the day growing hot when I came to the shore by the river; and there in the offing lay the Mary Pynsent at anchor, just as if nothing had happened, and the boat made fast alongside as I had left her. If I could swim out and get into the boat, my job was done. I had not thought upon sharks while swimming ashore, but now I thought of them, and it gave me the creeps. I dare say I sat on the shore for an hour, staring at the boat before I made up my mind to risk it. There was a plenty of sharks, too. When I reached the boat and climbed aboard of her, I took a look around and saw their fins playing about in the shallows, being drawn off there by the dead bodies the gunpowder had blown into the water.
The boat had a mast and spritsail. I reckoned that I would wait until sunset, then hoist sail and hold on past the river and along shore towards Whydah. I counted on a breeze coming off shore towards evening, which it did, and blew all night, so stiff that at two miles' distance, which I kept by guess, I could smell the stink of swamps. I ought to say here that, before starting, I had climbed aboard the Mary Pynsent and provisioned the boat. The niggers had left a few stores, but the mess on board made me sick.
The breeze held all night, and towards daybreak freshened so that I reckoned myself safe against any canoe overtaking me if any should put out from shore; for my boat, with the wind on her quarter, was making from six to seven knots. She measured seventeen feet.
The breeze dried up as the day grew hotter, and in the end I downed sail and rowed the last few miles. I know Whydah pretty well, having had dealings there. It is a fine place, with orange-trees growing wild and great green meadows, and rivers chock full of fish, and the whole of it full of fever as an egg is of meat. The factory there was kept by an old man, an Englishman, who pretended to be Dutch and called himself Klootz, but was known to all as Bristol Pete. The building stood on a rise at the back of the swamps. It had a verandah in front, with a tier of guns which he loaded and fired off on King George's birthday, and in the rear a hell of a barracks, where he kept the slaves, ready for dealing. He was turned sixty and grown careless in his talk, and he lived there with nine wives and ten strapping daughters. Sons did not thrive with him, somehow. In the matter of men he was short-handed, his habit being to entice seamen off the ships trading there to take service with him on the promise of marrying them up to his daughters. It looked like a good speculation, for the old man had money. But every one of the women was a widow, and the most of them widowed two deep. The climate never agreed with the poor fellows, and just now he had over four hundred slaves in barracks, and only one son-in-law, an Englishman, to look after them.
The old man made me welcome. A father couldn't have shown himself kinder, and when I told him about the Mary Pynsent he could scarce contain himself.
"If there's one thing more than another I enjoy at my age," said he, "'tis a salvage job."
And he actually left the agent—A. G.—in charge of the slaves for three days, while he and I and three of the women took boat and went after the vessel. We found her still at her moorings, and brought her round to Whydah, he and me working her with the youngest of the three (Sarah by name), while the two others cleaned ship. I cannot say why exactly, but this woman appeared superior to her sisters, besides being the best looking. The old man—he had an eye lifting for everything—took notice of this almost before I knew it myself, and put it to me that I couldn't do better than to marry her. The woman, being asked, was willing. She had lost two husbands already, she told me, but the third time was luck. Her father read the service over us, out of a Testament he always carried in his pocket. As for me, since my poor wife's death I had thoroughly given myself over to the devil, and did not care. Old Klootz was first-rate company, too; though living in that forsaken place he seemed to be a dictionary about every ship that had sailed the seas for forty years past, and to know every scandal about her. He listened, too, though he seemed to be talking in his full-hearted way all the time. And the end was that I told him about Melhuish, and showed him the map.
He had heard about Melhuish, as about everything else; but the map did truly—I think—surprise him. We studied it together, and he wound up by saying—
"There's a clever fellow somewhere at the bottom of this, and I should like to make his acquaintance."
Said I: "Then you believe there is such a treasure hidden?"
"Lord love you," said he, "I know all about that! It happened in the year '86 at Puerto Bello. A Spaniard, Bartholomew Diaz, that had been flogged for some trouble in the mines, stirred up a revolt among the niggers and half-breeds, and came marching down upon the coast at the head of fourteen thousand or fifteen thousand men, sacking the convents and looting the mines on his way. He gave himself out to be some sort of religious prophet, and this brought the blacks like flies round a honey-pot. The news of it caught Puerto Bello at a moment when there was not a single Royal ship in the harbour. The Governor lost his head and the priests likewise. Getting word that Diaz was marching straight on the place, and not five leagues distant, they fell to emptying the banks in a panic, stripping the churches, and fetching up treasure from the vaults of the religious houses. There happened to be a schooner lying in the harbour—the Rosaway, built at Marblehead—lately taken by the Spaniards off Campeachy, with her crew, that were under lock and key ashore, waiting trial for cutting logwood without licence. The priests commandeered this Vessel and piled her up with gold, the Governor sending down a guard of soldiers to protect it; but in the middle of the night, on an alarm that Diaz had come within a mile of the gates, the dunderhead drew off half of this guard to strengthen the garrison. On their way back to the citadel these soldiers were met and passed in the dark by the Rosaway's crew, that had managed to break prison, and in the confusion had somehow picked up the password. Sparke was the name of Rosaway's skipper, a Marblehead man; the mate, Griffiths, came from somewhere in Wales; the rest, five in number, being likewise mixed English and Americans. They picked up a shore-boat down by the harbour, rowed off to the ship, got on board by means of the password, and within twenty minutes had knocked all the Spaniards on the head, themselves losing only one man. Thereupon, of course, they slipped cable and stood out to sea. Next morning the Rosaway hadn't been three hours out of sight before two Spanish gun-ships came sailing in from Cartagena, having been sent over in a hurry to protect the place; and one of them started in chase. The Rosaway, being speedy, got away for the time, and it was not till three weeks later that the Spaniards ran down on her, snug and tight at anchor in a creek of this same island of Mortallone. She was empty as a drum, and her crew ashore in a pretty state of fever and mutiny. The Spaniards landed and took the lot, all but the mate Griffiths, that was supposed to have been knifed by Sparke, but two of the prisoners declared that he was alive and hiding. They hanged four, saving only Sparke, keeping him to show where the treasure was hidden. He led them halfway across the island, lured them into a swamp, and made a bolt to escape, and the tale is he was getting clear off when one of the Spanish seamen let fly with his musket into the bushes and bowled him over like a rabbit. It was a chance shot, and of course it put an end to all hope of finding the treasure. They ransacked the island for a week or more, but found never a dollar; and before giving it up some inclined to believe what one of the prisoners had said, that the treasure had never been buried in Mortallone at all, but in the island of Roatan, some leagues to the eastward. But, if you ask my opinion, the stranger that took lodgings with Melhuish was the mate Griffiths, and no other. There has always been rumours that he got away with the secret. Know about it?" said old Klootz. "Why, there was even a song made up about it—
"'O, we threw the bodies over, and forth we did stand Till the tenth day we sighted what seemed a pleasant land, And alongst the Kays of Mortallone!'"
From the first the old man had no doubt but we had struck the secret. All the way home he was scheming, and the very night we reached Whydah again he came out with a plan.
"Have you ever read your Bible?" said he.
"A little," I said, "between whiles; but latterly not much."
"The more shame to you," said he, "for it is a good book. But you ought to have heard of Noah, if you ever read the Book at all, for he comes almost at the beginning. Well, I've a notion almost as good as Noah's and not so very different. We will take the Mary Pynsent and put all the family on board, for we must take A. G. (naming the Englishman, his other son-in-law), and I don't like to leave the women alone, here in this wicked place. We will pack her up with slaves and sail her across to Barbadoes. 'Tis an undertaking for a man of my years, but a man is not old until he feels old; and I have been wanting for a long time to see if trade in the Barbadoes is so bad as the skippers pretend, cutting down my profits. At Barbadoes we can hire a pinnace. Daniel Coffin, you and me will go into this business in partnership," says he.
The old fellow, once set going, had the pluck of a boy. The very next night he called in A. G., and took him into the secret, in his bluff way overriding me, that was for keeping it close between us two. That the map was mine did not trouble him. He agreed that I should be guardian of it, but took charge of all the outfit, ordering me about sometimes like a dog, though, properly speaking, the vessel herself belonged to me—or, at any rate, more to me than to him. As for A. G., he didn't count. We filled up and weighed anchor on August 12, having on board 420 blacks—290 men and 130 women—all chained, and all held under by us twenty-two whites, of the which nineteen were women. The weather turned sulky almost from the start, and after ten days of drifting, with here and there a fluke of wind, we found ourselves off the Gaboon river. From this we crept our way to the Island of St. Thomas, three days; watered there, and fetched down to the south-east trades. The niggers were dying fast, and between the south-east and north-east trades, six weeks from our starting, we lost between one and two score every day. I will say that all the women worked like horses. We reached Barbadoes short of our complement by 134 negroes and one of Klootz's wives. This last did not trouble him much.
He kept mighty cheerful all the way, although the speculation up to now had turned out far from cheerful; and all the way he kept singing scraps about the Kays of Mortallone in a way to turn even a healthy man sick. I had patched up a kind of friendship with A.G., and we allowed that, for all his heartiness, the old man was enough to madden a saint. The slaves we landed fetched about nineteen pounds on an average. They cost at starting from two pounds to three pounds; but the ones that had died at sea knocked a hole in the profits.
At Barbadoes Klootz left the womenfolk in a kind of boarding-house, and hired a pinnace, twenty tons, to take us across to the main, pretending he wanted to inquire into the market there. Klootz and I made the whole crew, with A. G., who could not navigate. January 17, late in the afternoon, we ran down upon Mortallone Island and anchored off the Kays, north of Gable Point. Next morning we out with the boat and landed. Time, about three-quarters of an hour short of low water.
The Kays are nothing but sand. At low water, and for an hour before and after, you can cross to Gable point dry-shod. We spent that day getting bearings; dug a little, but nothing to reward us. Next day we got to work early. Had been digging for two hours, when we turned up the first body. It turned A. G. poorly in the stomach, and he sat down to watch us. Half an hour later we struck the first of the chests. It did not hold more than five shillings' worth, and we saw that somebody had been there before us.
The third day we turned up three more bodies, besides two chests, empty as before, and a full one. We stove it in, emptied the stuff into the boat, and made our way back to the ship.
The fourth day we had scarcely started to dig before Klootz struck on a second chest that sounded like another full one—
Here Miss Belcher turned a page, glanced overleaf, and came to a full stop.
"For pity's sake, Lydia—" protested Mr. Rogers, who sat leaning forward, his elbows on the table.
"There's no more," Miss Belcher announced.
"Not a word." She fumbled quickly through the remaining blank leaves. "Not a word more," she repeated.
"Death cut short his hand," said Captain Branscome, his voice breaking in upon a long silence.
"Cut short his fiddlestick-end!" snapped Miss Belcher. "The man funked it at the last moment—started out promising to tell the whole truth, but refused the fence. Look back at the story, and you can see him losing heart. Just note that when he comes to A. G.—that's the man Aaron Glass, I suppose—he dares not write down the man's name. There has been foul work, and he's afraid of it. That's as plain as the nose on my face."
"But what's to be done?" asked Mr. Rogers, picking up the manuscript and turning its pages irritably.
"Dear me," said a voice, "there is surely but one thing to be done! We must go and search for ourselves."
We all turned and stared at Plinny.
IN WHICH PLINNY SURPRISES EVERYONE.
Everybody stared; and this had the effect of making the dear good creature blush to the eyes.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am?" said Mr. Jack Rogers.
"It—it was not for me to say so, perhaps." Her voice quavered a little, and now a pair of bright tears trembled on her lashes; but she kept up her chin bravely and seemed to take courage as she went on. "I am aware, sir, that in all matters of hazard and enterprise it is for the gentlemen to take the lead. If I appear forward—if I speak too impulsively—my affection for Harry must be my excuse."
Mr. Rogers stared at Captain Branscome, and from Captain Branscome to Mr. Goodfellow, but their faces did not help him.
"That's all very well, ma'am, but an expedition to the other end of the world—if that's what you suggest?—at a moment's notice—on what, as like or not, may turn out to be a wild-goose chase—Lord bless my soul!" wound up Mr. Rogers incoherently, falling back in his chair.
"I was not proposing to start at a moment's notice," replied Plinny, with extreme simplicity. "There will, of course, be many details to arrange; and I do not forget that we are in the house of mourning. The poor dear Major claims our first thoughts, naturally. Yes, yes; there must be a hundred and one details to be discussed hereafter—at a fitting time; and it may be many weeks before we find ourselves actually launched—if I may use the expression—upon the bosom of the deep."