"We?" gasped Mr. Rogers, and again gazed around; but we others had no attention to spare for him. "We? Who are 'we'?"
"Why, all of us, sir, if I might dare to propose it; or at least as many as possible of us whom the hand of Providence has so mysteriously brought together. I will confess that while you were talking just now, discussing this secret which properly speaking belongs to Harry alone, I doubted the prudence of it—"
"And, by Jingo, you were right!" put in Miss Belcher.
"With your leave, ma'am," Plinny went on, "I have come to think otherwise. To begin with, but for Captain Branscome the map would never have found its way to the Major's room, where Harry discovered it; but might—nay, probably would—have been stolen by the wicked man who committed this crime to get possession of it. Again, but for Mr. Goodfellow this written narrative would undoubtedly have been lost to us, and the map, if not meaningless, might have seemed a clue not worth the risk of following. In short, ma'am"—Plinny turned again to Miss Belcher—"I saw that each of us at this table had been wonderfully brought here by the hand of Providence. And from this I went on to see, and with wonder and thankfulness, that here was a secret, sought after by many evildoers, which had yet come into the keeping of six persons, all of them honest, and wishful only to do good. Consider, ma'am, how unlikely this was, after the many bold, bad hands that have reached out for it. And will you tell me that here is accident only, and not the finger of Providence itself? At first, indeed, we suspected Captain Branscome and Mr. Goodfellow: they were strangers to us, and, as if that we might be tested, they came to us under suspicion." Here Mr. Goodfellow put up a hand and dubiously felt his nose, which was yet swollen somewhat from his first encounter with Mr. Rogers. "But they have proved their innocence; Harry gives me his word for them; and I do not think," said Plinny, "that you, ma'am, can have heard Captain Branscome's story without honouring him."
Miss Belcher, thus appealed to, answered only with a grunt, at the same time shooting from under her shaggy eyebrows an amused glance at the Captain, who stared at the table-cloth to hide his confusion, which, however, was betrayed by a pair of very red ears.
"All this," pursued Plinny, "I saw by degrees, and that it was marvellous; but next came something more marvellous still, for I saw that if one had gone forth to choose six persons to carry out this business, he could not have chosen six better fitted for it."
From the effect of this astounding proposition Miss Lydia Belcher was the first to recover herself.
"Thank you, my dear," she murmured; "on behalf of myself and the company, as they say. It is true that in all these years I have overlooked my qualifications for a buccaneering job; but I'll think them out as you proceed."
"Oh!" exclaimed Plinny, "I wasn't counting on you, ma'am, to accompany this expedition; nor on Mr. Rogers. You are great folks as compared with us, and have public duties—a stake in the country— great wealth to administer. Yet I was thinking that, while we are abroad, there may happen to be business at home requiring attention, and that we may perhaps rely on you—who have shown so much interest in this sad affair."
"Meaning that we have been dipping our fingers pretty deep into this pie. Well, and so we have; and thank you again, my dear, for putting it so delicately."
"But I meant nothing of the sort—indeed I didn't!" protested Plinny.
"Tut, tut! Of course you didn't, but it's the truth nevertheless. Well, then, it appears that Jack Rogers and I are to be the spotsmen for this little expedition, and that you and Captain Branscome, and Mr. Goodfellow, and—yes, and Harry, too, I suppose— are to be the Red Rovers and scour the Spanish Main. All right; only you don't look it, exactly."
"But is not that half the battle?" urged the indomitable Plinny. "They'll be so much the less likely to suspect us."
"They—whoever they may be—will certainly be so far deluded."
"And really—if you will consider it, ma'am—what I am proposing is not ridiculous at all. For what is chiefly wanted for such an adventure? In the first place, a ship—and thank God I have means to hire one, in the second place, a trustworthy navigator—and here, by the most unexpected good fortune, we have Captain Branscome; in the third place, a carpenter, to provide us with shelter on the island and be at hand in case of accident to the vessel—and here is Mr. Goodfellow; while as for Harry—" Plinny hesitated, for the moment at a loss; then her face brightened suddenly. "Harry can climb a tree, and the instructions on the back of the map point to this as necessary. Harry will be invaluable!"
I could have wrung her hand; but Plinny, having finished her justification of the ways of Providence, had taken off her spectacles and was breathing on them and polishing them with a small silk handkerchief which she ever kept handy for that purpose.
"Captain Branscome," said Miss Belcher, sharply, "will you be so good as to give us your opinion?"
Captain Branscome lifted his head. "My mind, if you'll excuse me, ma'am, works a bit slowly, and always did. But there's no denying that Miss Plinlimmon has given the sense of it."
"To be sure," said the Captain, tracing with his finger an imaginary pattern on the table-cloth, "her courage carries her too far—as in this talk about hiring a ship. A ship needs a crew; a crew that could be trusted on a treasure-hunt is perhaps the most difficult to find in the whole world; and when you've found one to rely upon, your troubles are only just beginning. The main trouble is with the ship, and that's what no landsman can ever understand. A ship's the most public thing under heaven. You think of her, maybe, as something that puts out over the horizon and is lost to sight for months. But that helps nothing. She must clear from a port, and to a port sooner or later she must return; and in both ports a hundred curious people at least must know all about her business.
"I don't say that a ship, once out of sight, cannot be made away with—though even that, with a crew to tell tales, has beaten some of the cleverest heads; but to take out a ship and fill her up with treasure, and bring her home and unload her without any one's knowing—that's a feat that (if you'll excuse me) I've heard a hundred liars discuss at one time and another; and one has said it can be done in this way, and another in that, but never a one in my hearing has found a way that would deceive a child."
"Yet you said, a moment since, that Miss Plinlimmon had given the sense of it?"
"I did, ma'am. I am saying that to fetch this treasure will be difficult, even if we find it—"
"You don't doubt its existence?"
"I do not, ma'am. I doubt it so little, ma'am, that I would ten times sooner engage to find than to fetch it. But I don't even despair of fetching it, if the lady goes on being as clever as she has begun."
"What?" exclaimed Plinny. "I? Clever?"
"Yes, indeed, ma'am," Captain Branscome answered, still in a slow, measured voice. "But, indeed, too, I might have been prepared for it when you started by taking a line that beats all my experience of landsmen; or perhaps in this case I ought to say landsladies."
"Why, what have I done that is wonderful?"
"You took the line, ma'am, that, from here to Honduras, what is it but a passage? A few months at the most—oh, to be sure, to a seaman that's no more than nature; but to hear it from any one land-bred, and a lady too! As a Christian man, I have believed in miracles, but to-day I seem to be moving among them. And after your saying that, I had no call to be surprised when you up and suggested a way that would have taken a seaman twenty years to hit upon! I am not talking about the ship, ma'am. That part of your plan (if you'll allow me, as a seaman, to give an opinion) won't work at all. But the plan in general is a masterpiece."
"But I do not see," Plinny confessed, with a small puckering of the brows, "that I have suggested anything that can be called a plan."
"Why, ma'am, you have been talking heavenliest common sense, and once you've started us upon common sense there's no such thing as a difficulty. 'Let us go to the island,' you said; and with that at a stroke you get rid of the worst danger we have to fear, which is suspicion. For who's to suspect such a company as this present, or any part of it, of being after treasure? 'Let us make it a pleasure trip,' said you, or words to that effect; and what follows but that the whole journey is made cheap and simple? We book our passages in the Kingston packet. Peace has been declared with France, and what more natural than that a party of English should be travelling to see the West Indies? Or what more likely than that, after what has happened, the doctor has advised a sea-voyage, to soothe your mind? As for me, I am Harry's tutor; every one in Falmouth knows it, and thinks me lucky to get the billet. It won't take five minutes to explain Mr. Goodfellow here, just as easily—"
"And as for me," struck in Miss Belcher, "I'm an old madwoman, with more money than I know what to do with. And as for Jack Rogers, I'm eloping with him to a coral island."
Mr. Rogers checked himself on the edge of a guffaw.
"But, I say, Lydia, you're not serious about this?" he asked.
"I don't know, Jack. I rather think I am. I'm getting an old woman, mad or not; and the hours drag with me sometimes up at the house. But"—and here she looked up with one of those rare smiles that set you thinking she must have been pretty in her time—"there's this advantage in having followed my own will for fifty years: that no one any longer troubles to be surprised at anything I may do. You're something of an eccentric yourself, Jack. You had better join the picnic."
"I ought to warn you, ma'am," said Captain Branscome gravely, "that although the West India route has been fairly well protected for some months now, there is a certain amount of risk from American privateers."
"The Americans are a chivalrous nation, I have always heard."
"Extremely so, ma'am; nevertheless, there is a risk, in the event of the packet being attacked. But I was about to say," pursued Captain Branscome, "that our being at war with America may actually help us to get across from Jamaica to the island. Quite a number of old Colonial families—loyalists, as we should call them—have been driven from time to time to cross over from the Main and settle in the West Indies. But of course they have left kinsfolk behind them in the States; and, in spite of wars and divisions, it is no unusual thing for relatives to slip back and forth and visit one another— secretly, you understand. I have even heard of an old lady, now or until lately residing in St. Kitts, who has made no less than eleven such voyages to the Delaware—whenever, in short, her daughter was expecting an addition to her family."
"Good," said Miss Belcher. "I have found some one to impersonate; and that settles it."
"I really think, ma'am," said Captain Branscome, "that, once in Jamaica, we shall have no difficulty in finding, at the western end of the island, just the ship we require."
"Bless my soul!" said Miss Belcher. "Except for the sea-voyage, it might be a middle-aged jaunt in a po'-shay!"
 Miss Belcher was here employing a smuggling term. A "spotsman" is the agent who arranges for a run of goods, and directs the operation from the shore, without necessarily taking a part in it.
A STRANGE MAN IN THE GARDEN.
Indeed, the longer we weighed the pros and cons the more feasible appeared the simple adventure. We ran, to be sure, the risk of being waylaid on our passage by an American privateer; but this was a danger incident to all who sailed on board his Majesty's Post Office packets in the year 1814. That anything was to be feared from the man Glass, none of us (I believe) stopped to consider. We thought of him only as a foiled criminal, a fugitive from justice, and speculated only on the chance that, with the hue-and-cry out and the whole countryside placarded, the Plymouth runners would lay him by the heels.
Undoubtedly he had made for Plymouth. From Torpoint came news that a man answering to his description had crossed the ferry there on the morning after the murder. The regular ferryman there had stepped into a public-house for his regular morning glass of rum-and-water; and in his absence the small boy who acted as substitute had taken a stranger across. The stranger, who appeared to be in a sweating hurry, had rewarded the boy with half a crown; and the boy, rowing back to the Torpoint side and finding his master still in the tavern, had kept his own counsel and the money. Now the hue-and-cry had frightened him into confessing; and his description left no doubt that the impatient passenger was Aaron Glass.
Such a man had been observed, about two hours later, mingling in a fish auction on the Barbican; and had actually bidden for a boatload of mackerel, but without purchasing. From the auction he had walked away in the direction of Southside Street; and from that point all trace of him was lost.
Mr. Rogers, who had posted straight to Plymouth from the inquest, spent a couple of days in pushing inquiries here, there and everywhere. But not even the promise of a clue rewarded him. Two foreign-going vessels and four coasters had sailed from the port on the morning after the murder. The coasters were duly met, boarded, and searched at their ports of arrival—two at Liverpool, one at Milford, and one at Gravesend—but without result. If, as seemed likely, the man had contrived to ship himself on board the Hussar brig, bound for Barcelona, or the Mary Harvey barque, for Rio, the chances of bringing him to justice might be considered nil, or almost nil; for Mr. Rogers had some hope of the Hussar being overtaken and spoken by a frigate which happened to be starting, two days later, to join our fleet in the Mediterranean.
During the week or two that followed my father's funeral little was said of our expedition, although I understood from Plinny that the start would only be delayed until she and the lawyers had proved the will and put his estate in order for me. My father's pension had, of course, perished with him; but he left me a small sum in the funds, bearing interest between fifty and sixty pounds per annum, together with the freehold of Minden Cottage. Unfortunately, he had appointed no trustees, and I was a minor; and even more unfortunately his will directed that Minden Cottage should be sold "within a reasonably brief time" after his death, and that the sum accruing should be invested in Government stock for my benefit; and with this little tangle to work upon, our lawyers—Messrs. Harding and Whiteway, of Plymouth—and the Court of Chancery, soon involved the small estate in complications which (as Miss Belcher put it) were the more annoying because the fools at both ends were honest men and trying to do the best for me.
Of this business I understood nothing at the time, save that it caused delay; and I mention it here only to explain the delay and because (as will be seen) the sale of Minden Cottage, when at length the Lord Chancellor was good enough to authorize it, had a very important bearing on the rest of my story.
Meanwhile, Captain Branscome had, of course, returned to Falmouth, and would book our passages on the Kingston packet as soon as my affairs allowed. We received letters from him from time to time, and on Saturdays and Mondays a passing call from Mr. Goodfellow, on his way to and from Plymouth. He had stipulated that, before sailing with us, he should take his inamorata into his confidence; and this was conceded after Miss Belcher had taken the opportunity of a day's marketing in Plymouth to call at the dairy-shop in Treville Street and make the lady's acquaintance.
"A very sensible young person," she reported; "and of the two I'd sooner trust her than Goodfellow to keep a still tongue. There's no danger in that quarter!"
Nor was there, as it proved. Mr. Goodfellow told us that he could hardly contain himself whenever he thought of his prospects; "for," said he, "I was born a parish apprentice; in place of which here I be at the age of twenty with two fortunes waiting for me, one at each end of the world."
At length, in the last week of July, Messrs. Harding and Whiteway announced that all formalities were complete; and three days later a bill appeared on the whitewashed front of Minden Cottage announcing that this desirable freehold residence with two and a half acres of land would be sold by public auction on August 6, at 1.30 o'clock p.m., in the Royal Hotel, Plymouth. Any particulars not mentioned in the bills would be readily furnished on application at the office of the vendor's solicitors; and parties wishing to inspect the premises might obtain the keys from Miss Belcher's lodge-keeper, Mr. Polglaze—that is to say, from the nearest dwelling-house down the road.
Plinny, with the help of half a dozen of Miss Belcher's men and a couple of waggons, had employed these three days in removing our furniture to the great cricket pavilion above the hill; an excellent storehouse, where, for the time, it would remain in charge of Mr. Saunders, the head keeper. We ourselves removed to the shelter of Miss Belcher's lordly roof, as her guests; and Ann, the cook, to a cottage on the home farm, where that lady—who usually superintended her own dairy—had offered her the post of locum tenens until our return from foreign travel. By the morning when the bill-poster came and affixed the notice of sale, Minden Cottage stood dismantled—a melancholy shell, inhabited only by memories for us, and for our country neighbours by mysterious ghostly terrors.
This was one of the many grounds on which we agreed that the Lord Chancellor had acted foolishly in insisting upon a public auction. His lordship, to be sure, could not be expected to know that recent events had utterly depreciated the selling value of Minden Cottage over the whole of the south and east of Cornwall; that the homeward-trudging labourer would breathe a prayer as he neared it along the high-road in the dark, and would shut his eyes and run by it, nor draw breath until he reached the lodge, down the road; that quite a number of Christian folk who had been used to envy my father the snuggest little retreat within twenty miles would now have refused a hundred pounds to spend one night in it. So it was, however; and the chance of an "out"-bidder might be passed over as negligible. On the other hand, Miss Belcher had offered Messrs. Harding and Whiteway a handsome and more than sufficient price for the property. She wanted it to round off her estate, out of which, at present, it cut a small cantle and at an awkward corner. Moreover, if Miss Belcher had not come forward, Plinny was prepared to purchase. That Miss Belcher would acquire the place no one doubted. Still, a public sale it had to be.
Early in the afternoon of the 5th, she left us for Plymouth, to make arrangements for the bidding. I did not see her depart, having been occupied since five in the morning in a glorious otter-hunt, for which Mr. Rogers had brought over his hounds. The heat of the day found us far up-stream, and a good ten miles from home; and by the time Mr. Rogers had returned his pack to Miss Belcher's hospitable kennels the sun was low in the west. I know nothing that will make a man more honestly dirty than a long otter-hunt, followed by a perspiring tramp along a dusty road. From feet to waist I was a cake of dried mud overlaid with dust. I had dust in my hair, in the creases of my clothes, in the pores of my skin. I needed ablution far beyond the resources of Miss Belcher's establishment, which, to tell the truth, left a good deal to seek in the apparatus of personal cleanliness; and, snatching up the clean shirt and suit of clothes which the ever-provident Plinny had laid out on the bed for me, I ran down across the park to the stream under the plantation.
Little rain had fallen for a month past, and, arriving at the pool on which I had counted for a bath, I found it almost dry. While I stood there, in two minds whether to return or to strip and make the best of it, I bethought me that—although I had never bathed there in my life, the stream would be better worth trying where it ran through the now deserted garden of Minden Cottage, below the summer-house. The bottom might be muddy, but the dam which my father had built there secured a sufficiency of water in the hottest months. I picked up my clothes again, and, following the stream up to the little door in the garden wall, pushed open the rusty latch, and entered the garden.
The hour, as I have said, was drawing on to dusk; and though, perhaps I ought to say, I am by nature not inclined to nervousness (or I had not ventured so near that particular spot), yet scared enough I was, as I stepped on to the little foot-bridge, to see a man standing by the doorway of the summer-house.
For an instant a terror seized me that it might be a ghost—or, worse, the man himself, Aaron Glass. But a second glance, as I halted on a hair-trigger—so to speak—to turn and run for my life, assured me that the man was a stranger.
He wore a suit of black, and a soft hat of Panama straw with a broad brim, and held in his hand a something strange to me, and, indeed, as yet almost unknown in England—an umbrella. It had a dusky white covering, and he held it by the middle, as though he had been engaged in taking measurements with it when my entrance surprised him.
It appeared to me for the moment that I had not only surprised him but frightened him, for the face he turned to me wore a yellowish pallor like that of old ivory. Yet when he drew himself up and spoke, I seemed to know in an instant that this was his natural colour. The face itself was large and fleshy, with bold, commanding features: a face, on second thoughts, impossible to connect with terror.
"Hallo, little boy! What are you doing in this garden?"
I answered him, stammering, that I was come to bathe; and while I answered I was still in two minds about running; for his voice, appearance, bearing, all alike puzzled me. He spoke genially, with something foreign in his accent. I could not determine his age at all. At first glance he seemed to be quite an old man, and not only old but weary; yet he walked without a stoop, and as he came slowly across the turf to the bridge-end I saw that his hair was black and glossy, and his large face unwrinkled as a child's.
"Not after the plums, eh?"
"No, sir; and besides," said I, picking up my courage, "there's no harm if I am. The garden belongs to me."
"So?" He regarded me for some seconds, his hands clasping the umbrella behind his back. The sight of the bundle of black clothes I carried apparently satisfied him. "Then you have right to ask what brings me here. I answer, curiosity. What became of the man who did it?" he asked, with a glance over his shoulder towards the summer-house.
"Nobody knows, sir," I answered, recovering myself.
"I fancy I could put my hand on him," he said very coolly, after a pause. And I began to think I had to deal with a madman.
"Suppose, now, that I do catch him," he went on after a pause. "What shall I do with him? In my country—for I live a great way off—we either choke a murderer or cut off his head with a knife."
I told him—since he waited for me to say something—how in England we disposed of our worst criminals.
"No, you don't," said he quietly. "You let some of the worst go, and the very worst (as you believe) you banish to an island, treating them as the old Romans treated theirs. Now, I'm a traveller; and where do you suppose I spent this day month?"
I could not give a guess.
"Why, on the island of Elba. I'm curious, you know, especially in the matter of criminals, so I came—oh, a tremendous way—to have a look at Napoleon Bonaparte, there. Now I'll tell you another thing, he's going to escape in a month or two, when his plans are ready. I had that from his own lips; and, what's more, I heard it again in Paris a week later. From Paris I came across to London, and from London down to Plymouth, and from Plymouth I was to have travelled straight to Falmouth, to take my passage home, when I heard of what had happened here, and that the house was for sale. So I stopped to have a look at it; for I am curious, I tell you."
He went on to prove his curiosity by asking me a score of questions about myself: my age, my choice of a profession, my relatives (I told him I had none), and my schooling. He drew me (I cannot remember how) into a description of Plinny, and agreed with me that she must be a woman in a thousand; asked where she lived at present, and regretted—pulling out his watch—that he had not time to make her acquaintance. Oddly enough, I felt when he said it that this was no idle speech, but that only time prevented him from walking up the hill and paying his respects. I felt also, the longer we talked, I will not say a fear of him, for his manner was too urbane to permit it, but an increasing respect. Crazed he might be, as his questions were disconnected and now and again bewildering, as when he asked if my father had travelled much abroad, and again it I really preferred to remain idle at home instead of returning to finish my education with Mr. Stimcoe; but his manner of asking compelled an answer. I could not tell myself if I liked or disliked the man, he differed so entirely from any one I had ever seen in my life. His questions were intimate, yet without offence. I answered them all, with a sense of talking to some one either immensely old or divided from me by hundreds of miles.
In the midst of our talk, and while he was pressing me with questions about Mr. and Mrs. Stimcoe, he suddenly lifted his head, and stood listening.
"Hallo!" said he. "Here's the coach!"
I had heard nothing, though my ears are pretty sharp. But sure enough, though not until a couple of minutes had passed, the wheels of the Highflyer, our evening coach to Plymouth, sounded far along the road.
The stranger pulled out a bunch of keys from his pocket.
"I will ask you as a favour," said he, "to return these to the lodge-keeper, from whom I borrowed them. Will you be so kind?"
I said that I would do so with pleasure.
"I have been over the house. It appears—the lodge-keeper tells me— that I have been almost the only visitor to inspect it. That's queer, for I should have thought that to an amateur in crime— with a taste for discovery—it offered great possibilities. But never mind, child," said this strange man, and shook hands. "I have great hopes of finding the scoundrel, and of dealing with him. Eh? 'How?' Well, if we get him upon an island, he shan't get away, like Napoleon."
With these words, which I did not understand in the least, he turned and left me, passing out into the lane by the side-gate. A minute later I heard the coach pull up, and yet a minute later roll on again, conveying him towards Plymouth. I stole a glance at the water, at the summer-house, at the tree behind it. Somehow in the twilight they all wore an uncanny look. On my way home—for I decided to return and take my bath in the house, after all—my mind kept running on a story of Ann the cook's, about a man (a relative of hers, she said) who had once seen the devil. And yet the stranger had tipped me a guinea at parting, nor was it (except metaphorically) red hot in my pocket.
Next evening Miss Belcher rode back to us from Plymouth with the announcement that Minden Cottage was hers. She had not attended the sale in person, but Maddicombe, her lawyer, had started the bidding (under her instruction) at precisely the sum which she had privately offered Messrs. Harding and Whiteway. There was no competition. In fact, Maddicombe reported that, apart from the auctioneers and himself, but six persons attended the sale. Of these, five were local acquaintances of his whom he knew to be attracted only by curiosity. Of the sixth, a stranger, he had been afraid at first, but the man appeared to be a visitor, who had wandered into the sale by mistake. At any rate, he made no bid.
"What sort of man?" I asked.
"As to that, Maddicombe had no very precise recollection, or couldn't put it into words. A tall man, he said, and dressed in black; a noticeable man—that was as far as he could get—and, he believed, a foreigner."
HOW WE SAILED TO THE ISLAND.
The business of the sale concluded, we had nothing to detain us, and an order was at once sent to Captain Branscome to book our passages in the next packet for the West Indies. Meanwhile we held long discussions on details of outfit, for since our impedimenta included two moderately heavy chests—the one of guns and ammunition, the other of spades, picks, hatchets, and other tools—and since on reaching Jamaica we must take a considerable journey on muleback, it was important to cut our personal luggage down to the barest necessities. We did not forget a medicine-chest.
On August 28 we received word from Captain Branscome that he had taken berths for us on the Townshend packet, commanded by an old friend of his, a Captain Harrison. She was due to sail on the 1st. Accordingly, on August 30 we travelled down by Royal Mail to Falmouth, Mr. Rogers following that same noon by the Highflyer; spent a busy day in making some last purchases, and a sleepless night in the noisiest of hotels; and went on board soon after breakfast, to be welcomed there by Mr. Goodfellow, who had got over his parting three days before, at Plymouth, and professed himself to be in the very jolliest of spirits. At the head of the after-companion Captain Branscome met us and conducted us below, to introduce us to our quarters and be complimented on the thought and care he had bestowed in choosing them and fitting them up—for the ladies' comfort especially. He himself lodged forward, in a small double cabin which he shared with Mr. Goodfellow.
I will spare the reader a description of our departure and of the passage to Jamaica, not only because they were quite uneventful (we did not even sight a' privateer), but because they have been celebrated in verse by Plinny, in a descriptive poem of five cantos and some four thousand lines, entitled "The Voyage: with an Englishwoman's Reflections on her Favourite Element," a few extracts from which I am permitted to quote—
"We sailed for Kingston in the Townshend packet. The day auspicious was, and calm the heavens; Not so the scene on board—oh, what a racket! And everything on deck apparently at sixes and sevens. Mail-bags and passengers mixed up in every direction, The latter engaged with their relatives in fond farewells; On the one hand the faltering accents of affection, On the other the unpolisht seamen emitting yells, With criticisms of a Custom House official Whose action for some reason they resented as prejudicial.
"At length the last farewell is said, The anchor tripped, the gangway clear'd; 'Twas five p.m. ere past Pendennis Head Forth to th' unfathomable deep we steer'd. The bo'sun piped (he wore a manly beard); And while th' attentive crew the braces trimm'd (Alluding to the ship's), and while from observation The coast receded, we with eyes be-dimm'd Indulged in feelings natural to the situation.
"Albion! My Albion! So called from the hue Thy cliffs wear by the Straits of Dover— Though darker in this neighbourhood—still adieu! Albion, adieu! I feel myself a rover. Thy sons instinctively take to the water, And so will I, albeit but a daughter."
A page later, in more tripping metre (which reflects her gaiety of spirits), she describes the ship—
"The Townshend Packet is a gallant brig Of one hundred and eighty tons; 'Tis the Postmaster-General's favourite rig, And she carries six useful guns. As she sails, as she sails With his Majesty's mails, Hurrah for her long six-pounders! They relieve our fear Of a privateer, But what shall we do if she founders? I prefer not to think of any such contingency: She has excellent sailing qualities, And her captain appears to rule with stringency And to be averse from minor frivolities. With the late Admiral Nelson he may not provoke comparison. But one and all place implicit confidence in Captain Harrison."
While Plinny cultivated the Muse—and with the more zest as, to her pride and delight, she found herself immune from sea-sickness—I kept up, through the long mornings, the pretence of studying mathematics with Captain Branscome, and regularly at noon received a lesson in taking the ship's bearings. Our fellow-voyagers were mostly merchants and agents bound for Jamaica, the trade of which had revived since the restoration of peace; and among them we passed for a well-to-do family travelling partly for pleasure to visit the island, but partly also with an idea of buying a plantation and settling there—which explained the presence of Mr. Goodfellow.
Our captain justified the confidence so poetically expressed above. He sailed his ship along steadily, taking no risks, and after a pleasant passage of thirty-six days brought her to anchor in Carlisle Bay, Barbadoes, where we were due to deliver some bags of mails. I have said that the trip was uneventful; it was even without incident save for some fooleries on reaching the Line, and such trifling distractions as an unsuccessful attempt to shoot an albatross, and the sighting of some flying-fish and sundry long-tailed birds which the sailors called boatswains. But, as Plinny wrote—
"Life at sea has a natural monotony Of which 'twere irrational to complain: You cannot, for instance, study botany As in an English country lane. But the mind is superior to distance With its own reminiscences stored, Not to mention the spiritual assistance We derived from a clergyman on board."
(He was a sallow young man of delicate constitution, and, partly for his health's sake, had accepted the pastorate of a Genevan church in Kingston.)
From Barbadoes we beat up for Jamaica, and anchored in Kingston Harbour just forty-five days from home. The next morning we said farewell to the ship, and were rowed ashore to a good hotel, where we spent a lazy week in email excursions, while Captain Branscome busied himself in hiring a mule-train and holding consultations with a firm of merchants, Messrs. Cox and Roebuck, to whom Miss Belcher came recommended with a letter of credit. These gentlemen, understanding that we desired to cross over to the Main to visit some relations of Miss Belcher resident in Virginia (for that was our pretence), opined that the matter was not difficult of management, but that we must needs travel to the extreme west of the island if we would hire a vessel for the purpose, and they mentioned an agent of theirs at Savannah-la-Mar—Jacob Paz by name—as the likeliest man for our purpose.
Armed with a letter of introduction to this man, in the early morning of October 22 we started on muleback, and, travelling without haste through the exquisite scenery of Jamaica (the main roads of which put ours of Cornwall to shame), arrived at Savannah-la-Mar on the 27th, a great part of the way having been occupied by Miss Belcher (who hated the sight of a negro) in rebuking Plinny's sentimental objections to slavery, and by Mr. Rogers in begging a collection of humming-birds.
It took (I believe) some time at Savannah-la-Mar to convince Mr Paz, a subtle half-breed, that we were actually fools enough to wish to purchase one of his vessels, and mad enough to propose working her alone. He had three boats idle, including a pretty little fore-and-aft schooner of thirty tons, the Espriella, which Captain Branscome had no sooner set eyes upon than he decided to be the very thing for our purpose. She was fitted with a large ladies' cabin aft of the companion, a saloon, and a small single-berth cabin between it and the fo'c's'le, which would house three men comfortably. We ended by purchasing her for three hundred and seventy pounds; and into the fo'c's'le I went with Mr. Goodfellow and Mr. Jack Rogers, who insisted on resigning the spare cabin to Captain Branscome— henceforward, or until we should reach the island, by consent the leader of the expedition.
So on October 30, at six in the morning, after being commended to God by Mr. Paz, we worked out of Savannah-la-Mar, and, having gained an offing with a light breeze, hoisted all her bits of canvas, even to a light jib-topsail we found on board—chiefly, I think, to impress her late owner, whom we could descry on the shore, watching us. He had steadfastly refused to believe us capable of handling a boat, whereas of our party Plinny and Mr. Goodfellow were the only landlubbers. Miss Belcher could take the helm with the best of us, and indeed it was reported of her that she had on more than one occasion played helmswoman to a run of goods upon her own Cornish estate. Mr. Jack Rogers had once owned a yacht and suffered from tedium; now, as a foremast hand, he was enjoying himself amazingly.
But the pride above all prides was Captain Branscome's. After many years he trod a deck again, commander of his own ship; and the bearing of the man was that of a prince restored after long exile to his kingdom. Courteous as ever to the ladies, to the rest of us he behaved as a master, noble but severe, unwearied in explaining the least minutiae of seamanship, inexorable in seeing that his smallest instruction was obeyed. Mr. Rogers at the end of the first day confided to me that he had much ado to refrain from touching his forelock whenever he heard the skipper's voice.
I shall not be believed if I say that in all the five days of our voyage Captain Branscome never snatched a wink of sleep. Doubtless he did sleep, between whiles; but doubtless also no one saw him do it.
It was daybreak or thereabouts on the morning of November 5—and a faint light coming through the decklight over the fo'c's'le—when I, that had kept the middle watch and was now snoring in my bunk, sat up at a touch on my shoulder, and stared, rubbing my eyes, into the dim face of Mr. Goodfellow.
"Skipper wants you on deck," he announced. "We've lifted something on the starboard bow, and he swears 'tis the Island."
WE ANCHOR OFF THE ISLAND.
The word fetched me out of my bunk like a shot from a gun. I ran past him, scrambled up the fo'c's'le ladder, and gained the deck in time to see Miss Belcher emerge from the after-companion upon the dawn, her hair in a "bun," her bare feet thrust into loose felt slippers, her form wrapped in a Newmarket overcoat closely buttoned over her robe de nuit.
"The Island, ma'am!" announced Captain Branscome from the helm; and, turning there by the fo'c's'le hatch and following the gesture of his hand, I descried a purplish smear on the southern horizon. To me it looked but a low-lying cloud or a fogbank.
"I'll take your word for it," answered Miss Belcher, calmly. "You have timed it well, Captain Branscome."
"Under Providence, ma'am," the Captain corrected her, and called to me to take the wheel while he fetched out his chart and unrolled it for her inspection. "We are running straight down upon the northern end of it, and our best anchorage (if I may suggest) lies to the south'ard—in Gow's Creek, as they call it."
He laid a finger on the chart.
"We rely upon you, sir, to choose."
"I thank you, ma'am. If (as I doubt not) we find plenty of water there, it will be the best anchorage in this breeze; not to mention that this Gow's Creek runs up, as we are directed, to within a mile and a half of the No. 3 cache. If you agree, ma'am, I have only to ask your instructions whether to coast down the east or the west side of the Island. The wind, you perceive, serves equally well for both."
Miss Belcher considered for a moment.
"The Keys lie to the west of Gable Point, here. By taking that side we can have a look at them on our way."
"Right, ma'am. Harry!"—he turned to me—"bring her nose round to sou'-west and by south, and stand by for the gybe." He hauled in the main-sheet and eased it over. "Now, see here, lad," he called to me sharply as the little vessel yawed: "where were your eyes just then?"
"I was taking a look at the land-fall, sir," I answered truthfully.
"Then I'll trouble you to fix your mind on the lubber's-mark and hold her straight. That's discipline, my boy, and in this business you may want all you can learn of it."
It was not Captain Branscome's habit to speak sharply. I turned my attention to the card, conscious of a pair of red ears.
The sky brightened, and within an hour, as we ran down upon it at something like eight knots, the Island began to take shape. A wisp of morning fog floated horizontally across it, dividing its shore-line from the hills in the interior, which, looming above this cloudy base, appeared considerably higher than, in fact, they were. The shore itself along the eastern side showed almost uniformly steep—a line of reddish rock broken with patches of green, which we mistook for meadows (but they turned out to be nothing more or less than sheets of green creepers matted together and overhanging the cliffs). At its northern extremity, upon which we were closing down at an acute angle, the land dropped to a low-lying, sandy peninsula with a backbone of rock almost bare of vegetation, and beyond this we saw the white surf glittering around the Keys.
Our course gave them a fairly wide berth; and at first I took them for a continuous line of sandbanks running in a rough semicircle around the low spit which the chart called Gable Point; but as we drew level they broke up into islets, with blue channels between, and at sight of us thousands of sea-birds rose in cloud upon cloud, with a clamour that might have been heard for miles. One of these banks— the northernmost—showed traces of herbage, grey in colour and dull by contrast with the verdure of the Island. The rest were but barren sand.
We rounded them at about three cables' length and stood due south, giving sheet again. Southward from the neck of the peninsula this western side of the Island differed surprisingly from the other. Here were no cliffs, but a flat shore and long stretches of beach, gradually shelving up to green bush, with here a palmetto grove and there a lagoon of still water within the outer barrier of sand. Mr. Jack Rogers had relieved me at the helm, and with the Captain's permission I had stepped below to the saloon, where Plinny was waiting to give me breakfast, and persuaded the good soul not only to let me carry it on deck and eat it there, but to postpone washing-up for a while and accompany me. To this she would by no means consent until I had brought her the Captain's leave.
"You may take her my leave," said he, with a sudden flush on his face, "and my apologies for having neglected to request the honour of her company. The fact is," he added, with a hard glance at me, "Miss Plinlimmon's sense of discipline is so rare a thing that I am always forgetting to do justice to it. Were it possible to find a whole crew so conscientious I would undertake to sail to the North Pole."
I conveyed this answer to Plinny, and it visibly gratified her. She retired at once to the ladies' cabin to indue her poke-bonnet with coquelicot trimmings. Her apron she retained, observing that on an expedition of this sort one should never be taken at unawares, and that when at Rome you should do as the Romans did. "By which, my dear Harry," she explained, "you are not to understand me to refer to their Papist observances, such as kissing a man's toe. Were such a request proffered to me even at the cannon's mouth, I trust my courage would find an answer. 'No, no,' I would say,
"'I will not bow within the House of Rimmon: Yours faithfully, Amelia Plinlimmon.'"
As we reached the head of the companion-ladder Captain Branscome, who was standing just aft of the wheel, behind Mr. Rogers's shoulder, and scanning the shore through his glass, made a motion to step forward and hand her on deck. This was ever his courteous way, and I turned a moment later in some surprise, to find that, instead of closing the glass, he had lifted it, and was holding it again to his eye, at the same time keeping his right shoulder turned to us.
While we looked, he lowered it and made his bow, yet with something of a preoccupied air.
"Good morning, ma'am. You are very welcome on deck, and I trust that Harry conveyed the apology I sent by him."
"I beg you will not mention it, sir. It is true that I suffered from the curiosity which outspoken critics have called the bane of my sex; yet, believe me, I was far from accusing you, knowing how many responsibilities must weigh on the captain of an expedition, even though it fare as prosperously as ours."
"True, ma'am," Captain Branscome tapped his spyglass absent-mindedly, and seemed on the point of lifting it again. "Though, with your permission, I will add 'D.V.'"
"Yes—yes"—Plinny smiled a cheerful approval—"we are ever in the Divine Hand; not more really, perhaps, in the tropics than in those more temperate latitudes when, though the wolf and lion do not howl for prey, an incautious step upon a piece of orange-peel has before now proved equally fatal."
Captain Branscome bowed again.
"You call me the leader of this expedition, Miss Plinlimmon; and so I am, until we drop anchor. With that, in two or three hours at farthest, my chief responsibility ends, and I think it time"—he turned to Mr. Rogers—"that we made ready to appoint my successor. I shall have a word to say to him."
"Nonsense, man!" answered Mr. Rogers, looking up from the wheel. "If you mean me, I decline to act except as your lieutenant. You have captained us admirably; and if I decline the honour, you will hardly suggest promoting Harry, here, or Goodfellow!"
"I was thinking that Miss Belcher, perhaps—"
"Hallo!" said Miss Belcher, turning at the sound of her name, and coming aft from the bows, whence she had been studying the coastline. "What's the matter with me?"
"The Captain," exclaimed Mr. Rogers, "has been tendering us his resignation."
"Mr. Rogers misunderstands me, ma'am," said Captain Branscome. "I merely said that, so far as we have agreed as yet, My authority ceases an soon as we cast anchor. If you choose to re elect me, I shall not say 'No'—though not coveting the honour; but I can only say 'Yes' upon a condition."
"Name it, please."
"That I have every one's implicit obedience. I may—nay, I shall— give orders that will be irksome and at the same time hard to understand. I may be unable to give you my reasons for them; or able to give you none beyond the general warning that we are after treasure, and I never yet heard of a treasure-hunt that was child's-play."
He spoke quietly, but with an impressiveness not to be mistaken, though we knew no cause for it. Miss Belcher, at any rate, did not miss it. She shot him a keen glance, turned for a moment, and seemed to study the shore, then faced about again, and said she—
"I am not used to be commanded. But I can command myself, and am not altogether a fool."
The Captain bowed. "I was thinking, ma'am, that might be our difficulty. But if I have your word to try—"
"I thank you, ma'am, and will own that my mind is relieved. It may even be that, from time to time, I may do myself the honour of consulting you. Nevertheless—"
"I mustn't count on it, eh? Well, as you please; only I warn you that, while in any case I am going to be as good as my word, if you treat me like a sensible person I shall probably be a trifle better."
For ten seconds, maybe, the pair looked one another in the eyes; then the Captain bowed once more, and apparently this invited her to step forward with him to the bows, where they halted and stood conning the coast, the Captain through his spyglass.
As they left us, Plinny and I moved to the waist of the ship, where we paused by consent, and I resumed my breakfast, munching it as I leaned against the port bulwarks. We were now rapidly opening Long Bay (as the chart called it), a deep recess running out squarely at either extremity, the bight of it crossed by a beach, and a line of tumbling breakers, that extended for close upon three miles. Above the beach a forest of tall trees, in height and colour at once distinguishable from the thick bush we had hitherto been passing, screened the bases of a range of hills which obviously formed the backbone of the island; and as the whole bay crept into view we discerned in the north (or, to be accurate, N.N.E.) corner of this long recess a marshy valley dividing the scrub from the forest. The mouth of this valley, where it widened out upon the beach, measured at least half a mile across. The chart marked it as Misery Swamp, and indicated a river there. We could detect none, or, at any rate, no river entrance. If river there were, doubtless it emptied its waters through the fringe of grey-green weeds, and dispersed over the flat-looking foreshore; but even at two miles' distance it looked to be a dismal, fever-haunted spot.
By contrast, the noble range of woodland to southward of it and the rocky peaks that rose in delicate shadow above the tree-tops were beautiful as a dream, even to eyes fresh from the forest scenery of Jamaica; and while Plinny leant with me against the bulwarks, I felt that in the silence immortal verse was shaping itself, which it did after a while to this effect—
"Arrived o'er the limitless ocean In 16 degrees of N. latitude, Our lips were attuned to devotion, Our spirits uplifted in gratitude.
"Our hearts with poetic afflatus Took wing and impulsively soared As the lead-line (a quaint apparatus) Reported the depth overboard.
"Oh, oft had I dream'd of the tropics— But never to see them in person— So full of remarkable topics To speculate, sing, and converse on."
It was Mr. Goodfellow who worked the hand-lead, under Captain Branscome's orders, from a perch just forward of the main rigging; but at a mile's distance we carried deep water with us past Crabtree Point, and around the unnamed small cape which formed the south-western extremity of the island. We rounded this, and, hauling up to the wind, found (as the reader may discover for himself by a glance at the chart) that the shore made almost directly E. by N., with scarcely an indentation, for Gow's Gulf.
Here the water shoaled, though for the first mile almost imperceptibly. The inlet itself resembled the estuary of a mighty river, its both sides well wooded, though very different in configuration, the northern rising quietly from shelving beaches of coral-white sand to some of the most respectable hills in the island, while that on our starboard hand presented a succession of cliff and chasm, the cliffs varying, as we judged, from two hundred to two hundred and fifty feet sheer.
In three and a half fathoms (reported by Mr. Goodfellow) the water, which was exquisitely clear, showed good white sand under us. Ahead of us the creek narrowed, promising an anchorage almost completely landlocked and as peaceful as the soul of man could desire. We drew a short eight feet of water, and with such soundings (for the tide had not been making above an hour) I expected the old man to hold on for at least another mile, when, to my surprise, he took the helm from Mr. Rogers and, sending him forward, shook the Espriella up in the wind, at the same time calling to Goodfellow and me to lower the main throat-halliards.
"Leave go anchor!"
With a splash her anchor plunged over, took the ground, and in another twenty yards brought us up standing.
"Hallo!" Miss Belcher scanned the shore. "You're giving the boats a long trip, Captain."
"I take my precautions, ma'am," answered Captain Branscome, almost curtly.
I TAKE FRENCH LEAVE ASHORE.
In a sweating hurry I helped Mr. Rogers and Mr. Goodfellow to furl sail, coil away ropes, and tidy up generally. After these tedious weeks at sea I was wild for a run ashore, and, with the green woods inviting me, grudged even an hour's delay.
We had run down foresail and come to our anchor under jib and half-lowered mainsail. I sprang forward to take in the jib and carry it, with the foresail, to the locker abaft the ladies' cabin, when Captain Branscome sang out to me to be in no such hurry, but to fold and stow both sails neatly without detaching them—the one along the bowsprit, the other at the foot of the fore-stay, when they could be re-hoisted at a moment's notice.
These precautions were the more mysterious to me because a moment later he sent me to the locker to fetch up a tarpaulin cover for the mainsail, which he snugged down carefully, to protect it (as he explained) from the night dews—so carefully that he twice interrupted Mr. Goodfellow to correct a piece of slovenly tying. The sail being packed at length to his satisfaction, we laced the cover about it carefully as though it had been a lady's bodice.
Our next business was to get out the boats. The Espriella possessed three—a gig, shaped somewhat like a whaleboat; a useful, twelve-foot dinghy; and a small cockboat, or "punt" (to use our West Country name), capable, at a pinch, of accommodating two persons. This last we carried on deck; but the larger pair at the foot of the rigging on either side, whence we unlashed and lowered them by their falls. The punt we moored by a short painter under the bowsprit, so that she lay just clear of our stem.
This small job had fallen to me by the Captain's orders, and I clambered back, to find him and Mr. Rogers standing by the accommodation ladder on the port side, and in the act of stepping down into the dinghy. Indeed, Mr. Rogers had his foot on the ladder, and seemed to wait only while the Captain gave some instructions to Mr. Goodfellow, who was listening respectfully.
"Are we all to go ashore in the dinghy?" I asked.
The Captain turned on me severely, and I observed that he and Mr. Rogers had armed themselves with a musket apiece, each slung on a bandolier, and that Mr. Rogers wore an axe at his belt.
"Certainly not," said the Captain. "Mr. Rogers and I are going on shore to prospect, and I was at this moment instructing Mr. Goodfellow that nobody is to leave the ship without leave from me."
"But—" I began, and checked myself, less for fear of his anger than because I was actually on the verge of tears. I looked around for the ladies, but they had retired to their cabin. Oh, this was hard—a monstrous tyranny! And so I told Mr. Goodfellow hotly as the dinghy pushed off and, Mr. Rogers paddling her, drew away up the creek and rounded the bend under the almost overhanging trees.
"When are they coming back?" I demanded.
"Captain didn't say."
"You seem to take it easily," I flamed up; "but I call it a burning shame! Captain Branscome seems to think that this Island belongs to him; and you know well enough, if it hadn't been for me, he'd never have set eyes on it. What are you going to do?"
"Smoke a pipe," said Mr. Goodfellow, "and watch the beauties o' Nature."
"Well, I'm not," I threatened. "Captain Branscome may be a very good seaman but he's too much of an usher out of school. This isn't Stimcoe's."
"Not a bit like it," assented Mr. Goodfellow, feeling in his pockets.
"And if he thinks he can go on playing the usher over me, he'll find out his mistake. Why, look you, whose is the treasure, properly speaking? Who found it?"
Mr. Goodfellow drew forth a pipe and rubbed the bowl thoughtfully against his nose.
"Well, then, who found the chart? Who put you all on the scent? Who was it first heard the secret from Captain Coffin? And this man doesn't even consult me—doesn't think me worth a civil word! I'll be shot if I stand it!" I wound up, pacing the deck in my rage.
Just then Plinny's voice called up to us from the cabin, announcing that dinner was ready.
"But," said she, "one of you must eat his portion on deck while he keeps watch; that was Captain Branscome's order."
"More orders!" I grumbled; and then, with a sudden thought, I nodded to Mr. Goodfellow, who was replacing his pipe in his pocket. "You go. Hand me up a plate and a fistful of ship biscuit, and leave me to deal with 'em. I'm not for stifling down there under hatches, whatever your taste may be."
"'Tis a fact," he admitted, "that a meal does me more good when I square my elbows to it."
"Down you go, then," said I; "and when you're wanted I'll call you."
He descended cheerfully, reappeared to pass up a plate, and descended again. I gobbled down enough to stay my appetite, crammed my pocket full of ship biscuit, and, after listening for a moment at the hatchway, tiptoed forward and climbed out upon the bowsprit. Then, having unloosed the cockboat's painter, I lowered and let myself drop into her, and, slipping a paddle into the stern-notch, sculled gently for shore.
The Espriella, of course, lay head-to-tide, and the tide by this time was making strongly—so strongly that I had no time to get steerage way on the little boat before it swept her close under the open porthole through which I heard Miss Belcher inviting Mr. Goodfellow to pass his plate for another dumpling. Miss Belcher's voice—as I may or may not have informed the reader—was a baritone of singularly resonant timbre. It sounded through the porthole as through a speaking trumpet, and I ducked and held my breath as the boat's gunwale rubbed twice against the schooner's side before drifting clear.
Once clear, however, I worked my paddle with a will, though noiselessly; and, the tide helping me, soon reached and rounded the first bend. Here, out of sight of the ship, I had leisure to draw breath and look about me.
Ahead of me lay a still reach, close upon half a mile in length, and narrowing steadily to the next bend, when the two shores overlapped and mingled their reflections on the water. On my right the red cliffs, their summits matted with creepers, descended sheer into water many fathoms deep, yet so clear that I could spy the fish playing about their bases where they met the firm white sand. On my left the channel shoaled gradually to a beach of this same white sand, which followed the curve of the shore, here and again flashing out into broad sunshine from the blue shadow cast by the overhanging forest.
Between these banks the breeze could scarcely be felt, yet, though the sun scorched me, the heat was not oppressive. The woods, dense and tangled though they were, threw up no exhalations of mud or rotting leaves, but a clean, aromatic odour. It seemed to give them a substance without which they had been but a mirage, a scene painted on a cloth, so motionless and apparently lifeless they stood, with the long vines hanging from their boughs, and the hot, rarefied air quivering above them.
At first their silence daunted me; by-and-by I felt (I could hardly be said to hear) that this silence was intense, and held a sound of its own, a murmur as of millions of flies and minute winged things— or perhaps it came from the vegetation itself, and the sap pushing leaf against leaf and ceaselessly striving for room.
With scarcely more noise than the forest made in growing, I let the cockboat float up on the tide, correcting her course from time to time with a touch of the paddle astern; and so coming to the second bend, began to search the shore for a convenient landing. The Captain and Mr. Rogers, no doubt, had rowed up to the very head of the creek, and would by this time be prospecting for the clump of trees which were the key to unlock No. 3 cache. To escape—or, at any rate, delay—detection, I must land lower down, and preferably at some point where I could pull up the boat and hide it.
With this in my mind, scanning the woods on the north bank for an opening, I drifted around the bend, and with a shock of surprise found myself in full view of the end of the creek. Worse than this, I was bearing straight for the Espriella's dinghy, which lay just above water on the foreshore, with her painter carried out to a tree above the bank. Worst of all, some one at that instant stepped back from the bank and under the shadow of the tree, as if to await me there. . . . Mr. Rogers, or the Captain? . . . Mr. Rogers certainly; for I remembered that the Captain wore white duck trousers, and, by my glimpse of him, this man's clothes were dark. His height and walk, too! Yes; no doubt of it, he was Mr. Rogers.
I stood—a culprit caught red-handed—and let the boat drift me down upon retributive justice. A while ago I had been mentally composing a number of effective retorts upon Captain Branscome for his tyrannical behaviour. Now, of a sudden, all this eloquence deserted me: I felt it leaking away and knew myself for a law-breaker. One lingering hope remained—that the Captain had pushed ahead into the woods, and that, as yet, Mr. Jack Rogers (whose good nature I might almost count upon) had alone detected me and would pack me home to the ship with nothing worse than a flea in my ear.
His silence encouraged this hope. Half a minute passed and still he forbore to lift his voice and summon me. He stood, deep in the shadow, his face screened by the boughs, and made no motion to advance to the bank.
Then suddenly—at, maybe, two hundred yards' distance—I saw him take another pace backwards and slip away among the trees.
"Good man!" thought I, and blessed him (after my first start of astonishment). "He has pretended not to see me."
At any rate he had given me a pretty good hint to make myself scarce unless I wished to incur Captain Branscome's wrath. I slipped my paddle forward into a rowlock, picked up the other, and, dropping upon the thwart, jerked the cockboat right-about-face to head her back for the schooner.
But after a stroke or two I easied and let her drift back stern-foremost while I sat considering. Mr. Rogers had behaved like a trump; yet it seemed mean to deceive the old man; and, moreover, it amounted to striking my colours. I had broken orders deliberately and because I denied his right to give such orders. I might be a youngster; but, to say the least of it, I had as much interest in the success of this expedition as any member of the company. The shortest way to dissuade Captain Branscome from treating me as a child was to assert myself from the beginning. I had started with full intent to assert myself, and—yes, I was much obliged to Mr. Rogers, but this question between me and Branscome had best be settled, though it meant open mutiny. I felt pretty sure that Miss Belcher would support the tyrant; almost equally sure that Plinny would acquiesce, though her sympathy went with me; and strangely enough, and unjustly, I felt the angrier with Plinny. But even against Miss Belcher I had a card to play. "Captain Branscome may be an excellent leader," I would say; "but I beg you to remember that you gave me no vote in electing him. I will obey any leader I have my share in choosing, but until then I stand out." And I had an inkling that, though the public voice would be against me, I should establish my claim to be taken into any future counsels.
"In for a lamb, in for a sheep," thought I, and began to back the cockboat towards the corner where the dinghy lay. As I did so it occurred to me to wonder why the Captain and Mr. Rogers had been so dilatory. They must have started a full hour ahead of me; they had left the schooner at a brisk stroke, whereas I had merely floated up with the tide. Yet either I had all but surprised them in the act of stepping ashore, or, if they had landed at once, why had Mr. Rogers loitered on the bank until I was close on overtaking him?
They had landed at the extreme head of the creek. Therefore (I argued) their intent was to follow up the stream here indicated on the chart and search for the clump of trees which guarded the secret of No. 3 cache.
Sure enough, having beached my boat alongside the dinghy and climbed the green knoll above the foreshore, I spied their footprints on the sandy edge of the stream which here fetched a loop before joining the tidal waters of the creek. They led me along a flat meadow of exquisitely green turf, fringed with palmetto-trees, to the entrance of a narrow gorge through which the stream came tumbling in a series of cascades, spraying the ferns that overhung it. The forest with its undergrowth pressed so closely upon either bank that after scrambling up beside the first waterfall I was forced to take off shoes and stockings and work my way up the irregular bed, now wading knee-deep, now clambering or leaping from boulder to boulder; and, even so, to press from time to time through the meeting boughs, shielding my face from scratches. So, for at least a mile, I climbed as through a narrow green tunnel, and at the end of it found myself wet to the skin. Five waterfalls I had passed, and, beside the fourth, where the bank was muddy, had noted a long, smooth mark, and recent, such as a man's foot might make in slipping; so that I felt pretty confident of being on my companions' track, though I wondered how the Captain, with his lame leg, could sustain such a climb.
But above the fifth waterfall the stream divided into two branches, and at the fork of them I stood for a while in doubt which to choose. So far as volume of water went, there was, indeed, little or nothing to choose. If direction counted, the main stream would be that which came rushing down the gorge straight ahead of me—a gorge which, however, as my eye followed the V of its tree-tops up to the sky-line, promised to grow steeper and worse tangled. On the other hand, the tributary (as I shall call it), which poured down from a lateral valley on my left, ran with an easier flow, as though drawing its waters from less savage slopes. I could not see these slopes—a bend of the hills hid them; but I reasoned that if a clump of trees, separate and distinguishable, stood anywhere near the banks of either stream, it might possibly be found by this one. The other showed nothing but a close mass of vegetation.
Accordingly I turned my steps up the channel to the left, and was rewarded, after another twenty minutes' scramble, by emerging upon a break in the forest. On one side of the stream rose a reddish-coloured cliff, almost smooth of face and about seventy or eighty feet high, across the edge of which the last trees on the summit clutched with their naked roots, as though protesting against being thrust over the precipice by the crowd behind them. The other bank swelled up, from a little above the water's edge, to a fair green lawn, rounded, grassy, and smooth as a glade in an English park. At its widest I dare say that, from the stream's edge back to the steep slope where the forest started again and climbed to a tall ridge that shut in the glen on the south side, it measured something over two hundred yards.
"Here," thought I, glancing up the glade towards the westering sun, "is the very spot for our clump of, trees;" and so it was—only no clump of trees happened to be in sight. The glade, however, stretched away and around a bend of the stream, and I was moving to the bank to explore it to its end when my eyes were arrested by something white not ten paces away. It was a piece of paper caught against one of the large boulders between which, as through a broken dam, the water poured into the ravine. I waded towards it and stooped, steadying myself against the current.
It was a paper boat.
THE WOMEN IN THE GRAVEYARD.
I turned it over in my hand. Yes; it was a boat such as children make out of paper, many times folded, and "What on earth," thought I, "put such childishness into the head of Captain Branscome or Mr. Jack Rogers?"
Then it occurred to me that they might be caught in some peril higher up the stream, and had launched this message on the chance of its being carried down to the waters of the creek. A far-fetched explanation, to be sure! But what was I to think? If it were the explanation, doubtless the paper contained writing, and, carrying it to the bank, I seated myself and began to unfold it very carefully; for it was sodden, and threatened to fall to pieces in my hands. Then I reflected that the two men carried no writing materials, or, at the best, a lead pencil, the marks of which would be obliterated before the paper had been two minutes in the water.
Yet, as I parted the folds, I saw that the paper had indeed been scribbled on, though the words were a smear; and, moreover, that the writing was in ink!
In ink! My fingers trembled and involuntarily tore a small rent in the pulpy mass. I laid it on the grass to dry in the full sunshine, seated myself beside it, and looked around me with a shiver.
A paper boat—the paper written on—and the writing in ink! I could be sworn that neither Captain Branscome nor Mr. Rogers carried an inkbottle. The paper, too, was of a kind unfamiliar to me; thin, foreign paper, ruled with faint lines in watermark. Certainly no one on board the Espriella owned such writing-paper or the like of it. But again, the paper could not have been long in the water, and the writing seemed to be fresh. As the torn edges crinkled in the heat and curled themselves half-open, I peered between them and distinguished a capital "R," followed by an "i"; but these letters ran into a long smear, impossible to decipher.
I had flung myself prone on the grass, and so lay, with chin propped on both palms, staring at the thing as if it had been some strange beetle—staring till my eyes ached. But now I took it in my fingers again and prised the edges a little wider. Below the smear came a blank space, and below this were five lines ruled in ink with a number of dotted marks between them. . . . A smudged stave of music? Yes, certainly it was music. I could distinguish the mark of the treble clef. Lastly, at the foot of the page, as I unwrapped it at length, came a blurred illegible signature.
But what mattered the sense of it? The writing was here, and recent. No one on board the Espriella could have penned it. The island, then, was inhabited—now, at this moment inhabited, and the inhabitants, whoever they might be, at this moment not far from me.
I crushed the paper into my pocket, and stood up, slowly looking about me. For a second or two panic had me by the hair. I turned to run, but the dense woods through which I had ascended so light-heartedly had suddenly become a jungle of God knows what terrors. I remembered that from the first cascade upward I had scarcely once had a view of more than a dozen yards ahead, so thickly the bushes closed in upon me. I saw myself retracing my steps through those bushes, in every one of which now lurked a pair of watching eyes. I glanced up at the cliff across the stream. For aught I knew, eyes were watching me from its summit.
Needless to say, I cursed the hour of my transgression, the fatal impulse that had prompted me to break ship. I knew myself for a fool; but how might I win back to repentance? As repent I certainly would and acknowledge my fault. Could I keep hold on my nerve to thread my way back and over those five separate and accursed waterfalls? If only I were given a clear space to run!
At this point in the nexus of my fears it occurred to me, glancing along the green lawn ahead, that the ridge on its left must run almost parallel with the creek; that it was sparsely wooded in comparison with the ravine behind me, and that from the summit of it I might even look straight down upon the Espriella's anchorage. Be this as it might, I felt sure, considering the lie of the land, that here must be a short cut back to the creek; and once beside its waters I could head back along the beach and regain my boat. Down there I might dismiss my fears. The upper portion of the beach, if I mistook not, remained uncovered at the top of any ordinary tides, and it wanted yet a good two hours to high-water, so that I had not the smallest doubt of being able to reach the creek-head, no matter at what point of the foreshore I might descend. From the bank where I stood I had the whole ridge in view above the dense foliage, and could select the most promising point to make for; but this would sink out of sight as I approached the first belt of trees, and beyond them I must find my way by guesswork.
I now observed a sharp notch breaking the line of the ridge, about a mile to the westward, and walked some few hundred yards forward on the chance that it might widen as I drew more nearly abreast of it, and open into a passage between the hills. Widen it did, but very gradually—the stream curving away from it all the while; and by and by I halted again, in two minds whether to break straight across for it or continue this slow process of making sure.
I had now reached a point where the tall cliff on the opposite shore either ended abruptly or took a sharp turn back from the stream. I could not determine which, and walked forward yet another two hundred yards to satisfy myself. This brought me in view of a grove of palmettos, clustering under the very lee of the rock—or so it appeared at first, but a second look told me that here the stream again divided, and that the new confluent swept by the base of the rock, between it and the palmettos, three or four of which (their roots, maybe, sapped by bygone floods) leaned sideways and almost hid the junction.
I was turning away, resolved now to steer straight for the notch in the hills, when for the second time a gleam of something white arrested me, and I stood still, my heart in my mouth. The white object, whatever it was, stood within the circle of the palmetto stems, yet not very deep within it—a dozen yards at farthest from the stream's edge. I stared at it, and the longer I stared the more I was puzzled, until I plunged into the water and waded across for a closer look.
Gaining the bank, I saw, first, that the white object was but one of many, disposed behind it in two rows as regular as the tree-stems allowed; next, that these objects were wooden boards, pained white. And with that, as I stepped towards the foremost, my foot slipped and I fell, twisting my ankle and narrowly saving myself from an ugly sprain. I had stumbled in a hollow, shallow depression between the mounds. Picking myself up, I saw that to left and right and all around me the turf was ridged with similar mounds, the whole enclosure full of them. In a flash I read the meaning of the white-painted boards. Yes—and there was writing on them, too—no words, but single letters and dates, roughly painted in black— "O. M., 1796"—"R. A. S., 1796"—"P d. V. and A. M. d. V., 1800"— these, and perhaps two score of others. The shape of the mounds interpreted these inscriptions.
I was in a graveyard.
I sat helpless for a minute, dreadfully scanning the gloom through which the massed palmetto-tops admitted but a shaft of light here and there. The flies, which had been a nuisance across the stream, here swarmed in myriads so thick that they seemed to hang in clusters from the boughs; and their incessant buzzing added to the horror of the place a hint of something foul, sinister, almost obscene.
I had a mind to creep away on all-fours, but suddenly forgot my ankle and sprang erect, on the defensive, at the sound of voices. A grassy path led through the enclosure, between the graves, and at the end of it appeared two figures.
They were two women; the first a negress, short, squat, and ugly, wearing a frock of the gaudiest yellow, and for head-dress a scarlet handkerchief, bound closely about her scalp and tied in front with an immense bow; the other—but how shall I describe the other?
She was white, and she wore a dress of fresh white muslin; a short dress, tied about the waist with a pale-blue sash, and above the shoulders with narrow ribbons of the same colour. Her figure was that of a girl; her ringlets hung loose like a girl's. She walked with a girlish step; and until she came close I took her for a girl of sixteen or seventeen.
Then, with a shock, I found myself staring into the face, which might well belong to a woman between sixty and seventy, so faded it was and reticulated with wrinkles; and into a pair of eyes that wavered between ingenuousness and a childish cunning; and from them down to her slim ankles and a pair of dancing-shoes, so fairy-like and diminutive that they seemed scarcely to press the grass underfoot.
The pair had drawn to a halt, while I stood uncertain whether to brave them or make a bid for escape. I heard the negress cry aloud in a foreign tongue, at the same time flinging up her hands; but the other pushed past her and walked straight down upon me, albeit with a mincing, tripping motion, as if she was pacing a dance.
Twice she spoke, and in two different languages (as I recognized, though able to make nothing of either), and then, halting before me, she tried for the third time in English.
"Boy"—she looked at me inquiringly—"what you do here—will you tell?"
"I come from the ship, ma'am," said I, finding my tongue.
"The sheep? He bring a sheep? But why?—and why he bring you?"
I stared at her, not understanding. "Ma'am," said I, pointing over my shoulder, "we came here in a ship—a schooner; and she is lying in the creek yonder. I landed and climbed up through the woods. On my way I found this."
I held out the paper boat. She caught it out of my hand with a sharp cry. But the black woman, at the same instant, turned on her and began to scold her volubly. The words were unintelligible to me, but her tone, full of angry remonstrance, could not be mistaken.
"I am not sorry," said the white woman, speaking in English, with a glance at me. "No, I do not care for his orders. It was by this that you came to me?" she asked, turning to me again, and pointing mincingly at the paper.
"I found it in the stream," I replied; "almost a mile below this."
"Yes, yes; you found it in the stream. And you opened it, and read the writing?"
I shook my head. "The writing, ma'am, was blotted—I could read nothing."
"Not even my little song?" She peered into the paper, threw up her head and piped a note or two, for all the world as a bird chirrups, lifting his bill, after taking a drink. "La-la-la—you did not understand, hey? But, nevertheless, you came, and of your own will. He did not bring you?"
I shook my head again, having no clue to her meaning.
"So best," she said, changing her tone of a sudden to one of extreme gravity. "For if he found you here—here of all places—he would kill you. Yes"—she nodded impressively "for sure we would kill you. He kill all these."
She waved a hand, indicating the grave-mounds. Her voice, at these dreadful words, ran up to an almost more dreadful airiness; and still she continued nodding, but now with a sort of simpering pride. "All these," she repeated, waving her hand again towards the mounds.
"Did you see him kill them?" I asked, wondering whom "he" might be, and scarcely knowing what I said.
"Some," she answered, with a final nod and a glance of extreme childish cunning. "But why you not talking, Rosa?" she demanded, turning on the negress. "You speak English; it is no use to pretend."
The black woman stared at me for a moment from under her loose-hanging lids.
"You go 'way," she said slowly. "You get no good in these parts."
"Very well, ma'am," said I, steadying my voice, "and the sooner the better, if you will kindly tell me the shortest cut back to the creek."
"And," the woman went on, not seeming to heed the interruption, "you tell the same to your friends, that they get no good in these parts. But, of us—and of this"—she pointed to the sodden paper which she had snatched from her mistress's hands—"you will say nothing. It might bring mischief."
"Mischief?" I echoed.
"But this is nonsense you talk, Rosa!" broke in the little lady. "At the most, what have I written?—a little song from Gluck, the divine Gluck! Just a little song of Eurydice calling to Orfeo. Ah! you should have heard me sing it—in the days before my voice left me; in the opera, boy, and the King himself splitting his gloves to applaud us! Eh, but you are young, very young. I should not wonder to hear you were born after I left the stage. And you are pretty, but not old enough to be Orfeo yet. I must wait—I must wait, though I wait till I doubt if I am not changed to Proserpine with her cracked voice. Boy, if I kissed you—"
She advanced a step, but the negress caught her by the wrist violently, at the same moment waving me off. I felt faint and giddy, as though some exhalation from the graveyard—not wholly repellent, but sickly, overpowering, like the scent of a hothouse lily—had been suddenly wafted under my nostrils. I fell back a pace as the negress motioned me away. Her hand pointed across the stream, and across the meadow, to the gap in the ridge.
"Fast as you can run," she panted; "and never come this way again."
The strong scent yet hung around me and seemed to bind me like a spell, pressing on my arms and logs. I plunged knee-deep into the stream. The cool touch of the water brought me to my senses. I splashed across, waded up the bank, and set off running towards the gap.
THE MAN IN BLACK.
Before ever I gained the gap I was panting, and as I panted the blood ran into my mouth from a deep scratch across the eyebrows. I tasted it as I ran. My shirt hung in strips, and one stocking flapped open on a rip from knee to ankle. But on the farther side of the ridge I ran no longer. I flung myself and fell through the matted ferns that, veiling the trough of a half-dry watercourse, now checked my descent as I clutched at them, now parted and let me drop and bruise myself on the rocky bottom. In the end, I found myself on soft sand beside the blessed water of the creek, bloodied indeed—for I had taken a shrewd knock on the bridge of the nose—but with a wrenched shoulder and a jarred knee-pan for the worst of my hurts. I valued them nothing in comparison with the terrors left behind in the woods. The schooner lay in sight, scarcely half a mile below, and I sobbed with gratitude as I dipped my face in the tide and washed off its bloodstains.
The tide was still at flood, and wanted (as I guessed) less than an hour of high water; but it left an almost continuous stretch of sand between me and the creek-head, and I found that the short intervals where it narrowed to nothing could be waded with ease. At first the curve of the foreshore and the overhanging woods concealed the spit of beach where I had made fast my punt beside the dinghy; but at the corner which brought the boats in sight I was aware of two figures standing beside them—Captain Branscome and Mr. Rogers.
I walked forward hardily enough; I had drunk my fill of terror, and could have faced the Captain had he been thrice as formidable. He did not help me at all, but stood with a thunderous frown, very quiet and self-restrained, while I plodded my way up to him, over the sand.
I think that, as I drew close, my battered appearance must have shocked him a little. But his frown did not relax, and the muscles of his mouth grew, if anything, tenser.
"You appear to have been in the wars," he said quietly. "Has anything happened to the schooner?"
"No, sir; at least not to my knowledge," was my answer; and he must have; expected it, or he would have shown more perturbation. "I saw her, not five minutes ago, lying at her moorings," I added, with a nod towards the bend of the creek which hid her from us.
"Then why has Miss Belcher sent you?"
"She did not send me, sir."
"In other words, you have chosen to disobey orders?"
I suppose he read some sullenness in my attitude, for he repeated the words sharply, in a tone that demanded an answer.
"I am sorry, sir; but all the same, it didn't seem fair to me to be left on board without being consulted."
I heard him take a short breath, as though my impudence him in the wind. For a full half a minute eyed me slowly up and down.
"Get into your boat, sir, and return to the ship at once! Mr. Rogers, this child is impossible. I must do what I would gladly have avoided, and ask the ladies to give me more authority over him, since they will not exercise it themselves."
At the implied sneer—and perhaps even more at the tone of it, so foreign to the Captain Branscome that I knew—I blazed up wrathfully.
"If you mean by that," said I, "to threaten me with the rope's-end, I advise you to try it. And if you mean that I'm child enough to be tied to apron-strings of a couple of women, that's just of a piece with the whole mistake you're making. No one's disputing your right to give orders—"
"Thank you," he put in sarcastically.
"—To those," I went on, "who appointed you captain. But I wasn't consulted, and until that happens, I shall obey or not, as I choose."
Now, this, no doubt, was extremely childish, even wickedly foolish, and the more foolish, perhaps, because a few minutes ago I would have given all I possessed, including my prospective share in the treasure, for Captain Branscome's protection. But somehow, since sighting the island, I had lost hold of myself, and my temper seemed to be running all askew. Strange to tell, the Captain appeared to be affected in much the same way.
"Why, you little fool," said he, "are you mistaking this for a picnic?"
"No," I retorted; "I am not. And, if you'll remember, it wasn't I who led the ladies to look forward to one."
He planted himself before me, and said he, looking at me sternly—
"See here, my boy, I don't want to make unpleasantness, and if you force me to appeal to the whole ship's company, you know very well you will find yourself in a minority of one."
"I don't care for that, sir. You'll be acting unfairly, all the same."
"We'll let that pass. You tell here in the act of breaking ship, that you're of an age to be consulted. Well, you shall have the benefit of the doubt. You want to know, then, why I'm careful about letting you run ashore? What would you say if I told you the island has people upon it?"
"Why, first of all, sir, that if you found it out before dropping anchor, it seems strange—your going ashore with Mr. Rogers and leaving the rest to take care of themselves. But if you've discovered it since—"
"I have not. I am not sure the island is inhabited; but as we were running down the coast I saw something through my glasses—a coil of smoke beyond the hills on the eastern side. Now, if, as seems certain, this fire was lit by human beings, it almost stands to reason they must have sighted our ship. Next comes the question Why did I go ashore and take Mr. Rogers? Well, in the first place, we didn't come here to lie at anchor and sail away again; and if the island happened to be inhabited, and by people who don't want us, why, then, the sooner we nipped ashore and prospected, the better, for the spot where I sighted the smoke must lie a good five miles from here as the crow flies, and by the shape of the hills and the amount of scrub between 'em, those five miles must be equal to fifteen. But why (say you) did I take Mr. Rogers? I took Mr. Rogers, after consulting with Miss Belcher—"
"Does she know there are people on the island?"
"She does. I took Mr. Rogers because, if danger there be, it seemed likelier we should find it ashore than on board the schooner; and because, as the shortest way to make sure if these strangers were after our treasure, we had agreed to make straight for the clump of trees described on the back of the chart and examine whether the ground thereabouts had been visited lately or disturbed; and, further, because our search might require more strength and agility than I alone, with my lame leg, could command. I felt pretty easy about the schooner. She can only be attacked by boat, and I searched the coast pretty narrowly on our way down without sighting one. If these men possess a boat, she probably lies somewhere on the eastern side, not far from their camp fire. If she lies nearer, it must be somewhere under the cliffs to the south, in which case her owners would have a long journey to reach her, and that journey must take them around the head of the creek here. But (say you) there may be two parties on the island—one by the camp fire northward, and another under the south shore. I'll grant this, though I think it unlikely; but, even so, to attack the schooner they must bring their boat up the whole length of the entrance, where our people would have her in view for at least two miles. This would give ample time for a signal to recall us, and on the chance of it I left Goodfellow in charge of two rockets with instructions to touch them off on a hint of danger."