"Oh, oh!" said I. "So Mr. Goodfellow, too, knew of this? And Plinny, I suppose? And, in fact, you told every one but me?"
"No, sir," said Captain Branscome, gravely; "I did not trouble Miss Plinlimmon with these perhaps unnecessary fears. To a lady of her sensitive nature—"
"Oh, well, sir," I interrupted and, turning aside pettishly, began to haul my cockboat down to the water, "since you choose to treat me like a baby of six, I suppose it's no wonder you take Plinny for a timorous old fool."
"Sir!" exploded Captain Branscome, and glancing back over my shoulder I saw him leaning on his stick and fairly trembling with wrath. "This disrespectful language! And of a lady for whom—for whom—"
"Disrespect?"—I whistled. "Is it worse to speak disrespect or to act it? I have known Plinny for years—you for a month or two; and one of these days, if this expedition gets into a mess—as it likely will with such handling—that sensitive lady will make you see stars."
I knew, while I uttered it, that my speech was abominably ill-conditioned; that Captain Branscome had, in fact, been holding out the olive-branch, and that in common decency I ought to have caught at it. In short, I felt my boyish temper going from bad to worse, and yet, somehow, that I could not apply the brake to it.
"Why, confound the boy!" ejaculated Mr. Rogers. "What ever bee has stung him?" And gripping me by the shoulder as I heaved at the boat, he swung me round to face him. "Look here, young Harry Brooks! Do you happen to be sickening for something, that you talk like a gutter-snipe to a gentleman old enough to be your grandfather? Or, damme, have you and Goodfellow been coming to blows? By the nose of you and the state of your shirt a man would say you've come from a street fight; and by your talk, that your head was knocked silly."
"It's all very well, Mr. Rogers," said I, sulkily, "and I know I oughtn't to have spoken like that, but I hate to be tyrannized over. That's why I didn't take your warning first along and pull back to the ship—though I thank you for it all the same."
"Eh?" said Mr. Rogers. "My warning? What in thunder is the boy talking about?"
"When you saw me sculling for shore, here, about an hour ago," I explained, "you pretended not to see me, and went after Captain Branscome; but I saw you, fast enough, standing on the bank yonder, under the trees."
"For a certainty the child is mad!" Mr. Rogers stared at me round-eyed. "I saw you? I pretended not to? Why, man alive, from the time we left the ship I never set eyes on you (how should I?), nor ever guessed you were ashore till we came back and found your boat beside the dinghy. And as for standing under those trees, I was never on the bank there for one second—no, nor for the half of one. The Captain and I walked around the spit together—the tide has covered our footmarks or I could show 'em to you."
"At any rate there was a man," I persisted. "And he couldn't have been the Captain either, for he was wearing dark clothes—"
"The devil! I say, Branscome, listen to this—"
"I am listening," answered the Captain, gravely, taking, as he stepped forward, a long look at the bank above us and at the dense forest to right and left. "Did you see the man's face, Harry?"
"No, sir, or I should not have mistaken him for Mr. Rogers. He was standing there, under the boughs, and seemed to be looking through them and watching me. I was sculling the boat along with a paddle slipped in the stern notch, and he let me come pretty close—I couldn't have been two hundred yards away—when he slipped to the back of the trees, and I lost him."
"You didn't see him again?"
"No, sir; I didn't land just at once. I had a mind at first to put about and row to the schooner, thinking that Mr. Rogers had meant it for a hint. When I brought the boat ashore, five minutes later, he was gone."
"Which way did you take, then?"
"I went straight after you, sir, up the waterfalls; but couldn't find any trace of you except at one spot just beside a waterfall—the fourth, it was—where some one had slipped a foot—"
"Mr. Rogers," the Captain interrupted, "we had best get back to the Espriella with all speed. I may tell you, Harry, that we never went up by the waterfalls at all. It was a climb, and my half-pay leg didn't like the look of it. But, jump into your boat, boy, and pull ahead of us. You and I must do a little serious talking later on."
We pulled back briskly for the Espriella and reached her just as she began to swing with the turn of the tide. As we drew close—the cockboat leading—I glanced over my shoulder and spied Plinny leaning against the bulwarks by the starboard quarter, in the attitude of one gently enjoying the sunset scene; but at the sight of my torn shirt all her composure left her, and she came running to the accommodation ladder, where she met me with a string of agitated questions.
"Excuse me, ma'am," said Captain Branscome, as the dinghy fell alongside and he climbed on deck. "I have no wish to alarm you, and, indeed, there may be no cause at all for alarm. But Harry has brought us some serious news. He reports that there is a man—a stranger—on the Island."
"How could Harry have known?" was Plinny's unexpected response.
"He is confident that he saw a man, somewhat more than an hour since, standing at the head of the creek."
"Now, that is very curious," said Plinny; "for the gentleman told me he had borrowed Harry's boat without being observed."
"I—I beg your pardon, ma'am!" Captain Branscome stared about him. "A gentleman, did you say?"
"Yes, and such distinguished manners! He left a message for you—and, dear me, you should have heard how he praised my coffee!"
THE MASTER OF THE ISLAND.
But here, as Captain Branscome leaned back and caught feebly at the main rigging for support, there appeared above the after companion (like a cognisance above an escutcheon) a bent fore-arm, the hand grasping a beaver hat. It was presently followed by the head of Miss Belcher, who nodded cheerfully, blinking a little in the level light of the sunset.
"Hallo!" said she, addressing Plinny, while she adjusted the hat upon her brow. "Have you been telling the Captain about our visitor?"
"Miss Plinlimmon, ma'am, has given me a shock, and I won't deny it," answered the Captain, recovering himself.
Miss Belcher continued to nod like a china mandarin.
"I don't wonder," she agreed. "For my part, you might have knocked me down with a feather. The fellow came down the creek, cool as you please, and pulling a nice easy stroke, in Harry's cockboat. Where is Harry, by the way?"—her eyes lit and fastened upon me— "Good Lord! what have you been doing to the child?"
"Nothing, ma'am. He has been exploring, and lost his way; that's all."
"H'm! he seems to have lost it pretty badly. Well, he deserved it. But, as I was saying, along comes my gentleman, pulling with just the easy jerk which is the way to make a boat of that sort travel. Goodfellow was keeping watch. They say that a sailor will recognize a boat half a mile further off than he'll recognize the man in it, but Goodfellow isn't a sailor, so that explanation won't fit. We'll say that he was prepared for the boat returning, but not to find an entire stranger pulling her. At all events, he let her come within a couple of gunshots before calling down to the cabin and giving the alarm. I had my legs up on a locker, and was taking a siesta over a book—'Parkinson On The Dog'—and, by the way, we were a set of fools not to bring a dog; but I ran up the companion in a jiffy, and had the sense to catch up your spyglass as I went. Goodfellow by this time had begun to dance about the deck in a flutter. He had the tinder-box in his hand, and wanted to know if he should touch off a rocket. I ordered him to drop it, and fetch me a musket, which he did. By this time I could see that the man in the boat was unarmed, so I put up the musket at the 'present,' got the sight on him, and called out to know his business.
"The man jerked the cockboat round with her stern to the schooner— these boats come right-about with a single twist—and says he, very politely lifting his hat, 'You'll pardon me, ma'am, but (as you see) I have borrowed your young friend's boat. My own was not handy, and this seemed the quickest way to pay my respects.' 'Indeed?' said I, 'and who may you be?' 'My name, ma'am,' said he, 'is Beauregard—Dr. Beauregard.' 'I never heard of you,' said I. 'That, ma'am, is entirely my misfortune,' said he, lifting his hat again; 'but allow me to say that I am the proprietor of this island, and very much at your service.'
"Well, this was a facer. It never occurred to any of us—eh?—that this island might have an owner. To tell the truth, I'm a stickler for the rights of property, at home; but somehow the notion of an island like this belonging to any one had never entered my head. Yet the thing is reasonable enough when you come to think it over; and, of course, I saw that it put an entirely different complexion upon our business here."
"My dear Lydia," put in Mr. Rogers, impatiently, "the man's claim must be absurd. Why, the island is right in the tropics!"
"You wouldn't have thought it a bit absurd if you had heard him," retorted Miss Belcher. "He appeared to be quite sure of his ground. Very pleasant about it, too, he was; said that few visitors ever honoured his out-of-the way home, but that as soon as any arrived he always made it a matter of—of punctilio (yes, that was the word) to put off and bid them welcome. He spoke with the slightest possible foreign accent, but used admirable English: and, I don't know why," wound up Miss Belcher, ingenuously, "but he seemed to divine from the first that I was an Englishwoman."
"And it wasn't as if we had come here flaunting British colours," added Plinny.
"But what sort of man was he?" asked the Captain.
"Height, six foot two or three in his stockings; age, about sixty; face, clean shaven and fleshy; the features extraordinarily powerful; hair, jet black, and dyed (if at all) by a process that would make his fortune if he sold the secret; clothes, black alpaca and well cut, with silk stockings that would be cheap at two guineas, and shoes with gold buckles on 'em. I couldn't take my eyes off—no display about 'em—and yet I doubt if King Louis of France over wore the like before they cut his head off. Complexion, pale for this climate, with a sort of silvery shine about it. Manner charming, voice charming, bearing fit for a grand seigneur; and that's what he is, or something like it, unless, as I rather incline to suspect, he's the biggest scoundrel unhung."
"Oh, Miss Belcher!" protested Plinny. "When you agreed with me that he might have sat for a portrait of a gentleman of the old school!"
"Tut, my dear! When I saw that you had lost your heart to him as soon as he set foot on deck! Did I say 'of the old school'? Yes, indeed, and of the very oldest; and, in fact, quite possibly the Old Gentleman himself."
Now, either I had spoiled Captain Branscome's temper for the day, or something in this speech of Miss Belcher's especially rasped it.
"But who is this man?" he demanded, in a sharp, authoritative voice.
Miss Belcher stepped back half a pace. I saw her chin go up, and it seemed to grow square as she answered him with a dangerous coldness.
"I beg your pardon. I thought I told you that he gave his name as Dr. Beauregard."
"You had no business, ma'am, to allow him on board the ship."
"No business, ma'am. I have just been having words with young Harry, here, over his disobedience this afternoon; but this is infinitely more serious. We are here to search for treasure. We no sooner drop anchor than a man visits us, who claims that the island is his. This at once presupposes his claim upon any treasure that may be hidden upon it, and consequently that, as soon as he discovers our purpose, he will be our enemy. It follows, I should imagine, that of all steps the most fatal was to admit him on board to discover our weakness."
"Our weakness, sir?" asked Miss Belcher, carelessly, as though but half attending.
"Our weakness, ma'am; as it was doubtless to discover our weakness that he came."
"Now, I rather thought," murmured Miss Belcher, "that Miss Plinlimmon and I had spent a great part of this afternoon in impressing him with our strength."
"To be sure," pursued Captain Branscome, "with such a company as he found on board, he can scarcely have suspected a treasure hunt. Still, when he does suspect it—as sooner or later he must—he will know our weakness."
"He could scarcely have dealt with us more frankly than he did, at any rate," said Miss Belcher, with an air of simplicity; "for he assured us he was alone on the island."
"And you believed him, ma'am?"
"I forget, sir, if I believed him; but he certainly knows that we are here in search of treasure, for I told him so myself."
Captain Branscome gasped. "You—you told him so?" he echoed.
"I did, and he replied that it scarcely surprised him to hear it, that of the few vessels which found their way to Mortallone, quite an appreciable proportion came with some idea of discovering treasure. The proportion, he added, had fallen off of late years, and the most of them nowadays put in to water, but there was a time when the treasure-seekers threatened to become a positive nuisance. He said this with a smile which disarmed all suspicion. In fact, it was impossible to take offence with the man."
But at this point Plinny, frightened perhaps at the warnings of apoplexy in Captain Branscome's face, laid a hand gently on Miss Belcher's arm.
"Are we treating our good friend quite fairly?" she asked.
Miss Belcher glanced at her and broke into a ringing laugh.
"You dear creature! No, to be sure, we are not; but from a child I always turned mischievous under correction. Captain Branscome, I beg your pardon."
"It is granted, ma'am."
"And—for I take you to be on the point of resigning, here and now—"
"Ma'am, you have guessed correctly."
"I am going to beg you to do nothing of the sort. No, I am not going to ask it only as a favour, but to appeal to your reason. You think it extremely rash of me to have entertained this man and talked with him so frankly? Well, but consider. To begin with, if I had not told him that we were after the treasure, he would probably have guessed it; nay, I make bold to say that he guessed it already, for—I forgot to mention it—he knows Harry Brooks."
"Knows me, ma'am?" I cried out, as all the company turned and stared at me.
"He says so, and that he recognized you as you were sculling up the creek."
"Knows me?" I echoed. "But who on earth can he be, then? Not—not the man Aaron Glass, surely?"
"I was wondering," said Miss Belcher.
"But—but Aaron Glass wasn't a bit like this man, as you make him out; a thin, foxy-looking fellow, with sandy hair and a face full of wrinkles, about the middling height, with sloping shoulders—"
"Then he can't be Aaron Glass. But whoever he is, he knows you— that's the important point—and pretty certainly connects you with the treasure. He didn't seem to have met Goodfellow before. Well, now, if he lives alone here—which, I admit, is not likely—we ought to be more than a match for him. If, on the other hand, he has men at his call—and I ask your particular attention here, Captain— it was surely no folly at all, but the plainest common sense, to admit him on board. He will go off and report that our ship's company consists of two middle-aged maiden ladies (I occupied myself with tatting a chair-cover while he conversed); a boy; Mr. Goodfellow (whatever he may have made of Goodfellow); and two gentlemen ashore to whose mental and physical powers I was careful to do some injustice. You will pardon me, Captain, but I laid more than warrantable stress on your lameness; and us for you, Jack, I depicted you as a mere country booby"—here Mr. Rogers bowed amiably—"and added by way of confirmation that I had known you from childhood. He will go back and report all this, with the certain consequence that he and his confederates will mistake us for a crew of crack-brained eccentrics."
When she had done, the Captain stood considering for a moment, rubbing his chin.
"Yes," he admitted slowly, "there seems reason in that, ma'am; reason and method. But 'tis a kind of reason and method outside all my experience, and you must excuse me if I get the grip of it slowly. I should like a good look at the man before saying more."
"As to that," answered Miss Belcher, "you won't have long to wait for it. He has invited us all ashore to-morrow, for a picnic. He charged me to say—if he did not happen to run against you as he was returning the cockboat—that he would be at the creek-head punctually at nine-thirty to await us."
Two hours later Captain Branscome sent word for me to attend him in his cabin.
"I want to tell you, Harry Brooks," said the old man, turning away from me while he lit his pipe, "that I have been thinking over what happened this afternoon."
"I was in the wrong, sir."
"You were; and I am glad to hear you acknowledge it. Now, what I want to say is this. Had affairs gone in the least as I expected, I should have held you to 'strict service,' as we used to say on the old packets. I never tolerated a favourite on board, and never shall. But these ladies don't make a favourite of you; that's not the trouble. The trouble—no, I won't call it even that—is that you and they all cannot help taking the bit between your teeth. It don't appear to be your fault; you wasn't bred to the sea, and can't tumble to sea-fashions. 'So much the worse,' a man might say. The plague of it is, I can't be sure; and after casting it up and down, I've determined to let you have your way."
"You don't mean, sir, that you're going to resign!" said I, confounded.
"No, I don't. Saving your objections, boy, I was elected captain, and it don't do away with my responsibility that I choose to let discipline go to the winds. If mischief comes I shall be to blame, because I might have stopped it but didn't."
I was silent. This should have been the time for me to tell what I had discovered that afternoon; of the graveyard and the two strange women. But shame tied my tongue. I saw that this noble gentleman, in imparting his thoughts to me, was really condescending to ask my pardon; and the injustice of it was so monstrous that I felt a delicacy in letting him know the extent of my unworthiness. I temporized, and promised myself a better occasion.
"But are you quite sure, sir, that yours was not the wisest plan, after all?"
"The question is not worth considering," he answered. "My policy— you would hardly call it a plan, for it wholly depended on circumstances—no longer exists. The ladies, you see, have forced my hand."
I forbore to tell him that if the ladies had forced his hand his accepting full responsibility was simply quixotic.
"She's a wonderful woman," said I, by way of filling up the pause.
"And so womanly!" assented Captain Branscome, to my entire surprise.
"Indeed, sir," I stammered. "Well, I have heard people say—Mr. Rogers for one—that Miss Belcher ought to have been born a man."
"Miss Belcher? Why, heavens alive, boy, I was referring to Miss Plinlimmon!"
He dismissed me with a wave of the hand, but called me back as I turned to the door.
"Oh, by the way," said he, "I had almost forgotten the reason why I sent for you. This man—have you any notion who he can be?"
"You've thought over every possible person of your acquaintance? Well"—as I nodded—"we shall know to-morrow morning, if he keeps his word. Mr. Rogers has kindly undertaken to stay and look after the schooner. He has a sense of discipline, by the way, has Mr. Rogers."
"If you wish me, sir, to stay with him-"
"Thank you," he interrupted dryly, "but we shall need you ashore; in the first place to indentify this mysterious stranger, and also to help protect the ladies. Their escort, Heaven knows, is not excessive. We take the gig, and if the man fails to appear, or brings even so much as one companion, I give the word to return."
But these apprehensions proved to be groundless. As we rowed around the bend next morning into view of the creek-head the man stood there alone, awaiting us. He saw us at once, and lifted his hat in welcome.
"Do you know him, Harry?" asked Miss Belcher.
"No," said I, pretty confidently, and then—"But, yes—in the garden, that evening—the day you went up to Plymouth for the sale!"
"Eh? The garden at Minden Cottage? What on earth was he doing there?"
"Nothing, ma'am—at least, I don't know. He seemed to be taking measurements, and he gave me a guinea. I rather think, ma'am, he was the man that attended the auction."
"You never saw him until that evening?"
"Only that once, ma'am."
"Oh!" said Miss Belcher.
A BOAT ON THE BEACH.
As we drew to shore the stranger stepped down the beach and lifted his hat again.
"Welcome, ladies; and let me thank you and all your party for this confidence. The boy here—bless my soul, how he has grown in these few months!—the boy and I have had the pleasure of meeting before. Eh, Harry Brooks? You remember me? To the Captain I must introduce myself. Shake hands, Captain Branscome. I am proud to make your acquaintance. . . . But what is the meaning of these baskets? You have brought your own provisions? Come, Miss Belcher, that is unkind of you, when we agreed—yes, surely we agreed?—that you were to be my guests."
"We were not sure, sir—" began Miss Belcher.
"That I should keep my word? Worse and worse! Or possibly you distrusted the entertainment of a solitary bachelor on a desert island? But I must prove that you did me an injustice." He pointed to a goodly hamper on the beach and to a frail or carpenter's basket from which half a dozen bottles protruded their necks, topped with red and green seals. "As proprietor of Mortallone—you will forgive my laying stress on it—I may surely claim the right to do the honours. Stay a moment, my good man," he added, as Mr. Goodfellow made a motion to lift out our own hamper. "Miss Plinlimmon, I believe, is an admirer of natural scenery, and, if the ladies will step ashore for a few minutes, there is a waterfall above which may reward her inspection; not by any means, ma'am, the grandest our island can show, yet charming in its way and distant but a short five minutes' walk. Captain Branscome will bear me out, and Harry, too— yes, Harry, too, if I mistake not, visited it yesterday."
He put out a hand to assist the ladies to disembark, at the same time hitching back the gun on his bandolier.
"You will excuse my having brought a musket. You have brought your own, I see. Quite right. I carry it habitually; for, to tell you the truth, the island contains a few wild boars who dispute possession with me. A very few—we are not likely to meet with one, so the ladies may reassure themselves! But, as I was about to say, with the Captain's permission we will not unload here. Rather, after visiting the waterfall, I would suggest that we row round to the eastern side, where, if I may guide you, you will find choice of a dozen delightful spots for a picnic. In this way, too, we shall cover more ground and get a more general view of the beauties of the island, which, as I dare say my friend Harry discovered yesterday, is somewhat too thickly overgrown for easy travelling."
The man's manner—at once frank, chatty, and easily polite— completely disconcerted me, and I could see it disconcerted the Captain. It seemed to reduce the whole expedition to an ordinary picnic; and (more astonishing yet) the ladies accepted it for that. They fell in, one on each side of him, as he led the way to the waterfall, and for a climax Miss Belcher shook out a parasol which she had been carrying under her arm and spread it above her beaver hat!
At the waterfall our host surpassed himself. The landscape hereabouts (he declared) always reminded him of Nicholas Poussin. He would like Miss Plinlimmon's opinion on the rock-drawing of Salvator Rosa, a painter whom he gently depreciated. Had Miss Plinlimmon ever visited the Apennines? He plucked a few of the ferns growing in the spray and discoursed on them, comparing them with the common European polypody. He turned to music, and challenged his fair visitors to guess the note made by the falling water: it hummed on E natural, rising now and then by something less than a semitone.
With all this it was not easy to suspect him of acting, as it was next to impossible to mistake him for a trifler. His tall figure, his carriage, the fine pose of his head, his resonant manly voice, all forbade it, no less than did the wild scenery to which he drew our attention with an easy proprietary wave of the hand. I observed that Captain Branscome listened to him with a puzzled frown.
The waterfall having been duly admired, we retraced our steps to the shore. The gig carried a small mast and lugsail, and, the faint wind blowing fair down the creek, the Captain suggested our hoisting them. I think it annoyed him to find himself appealing to Dr. Beauregard.
"By all means," said the Doctor, affably. "It will save labour till we reach open water, when I will ask you to lower them. We had best use the paddles after rounding the point to eastward, and keep close inshore. I have my reasons for recommending this—reasons which I shall be happy to explain to you, sir, at the proper time." Here he bowed to Captain Branscome.
Accordingly we hoisted sail, and in a few minutes opened the view of the lower reach, with the Espriella swinging softly at her cables, her masts reflected on the scarcely rippled water. Miss Belcher broke into a laugh at sight of Mr. Rogers wistfully eyeing us from the deck. Dr. Beauregard echoed it, just audibly.
"Well, well, ma'am; it is hard upon Mr.—Rogers, did you tell me? But we must not blame the Captain for taking precautions. A very neat craft, Captain, and Jamaica-built, by the look of her."
"We picked her up at Savannah-la-Mar," announced Miss Belcher.
"After burning your boats, madam? Pardon me, but I find your frankness as admirable as it is unexpected. Moreover, though Captain Branscome deprecates it, no policy could be wiser."
"I see no reason, sir, for being less than candid with you," said Miss Belcher. "You know whence we come end you know why we are here. How we came is a trifling matter in comparison."
"Believe me, ma'am, your frankness is all in your favour. I may repeat what I told you yesterday, that several expeditions have come to this island seeking treasure; crews of merely avaricious men, mad with greed, whom I have made it my business to baffle. You, on the contrary, may almost count on my help; though whether the treasure will do you much good when you have found it is another question altogether. But we are not treasure-seeking just now, and I shall grudge even the pleasure of talking if it steal your admiration from my island."
The shore by which we steered was, indeed, entrancing, and grew yet more entrancing as we rounded Cape Fea and, downing sail, headed the gig for the north-east, pulling almost in the shadow of the cliffs; for the sea lay calm as a pond, and broke in feeblest ripples even on the beaches recessed here and there in the chasms. We passed Try-again Inlet, and our wonder grew; for the cliffs now were mere cliffs no longer but the bases of a range of mountains, broken into rock slides with matted vines like curtains overhanging their scars; and in the water, ten fathoms deep below us, we could watch the coloured fishes at play.
Mr. Goodfellow and I were at the oars; and we had been pulling, as I judged, for something over an hour, but easily, for the tide could hardly be felt, when Dr. Beauregard, who had taken the tiller, steered us in towards a beach which he announced to be the, perhaps, very choicest in the island for a picnic.
Certainly it was a fairy-like spot, with white sand underfoot, green creepers overhanging, and through the creepers a rill of water splashing down the cliff; yet we had passed at least a dozen other beaches, which to me had looked no less inviting.
"We will leave the ladies to unpack the hampers," said Dr. Beauregard. "I speak as a bachelor, but in my experience there is a half-hour before lunch in which that man is best appreciated who makes himself scarce. Captain Branscome, if you will not mind a short scramble over the rocks here, to the left, I can promise you something worth seeing."
He led the way at once, and we followed, the Captain (who appeared to have lost his temper again) growling that he took no stock in views. But the distance was not far. We scrambled over two low ledges of rock and found ourselves looking down upon a beach even prettier and more fairy-like than the one we had left—and upon something more—a ship's boat, drawn about thirty feet above high-water, and resting there on her side.
"Yours?" asked Captain Branscome, after a long stare at her.
"Certainly not," answered Dr. Beauregard. "And that is why I brought you here."
THE SCREAM ON THE CLIFF.
"A boat?" said Captain Branscome, staring again, and slowly rubbing the back of his head.
He took a step forward, to descend to the beach and examine her, but Dr. Beauregard laid a hand on his arm.
"Not so fast, my friend! Qui dit canot dit canotier—a glance will assure you that she did not beach herself in that position, above high-water mark, still less furl her own sail and stow it. Further, if you study the country behind us, you will see that, while we came unobserved and stand at this moment in excellent cover, by crossing the beach we expose ourselves to observation and the risk of a bullet."
"I take it, sir," answered Captain Branscome, still puzzled, "you knew this boat to be here, and have brought us with some purpose."
"I knew it, to be sure, and my purpose is simple. We cannot have a rival party of treasure-seekers on the island. We have ladies in our charge—gentle, well-bred ladies—and of the crew of that boat, one man, to my knowledge, is a pretty desperate ruffian. The other two—"
"You have seen them, then?"
Dr. Beauregard lifted his shoulders slightly, and took snuff.
"My good friend," he answered, "as lord proprietor of Mortallone, I pay attention to all my visitors. Well, as I was saying, to cross the beach just now would be venturesome and foolish to boot, seeing that we hold all the cards and have only to wait."
"What of the ladies?" asked the Captain.
"We can return at once and join them at luncheon. But the ladies, as you remind me, complicate the affair. Before you arrived, I had laid my plans to let these rascals have the run of the island and amuse me by their activities. I had, in fact, prepared a little deception for them—oh, a very innocent little trick! I don't know, my dear sir, if it has struck you how much simpler our amusements tend to become as we grow older. I had promised myself to watch them, lying perdu, and in the end to dismiss them with a quiet chuckle. You have read your Tempest, Captain Branscome? Well, I have no obedient Ariel to play will-o'-the-wisp with such gentry; yet I would have led them a very pretty dance. But the ladies—the ladies, to be sure! We cannot expose them to dangers, nor even to alarms. We must use more summary methods." He stood for a moment or two reflective, tapping his snuff-box. "Mr. Goodfellow is a carpenter, I understand."
"At your service, sir."
Mr. Goodfellow's hand went halfway to his waistcoat pocket, as if to produce his business card.
"I seem to remember, Mr. Goodfellow that you carry a bag of tools in the boat?"
"Including, no doubt, an auger, or, at any rate, a fair-sized gimlet?"
"You will greatly oblige me, then, Mr. Goodfellow—always with Captain Branscome's leave—by returning to the boat and fetching your auger; if possible, without attracting the ladies' observation. With this instead of returning direct to us, you will make your way to the left, towards the head of the beach, keeping well under the rocks, which will serve you from landward. At the head of the beach you will bring us into sight a pace or two before you come abreast of the boat. There, at a signal from me, you will creep down to the boat—on hands and knees, or on your stomach if you will—and bore me three small holes close alongside her keelson, using as much expedition as may consist with neatness. You understand? Then the quicker you set about it, the less will be the risk."
Mr. Goodfellow touched his forelock, and sped on his errand. Dr. Beauregard seated himself on the rocks, and loosing the gun from his bandolier, laid it across his knees.
"A simple job," he remarked. "Any one of us could do it as well as Goodfellow. But it is a practice of mine to take the smallest risks into account; and if the honest fellow should be detected, why, I imagine he can be the most easily spared of the party."
Mr. Goodfellow, however, reached the boat without misadventure.
"Ah, he displays intelligence!" commented Dr. Beauregard, watching him as, before setting to work, he lifted the boat's gunwale and heaved her over on her other side, exposing the bilgepiece on which she had been resting. "Yes, decidedly, he displays intelligence."
Mr. Goodfellow having stripped off his coat, picked up his auger and bored his three holes very neatly. This done be rubbed them over with a handful of sand, and smoothed over with sand all traces of sawdust, heaved the boat back, so that she rested again in her original position; and retired, sweeping his coat behind him, and obliterating his footprints as he went.
"Couldn't be bettered!" said Dr. Beauregard, smiling cheerfully and smoothing his gun-barrel. "And now I think we may rejoin the ladies and pray that these rascals will put off disturbing us until after luncheon. At one time I feared they might have taken a panic yesterday morning at sight of your schooner; but they calculated, maybe, that the chances were all against your discovering their presence, which, of course, you never suspected."
"I suspected something fast enough," said Captain Branscome, "for in running along the coast I caught sight of smoke rising among the hills—from a camp-fire, as I reckoned—and no doubt from here or hereabouts, though I should have put it a mile or two farther south."
"The born fools!" said Dr. Beau-regard, laughing. "Well, it's even possible that in their furious preoccupation they let the schooner come close without spying her. Ah, Captain, you can hardly imagine— you, fresh from a civilized country, where folks must keep up appearances, while they prey upon one another—how this lust of gold brutalizes a man when, as here, he pursues it without restraint. And what, after all, will gold purchase?"
"Not happiness, I verily believe," said the Captain, "though to the poor—and I speak as one who has been bitterly poor—it may bring happiness for a while in the shape of relief from grinding discomfort."
"Yes, yes; as pleasure lies in mere cessation from pain. But that does not meet my question. We will take Master Harry here, who seems a good, ordinary healthy boy. We will suppose him in possession of the treasure you are here to seek. What in the end can he purchase with it better than the fun he is getting out of this expedition? He can indulge all his senses, but for a while only; in the end indulgence brings satiety, dulls the appetite, takes the savour from the feast, and so destroys itself. He can purchase power, you say? But that again moves one difficulty but a step further. For what will his power give him when he has won it? These are questions, Captain, which I have asked myself daily here on this island. I have been asking them ever since, and while I was yet a young man they came to wear for me a personal application. 'Vanity of vanities,' Captain—what the Preacher discovered long ago I discovered again and of my own experience."
"The Christian religion, sir—" began Captain Branscome. But here our strange host laid a hand on his arm.
"We forget our politeness," he interrupted, yet gently, and without suspicion of offence. "We keep the ladies waiting."
"Captain Branscome and I," said our host, as he seated himself beside Miss Belcher, and uncorked one of the green-sealed bottles, "have been talking platitudes, to which, however, our present business lends a certain fresh interest. You are here, many thousands of miles from home, on a hunt for treasure. Now, Heaven forbid that I should criticise your intentions, seeing that incidentally I am in debt to them for this delightful picnic; but before I help you—as, believe me, I am disposed to help—may I ask what you propose to do with this wealth when you get it?"
"Why, sir," answered Miss Belcher, candidly, "we discussed that, you may be sure, before starting. The bulk of it, after paying expenses, was to go to young Brooks, here. Circumstances had given him, as we supposed—and for the matter of that, as we still believe—the clue to the treasure—"
"Pardon me, ma'am, for interrupting you; but did that clue take the form of a map of the island?"
"It did, sir."
"A map with three red crosses upon it and some writing on the back? Nay, I will not press the question. Your faces answer it."
"I ought to tell you, Dr. Beauregard, in justice to the boy, that he came by it honestly, though in very tragic circumstances."
"Again, ma'am, your faces would answer for the honesty of your business. As for the circumstances you speak of, it may save time if I tell you that I know the whole story. Why, truly," he went on, as we stared, "there is no mystery about it. I dare say, ma'am, the boy has found an opportunity to whisper to you that he and I have met before. It was at Minden Cottage, in his father's garden, and by the very spot where his father was murdered. He found me there taking measurements; for I had a theory about the crime—a theory of which I need only say here that, though right in the main, it missed certain details of which Harry's engaging conversation put me on the scent. I had read of the murder quite accidentally; but it happened that I knew something of Coffin—enough to explain his fate—and of the man who had murdered him. But of Major Brooks I knew nothing; and what I gathered by inquiry made the whole affair more and more puzzling. At length I hit on the explanation that Coffin—who had reasons, and strong ones, for going in deadly terror of Aaron Glass—had in some way chosen this Major Brooks for his confessor, and journeyed to Minden Cottage to deposit the secret with him; and that Glass, following in pursuit, had surprised and murdered the both of them. The exact catena of the two crimes mattered less to me than the question: Had Glass possessed himself of the secret before making off? At first I saw no room to doubt it. But your young friend's account of himself sent me to Falmouth, and at Falmouth I began to have my doubts. My earliest inquiries there were addressed to the pedagogue—the Reverend Something-or-other Stimcoe—a drunken idiot, who yielded no information at all; and to his wife, a lady who persisted in regarding me as sent from heaven for no other purpose than to discharge her small debts. From her, again, I learned nothing. But from a talk with one of her pupils—his name was Bates, if I remember—I discovered that Master Harry had been a particular crony of Coffin's, and this, of course, threw light on Coffin's visit to Minden Cottage. Still, there remained the question: Had Glass managed to lay hands on the chart, or had it found its way, after all, into the possession of Master Harry Brooks? You'll excuse me, young sir"—Dr. Beauregard turned to me—"but during our talk in the garden, your manner suggested to me that you had a card up your sleeve. Well, whatever the answer, my obvious course was to return to Mortallone and await it, as for fifteen years already I have been awaiting it, though question and answer were but now beginning to take definite form. Here you are then at last, and here am I— tout vient a point a qui sait attendre."
"Then our arrival, sir, did not altogether surprise you?" said Miss Belcher.
"On the contrary, ma'am—though for reasons you will not easily guess—it surprised me as I have never been surprised in all my life before; it confounded me, dumfounded me, made chaos of my plans, and—and—I am delighted to welcome you, ma'am! I desire to be allowed the honour of taking wine with you."
"Willingly!" assented Miss Belcher, holding out her glass to be replenished; "and the more so because I never drank better Rhone wine in my life."
Dr. Beauregard stood up and bowed, his fine features overspread with a flush of pleased astonishment.
"Madam—" began Dr. Beauregard, and I have no doubt he had a compliment on his lips. But at that moment the hills and the amphitheatre of cliff behind us, rang out—rang out and echoed—with two terrible screams.
The second scream followed the first almost before we could lift our faces to the cliff. Dr. Beauregard had risen to his feet quickly, without fuss, and was unstrapping his gun. But Miss Belcher was quicker. A couple of muskets lay on the sand close beside the luncheon-cloth, and in a trice she had snatched up one of them, and held our host covered.
"You have deceived us, sir," she said quietly.
Dr. Beauregard looked along the barrel and into her eyes with an admiring, half-quizzical smile.
"Good," said he. "Good, but unnecessary. That the island is inhabited I supposed you to know, since Captain Branscome tells me he reported catching sight of smoke yesterday when off the western coast; but the fellows—there are, or were, three of them, by the way—are no friends of mine."
"We have only your word for it," said Miss Belcher, without lowering her musket.
"True, ma'am," the Doctor assented, with a bow. "I am about to give you proof. But first of all oblige me by listening for another moment."
He held up his hand, and while we all listened I looked around from face to face. Captain Branscome had unslipped his gun, and stood eyeing the Doctor with a puzzled frown. Plinny stared up at the cliffs. She was white to the lips, but the lips were firmly set; whereas Mr. Goodfellow's jaw hung as though loosed from its tacklings.
So we waited for twenty seconds, maybe; but no third scream came down from the heights.
"That makes one accounted for," said Dr. Beauregard. "I have known, first and last, eleven parties who hunted treasure on this island. They all quarrelled. They quarrelled, moreover, every one of them, before getting their stuff—such as it was—to the boats. Now, if you will permit me to say so, your own success—when you obtain it— will be a fluke and an absurd fluke. It will stultify every rule of precaution and violate every law of chance. I have studied this game for close upon twenty years, and reduced it almost to mathematics; and I foresee that you will play—nay, you have already played— ninepins with my most certain conclusions. But you have as gentlefolks, with all the disabilities of gentlefolks, the one thing that all these experts have fatally lacked. You have self-command."
"It appears to me that we need it, at any rate," said Miss Belcher, tartly, "if we are to be favoured just now with a lecture."
Dr. Beauregard smiled. "The purport of my lecture, ma'am, was to prepare you for a question which I have to put. When these men arrive, Captain Branscome, Mr. Goodfellow, and I must deal with them. Are you ladies prepared to exercise strong self-control? Will you, with Harry Brooks, await us here until our business is over?"
"Excuse me, sir, but I must first know what your business is."
"That, ma'am, will depend upon circumstances; but it is more than likely to be serious."
"I must trouble you, now and always, to speak to me definitely. If you propose to shoot these men, kindly say so."
"I do not, ma'am. But their boat lies on the next beach, and as soon as they launch her they will discover us; and as soon as they discover us it will be life for life."
"But they need not discover us. In five minutes we can embark ourselves and our belongings; in less than fifteen we can round the point to the south'ard, and beyond it lie two or three small coves where, as I judged in passing, a boat can lie reasonably safe from observation."
"Admirably reasoned, ma'am. By all means take the boat—take Harry Brooks with you, and Mr. Goodfellow for protection. But Captain Branscome and I must stay and see it out with these men."
"For my part," put in Plinny, "I cannot see why these men have not as much right as we to the treasure; and, in any case, if we let them go they leave us a clear coast to hunt for the rest."
"Captain Branscome"—Dr. Beauregard turned to him—"do these ladies, as a rule, assert a voice in your dispositions?"
"They do, sir," answered the Captain, with a tired smile; "and if you will take my advice, the only way with them is to make a clean breast of everything."
"I will." The Doctor faced about, with a smile. "You must know then, ladies, that these two ruffians—for by this time there are two only—will presently be coming down to the next beach to launch their boat and leave the island. How do I know this? Because my study of treasure-hunters has given me a kind of instinct; or because, if you prefer it, I have observed that the moment—the crucial moment—when these fellows quarrel is always the moment when, having laid hands on as much as they can carry, they turn to retreat. You doubt my diagnosis, ma'am?" he asked, turning to Miss Belcher. "Then I can convince you even more simply. These men are not camping here to-night; they will not return to-morrow to fetch a second load; and for the sufficient reason that there is no second load. I know the amount of treasure hidden where they have been searching. Two men can lift and carry it easily."
"How do you happen to know this?" asked Miss Belcher, eyeing him from under contracted brows.
"For the excellent reason, ma'am, that I put the treasure there myself."
The answer, staggering to the rest of us, seemed to brace her together. She had lowered her musket at the beginning of the discussion; but now, throwing up her head with a sharp jerk, she levelled her eyes on Dr. Beauregard's, as straight as though they looked along a gun-barrel.
"Then it can hardly be for the sake of the treasure, sir, that you propose to deal with these men."
"It is not, ma'am."
"Nor solely to protect us from them, since you have brought us here, where we need never have come."
"No, ma'am. I brought you here because I cannot be in two places at once, and it was necessary to keep both parties under my eye. Having brought you, I am bound to protect you; but my main business here, and yours—or at any rate Captain Branscome's—is to punish."
"To punish? But why to punish?"
Dr. Beauregard hesitated, with a glance at Plinny and at me, who stood beside her.
"A word in your ear, ma'am—if you will allow me?"
He stepped close to Miss Belcher, and spoke a sentence or two which I could not catch. But my eyes were on her face, and I saw it change colour. The next moment her square mouth shut like a trap.
"If that be so, I wait for him along with you," she announced. "Oh, you may trust me, sir! I have a fairly strong stomach with criminals, and no sentiment."
"It shall be as you please, ma'am. But, for the others, I would suggest their taking the boat and awaiting us around the point. See, the tide has risen, and within five minutes she will float. Mr. Goodfellow, will you accompany Miss Plinlimmon and the boy? Wait, please, until completely afloat before pushing off; for our friends must be near at hand by this time, and the grating of her keel might give them the alarm. For the same reason, ma'am, unless you have any particular question to ask, we had best start at once, and, when we have started, keep the strictest silence. Shall I lead the way?"
They set off very cautiously, the Doctor leading, Miss Belcher close at his heels. Captain Branscome a couple of paces behind her; gained the ridge, and passed out of sight around an angle of the rocks. Now, to be left in this fashion was not at all to my mind. It seemed to me that, when serious business was on hand, every one conspired to treat me as a baby. I had told Captain Branscome yesterday that I would not put up with it; and though I stood in far greater awe of Dr. Beauregard than of the Captain, I felt none the less mutinous now. Plinny, who in moments of agitation invariably had recourse to some familiar work for a sedative, was on her knees repacking the luncheon-baskets. Her back was turned to me, and from her I glanced towards Mr. Goodfellow, who had stepped down to the boat, and was leaning over the gunwale to rearrange the gear. From him I looked up the beach, to the ridge behind which the others had disappeared, and to the creepers overhanging the cliff. Suddenly it came into my head that by gaining the upper end of the ridge, where it met the cliff, I could wriggle under these creepers, and observe from behind them all that went on, as well on the next beach as on this. And with another glance at Plinny's back I tiptoed away.
I moved as swiftly as I dared, making no noise, nor looked behind me until I reached the rocks under the cliff—the path by which Mr. Goodfellow had crept round to scuttle the boat.
I calculated that by working my way along for fifty yards between them and the rock-face I should gain an opening which, observed from below, had seemed to promise me an excellent view of the next beach. But they hung so heavily that I found myself struggling in an almost impenetrable thicket; and when at length I gained the opening, and drew breath, above the splash of waves on the beach I heard a sound which caused me to huddle back like a rabbit surprised in the mouth of its burrow.
Some three yards from my hiding the bank of low cliff bounding the beach shelved upward and inland in a stretch of short turf, and from the head of this slope came the thud of footsteps—of heavy footsteps descending closer and closer.
I drew back under the creepers, and held my breath. Between their thick woven strands my eyes caught only, to the right, a twinkle of the sea; in front, a yard or two of white shingle glittering beyond the green shade; and, five seconds later, this patch was blotted out as two men plunged past my spyhole. They walked abreast, and carried a box between them. I could hear them panting, so closely they passed.
They halted on the edge of the bank.
"The boat's all right," said one; and I heard him jump down upon the shingle. It seemed to me that I knew his voice. "Here, pass down the blamed thing . . . d—n it all, man!"
"I can't!" whimpered the other. "S'help me, Bill, I can't. . . . I'm not used to it, and I ain't got the nerve."
"Nerve? An' you call yourself a seaman! An' a plucky lot you boasted the night we signed articles. . . . Nerve? Why, you was the very man to find fault with him. 'Couldn't stand his temper another day,' you said; and must do something desprit. Those were your very words."
"I know it. I didn't think—"
"Oh, to hell with your 'didn't think'! The man's dead, an' cryin' won't bring him back. Much you'd welcome him, if he did come back!"
"Now, look you here, Jim Lucky! Stand you up, and help me get this lot in the boat, and the boat to sea. After that you can lie quiet and cry yourself sick. . . . You'll be all right to-morrow, fit as a fiddle. I've been in this business before, and seen how it takes men, even the strongest. It's the sight o' blood; but the stomach gets accustomed. . . . By this day week you'll be lively as a flea in a rug, and lookin' forward to drivin' in your carriage-an'-pair. I promise you that; but what you've to do at this moment is to stand up, and help me get down the boat. For if he's anywhere on this island, God help the pair of us!"
"He!" quavered Jim Lucky.
"I shouldn't wonder."
"But you told me he was dead!"
"Did I? Well, perhaps I did. That was to keep your spirits up. But now I don't mind tellin' you that I'm not sure. He ought to be dead by this time; but 'tis a question if the likes of him ever die. He's own cousin to the devil, I tell you; and if he's anywhere alive, like as not he's watching us at this moment."
Whatever this meant, it appeared to rouse Jim Lucky, and start him in a panic. I heard him sob as he helped to lower their burden upon the beach. All this time they had been standing immediately beneath me, and I dared not lift my head for a look. But now, as they went staggering down the beach, I parted the creepers, and stared in their wake. They carried a heavy sea-chest between them, but my eyes were neither for the chest nor for Jim Lucky, but for his companion, the man he called Bill.
I knew him before I looked; and as I had recognized his voice, so now I recognized his narrow, foxy head, and sloping shoulders.
It was Aaron Glass.
The two men carried the chest along at a rate that perhaps came easily enough to Jim Lucky, who was a young giant of a seaman, but was astonishing for a thin, windlestraw of a man such as Glass. He ploughed his way across the sands like a demon, and had scarcely set down the chest, a little above the water's edge, before he was tugging at the boat. I heard him call to Lucky to help, and the pair heave-y-hoe'd together as they strained at the gunwale to lift her and run her down.
From this ridge, as yet, came no sign.
Presently from the boat—they had pulled her down to the water, and were both stooping over her with their shoulders well inside, busy in arranging her bottom board—I heard a fearful oath; an oath that rose in a scream, as the two men faced each other, scared, incredulous.
"Scuttled, by God!"
It was Glass who screamed it out, and with the sound of it a host of sea-birds rose from the neighbouring rocks, whitening the sky. But Jim Lucky cast up both hands and ran.
"Stop, you fool! Stop!"
I think the poor creature had no notion whither he ran; that he was merely demented. But, in fact, he headed straight for the ridge, not turning his head. Twice Glass called after him; then, in a sudden fury, whipped out a pistol and fired. For the moment I supposed that he had missed, for the man ran for another six strides without seeming to falter, then his knees weakened, and he pitched forward on his face.
I believe, on my word, that Glass had either fired in blind passion or with intent to stop the man rather than to kill him. He stood and stared; and, while the pistol yet smoked in his hand, I saw Dr. Beauregard step forth from his shelter, step delicately past the corpse, and raise his musket; and heard his clear, resonant voice call out—
"Both hands up, Mr. Glass, if you please!"
WE COME TO DR. BEAUREGARD'S HOUSE.
Glass's arm fell limp by his side, as though Dr. Beauregard had actually pulled the trigger and winged him. He turned half-about as the pistol slid from his fingers. He gave no cry; only there leached us a loose, throttling sound such as a steam whistle makes before fetching its note. It came to us in the lull between two waves that broke and raised up the sands to ripple round his feet.
"Both hands up, Mr. Glass!"
Dr. Beauregard advanced a step.
But instead of lifting his arms, the man curved them before him, and held them so, as if to protect his treasure, while he sank on his knees beside the box. His face was yellow with terror.
"You fool!" The Doctor, still holding him covered, advanced step by step to the box, and bent over it, staring down at him. The rest of us—that is to say, Miss Belcher, Captain Branscome, and I—under I know not what compulsion, followed and came to a halt a few paces behind him. Standing so, I felt, rather than saw, that Plinny and Mr. Goodfellow, attracted by the report of the pistol, were peering at us over the ridge of rocks on the right.
"You fool!" Dr. Beauregard repeated, and suddenly dropped the butt of his musket upon the loose cover of the chest.
"You fool!" said he, a third time, and tearing aside a splintered board, dipped his hand and held it up full of sparkling stones. Opening his fingers slowly, he let a few jewels rattle back upon the heap, and held out a moderate fistful towards the cowering Glass. "Did you actually suppose, having proved me once, that I would suffer such a common cut-throat as you to march off with my treasure? Look up at me, man! I charge you with having murdered Coffin, even as you have just murdered that other poor blockhead who trusted you." He nodded sideways—but still keeping his eyes upon Glass—towards the body, which lay as it had fallen. "Answer me. Are you guilty? Yes or no?"
The man's mouth worked, but his tongue crackled in his mouth like a parched leaf.
"Yes, I know what you would say; that you had some excuse—that Coffin in his time had stuck at nothing to be quit of you; that he sold you to the press-gang; that through Coffin you spent eight, ten—how many years?'—in the war-prisons; that he believed you dead, as he had taken pains to kill you. Well, we'll grant it. As between two scoundrels I'll not trouble to weigh the rights against the wrongs. But look at this boy, here. You recognize him, hey? I charge you with having murdered his father, Major Brooks, as you murdered Coffin. You have run up a pretty long account, my friend, for so clumsy a performer; but I think you have reached the end of it."
Aaron Glass looked at me and blinked. Terror of the man confronting him had twisted his dumb mouth into a kind of grin horrible to see. It lifted his lip, like the snarl of a dog, over his yellow teeth. Dr. Beauregard laughed softly.
"And all for what? For an imperfect chart—and for these!" He thrust his hand close up to Glass's face, and spread his fingers wide, letting the gems drip between them, and rain back into the treasure-chest. "What's wrong with them? That's what you'd be asking—eh?—if your poor tongue could find the words. Well, only this, my friend—yes, look well at them—that I hid them myself, and every one of them is false."
"False!" I could see Glass's mouth at work, his lips forming to the echo of the word, as it struck across his terror like a whip. But he achieved no articulate sound.
"I give you my word—" resumed Dr. Beauregard; but a thud interrupted him. Glass had fallen forward in a faint, striking his forehead against the edge of the chest, and lay face downward—with the blood oozing from his temple and discolouring the sand. As the Doctor paused and bent over him, another wave came rippling up the beach, throwing a long, thin curve of foam before it, and washed out the stain.
"Is—is he dead?" I heard Plinny's voice quavering.
"Not yet, ma'am," answered the Doctor, grimly; and, taking the inanimate body by the collar, he drew it above reach of the waves, and turned it over.
"You are a doctor, sir?"
"Yes, ma'am, and have some small skill." He put up a hand to his breast-pocket, half withdrew it, and hesitated. "You have baulked me of a pretty little scheme," he said quietly. And still while he addressed us he seemed to be considering. "Think of this fellow's face when he got his treasure across to the mainland and attempted to trade it! To be sure, he gave us some fun for our pains—"
"If you call it fun, sir," protested Plinny.
"Well, yes, ma'am," he answered quietly, kneeling and lifting Glass's head, and resting it across his thigh. "My humour may be of a primitive sort, but I confess it tickled by shocking a murderer into a fainting fit." He felt in his breast-pocket and drew forth a small phial. "No, sir,"—he turned to Captain Branscome, who had stepped forward to offer his help—"let me alone, please. I prefer to treat my patient in my own way. It will be best, on the whole, for everybody."
He forced Glass's mouth wide open, and with one hand poured about half of the contents of the phial between the patient's teeth, drop by drop, very patiently, with the other smoothing the gullet between finger and thumb.
We all stood watching while he administered the dose, Miss Belcher close beside me, with her hand on my shoulder. At the twentieth drop or so I felt her give a start, as though a thought had suddenly occurred to her, and I looked up into her face. Her eyes were fixed inquiringly on Dr. Beauregard, and he, happening also to look up, met them with a smile.
"You will see in a moment," he said, as if answering her thought, and, reaching forward, he laid two fingers on Glass's pulse. "Yes, in a moment now."
Sure enough, in a moment Glass's eyelids fluttered a little, and he came back to life with an audible catch of the breath.
"In two minutes' time, sir"—the Doctor turned to Captain Branscome—"I shall be glad of your services, and of Mr. Goodfellow's, to carry the fellow down to the boat—that is to say, if, in deference to the ladies, you have really decided not to leave him here to his fate. He will sleep after this; nay, if you will listen, he is sleeping already. The other man is dead, I suppose?"
"He must have died instantly," answered Captain Branscome, who had stepped across to the body to assure himself.
"I had no doubt of it, by the way he dropped. Well, there is no need to fetch a spade. Their thoughtfulness provided one. You will find it in the boat there."
Half an hour later we embarked, leaving behind us on the beach a scuttled boat, a mound of sand, and a chest of false jewellery, over the top of which the rising tide had already begun to lap.
Aaron Glass lay along the bottom boards, asleep and breathing apoplectically. I pulled the stroke paddle, Mr. Goodfellow the bow, and the Captain steered. Dr. Beauregard addressed himself to the ladies, of whom Miss Belcher sat with a corrugated brow, as though turning a thought over and over in her mind, and Plinny with scared eyes, staring into vacancy.
"I am sorry, indeed, ladies," said the Doctor, "that I could not have spared you this. The fool shot his mate—you saw it yourselves— without rhyme or reason. Against madness, and the impulses of madness, no man can calculate. I might plead, too, that in an undertaking like this you match yourselves against forces with which it is not given to ladies to cope. I grant admiringly the courage that brought you across thousands of miles to Mortallone, as I grant, and again admiringly, the steadiness of your behaviour this afternoon. But one thing you did not know—that in the nature of things you were bound to meet with such men and see such things done. I have not lived beside treasure all these years without learning that it attracts such men as carrion attracts the vultures. Hide it where you will, from the end of the earth some bird of prey will spy it out, or at least some scent of it will lie and draw such prowlers as this fellow." Dr. Beauregard touched the sleeping man contemptuously with the toe of his boot. "I myself have been—shall we say?—fortunate. I have emptied, or assisted to empty, two caches of treasure in this island. A third remains, of which you have the secret, and I believe it to be the richest of all. But before you attempt it, I have a mind to tell you something of the other two, that at least you may not attempt it unwarned."
"You may spare yourself the pains, sir," said Miss Belcher, decisively; "since our minds are made up. You might, I doubt not, succeed in frightening us; but since you will not deter us, I suggest that the less we hear the better."
The Doctor bowed. "Ah, madam," sighed he, "if only Fate had timed your adventure two years ago; or if, departing with the treasure, you could even now leave me to regrets—in peace!"
"My good sir," said Miss Belcher, sharply, "I haven't a doubt you mean something or other; but what precisely it is, I cannot conceive."
"You will go, madam, leaving my island twice empty. That is Fate, and I consent with Fate. But the devil of it is, ma'am—if I may use the expression—your removing the treasure will not prevent others coming to look for it, and annoying an old age which has ceased to set store on wealth, or on anything that wealth can purchase."
She looked at him oddly. "Well, now," she confessed, "you are a mystery to me in half a dozen ways; but if on top of all you mean to turn pious—"
He laughed, and when the laugh was done it seemed to prolong itself inside him for fully half a minute.
"You are right, ma'am. Let us be practical again; and, as the first practical question, let me ask you, or Captain Branscome, what you propose to do with this man? Obviously, we cannot take him along with us after the treasure."
"Well, I imagine we are returning to the schooner. He can be left on board, in charge of Mr. Rogers."
"But I was about to suggest that we take Mr. Rogers along with us. In some ways, he is the most active of the party, and we can hardly spare him."
"Of Goodfellow, then, or whomsoever Captain Branscome may appoint to take charge of the ship."
The Doctor sat silent, as though busy with a thought that had suddenly occurred to him. After a minute, he lifted his head and threw a quick glance upward at the sky.
"The breeze is freshening again, Captain," he announced. "If you care to hoist sail, the rowers can take a rest, at least until we reach Cape Fea."
Captain Branscome gave permission to hoist sail, and soon we were running homeward with as much as we could carry. There was no danger, however, for beyond the northern point of Try-again Inlet the water lay smooth all along the shore. Dr. Beauregard here called on Plinny to admire the scenery, and, borrowing her sketchbook and pencil, dashed off a bold drawing of Cape Fea as, rounding a little to the westward, we caught sight of it standing out boldly against the afternoon sun. As he drew it, he guided the talk gently back to ordinary topics—to England and English scenery, to the charm of English domestic architecture, and particularly of our great country seats, to gardens and gardening, of which he professed himself a devotee.
"Ah," he sighed at length, drawing a long breath; "if you, my friends, only knew how much of what is happiest in life you carry in your own breasts! I used—forgive me—to laugh at such pleasures as I am enjoying at this moment, I see that nothing but gaiety and a simple heart can bring a man peace at the last—and now it is too late to begin!"
Plinny, not understanding in the least, opened wide eyes upon him. His tone seemed to ask for her pity.
"Yes, yes. I have sought hard for pleasure and grudged no price for it; but the stuff I bought was all flash and sham—like this fool's diamonds—flash and sham, and the end of it weariness. Well, there is money left. You shall take it and endow a hospital if you choose, and that no doubt will increase your happiness and make it thrive. But the root of the plant lies within you. Pardon me, ma'am"—he looked towards Miss Belcher—"the question sounds an impudent one, I know, but are you not, even for England, a well-to-do lady?"
"I have a trifle more than my neighbours," owned Miss Belcher. "But it's almost more plague than blessing; at least I call it so, sometimes, which is a different thing from being ready to give it up."
"And you, ma'am?" He turned to Plinny.
"I have enough for my needs, I thank God," she answered. "But I have known what it is to be poor."
"Quite so," he nodded. "And yet you have come thousands of miles, you two, in search of treasure!"
At the entrance of Gow's Gulf we downed sail and took to our paddles again. The tide helped us against the breeze and within half an hour we came in sight of the schooner lying peacefully at anchor as we had left her.
So, at least, and at first glance, it seemed; but as we drew near, Captain Branscome stood up suddenly, the tiller-lines in his hands.
"Hallo! Where's the dinghy?"
It was gone; and—what was worse—our repeated hails fetched no answering hail from the ship. But just as we were beginning to feel seriously alarmed a voice shouted from the opposite shore, and Mr. Rogers came sculling out from the shadow of the woods, working the dinghy towards us with a single paddle overstern.
"Sorry, Captain!" he hailed. "Two deserters in two days! Oh, we're a cheerful team to drive! But I have my excuse ready. The fact is—" Here, catching sight of Dr. Beauregard, Mr. Rogers stopped short.
"I fancy," said the Doctor, amiably, turning to Captain Branscome, "your friend has not his excuse so ready as he supposed. Doubtless he'll impart it to you later on. Meanwhile, I would suggest that we take him along with us."
"But where are we going?" asked Captain Branscome.
"To my house. Ah, it is news to you that I have one? You supposed, perhaps, that the Lord Proprietor of Mortallone roosted at night in the trees? But where, in that case, would he stack his wine? My dear sir, I have a house, and cellarage, to the both of which you shall be made welcome. Even if you decline my hospitality we have the invalid here to dispose of, and surely you won't condemn a man of my years to carry him home pick-a-back!"
"But the schooner—"
"I give you my word of honour, sir, that your ship shall not be visited nor tampered with in any way. Return when you will, you shall find her precisely as she lies now. In another two hours even this faint breeze will have died down, as you are seamen enough to know. The anchorage is land-locked; the bottom is perfect holding; and as for unwelcome visitors, there can be none. I am the sole resident on this island!"
I looked up at Dr. Beauregard sharply; and so, it seemed to me, did Mr. Rogers, who had fallen alongside.
"That is to say," continued the Doctor, quietly, without regarding either of us, "the only male resident."
"All the same I don't like it," persisted the Captain, and shook his head, at the same time lifting his eyes towards Miss Belcher; "and it's clear against my rule."
"Stuff and nonsense!" said Miss Belcher. "We ought to be grateful to Dr. Beauregard for taking this creature Glass off our hands. I was thinking a moment ago that for a thousand pounds I'd rather he was anywhere than on board our ship. The least we can do is to bear a hand with him; and if we don't like the house we can come away."
"And before nightfall, if you insist," added Dr. Beauregard, genially. "But the afternoon is young, and between now and nightfall you may all have made your fortunes. Who knows?"
Captain Branscome yielded, after a look at Plinny, who backed up Miss Belcher, declaring herself ardent for new adventures. I began to see that the Captain was wax in the hands of these two, and it puzzled me, who had some experience of him both in school and on shipboard.
Instead, then, of heading for the ship, we rowed past her and up the creek—Mr. Rogers following in his dinghy—and disembarked at the landing-place under the green knoll. While Dr. Beauregard and Mr. Goodfellow lifted out Aaron Glass, and while the Captain explained to Mr. Rogers where and how we came by such a passenger, I stared about me, wondering where the Doctor's house might be and where the approach to it. For I remembered the narrow gorge leading up to the waterfalls and the thick, precipitous woods on either hand; and how, such a party as ours, including two ladies and a sick man, could hope to penetrate those woods or climb those waterfalls was a puzzle.
In ten minutes Mr. Goodfellow had patched up a fairly serviceable litter with the boat's sail and a couple of paddles. Dr. Beauregard bestowed the patient in it carefully enough, and when all was ready, led the way. The two carriers, Mr. Rogers and Mr. Goodfellow, came next with the litter between them, and at a nod from the former I fell in beside him. The Captain and the two ladies brought up the rear.
"Harry," whispered Mr. Rogers, as we wound our way round the knoll, "is this really the man who—"
"This is Aaron Glass," I said.
He stared down—for he carried the hinder end of the litter—upon the villainous, unconscious face.
"He looks a pretty bad one," said Mr. Rogers, after a pause.
"You should have seen him on the beach," said I.
"I've seen something myself," said he. "Closer, boy—there was a woman came down to the shore just now, waving to the ship and crying. At first I took her for a child. She was dressed all in white—white muslin and ribbons, you know—the sort of rig you see at a children's party; but when I rowed over close to her—"
"I know her," I said. "I met her in the woods yesterday."
"That explains; though I call it an infernal shame you didn't tell. I rowed across to find out what ailed her: she stood waving her arms so, and crying—like a child in distress. When I came near she called on to me to stop. 'Not you,' she said, 'the little boy! Where is the little boy?' I told her that we had a boy on board, but that just now you were off on a cruise; and with that she turned right about, and ran up through the woods and out of sight; but for some way I could hear her crying and calling out just as before: 'The little boy!' it was; 'Where is the little boy?'—meaning you, I suppose."
We were now come to the foot of the first waterfall, an obvious cul de sac for a party which included two ladies and a sick man on a litter. I stood gazing up at the wet, slippery rocks by which I had made my ascent yesterday, and searching in vain for a more practicable path. Dr. Beauregard halted and turned upon me with a smile.
"A moment," said he, "and you will grant that my privacy is rather neatly protected. But first"—he pointed to the water pouring past us from the pool beneath the fall—"you may remark that the stream here has more than twice the volume of the stream you see coming down the rocks."
I looked. The difference was plain enough, and I had been a fool in failing to observe it.
"The reason being," he went on, "that a second and larger stream flows into the pool under the very stones on which you are standing. I myself laid that channel for it, almost ten years ago, and Nature has very kindly helped to disguise it. Now, if you will follow me—"
He drew aside a mat of creepers overhanging a bush to the left of the path, and, stooping, disappeared into a dim, green tunnel, so artfully contrived that even without its curtain of creepers it suggested no more than a chance gap in the undergrowth. The tunnel zigzagged twice at a sharp angle, and then, quite suddenly, the dimness changed to warm sunlight, and we emerged at his heels upon a prospect that well excused my gasp of astonishment.
We stood at the lower end of a smooth, green glade, through which a broad stream—a river, almost—came swirling, its murmur drowned in the thunder of the waterfall behind us, which the bushes now concealed. The glade was, in fact, a valley-bottom, thinned of undergrowth and set with tall trees; and the stream such a stream as tumbles through many an English deer-park. The whole scene might have been transplanted from England but for a wall of naked cliff, sharply serrated, which enclosed the valley on the left. And under it, like a smooth military terrace at the foot of a fortress, the glade curved upward and out of sight.
The scene, I have said, was almost typically English—but to the eye only.
"Faugh!" exclaimed Miss Belcher, looking about her and sniffing suspiciously. "A pretty place enough, but full of malaria, or I'm a Dutchwoman! And what a horrible silence!"
"Malaria?" said Mr. Rogers, quietly. "There's better scent than malaria in this valley, and we're hot on it. Here's the river, and— What does the chart say, boy? Five trees, a mile and a half from the creek-head? We must have come a mile already. Keep your eyes skinned, and give me a nudge if you see such a clump."
But there was no need to keep my eyes skinned. At the next bend of the glade he and I caught sight of it simultaneously—a clump of noble pines that would have challenged notice even had we not been searching for them. My heart stood still as I counted them. Yes; there were five!
"I haven't often wanted to put a knife into a man's back," grunted Mr. Rogers, with a gloomy glance ahead at Dr. Beauregard.
For an instant I made sure the Doctor had overheard him. He halted suddenly, and turned to us with a proprietary wave of the hand towards the trees.
"A fine group, sirs, is it not? I have often regretted that the cliff yonder just cuts off the view of it from my windows. Indeed, I had almost altered the site of the house to include it. But health before everything—hey, ladies? There is always a certain amount of fever in these valleys, and you will own, presently, that the site I prepared has its compensations."
He resumed his way past the trees, and—a quarter of a mile beyond them—past an angle of the cliff where the ridge bent sharply back from the river and revealed a narrow gorge, its entrance choked with pines, running up towards the mountain. Here he paused again, and with another wave of the hand.
High on the right of the gorge, on a plateau above the dark pine-tops, a white-painted house looked down on us—a long, low house with a generous spread of shadow under its verandah and a dazzle of light where the upper windows took the sun.
WE FIND THE TREASURE.
"I've a strong sense of the right of property," said Miss Belcher, sipping her tea.
We had gathered in Dr. Beauregard's deep verandah, at the corner where it took the late afternoon sunshine. The level rays sparkled on the silver and delicate Worcester china of the Doctor's tea equipage, and fell through the open French window into the Doctor's drawing-room. A wonderful room it was, as everything in the house was wonderful, a spacious, airy room, furnished in white and gold, with Dresden figures on the mantelshelf; Venetian mirrors, dainty water-colours sunk into the panels, cases of rare books (among them, as I remember, a set of the Cabinet des Fees, bound in rose-coloured morocco and stamped with the Royal arms of France), stands of music, and a priceless harpsichord inlaid with ivory. Next to the airiness of the house, which stood high above reach of the valley mists with their malaria, what most sharply impressed me, and the ladies in particular, was its exquisite cleanliness. Yet Dr. Beauregard assured us that he kept but one servant—the negress Rosa.
At her master's call she had appeared in the verandah above us as we mounted the last terrace towards the house, and had stood there watching our ascent with no trace of surprise, or, indeed, of any emotion whatever, on her black, inscrutable face. Her eyes met mine as though she had never seen me before. To her care Dr. Beauregard had given over the still unconscious Glass, and, with a sign to Mr. Rogers and Mr. Goodfellow to follow her with their burden, she had led the way through the house to the bedroom at the back. There, in a bed between spotlessly clean sheets, they had laid the patient, and been dismissed by her. It was she who, less than ten minutes later, had brought our tea to us in the verandah, and with our tea many little plates heaped with small cakes and sweetmeats— all fresh, as though she had been expecting us for hours, and could command the resources of a city. I kept a sharp look-out, but of the strange lady—the lady of the graveyard—I could detect no trace. Nothing indicated her presence, unless it were the dainty feminine furniture of the drawing-room.
"I've a strong sense of the right of property," said Miss Belcher, sipping her tea and touching the oilskin wrapper, which lay in her lap unopened as Captain Branscome had handed it to her; and so has Jack Rogers here. You tell me, sir, that you hold Mortallone by grant, and doubtless you can show your title."
"Willingly, madam." Dr. Beauregard rose, and stepped to the French window. "You can read Spanish?" he asked, turning there and pausing.
"Not a word", answered Miss Belcher. The Doctor smiled. "It would impart nothing it you could," said he, with a smile, "for I will own to you frankly that Mortallone has always been under suspicion of containing treasure, and in the grant all treasure-trove is expressly reserved. I cannot say," he added, smiling again, "that I have strictly observed the clause; but, as between you and me, it legally disposes of my claim."
"Thank you," said Miss Belcher; "but I don't own an equally tender conscience towards Governments." Here Mr. Rogers winked at me, for as a patron of smugglers Miss Belcher enjoyed some reputation, even for a Cornish landowner. "We will leave Government out of the question; but as proprietor—lord of the manor, as we should say at home—you have a right to your share; and that, by English law—which I suggest we follow—is one-third."
Dr. Beauregard bowed. "I'm infinitely obliged to you, ma'am, and I make no doubt that what you so generously promise you will as honourably give—when I claim it. In truth, I have something more than enough for my needs. There was a time (I will confess) when I had sold my soul, if I possessed such a thing, for a glimpse of what lies written on that parchment. But I am old; and old age—" He broke off the sentence and did not resume it, but went on presently, with a change of tone: "However, I still keep a sporting interest in the treasure, which has baffled me all these years, the more so because I have a shrewd suspicion that it has lain all the while within a mile or so of where we sit at this moment."
"It does, sir," said Miss Belcher, unfolding the chart and pointing.
Dr. Beauregard adjusted a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses and bent towards it. The writing was indistinct, and he put out a hand as if to take hold of the edge of the parchment and steady it. The hand, I noticed, did not tremble at all.
"Stay a moment, sir." Miss Belcher turned the chart over. "The clue is given here, upon the back. Listen." And she translated:—
"'Right bank of river a mile and a half up from Gow Creek. Centre tree in clump of five: branch bearing north and half a point east: two forks—'"
"My trees!" exclaimed the Doctor. "You remember my halting and pointing them out to you? Ah, yes, and I, too, remember now that you appeared to be disconcerted. You recognized them, of course?"
"Yes, we recognized them," Miss Belcher admitted. But let me finish:—"
"'Right fork, four feet. Red cave under hill, four hundred and seventy-five yards from foot of tree, N.N.W. The stones here, under rock four spans, left side'"
"—Which means, I suppose, that the cave lies some way up the face of the rock, and can only be seen by climbing out upon the right fork of the tree; and that the stones—that is to say, the jewels—are hidden under a rock to the left; which rock either measures four spans or lies, four spans within the entrance of the cave."
"I know of no such cave, ma'am," said Dr. Beauregard, bending his brows. "Though, to be sure, the cliff is of a reddish colour thereabouts, due to a drip of water and the growth of some small fungus."
"I was a fool," said Captain Branscome, "to leave the tools in the gig. If we go back to fetch them, sunset will be upon us before we get to work."
The Doctor rose, with a smile.
"You might have guessed, sir, that I am not unprovided with spades and picks, or with ropes and a ladder, which also I foresee we shall need. Come; if you have drunk your tea, I will ask you to follow me into the house—the ladies included—and choose your outfit."
They went in after him. I was in the act of following—I had, in fact, taken a couple of steps towards the French window—when a slight shiver seemed to run through my hair, and I stood still.
The words came in a whisper from the end of the verandah. I stole back, and, leaning well across the rail, peered around the corner of the house.
"Little boy!" whispered the voice again, and I saw the little lady of the graveyard. She was standing close back against the side-boarding, her body almost flattened against it. "Come," she whispered, beckoning with a timid glance over her shoulder towards the rear of the house.
I looked at her for a second or two, and shook my head.
"But you must come," she insisted, still in a whisper, and took a step or two as if to entice me after her. Then she halted, and, seeing that I made no motion to follow, came tip-toeing back.
"If you do not come," she said, "he will kill you! He will sar-tain-ly kill you all!"
She nodded vehemently, and so, after another glance to right and left, beckoned to me once again. Her face was white, almost as her muslin frock, and something in it persuaded me to climb over the verandah-rail and follow her.
About thirty yards from the corner of the house stood a clump of odorous laurels, the scent of which we had been inhaling while we sat at tea. For these she broke away at a run, nor looked back until she was well within their shadow and I had overtaken her.
"Good boy!" she said, nodding again and smiling at me with her desperately anxious face. "I would wish—I would very much wish—to kiss you. But you mus' not come a-near"—she sighed—"it is not healthy. Only you come with me. I dream of you, sometimes, all las' night. 'What a pity!' I dream, 'and you so pe-ritty boy!' Now you come with me, and I take you away so he never find you."
The woman was evidently mad.
"Please tell me what you have to say," I urged, "and let me go back. They will be missing me in a minute or so."
"If they miss you, it is no matter now. He will kill them all, he is so strong . . . as he killed all those others . . . you remember? See, now, pe-ritty boy, what I have done for you, to save you from him! He shut me up, in his other house—he has another house away up in the woods, beyond where we met." She waved a hand towards the hills. "But I break out, and come here to save you. He would kill me also, if he knew."
Mad though I believed her, I was growing pretty thoroughly frightened, remembering the graveyard under the trees. "You forget my friends," said I, speaking very simply, as to a child. "If he means to kill them, I ought to carry them warning."
"He will not kill them till to-night," she answered, shaking her head. "It is always at night-time, when they are at supper. There is no hurry, little boy; but he will sar-tain-ly kill them, all the same."
I turned my head, preparing to run, for I heard Captain Branscome's voice in the verandah, calling my name.
"They are starting after the treasure. I must go," I stammered.
She drew close, and laid a hand on my arm. Again a dreadful odour was wafted under my nostrils—an odour as of tuberoses, and I know not what of corruption—and, as before in the graveyard, it turned me both sick and giddy.
"They will not find it," she said, nodding with an air of childish triumph. "Shall I tell you why? I have hidden it!" Here she fell back on her old litany. "He would kill me if he knew . . . I hid it—oh, years ago! But come, and I will show you; and you shall take a great deal—yes, as much as you can carry—if only you will go away, and never be rash again."
A second time I heard Captain Branscome's voice calling to me, demanding to know where I had disappeared.
She put a finger to her lips, smiling. "Such treasure you never did see. . . . Even Rosa does not know. . . . Come, little boy!"