She pushed her way through the laurels, and I followed her. The edge of the shrubbery overhung the dry bed of a torrent, in the cleft of which, when we had lowered ourselves over the edge, we were completely hidden from the house. From the edge a slope of loose stones ran down to the bottom of the cleft, where a thin stream of water trickled. The stones slid with me, but not dangerously; and as we scurried down—I in my thick boots, she in her diminutive dancing-shoes—I heard Plinny's voice join with Captain Branscome's in calling my name. But by this time I was committed to the adventure, and by-and-by they desisted, supposing (as Plinny told me later) that I had taken French leave again, and run off to be first at the clump of trees.
We might not climb the slope directly in face of us; for, by so doing (even if it had been accessible, which I doubt), we should have emerged into view. We therefore bent our way to the right up the bottom of the gorge, to a narrow tongue of rock dividing it, in the shelter of which we mounted the rough stairway of the torrent bed from one flat rock to another until we stepped out upon a shallow plateau where the contour of the hills shut off the house and its terraces. We stood, as I judged, upon the reverse or northern side of that ridge which to the south and west overlooked the valley of the treasure. Above the plateau a stone-strewn scarp of earth led to the forest, which reached to the very summit of the ridge; and towards the summit, after pausing for a second or two to pant and catch her breath, my strange guide continued her climb.
"What is your name, little boy?"
I told her, and she repeated it once or twice, to get it by heart.
"You may call me 'Metta," she said. "He calls me 'Metta always, when he is pleased with me, and that is almost every day. He is kind to me; oh, yes, very kind—though terrible, of course. . . . Keep on my left hand, Harry Brooks; so the breeze here will not blow from me to you."
I drew up in a kind of giddiness, for that dreadful scent of death had touched me again. She, too, halted with a little cry of dismay, and a feeble motion of the hands, as if to wring them.
"Ah, you must keep wide of me. . . . That is my suffering, Harry Brooks. I cannot bend over a flower but it withers, and the butterflies die if they come near my breath . . . and that, too, is his doing. He would be kind to me, he said, and would een-oculate me; yes, that is his word—een-oculate me, so that no poison could ever harm me. He knows the secrets of all the plants, and why people die of disease. Months at a time he used to leave me alone with Rosa, and go to Havana, to the hospitals; and there he would study till his body was wasted away with work; but at the end he would come back, bringing visitors. Oh, many visitors! for he was rich, and the house had room for all. There were singers—he loves music—and men who played all day at cards, and women who made me jealous. But he would only laugh and say, 'Wait, little one.' So I waited, and in the end they all died. Rosa said it was the yellow fever; but no." She held up both hands, and made pretence to pour something from an imaginary bottle into an imaginary glass. "He can kill with one tiny drop. In his study he keeps a machine which makes water into ice. Rosa would carry round the ice with little glasses of curacoa, after the coffee was served; and all would say: 'What wonders are these? Ice in Mortallone!' and would drink his health. But he never touched the ice. You tell that to your friends, little boy. But it will not save them: for he will find some other way."
As we went up the woods these awful confidences poured from her like childish prattle, interrupted only by little ripples of laughter, half shy, half silly, and altogether horrible to hear. I hung back, divided between the impulse to tear myself away and the fearful fascination of listening—between the urgent need to find and warn my friends, and the forlorn hope to extract from her something that might save them. The toil of the climb had bathed me in sweat, and yet I shivered.
I halted. We were close under the summit of the ridge, and had reached a passing clearing where, between the trees, as I turned about, I could see the whole gorge in shadow at my feet, the sunlight warm on its upper eastern slopes, and beyond these the sea. In half an hour—in twenty minutes, maybe—I might reach the valley there below, and at least cry my warning. I faced round again to my companion.
She had vanished.
My mouth grew dry of a sudden. Was she a ghost? And her prattling talk—the voice yet singing in my brain—
"Little boy! Little boy!"
I parted the tall ferns. Beyond them a small hand beckoned, and, following it, I came face to face with a wall of naked rock from which she lifted aside the creepers over a deep cleft—a cleft wide enough to admit a man's body if he turned sideways and stooped a little.
She clapped her hands at my astonishment. "You like my bower?" she asked gleefully. "Ah, but wait, and I will show you wonders! No one knows of it, not even Rosa."
She wriggled her way through the cleft. I peered in, and went after her cautiously, expecting, as the curtain of creepers fell behind me, to find myself in a dark cave or grotto. Dark it was, to be sure, but not utterly dark; and to my amazement, as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the faint light came from ahead of me and seemed to strike upwards from the bowels of the earth.
"Do not be afraid, little boy! But hold your head low; and look to your feet now, for it is steep hereabouts."
Steep indeed it was. A kind of shaft, floored for the most part with slippery earth, but here and there with an irregular stairway of rock; and still at the lower end of the tunnel shone a faint light. I would have given worlds by this time to retrace my steps. A slight draught, blowing up the tunnel from my companion to me, bore the odour of death upwards under my nostrils; but this, while it dizzied and sickened me, seemed to clog my feet and take away all will to escape. I had nearly swooned, indeed, when my feet encountered level earth again, and she put out a hand to steady me.
"Is—is—this the end?"
"It goes down—down, little boy; but we need not follow it. See, there is light, to the left of you; light, and fresh air, and my pretty bower."
I turned as her hand guided me. A puff of wind blew on my cheek, cold and infinitely pure. I stood blinking in a short gallery that ended suddenly in blue sky, and, staggering forward, I cast myself down on the brink.
It was as though I lay on the sill of a great open window. Below me—far below—waved great masses of forest, and beyond these—far beyond—shone the blue sea. I cannot say to what depth the cliff fell away below me. It was more than sheer—it was undercut. I lay as one suspended over the void.
"But see, pe-ritty boy! did I not promise you wonders?"
As I faced around to the darkness of the gallery, she held aloft something which, for the moment, I mistook for a great green snake with lines of fire running from scale to scale and sparkling as she waved it before me. I rolled over upon my elbow and stared. It was a rope of emeralds.
She flung an end over one shoulder and looped it low over her breast; then, passing the other end about her neck, she brought it forward over the same shoulder and let it dangle. It reached almost to her feet.
"Does it become me, little boy?" She made me a mock curtsey that set the gems dancing with fire. "Come and choose, then!" She put out both hands to the darkness by the wall, and a whole cascade of jewels came sliding down and poured themselves with a rush about her feet and across the floor of the gallery. She laughed and thrust her hands again into the heap.
"All these I found—I myself—and carried up here from the darkness. Take what you will, little boy, and run back to your ship. Is it diamonds you will choose, or rubies, or—see here—this chain of pearls? I do not like pearls, for my part; they mean sorrow. But—see here, again!—there were boxes and boxes, all heaped to the brim, and long robes sown all over with pearls. Take what you like— he will not know. He gives me diamonds sometimes. I adored them in the old days, in opera. And he remembers and gives me a stone from time to time, to keep me amused. I laugh to myself, then, when I think of the store I keep, here in my bower. And he so clever! But he does not guess. Ah, child, if I had had but these to wear when I used to sing Eurydice!"
She held out two handfuls of diamonds, and began to sing in a high, cracked voice, while she let them rain through her fingers.
"But listen!" I cried suddenly.
She ceased at once, and stood with her face half turned to the darkness behind her, her arms rigid at her sides, the gems dropping as her hand slowly unclasped them. Below, where the tunnel ran down into darkness, a voice hailed—
"'Metta! Is that 'Metta?"
It was the voice of Dr. Beauregard. The poor creature gazed at me helplessly and ran for the stairway. But her feet sank in the loose heap of jewels; she stumbled; and, as she picked herself up, I saw that she was too late; for already a light shone up from the tunnel below, and before she could gain the exit the Doctor stood there, lifting a torch, in the light of which I saw Mr. Rogers close behind his shoulder.
I do not think he would have hurt her. But as the torch flared in her face and lit up the shining heap of jewels, she threw up both hands and doubled back screaming. I believed that she called to me to hide. I put out a hand to catch her by the skirt, seeing that she ran madly; but the thin muslin tore in my clutch.
On the ledge, against the sky, the voice seemed to overtake and steady her for a second; but too late. With a choking cry, she put out both hands against the void, and toppled forward; and in the entrance was nothing but the blue, empty sky.
"Glass? My dear madam, pardon my remissness; he is dead. Rosa brought me the news before we sat down to table."
I opened my eyes. In the words, as I came back to consciousness, I found nothing remarkable, nor for a few seconds did it surprise me that the dark gallery had changed into a panelled, lighted room, with candles shining on a long, white table, and on flowers and crystal decanters, and dishes heaped with fruit. The candles were shaded, and from the sofa where I lay I saw across the cloth the faces of Miss Belcher and Captain Branscome intent on the Doctor. He was leaning forward from the head of the table and speaking to Plinny, who sat with her back to me, darkly silhouetted against the light. Mr. Rogers, on Plinny's left, had turned his chair sideways and was listening too; and at the lower end of the board a tall epergue of silver partially hid the form of Mr. Goodfellow.
"Yes, indeed, I ought to have told you," went on the Doctor's voice. "But really no recovery could be expected. The man's heart was utterly diseased."
His gaze, travelling past Plinny, wandered as if casually towards me, where I lay in the penumbra. I felt it coming, and closed my eyes; and on the instant my brain cleared.
Yes; Glass was dead, of course, poisoned by this man as ruthlessly as these my friends would be poisoned if I cried out no warning. . . . Or perhaps it had happened already.
I opened my eyes again, cautiously, little by little. The Doctor was filling Plinny's glass. Having filled it, he pushed the decanters towards Mr. Rogers, and turned to say a word to Miss Belcher, on his right. No; there was time. It had not happened—yet.
I wanted to start up and scream aloud. But some power, stronger than my will, held me down against the sofa-cushion. I had lost all grip of myself—of my voice and limbs alike. I could neither stir nor speak, but lay watching with half-closed eyes, while the room swam and in my ears I heard a thin voice buzzing: "Tell your friends-the ice—he never touches the ice. But it will not save them. He will find some other way."
The door opened, and its opening broke the spell. On the threshold stood the tall negress with a tray of coffee-cups, and on the tray a salver with a number of little glasses and a glass bowl—a bowl of ice. Her master pushed back the decanters to make room for the tray before him. She set it down, and the little glasses jingled softly.
"Upon my word, sir," said Miss Belcher, "what wonder upon wonders is this? Ice? And in Mortallone?"
"It is Rosa's little surprise, madame, and she will be gratified by your—"
He pushed back his chair and, leaving the sentence unfinished, rose swiftly and came to me as I staggered up from the sofa. A cry worked in my throat, but before I could utter it his two hands were on my shoulders, and he had appealed to the company with a triumphant little laugh.
"Did I not tell you the child would come to himself all right? A simple sedative—after the fright he had. He's trembling now, poor boy. No, ma'am"—he turned to Plinny, who had risen, and was coming forward solicitously; "let him sit upright for a moment, while he comes to his bearings. Or, better still, when you have finished your coffee—if Miss Belcher will be kind enough to pour it out for me— we will take him out into the fresh air. Yes, yes, and the sooner the better, for I see that Mr. Rogers is fidgeting to be out and assure himself that the treasure has not taken wings."
He forced me gently back to my seat, and walked to the table.
"What were we saying? Ah, yes—to be sure—about the ice." He lifted his coffee-cup with a steady hand, and, his eyes travelling over it, fixed themselves on me, as though to make sure I was recovering. "The ice is a surprise of Rosa's, and I assure you she is proud of it. But (you may go, Rosa) I advise you to content yourselves with wondering; for the water on these hills, strange to say, is not healthy."
They voted the Doctor's advice to be good, and, having finished their coffee, wandered out into the fresh air. Plinny took my arm, and, leading me to the verandah, found me a comfortable seat, where I could recline and compose myself, for I was trembling yet.
"They have stacked the treasure there beyond the last window," Plinny informed me, nodding towards the end of the verandah, where Captain Branscome, Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Goodfellow were already gathered and busy in conversation. "In bulk it is less than we expected, but in value (the Doctor says) it goes beyond everything. Three hundredweight, they say, and in pure gems! He is to choose his share, by-and-by; and then we have to contrive how to take it down to the ship."
"Miss Plinlimmon," said the Captain, coming towards us, "you promised me a word yesterday. I should wish to claim it now—that is, if Harry can spare you."
I observed that his voice shook a little, but this I set down to excitement.
"Did I? Yes, I remember."
Miss Plinlimmon's voice, too, was tremulous. She hesitated, and her eyes in the dim light seemed to seek mine.
I assured her that I was recovering fast, here in the fresh air, and that it would be a kindness, indeed, to leave me alone. She bent quickly and kissed me. I wondered why, as she stepped past the Captain and he followed her down the verandah steps.
I wished to be left alone. I was puzzled, and what puzzled me was that neither Miss Belcher nor Dr. Beauregard had left the dining-room. In fact, as I passed out through the window, happening to turn my head, I had caught sight of his face, and it had signalled to her to stay. I knew not why he should intend harm to Miss Belcher rather than to any other of our party. But I distrusted the man; and Plinny had scarcely left me before, having made sure that Mr. Rogers and Mr. Goodfellow were within easy call, I rose up softly, crept to the dining-room window, and, dropping upon hands and knees close by the wall, peered into the room.
The Doctor and Miss Belcher had reseated themselves, He had poured himself out another glass of wine and was holding it up to the light with a steady hand, while she watched him, her elbows on the table and her firm jaw resting on her clasped fingers. Her face, though it showed no sign of fear, was pallid.
"Yes," he was saying slowly; "it is too late at this hour to be discussing what the priests would call the sin of it. You would never convince me; and if you convinced me, I am too old—and too weary—for what the priests call repentance. I am Martin—the same man that outwitted Melhuish and his crew—the same that played Harry with this Glass, and the man Coffin, and a drunken old ruffian they brought with them from Whydah! The fools! to think to frighten me, that had started by laying out a whole ship's crew! And now you come along; and I hold you all in the hollow of my palm. But I open my hand—so—and let you go."
"Why? I have told you. I am tired."
"That is not all the truth," answered Miss Belcher, eyeing him steadily.
"No; it is not all the truth. No one tells all the truth in this world. But I am glad you challenge me, for you shall have a little more of the truth. I let you go because you were simpletons, and I had not dealt with simpletons before."
"Is that the truth?" she persisted.
He laughed and sipped his wine.
"No; I let you go because I saw in you—I who have killed many for wealth and more for the mere pleasure of power—something which told me that, after all, I had missed the secret. From an outcast child in Havana I had made myself the sole king of this treasure of Mortallone. I went back and made slaves of men and women who had tossed that child their coppers in contemptuous pity. I brought them here, to Mortallone, to play with them; and as soon as they tired me, they—went. It was power I wanted; power I achieved; and in power, as I thought, lay the secret. The tools in this world say that a poisoner is always a coward: it is one of the phrases with which fools cheat themselves. For long I was sure of myself; and then, when the thought began to haunt me that, after all, I had missed the secret, I sought out the man who, in Europe, had made himself more powerful than kings; and I found that he had missed the secret too. Then I guessed that the secret is beyond a man's power to achieve, unless it be innate in him; that the gods themselves cannot help a man born in bastardy, as I was, or born with a vulgar soul, as was Napoleon. One chance of redemption he has—to mate with a woman who has, and has known from birth, the secret which he has missed. I guessed it—I that had wasted my days with singing-women, such as poor 'Metta! Then I met you, and I knew. Yes, madam, you—you, whose life to-night I had almost taken with a touch—taught me that I had left women out of account. Ah, madam, if the world were twenty years younger! . . . Will you do me the honour to touch glasses and drink with me?"
"Not on any account," said Miss Belcher, rising. "Not to put too fine a point upon it, you make me feel thoroughly sick; but"—she hesitated on the threshold of the window"—the worst of it is, I think I understand you a little."
I drew back into the shadow. Her stiff skirt almost struck me on the cheek as she passed, and, crossing the verandah, leant with both hands on the rail, while her face went up to the sky and the newly risen moon.
A voice spoke to her from the moonlit terrace below.
"Hallo!" she answered. "Is that Captain Branscome?"
"It is, ma'am: and Miss Plinlimmon—Amelia—as she allows me to call her."
Miss Belcher cut him short with a laugh. It rang out frank and free enough, and only I, crouching by the wall, understood the hysterical springs of it.
"You two geese!" she exclaimed, and ran down the steps to them.
"Was that Lydia?" demanded Mr. Rogers, a moment later, as he came along the verandah.
"It was," I answered.
"I don't understand these people," grumbled Mr. Rogers, pausing and scratching his head. "There was to have been a meeting outside here, directly after supper, to divide off Doctor Beauregard's share; but confound it if every one don't seem to be playing hide-and-seek! Where's the Doctor?"
"In the dining-room," said I, nodding towards the window. . . .
He stepped towards it. At that moment I heard a dull thud within the room, and Mr. Rogers, his foot already on the threshold, drew back with a cry. I ran to his elbow.
On the floor, stretched at her master's feet, lay the negress Rosa. Dr. Beauregard stood by the corner of the table, and poured himself a small glassful of curacoa. While we gazed at him he reached out a hand to the icebowl, selected a small piece, and dropped it delicately into the glass. I heard it tingle against the rim.
"Your good health, sirs!" said Dr. Beauregard.
He sat back rigid in his chair.