"Waal now, colonel," said Johnson, "what you ask is fair enough, and for my own part I'd be willing enough to let you have all you want, but I vow I don't just see exactly how I'm to do it. The key of the arm-chest is in the armourer's pocket, and I can't issue anything out of that chest without his knowledge. Now, I know that cuss, he's no friend of mine, and he'd just go straight away and tell Ralli what I'd done, and that'd set the Greek dead agin you all for a certainty and make things just as uncomfortable for you as could be. Besides which, Ralli 'd just take 'em all away from you again as soon as my back was turned, and then you'd be worse off 'n ever. No, that won't do, we'll have to go some other way about it; but you leave it to me, general; you may bet your pile I'll find out a way to do it before I sail. Now, which of these boxes of music will you have?"
They had arrived by this time at the capstan-house, and were standing near the pianofortes, all of which had been placed together on the floor of the sail-loft, the packing-cases having been ripped off and probably used for firewood. Lance ran his fingers over the key-board of each instrument in turn, striking a few chords and harmonies to test the quality of the tone and touch, and finally selected a superb "grand" by Broadwood.
"All right, general, I'll have the durned thing taken down to your quarters to oncet. But do you mean to say that you know how to thump music out of them things as well as how to build batteries and ships and so forth?" ejaculated Johnson.
"Well, yes," said Lance, laughingly, "I believe I must plead guilty to being somewhat of a musician, though I have not touched an instrument for many a day until now."
"Then sit right down there, colonel, and play me something good," said Johnson, rolling a nail-keg as a seat up to one of the instruments.
Lance, thoroughly amused at the comical incongruity of the situation, sat down and rattled off "Yankee Doodle," an air which he judged would be likely to find appreciation with his queer companion.
Johnson stood for a moment spell-bound as the well remembered strains fell upon his ear, then a broad grin of delight overspread his features, and finally he began to caper about the sail-loft in the most extraordinary manner, and to utter certain unearthly sounds which Lance fancied was Johnson's idea of singing.
"Something else! gimme some more," the pirate captain exclaimed rapturously, when his entertainer at length raised his fingers from the key-board. Whereupon Lance began to play and sing "Hail, Columbia." Johnson stood still and silent as a statue now, the stirring strains touched an altogether different chord of his memory, and for an instant something suspiciously like a tear glistened in his eye.
"Thank you," he said very quietly, when Lance had finished, "that will do now; I would rather not hear any more at present. Let me keep the sound of that song in my mind as long as I can; my little maid at home used to sing that to me. But, look here," he added, as Lance closed the instrument, "if you wish to be on good terms with the men after I am gone, have them all up in the meeting-room sometimes of an evening, and treat them to a little music; they will appreciate that, and you could do nothing more likely to win their regard. Why shouldn't you give 'em—give us all—a concert to-night, to-day being a holiday?"
Lance hesitated for a moment before making answer to this strange and unexpected proposal.
"To tell you the truth," he said at last, "I am afraid your people will be hardly in a mood to-night to appreciate such music as I could give them; the grog will have got into their heads, and they will be more inclined to sing among themselves than to sit quietly to listen to me."
"Not at all," answered Johnson, who, now that a serious mood was upon him, had entirely dropped his Americanism of speech, "not at all; I have taken care to give orders that they shall not have sufficient to make them noisy. You will find them perfectly quiet and orderly, and I confess I should like to see the effect of a little genuine good music upon them."
"Very well," answered Lance nonchalantly, "I am sure I have no objection; and, now that you have mentioned it, I confess I feel curious to see the result of so novel an experiment."
"Then it is settled," said Johnson; and he forthwith summoned a party of men, to some of whom he gave orders to remove to the hut the pianoforte Lance had chosen, while to others was deputed the task of taking one of the other instruments into the large room used for purposes of general assembly, and placing the room in proper order for the evening's entertainment, which was fixed to commence at the orthodox hour of eight o'clock.
When Lance Evelin sauntered into the hut he was assailed by a general chorus of questions.
"What ridiculous story is this which my husband has been telling us, Mr Evelin?" inquired Mrs Staunton.
"About the piano, you know," added Violet.
"Is it actually true, Lance, that that absurd creature is really going to let us have one?" chimed in Blanche.
"It would be a good deal more sensible of him if he would provide us with more comfortable quarters," grumbled Dale.
"I agree with you there, Dale, it certainly would," said Rex Fortescue. "Of course I am speaking now of the matter as it affects the ladies; for ourselves, we can rough it well enough, but I certainly wish they could be made more comfortable. However, the fellow seems to have done his best for us; I have seen no better building than this in the whole settlement, so I suppose we must endeavour to be content as long as we are obliged to remain here; and as for the piano, why it will enable the ladies to beguile an hour or two; but it is a queer present to make under the circumstances, and the man who made it is certainly a bit of an eccentric."
"You are right," replied Evelin; "and this gift is by no means his only eccentricity. Guess what is his latest request, or command, I scarcely know which to call it?"
They all decided that it would be utterly impossible for them to guess, there was no saying what absurd whim might seize upon such a man; they would be surprised at nothing which he might ask, and so on.
"Well, then, I will tell you," said Lance. "He wishes me to give the men a concert to-night at eight o'clock in the assembly-room."
"Oh, Lance, what an extraordinary request!" exclaimed Blanche. "You will of course refuse; you will never trust yourself alone among all those men?"
"Certainly I shall," answered her lover, "why not? There will not be the slightest danger. The men are not in an excited state by any means, and I have an idea that a little music now and then may increase our popularity among them and place us on a more secure footing, if indeed it does not enable us to reach and awaken whatever of good may still exist in their breasts. Besides," he added with a gay laugh, "I feel curious to see what effect I can produce upon them."
"If you go, Lance, I shall go with you," said Rex.
Violet Dudley glanced quickly and somewhat appealingly at the last speaker, but she had too much spirit to say a word which would keep her lover away from the side of his friend when there was a possibility that that friend might stand in need of help.
"I think I may as well go also," remarked Captain Staunton. "It seems hardly fair to leave you all the work to do, Evelin, when any of the rest of us can help you. I can sing a fairly good song, I flatter myself, if I am not much of a hand at the piano, and so when you feel tired I'll give you a spell."
"All right," said Lance. "The more the merrier; we shall at least show them that we are no churls. Are there any more volunteers?"
"Certainly," said Bob, "I'm one, Mr Evelin, if you will have me. I am something like Captain Staunton; I'm no hand at a piano, but I can sing, and I know a recitation or two which I think may serve to raise a good- humoured laugh."
"I'm no singer," said Brook, "but I know a few rather taking conjuring tricks, and I should like to go with you; but perhaps it would be hardly prudent to leave the ladies without any protection, would it? Therefore I think I'll remain to-night, and go some other evening if there's going to be any repetition of this sort of thing."
Mr Dale said nothing; he simply sat moodily plucking at his beard and muttering to himself; by the look of his countenance he was utterly disgusted with the whole proceeding.
Thus, then, it was finally arranged, and at a few minutes before eight o'clock, Lance and his party issued from the hut on their way to the assembly-room, which they could see was already brilliantly lighted up.
RALLI EXPLAINS HIMSELF; SO DOES LANCE.
On entering the assembly-room, our friends found that it was not only, as they had seen from the outside, well lighted, but that a very successful attempt had been made to decorate it by the draping of flags all round the walls, and the arrangement of an elaborate and well- designed flag-trophy on the wall at the back of the elevated platform, or stage, as it may be called. The long table, with its accompaniment of chairs, had been pushed back against the wall, and the pianoforte stood in the centre of the platform. The room was quite full, and the men appeared, for the most part, disposed to behave quietly and decorously. There were only some half a dozen young fellows who seemed at all inclined to be noisy or boisterous, and they occupied seats in the centre of the room. Johnson occupied a chair on one side of the platform, and Ralli balanced him on the opposite side. Johnson appeared rather surprised to see four of the Galatea party put in an appearance instead of one only; but he made no remark, merely waving them to accommodate themselves with chairs from those placed against the wall.
"I am rather better than my word, you see," observed Lance to him as the four friends stepped upon the platform.
"I promised to do what I could in the way of furnishing your people with a little entertainment to-night, and I have brought three volunteers with me, which will enable us to infuse into the proceedings a little more variety than I could hope to impart to them alone."
"So much the better, colonel," returned Johnson. "It's real kind of you, I call it; and if the lads don't appreciate it, they ought to; that's all I can say. I've told 'em what you're going to do for 'em and all that; so, as soon as you're ready, I guess you can fire away."
Lance turned and opened the piano, looking quietly over the audience as he did so. His eye fell upon the half-dozen who seemed disposed to interrupt the proceedings, and stepping forward to the edge of the platform, he waved his hand for silence and said—
"Your captain informs me that he has already explained to you the reason for his invitation to you to be present here this evening. To-day has been a somewhat notable day in the annals of the settlement. You have this morning laid the keel of a new ship, and commenced an undertaking which will tax your utmost skill, energy, and resource to carry through to a successful issue; and Captain Johnson has thought it an event of sufficient importance to be specially marked. Hence he has made it a holiday for all hands; and, finding that I possessed some little skill as a musician, he invited me to help in the celebration of the day by closing it with a musical performance. This I willingly consented to do, in the belief that it might afford you a little pleasure and recreation; and I may as well take advantage of the present opportunity to tell you all that my friends and myself will always be found ready to do everything in our power to promote your comfort and welfare. But I must remind you that we are here to-night for your pleasure rather than our own. We will do our best to amuse you, and I hope that you in your turn will individually do what you can to maintain quiet and order. We may not perhaps succeed in pleasing you all; if such should be the case, let those who are dissatisfied rise and quietly leave, and not disturb others, or interfere with their enjoyment by giving noisy expression to their dissatisfaction, I notice one or two who seem inclined to be a little unruly, but I hope they have sense enough to see that such conduct on their part would be in the worst possible taste, and that they will think better of it."
Loud exclamations of approval greeted this speech, mingled with shouts of "If they don't behave themselves we'll turn 'em out, guv'nor," and such like. There was a good deal of noise and confusion for about five minutes, during which Lance calmly seated himself and waited patiently for silence; and, when this was at length restored, he went to the piano and sang to his own accompaniment Dibdin's "Tom Bowline." Lance possessed a full deep rich bass voice of exceptionally fine quality; and as the words of the song pealed through the room, a breathless silence was maintained by his strange audience,—the silence of surprise and delight. Many of the men knew the song; had sung it or heard it sung hundreds of times on a ship's forecastle during the dog-watch; but not one of them had probably ever heard it sung before by a man of refined feeling, capable of expressing the full sentiment of the words, and it now came upon them almost like a revelation. Sailors as a class are proverbially fond of music, but very few of them ever have—or, perhaps it would be more true to say, give themselves—the opportunity to hear anything of better quality than the trash sung in music-halls; and most, if not all, of Lance's audience now therefore experienced for the first time the refining power of really good music. Their enthusiastic applause at the conclusion of the song was perfectly deafening. Captain Staunton then stepped forward and sang in true seamanlike style "The Bay of Biscay," the chorus of which was given with great unction and enjoyment by the whole audience.
Rex Fortescue followed with "The Death of Nelson;" and then Bob gave in excellent style a laughable recitation, which convulsed his audience, even to the tickling of the sullen Ralli into a grim smile. Then Lance sang again; and so the entertainment proceeded for a couple of hours, to the unbounded gratification of all hands, when the pirates dispersed in a perfectly quiet and orderly manner, after giving, at Johnson's call, three cheers for their entertainers.
"Thank you, colonel! thank you heartily all of you!" said that individual as our friends parted from him outside the capstan-house. "You've given us a real treat to-night, and I guess all hands 'll feel ever so much more friendly to you for it. Give 'em another dose or two of the same sort of thing now and again, and I reckon they'll take care you don't get ill-treated while I'm away."
"What about the arms and ammunition which I asked for to-day?" said Lance.
"You leave that to me, general," replied Johnson. "I guess I'll find a way to let you have 'em before I sail; I won't forget it; you trust me. Good-night."
"Good-night," was the reply; and our friends turned away in the direction of the hut.
"Would you mind walking a little way up the valley, gentlemen, before we go inside?" said Bob. "I want to tell you something I ought perhaps to have told you long ago; but we have been so busy, I could never find an opportunity without speaking before the ladies, who, I think, ought not to know anything about it."
"Certainly, Robert," said Captain Staunton; "let us hear what it is by all means. It is doubtless something of importance, or you would not speak so earnestly."
"Well, sir," said Bob, "I wanted chiefly to warn you all not to trust Johnson too much. He seems friendly enough, but I doubt very much whether he is sincere. The day that we arrived in port, when the hands went aloft to stow the canvas, I jumped aloft with them, just to keep my hand in, as it were, and stowed the driver. While I was passing the gaskets, that fellow Ralli came on board and entered into conversation with Johnson, who spoke to him about us, and more particularly about you, Mr Evelin. He said that you were going to design a very fast vessel for him, and that we were to assist in the building of her, and in the fortification of the harbour; and that as long as we could be of use we were to be treated civilly; but that when we had done everything required of us, he wouldn't care how we were treated, or what became of us."
"The false, treacherous scoundrel!" exclaimed Captain Staunton indignantly. "Was that all he said, Robert?"
"All that I heard," said Bob. "After that they both went into the cabin. I wasn't eaves-dropping, you know, sir; but I was just overhead, so that I couldn't help hearing every word they said; and as they were talking about us, I thought I was justified in keeping my ears open."
"Quite right, Robert, so you were," answered the skipper. "We are surrounded by and at the mercy of a band of men who have outraged every law, both divine and human; it therefore behoves us, for our own sakes, and even more for the sake of the helpless women dependent upon us, to take every possible precaution, and to ascertain by every possible means, what are their actual intentions regarding us. They are detaining us here against our will; they have imposed upon us tasks which they have not a shadow of right to lay upon us; and if they meditate treachery—which, from what you say, seems only too probable— we are justified in resorting to craft, if necessary, to protect ourselves. Is not that your opinion, gentlemen?" turning to Lance and Rex.
"Unquestionably," answered Lance promptly; "the men are, one and all— excepting, of course, the few who have refused to join the 'brotherhood,' as they call it—outlaws; and, as such, they have no claim whatever to be treated in the straightforward fashion with which one deals with a lawful enemy, such as one meets with in ordinary warfare. Your information, Robert, is valuable, not altogether on account of its novelty, but rather as being confirmatory of what has hitherto amounted merely to conjecture on our part. I have long suspected that our friend Johnson is not quite so straightforward as he would have us believe. Well, 'forewarned is forearmed;' we are evidently in a very critical position here, a position demanding all the coolness, self-possession, and foresight we have at our command to enable us to successfully extricate ourselves; and I think we should give the matter our immediate consideration—now—to-night, I mean—we shall perhaps never have a better opportunity—and endeavour to decide upon some definite plan of future action."
"Very well," said Captain Staunton, "let us continue our walk, and talk matters over. It is perfectly evident, as you say, Mr Evelin, that we are in a very critical and difficult position, and the question is, What steps ought we to take in order to extricate ourselves? I think it is pretty clear that this man Johnson has no intention of releasing us of his own free-will; we can be much too useful to him for him ever to do that; if, therefore, we are ever to get away from this place, it will have to be done in spite of him. And as we are too weak to escape by force, we must do so by craft; I can see no other way for it, can you?"
"Well," said Lance slowly, blowing a long thin cloud of cigar-smoke meditatively up into the warm still night air, "I fancy we shall have to try a combination of both. I cannot conceive any practicable course which will allow of our escaping without coming to blows with the pirates; I wish I could. Of course I do not care on my own account, although—notwithstanding my former profession—I am not particularly fond of fighting if it can be done without. But there are the ladies and poor little May; it is of them I always think when the idea of strife and bloodshed suggests itself. Then there is their comfort as well as their safety to be thought of; were it not for them I believe there would not be very much difficulty in seizing a stock of provisions and water, together with a boat, and slipping quietly out to sea some dark night, trusting to good fortune—or Providence rather—to be eventually picked up by a passing ship. But I should certainly be slow to recommend so desperate a course under present circumstances, save in the very last extremity. The hardships those poor creatures passed through in their last boat-voyage I have not yet forgotten."
It is not necessary to repeat every word of the discussion which followed; suffice it to say that it was of so protracted a character that the three individuals engaged in it did not enter their hut until the first faint flush of dawn was brightening the eastern sky. Bob had been dismissed within an hour of the termination of the concert with a message to the effect that Captain Staunton and his two companions felt more disposed for a walk than for sleep, and that the rest of the party had therefore better retire when they felt so inclined, as the hour at which the three gentlemen would return was quite uncertain. The time thus spent had not, however, been thrown away; for, after a very earnest discussion of the situation, the conclusion arrived at was that they could not do better than adhere to their original plan of endeavouring to make off with the new schooner, and that her construction should therefore be pushed forward with all possible expedition; but that, as there was only too much reason to dread a change from the present pacific and friendly disposition manifested toward them by the pirates, an attempt should also be made to win over as many as possible of the prisoners, not only with the object of effecting these poor creatures' deliverance from a cruel bondage, but also in order that the fighting strength of the Galatea party (as they came to term themselves) might be so far increased as to give them a slightly better chance of success than they now had in the by no means improbable event of a brush with the enemy.
Now that the keel of the new schooner was actually laid, operations were resumed with even more than their former alacrity on board the Albatross, and on the evening of the fourth day after the events related in the last chapter she was reported as once more ready for sea.
During these four days Captain Staunton and the rest of his party— excepting Dale, who positively refused to do any work whatever—had, in accordance with their resolution, been extremely busy at the new shipyard, getting out and fixing in position the stem and stern posts; and it was only by the merest accident that they heard, on the evening in question, that the brig was to sail on the following day.
As Lance had heard no more about the promised arms and ammunition, he at once determined to see Johnson once more respecting them. He accordingly set out in search of the pirate captain, but, to his chagrin, was quite unable to find him or to learn his whereabouts. He searched for him in vain the whole evening, venturing even on board the brig; and it was not until after eleven o'clock that night that he gave up the search in disgust with a strong impression that Johnson had been purposely avoiding him.
On the following morning, however, he was more successful, having risen before daylight in order that he might catch his bird on his first appearance in the open air. At six o'clock the bell rang as usual for the hands to turn to, and a few minutes afterwards the whole place was astir. Lance walked down to the landing-place with Captain Staunton and the others, and saw them embark in the boats detailed to convey the working party to the new shipyard. He then whispered a word or two of explanation to his friends and allowed the boats to go away without him. They had been gone about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour when Lance saw the man he sought emerge from the capstan-house and walk hurriedly down toward the beach, where a boat, fully manned, appeared to be awaiting him. A few steps, and Lance was by his side.
"Good morning, Captain Johnson," he said with inward amusement as he noted the confusion of the pirate at the unexpected and evidently unwished-for meeting.
"Good mornin', general," was Johnson's response, given with a heartiness which was visibly assumed. "This is a real fine morning, I call it. Nice little breeze, too, off the land; I guess we shall make short miles of it to-day. I am downright glad you missed the boats this morning; overslept yourself, I s'pose; I wanted to say 'good-bye' to you and your chums, and I declare to goodness I was only just thinkin' when you come up to me that I'd be obliged to heave the brig to off the rock and run ashore in a boat just to shake nippers with you. Well, I guess I must be off; there's the foretop-sail just let fall, and I'm bound they've passed the messenger already. I'm real sorry I can't take you all with me and shove you ashore somewhere on the quiet; but you see how 'tis; that feller Ralli—but I ain't got time to talk any more, I swow. Good- bye. By the time I get back I reckon you'll have the schooner pretty nigh ready for launching, eh?"
"I hope so," said Lance. "By the bye, have you made any arrangements for letting us have the arms you promised? That fellow Ralli, as you have remarked—"
"The arms? Well, now, only to think of that!" exclaimed Johnson with well-feigned annoyance. "What a dog-goned forgetful cuss I am; blamed if I ain't forgot all about 'em. I've been that busy, if you'll believe me, general, I ain't had time to swaller a mouthful of grub this four days; half-starved to death I am; just look at my waistcoat—fits me like a sack. But about them arms—I declare I am real sorry I forgot 'em, general; but never mind, I guess you won't want 'em. If you do"— he button-holed Lance and whispered him confidentially—"just you take 'em—help yourself to 'em; I give you my permission, I swow. And now I really must say 'good-bye.' Take care of yourself, general, and go ahead with that schooner as fast as ever you can. Get her finished by the time I come back, and the battery too, and I promise you shall leave the island as soon as you like arterwards."
They were by this time at the water's edge; and as Johnson uttered the last words of his farewell he sprang into the boat which was waiting for him, and flinging himself into the stern-sheets, gave the order to "shove off."
Ten minutes later the same boat was swinging at the brig's quarter- davits, and the brig herself, with her anchor-stock just showing above water, was moving slowly away towards the harbour-entrance under topsails and jib.
At a little distance from Lance stood Ralli, watching the departure of the brig.
"Ah!" he muttered, "there you go, you vile American dog, you cowardly mean-spirited cur; take my parting curses with you; may you meet with nothing but ill-luck and perplexity; may misfortune follow you; may the very wind and the sea war against you; may the treachery which I have planned prevail over you; and may you die at last with the jeers of your enemies ringing in your ears. Good-bye! good-bye!" he shouted, bringing the tips of his fingers together at his lips and wafting with them an ironical salute after Johnson, who at that moment glanced shoreward and waved his cap. "Good-bye, and the devil himself go with you. Aha! my Yankee friend, you little know that you are taking your last look at this scene; you little dream that the brig carries a dagger whose blade is thirsty for your heart's blood, and whose point I have directed at your breast. Adieu, miserable coward, for ever. I hope Antonio will not forget to tell you, as he drives home his blade, that it was I who ordered the blow; my revenge will else be robbed of half its sweetness. You thought, doubtless, that because it suited me to receive your insults in silence that I should soon forget them. Bah! you should have known better; my very quietness—the repression of my resentment—should have warned you; but you are a poor blind fool without any discernment, or you would have known that a Greek never forgives a wrong. Good-bye once more, and for the last time—good-bye; I wish you all speed on your road to perdition."
And he waved his hat smilingly at the fast receding brig as he saw Johnson raise a telescope to his eye and level it in his direction.
When the Albatross had at length finally disappeared beyond the harbour's mouth Ralli turned for the first time and caught sight of Lance. Stalking up to him he said scoffingly—
"So, Mister Soldier, you have lost your friend at last."
"Yes," said Lance very quietly, "if, as I imagine, you refer to your captain. But I must protest against your styling him my friend; he is nothing of the kind."
"Ah, yes," sneered Ralli. "Now that he is gone, and can no longer protect you, you disown him. But that will not do. You and he were friends, whatever you may say. He is my enemy, and his friends are therefore my enemies also; and they will be treated as such; do you understand me?"
"Not in the least," said Lance, "I have not the faintest notion of your meaning."
"Then listen to me and I will explain," said Ralli, his eyes gleaming vindictively. "Do you know that your friend yonder is fated never to return?"
"What is the meaning of this?" thought Lance. "Some treachery or other on the part of this rascally Greek, I'll wager. But it will never do to allow him to suppose that he is master of the situation so—"
"I believe," he said carelessly, "there is some sort of arrangement to that effect, is there not?"
The Greek gazed at him in unaffected alarm.
"Aha!" he ejaculated, "how came you to know that?"
Lance smiled at him compassionately. "Did you really flatter yourself," he said, "that your plans were so astutely devised—so cunningly concealed that none but you and your partisans could possibly know anything about them! Really, Mr Ralli, I fear you are greatly overrating your own sagacity. But we appear to be wandering away from the point. You were about to explain the meaning of an obscure remark you made a minute or two ago?"
Lance had never removed his glance for a single instant from Ralli's face since the commencement of the conversation; and he was physiognomist enough to detect the signs of a fear almost approaching to panic in the countenance of the Greek; he knew therefore that his bold guess had not been very far from the truth; and he continued to puff his cigar with all his wonted insouciance as he waited calmly for the reply to his interrogation.
"Yes," said Ralli, recovering his self-possession with evident effort. "I was about to explain two things—First, I wish you to understand that Johnson is not my captain, nor is he the captain of anyone now on this island. We have thrown off our—what do you term it? our—"
"Allegiance?" blandly suggested Lance.
"Our allegiance—yes, that word will do; it explains my meaning, though it is not the word I intended to use," answered Ralli. "We have thrown off our allegiance. We are tired of him—this man Johnson—and we will have no more of him; he will never return here; and now I am capitan. You understand!"
"Good. The next thing I was about to explain is, that his friends are our enemies; you and your people especially. Is that plain?"
"Perfectly," answered Lance, still outwardly calm and unconcerned as ever, though inwardly much perturbed. "And I presume you intend us to accept these remarks of yours in the light of a threat of some kind?"
Ralli looked hard at his interrogator before replying. He could not in the least understand this man who received with such perfect sang- froid the intelligence that he and his friends were to be regarded and treated as the enemies of a company of ruthless outlaws such as he must know Ralli and his associates to be.
"Yes," he said at last, slowly and almost doubtingly, "you may take what I say as a threat. I mean to pay to you and your friends all the great debt of vengeance which that other friend of yours, Johnson, has allowed to accumulate against him. I will be doubly avenged; I will be avenged upon him, and upon you as well."
Lance laughed gaily as he lightly knocked off with his little finger the ash from his cigar-end. This was a serious, a direful business; but he had no intention to let the Greek see that his words had any alarming or disturbing effect upon him, so he said with a smile—
"Excuse me for laughing at you, but, under the circumstances I really could not help it. Your ignorance of the true state of affairs strikes me as so positively ludicrous. You forget, my good sir, that I am behind the scenes—in your secret, you know," he added, seeing a look of bewilderment at the other expression. "Why, man, you and all your people are absolutely at our mercy. You look surprised, but I assure you such is the fact. I really do not know whether I ought to explain myself to you; I scarcely think you deserve it after your recent threats—no; I will keep my own counsel; you shall remain in your ignorance."
And he turned to walk away.
"Stop," gasped Ralli, "what is it you mean? I must know."
Lance paused for a full minute as though irresolute; at last he said—
"Well, perhaps it would be better for all parties that there should be after all a clear understanding. You and your people outnumber our party many times, and it is indisputable that you have it in your power in consequence to make us very uncomfortable; but, for all that, you are absolutely at our mercy; and therefore it will be greatly to your advantage to treat us well. You will perhaps understand this better if I inform you that your plot against Johnson has been betrayed" (he did not think it necessary to explain that, as far as he knew, the only betrayal of it had been in the incautious words uttered by the Greek himself at the opening of their present conversation); "and that if he does not return neither will the brig; and then how will you be situated! You could possibly contrive to exist for a year upon the provisions left on the island; you might even, aided by the productions of the island itself, find sustenance for many years. But would the spending of the rest of your lives on this island be in accordance with your plans and wishes? And do you not think it possible that Johnson, in revenge for your plot against him, may find means to direct some cruiser to your hiding-place? Your imagination, I take it, is vivid enough to picture the consequences of any such step on his part."
"We shall have the battery and the schooner," muttered Ralli.
"Yes," said Lance, "if we build them for you; not otherwise. There is not a man on this island, outside our own party, who could complete the schooner, much less build the battery. Now, do you begin to understand that I was only speaking the truth when I spoke of your being at our mercy."
Ralli was silent. He stood with knitted brows intently cogitating for some minutes; then suddenly looking up into Lance's face with a smile he said—
"Ah, bah! what obtuse people you English are; how impossible for you to understand a little joke! Well, I will joke no more since you cannot understand it. We will be good friends all round; the best of friends; you shall have no cause to complain of bad treatment; and you will work hard to finish the schooner and the battery early, please. I like not what you said just now about Johnson and the frigate. But that too was all a joke I know."
"You are mistaken," said Lance. "I confess I was dense enough not to understand that you were joking, so I spoke in earnest. But I think we clearly understand each other now; so I hope we shall hear no more about threats, revenge, and nonsense of that kind."
And flinging his cigar-end into the water, Lance turned on his heel and walked away.
Knowing, or at least shrewdly guessing that Ralli was watching him, he sauntered away in his usual careless and easy fashion toward the hut, which they had laughingly dubbed "Staunton Cottage," and entered it.
The ladies were busying themselves about various domestic tasks, and little May was amusing herself with an uncouth wooden doll which Bob had constructed for her. Lance was a prime favourite with May, so the moment that he entered the doll was flung into a corner, and the child came bounding up to him joyously exclaiming—
"Oh, you funny Mr Evelin, how is it that you have not gone with my papa? Did you stay at home on purpose to play with me?"
"Well, not exactly, little one," answered Lance, catching her in his arms and tossing her high in the air, to her infinite delight. "Not exactly; although a man might be worse employed than in amusing you, you mischievous little fairy. No; I am going to papa presently—and would you like to come with me, May, in a nice little boat?"
"I don't know," answered the child doubtfully. "How far is it? I don't think I like boats."
"No, you poor little mite, I expect not; it would be wonderful if you did after what you have suffered in them," remarked Lance, holding the child now in his arms, while she played with his long beard. "But we shall not have very far to go, pet; only over to that big rock," pointing out of the window, "and I will take great care of you."
"And shall I see my papa?" inquired May.
"Oh, yes," was the reply; "you will be with him all day. And Robert is over there too, you know; and I daresay he will play with you if you ask him prettily."
"Then I'll go," she decided promptly; and forthwith went away to her mother with the request that her hat and jacket might be put on, "'cause I's going with Mr Evelin to see papa," as she explained.
"I daresay you are somewhat surprised to see me here," remarked Lance, as he replaced his tiny playfellow on the floor. "The fact is that I have been watching the departure of the brig; and the idea has occurred to me that now she is gone, and so many of the remaining men are away at the shipyard all day, you ladies may with, I believe, perfect safety indulge in the unwonted luxury of a daylight walk. You all stand greatly in need of fresh air and exercise; and I really think there is now no cause to fear any molestation, otherwise I should not of course suggest such a thing. It will never do, you know, for you to remain cooped up here day after day—you will get low-spirited and out of health; and I am inclined to believe it will be rather a good idea than otherwise to accustom these fellows to the sight of you moving freely and fearlessly about."
The ladies were quite unanimous in their cordial welcome to this suggestion, Blanche only venturing to add in a whisper, and with a pleading look—
"Can you not come with us, Lance? We should feel quite safe then."
"I really could not, darling," he answered gently. "It would not be fair to the others, you know. Beside which, I am urgently wanted at the yard to-day, and we must not let pleasure, however tempting, interfere with the progress of the schooner. I should like it immensely, of course, and if I thought there was the least particle of danger in your expedition I would go; but I believe there is none. At the same time, you will of course keep your eyes open, dear, and be on the watch for any suspicious circumstance; and if you really must have an escort, there is Dale; shall I ask him?"
"Oh, Dale!" ejaculated Blanche with such a contemptuous toss of her pretty little head that Lance said no more; it was sufficiently evident that the ladies would be badly in want of an escort indeed before they would accept Dale.
The three ladies were soon ready; and as they took their way up the valley Lance stood at the door with May on his shoulder, watching them; and when at last they passed out of sight he made his way down to the landing-place, seated the child carefully in the stern of a small dingy which he found moored there, cast off the painter, stepped in himself, and, shipping the short paddles, drove the tiny boat with long easy leisurely strokes down toward the rock, chatting gaily with his tiny companion the while, and causing her childish laughter to peal musically and incessantly across the placid surface of the land-locked water.
THE LADIES MAKE A DISCOVERY; AND BOB DISTINGUISHES HIMSELF.
It was a most delightful day for a walk, the ladies averred enthusiastically; and their enthusiasm was quite justified. The azure of the sky overhead was relieved by a bank of soft dappled fleecy clouds, which served in some measure as a screen against the ardent rays of the sun; and a gentle breeze from the westward imparted a feeling of freshness to the air, whilst it wafted to the pedestrians the subtly mingled perfumes of the thousand varied plants and flowers which flourished in the deep rich soil of the island. As the ladies walked quietly on up the gently sloping valley toward the hills their enjoyment increased with every step. Hitherto they had only ventured abroad at night; and lovely as the landscape had appeared in the clear mellow radiance of the moon—the soft silvery light boldly contrasted with broad masses of rich grey-brown shadow—they agreed that it was incomparably more beautiful when viewed by the full light of day and in all the glory of brilliant sunshine. A thousand gorgeous colours on leaf and blossom, on gaily-plumaged bird and bright-winged insect, charmed their eyes and enriched the foreground of the picture; while the dense masses of foliage, with their subtle gradations of colour, light, and shade, as they gradually receded into the background, and finally melted into the rich purply grey of the extreme distance, balanced and harmonised the whole, completing one of the most beautiful prospects perhaps upon which the human eye had ever gazed.
Their spirits rose as they walked steadily onward and upward, breathing with intense enjoyment the strong pure perfume-laden air, exhilarating in its effect as a draught of rich wine; and temporarily forgetting, in the pleasure of the moment, not only their past sufferings but their present and future perils, they chatted merrily and arranged a hundred plans, many of which, could they but have known it, were destined never to attain fruition.
Hitherto they had been following a faintly defined track in the luxuriant grass, a track which had always up to the present determined the direction of their longer walks; but arriving at last at a point where this trail turned abruptly off, and passed down a gentle declivity apparently toward the sea on the eastern side of the island, they determined to abandon it, and, tempted by the shade, to plunge boldly into a broad expanse of park-like timber which spread before them. The welcome shade was soon reached; and, somewhat fatigued with their ramble, they seated themselves at the foot of a gigantic cork-tree, and in the rich green twilight shadow of its luxuriant foliage discussed the luncheon with which they had had the forethought to provide themselves.
The luxuriant grass which had hitherto carpeted the earth here gave place to graceful ferns in rich variety, interspersed with delicate mosses of velvety texture, and here and there, in the more open spaces, small patches of a heath-like plant with tiny waxen blossoms of a tint varying from the purest white to a dainty purple. The silence of the forest was broken only by the gentle murmur of the wind in the tree-tops and the soft rustle of the foliage overhead, save when now and then a twittering bird flashed like a living gem from bough to bough; but there was a low, deep sound vibrating on the air, which told of the never- ceasing beat of the surf on the island's rock-girt shore.
Rested and refreshed, the ladies at length rose to their feet once more and continued their way through the wood. The ground soon began to rise steeply; and after nearly an hour's steady climbing they emerged once more into the full and dazzling sunlight to find themselves standing on the edge of a steep rocky ravine, through which, some fifty feet below, there flowed a tiny stream of crystal purity.
The rocks were of a character quite new to them, and, ignorant of geology as they were, they would doubtless have passed them by without a second glance, had they not been attracted by a peculiar glitter here and there upon their surface, which proceeded, as they discovered upon a closer inspection, from the presence of minute particles of a dull yellow substance embedded in the stone. But what chiefly riveted their attention was a small basin-like pool with a smooth level sandy bottom, as they could clearly see from their elevated stand-point. The water appeared to be about two feet deep, and the basin itself was roughly of a circular form, about ten yards in diameter. That it was obviously intended by nature to be used as a bath was the thought which flashed simultaneously through the minds of the three fair gazers; and as each one glanced half-timidly around, only to feel reassured by the utter absence of any indication of probable unwelcome intrusion, the thought speedily found vent in words.
"Just look at that pool," exclaimed Mrs Staunton; "what a delightful bath it would make!"
"Oh, Mrs Staunton!" said Blanche, "do you know that is exactly the thought which occurred to me. I feel tired, and I should so enjoy a plunge into the beautiful clear, cool water. Do you think we might venture?"
"I do not see why we should not," was the reply. "What do you think, Violet?"
"I think it would be nothing short of a luxury," answered Violet. "I too feel tired, and I am sure it would refresh us. I am not afraid, if you are not."
"Then let us risk it," said Mrs Staunton with a sudden show of intrepidity, which was, however, only half genuine; and, each borrowing courage from the companionship of the others, they hurriedly scrambled down the rocky slope, and in a few minutes more were flashing the bright water over each other like naiads at play, their clear laughter echoing strangely among the mighty rocks of the ravine.
The water proved to be much deeper than they had supposed, being quite four feet deep in the centre of the pool, which rendered their bath all the more enjoyable. The sand was, on the whole, beautifully fine, white, and firm beneath their feet, but occasionally they experienced the sensation of treading upon small, hard, roughly-rounded objects among the finer particles; and finally Blanche encountered a lump so large and hard that, curious to see what it could be, she, with a motion of her foot, swept away the sand until the object was exposed to view. It seemed to be a rough, irregularly-shaped pebble somewhat larger than a hen's egg, of a dull yellow colour; and, reaching down her arm, she plunged beneath the water and brought the odd-looking object up in her hand.
"What a curious stone; and how heavy it is!" she remarked, holding it up to view.
Her companions came to inspect it, and Mrs Staunton took it in her hand to make a close examination.
"Stone!" she exclaimed excitedly. "Why, my dear girl, this is gold—a genuine nugget, unless I am greatly mistaken. Mr Thomson, a friend of my husband's in Sydney, showed us several gold nuggets, and they were exactly like this, only they were none of them nearly so large."
"Do you really think it is gold?" asked Blanche. "My dear Mrs Staunton, my dear Violet, only fancy what a delightful thing it will be if we have actually discovered a gold mine; why, we shall be able to present our husbands with a magnificent fortune each."
A charming blush mantled the speaker's cheek as she said this, notwithstanding the fact that by this time the three women had no secrets from each other.
"I wonder if there are any more," remarked Mrs Staunton; "surely that cannot be the only one here. I fancy I stepped on something hard just now."
The three women at once went groping along the sand with their feet, and not in vain. First one, and then another encountered a hard object which proved to be similar in substance to the one found by Blanche; and in a quarter of an hour they had between them collected upwards of a dozen of them, though one only—found by Mrs Staunton—exceeded in size that of the first discovery.
Then, feeling somewhat chilled by their long immersion, they returned to terra firma, and were soon once more wending their way homeward. In passing through the wood they contrived to lose their way; but, as it happened, this proved of but slight consequence, as though they eventually came out at a point nearly a mile distant from the pathway which they had followed in the morning, they were quite as near the settlement as they would have been had they faithfully retraced their original footsteps; and by four o'clock in the afternoon they found themselves once more within the shelter of the walls of Staunton Cottage, greatly fatigued, it is true, by their long ramble, but with an elasticity of spirits and a sense of renewed life to which they had long been strangers.
Meanwhile the party at the shipyard had been thrown into a state of unwonted excitement by an incident which at one moment threatened to have a tragic termination.
A strong gang of men were at work upon the rock—all, indeed, who were left upon the island, excepting some dozen or fourteen, most of whom were employed in providing for the daily wants of the others, such as in baking bread, cleaning out the huts, airing bedding, and so on—and the scene at the mouth of the harbour was therefore a tolerably busy one.
Captain Staunton was in charge of the ship-building operations, with Kit as foreman-in-chief, while Rex and Brook were superintending operations at the battery; the former, with a roll of rough-and-ready drawings in his hand, "setting out" the work, while the latter overlooked the construction of a lime-kiln. Bob was making himself generally useful.
It was while all hands were at their busiest that Lance put in an appearance, leading little May by the hand. She of course at once made a dash at her father, flinging her tiny arms round his neck, kissing and hugging him vigorously, and showing in a hundred childish ways her delight at being with him; and the unwonted sight of the pretty little creature created quite a temporary sensation. A large majority of the men there were steeped to the lips in crime, yet there were very few among them who had not still left in them—hidden far down in the innermost recesses of their nature, and crushed almost out of existence by a load of vice and evil-doing, it may be—some remnant of the better feelings of humanity; and their features brightened and softened visibly as they witnessed the delight of this baby girl at finding herself with her father, and looked at her happy innocent face. Her visit was like a ray of sunshine falling upon them from out the bosom of a murky and storm-laden sky; and as she flitted fearlessly to and fro among them, they felt for the moment as though a part of their load of guilt had been taken from them; that in some subtle way her proximity had exercised a purifying and refining influence upon them, and that they were no longer the utterly vile, God-forsaken wretches they had been. Fierce, crime-scarred faces lighted up with unwonted smiles as she approached them; and hands that had been again and again soaked in human blood were outstretched to warn or remove her from the vicinity of possible danger. For the first few minutes Captain Staunton had been anxious and apprehensive at her unexpected presence among the ruffianly band; but his face cleared, and his knitted brow relaxed as he saw the effect which the sight of her produced, and when Lance joined him he said—
"Let her alone; she is doing more in a few minutes to humanise these men than you or I could achieve in a year."
The child was naturally interested in everything she saw, and with tireless feet she passed to and fro, pausing now and then to gravely watch the operations of some stalwart fellow hewing out a timber with his adze, driving home a bolt with his heavy maul, or digging into the stubborn rock with his pickaxe, and not infrequently asking questions which the puzzled seamen strove in vain to answer.
At length, having satisfied her curiosity by a thorough inspection of all that was going forward, she wandered down to the spot where the hulk had been broken up. This was a tiny sheltered bay or indentation in the rocks; and a large raft had here been constructed out of the dismembered timbers and planking, which were kept afloat in order that the powerful rays of the sun might not split and rend the wood. Two or three detached planks formed a gangway between the raft and the rocks, and along these planks May passed on to the raft, without attracting the attention of anyone, it happening that just at that moment most of the hands were summoned to tail on to the fall of a tackle which was being used to raise one of the timbers into its place. Gradually she strayed from one end of the raft to the other; and presently her attention was attracted by a curious triangular-shaped object which she saw projecting out of the water and moving slowly along. She wondered what it could possibly be, and, in order the better to see it, ran nimbly out upon the end of a long plank which projected considerably beyond the rest. So eager was she to watch the movements of the strange object that she overshot her mark and with a splash and a cry of alarm fell into the water.
The triangular object immediately disappeared.
Luckily at this instant Bob glanced round, just in time to see the splash caused by May's involuntary plunge and to note the simultaneous disappearance of a dark object in the water close at hand. Divining in a moment what had happened, he set off with a bound down the sloping rocky way toward the raft, shouting as he went—
"A shark! A shark! And May has fallen overboard."
For a single instant there was a horror-stricken pause; then tools were flung recklessly aside, the tackle-fall was let go and the timber suffered to fall unheeded to the ground again, and the entire gang with one accord followed in Bob's wake, hastily snatching up ropes, boat- hooks, poles, oars, anything likely to be useful, as they ran.
Meanwhile Bob, running with the speed of a hunted deer, had passed—as it seemed to the spectators—with a single bound down the rocks and along the entire length of the raft, from the extreme end of which he plunged without pause or hesitation into the sea. A bright momentary flash as he vanished beneath the surface of the water, seemed to indicate that he carried a drawn knife or some such weapon in his hand.
Simultaneously with the disappearance of Bob, May's golden curls reappeared above the surface; and the child's aimless struggles and her choking bubbling cries lent wings to the rescuing feet of those who had listened again and again unmoved to the death-screams of their fellow men. Another moment, and there was a tremendous commotion in the water close to the child; first a sort of seething whirl, then a dark object flashed for a moment into view, there was a furious splashing, a darting hither and thither of some creature indistinctly seen amid the snowy foam; and then that foam took on a rosy hue which deepened into crimson; the commotion subsided, and Bob appeared once more on the surface, breathless and gasping. With a couple of strokes he reached May's side, and half a dozen more took him alongside the raft in time to deliver her into Captain Staunton's outstretched arms.
"Unhurt, sir, I believe, thank God!" Bob gasped, as he delivered up his charge; and then, when the little one had been raised out of the water and clasped with inarticulate thanksgivings to her father's breast, he added—
"Give us a hand, some of you fellows, will you? And heave handsomely, for I believe my leg's broke."
"Lay hold, boy;" and a dozen eager hands were outstretched to Bob's assistance—foremost among them being that of a great black-bearded fellow named Dickinson, who had formerly been boatswain's mate on board a man-o'-war, but who had deserted in order to escape the consequences of a sudden violent outburst of temper—"Lay hold."
Bob grasped the proffered hand and was brought gently alongside the raft.
"Now then," exclaimed Dickinson, assuming the direction of affairs, "kneel down on the edge of the raft, one of you—you, 'Frenchy,' you're pretty handy with your flippers—kneel down and pass your arm under his legs, as high up as you can. Say 'when.' Are you ready? Then lift, gently now, and take care you don't strike him against the edge of the raft. So! That's well. Now, lift him inboard; that's your sort. Now, off jackets, some of us, and let's sling him; he'll ride easier that way. Are we hurting you, my lad?"
"Not much, thank'ee," answered Bob cheerfully. "There," he added, as they once more reached the rocks, "that'll do, mates; lay me down here in the shade, and tell Mr Evelin I'm hurt—presently, you know; after he's brought the little girl round."
In the meantime Lance, almost as much concerned as Captain Staunton, had hurried after the latter, and offered his assistance, which was thankfully accepted. But there was very little that needed doing. So prompt had been Bob in his movements that the poor child had never actually lost consciousness; and after a great deal of coughing up of salt water and a little crying, May was so far herself again as to be able to call up a rather wan smile, and, throwing her arms round her father's neck, to say—
"Don't be frightened any more, papa dear; May's better now."
Great seemed to be the satisfaction of the crowd of men who had clustered round the group as they heard this welcome assurance; and then in twos and threes they slunk away back to their work, seemingly more than half ashamed that they had been betrayed into the exhibition of so human a feeling as interest in a mere child's safety.
"If the little un's all right, mister, you'd better have a look at the chap that pulled her out. His leg's broke, I think," remarked Dickinson's gruff voice at this juncture.
"His leg broken? Good heavens! I never dreamed of this," exclaimed Captain Staunton. "Poor fellow! poor Robert; let us go at once and see what can be done for him, Evelin."
"You'll find him there, under that rock," remarked the ex-boatswain's mate in a tone of indifference, indicating Bob's resting-place by a careless jerk of the thumb over his left shoulder as he walked away.
Captain Staunton and Lance rose to their feet, and, the former carrying his restored darling in his arms, went toward the spot indicated. They had gone but a few paces when they were overtaken by Dickinson, who, with a half-sulky, half-defiant look on his face said—
"I s'pose I can't be any use, can I? If I can, you know, you'd better say so, and I'll lend you a hand—and let me see the man that'll laugh at me. I ain't quite a brute, though I daresay you think me one. I like pluck when I see it, and the way that boy jumped in on the shark was plucky enough for anything. If it hadn't been for him, skipper, that little gal of yourn 'd have been a goner and no mistake."
"You are right, Dickinson, she would indeed. Thank God she is spared to me, though. You can no doubt be of the greatest use to us; and as to thinking you a brute—I do nothing of the kind, nor does Mr Evelin, I am sure. I believe you make yourself out to be a great deal worse than you really are. Well, Robert, what is this, my boy? Is it true that your leg is broken?"
"I am afraid it is, sir," answered Bob, who looked very pale, and was evidently suffering great pain. "But I don't care about that, so long as May is all right."
"She is, Robert, thanks to God and to your courage. But we will all thank you by and by more adequately than we can do now. Let us look at your leg, that is the first thing to be attended to."
"Will you allow me, Captain Staunton?" interposed Lance. "I have some knowledge of surgery, and I think my hand will be more steady than yours after your late excitement."
The skipper willingly gave place to Lance; and the latter, kneeling down by Bob's side, drew out a knife with which he slit up the left leg of the lad's trousers.
A painful sight at once revealed itself. The leg was broken half-way between the ankle and the knee, and the splintered shin-bone protruded through the lacerated and bleeding flesh. Captain Staunton felt quite sick for a moment as he saw the terrible nature of the injury; and even Lance turned a trifle pale.
"A compound fracture, and a very bad one," pronounced Evelin. "Now, Dickinson, if you wish to be of use, find Kit, the carpenter, and bring him to me."
The man vanished with alacrity, and in another minute or two returned with Kit.
Lance explained what he wanted—a few splints of a certain length and shape, and a supply of good stout spun-yarn.
"Do you think Ralli would give us a bandage or two and a little lint from one of his medicine-chests?" asked Lance of Dickinson.
"If he won't I'll pound him to a jelly," was the reckless answer; and without waiting for further instructions the man ran down to the water, jumped into the dingy, and, casting off the painter, began to ply his oars with a strength and energy which sent the small boat darting across the bay with a foaming wave at her bows and a long swirling wake behind her.
In less than half an hour he was back again with the medicine-chest and all its contents; which he had brought away bodily without going through the formality of asking permission.
The splints were by this time ready; and then began the long, tedious, and painful operation of setting and dressing the limb, in the performance of which Dickinson rendered valuable and efficient service. The long agony proved almost too much for Bob; he went ghastly pale and the cold perspiration broke out in great beads all over his forehead; seeing which the boatswain's mate beckoned with his hand to one of the men standing near, and whispered him to fetch his (Dickinson's) allowance of grog.
The man went away, and soon returned with not a single allowance but a pannikin-full of rum, the result of a spontaneous contribution among the men as soon as they were informed that it was wanted for Bob. With the aid of an occasional sip from this pannikin the poor lad was able to bear up without fainting until Lance had done all that was possible for him; and then Dickinson and three other men, lifting him upon a strip of tarpaulin lashed to a couple of oars, carried him down to one of the boats, and jumping in, with Lance and Captain Staunton—who could not be persuaded to trust May out of his arms—pushed off and rowed him down to the bottom of the bay.
About a couple of hundred yards from the rocks they passed the body of a great dead shark floating belly upwards upon the surface of the water. The creature appeared to be nearly twenty feet long; and the blood was still slowly oozing from three or four stabs and a couple of long deep gashes near the throat. The mouth was open; and as the boat swept past its occupants had an opportunity to count no less than five rows of formidable teeth still erect in its horrid jaws. Captain Staunton pressed his child convulsively to his breast as he gazed at the hideous sight; and Dickinson, who pulled the stroke-oar, averred with an oath his belief that there was not another man on the island with pluck enough to "tackle" such a monster.
"By the bye, Robert," said Captain Staunton, "you have not yet told us how you came to break your leg. Did you strike it against the timber when you jumped overboard, or how was it?"
"No, sir," said Bob. "It was this way. Just as I reached the end of the plank I caught sight of the brute rushing straight at May. I could see him distinctly against the clean sandy bottom, and he was not above six feet off. So I took a header right for him, whipping out my sheath- knife as I jumped; and luckily he turned upon me sharp enough to give little May a chance, but not sharp enough to prevent my driving my knife into him up to the hilt. Then I got hold of him somewhere—I think it was one of his fins—and dug and slashed at him until I was out of breath, when I was obliged to let go and come to the surface. The shark sheered off, seeming to have had enough of it, but in going he gave me a blow with his tail across the leg and I felt it snap like a pipe-stem."
"And, instead of making for the raft, you swam at once to May, thinking of her safety rather than of the pain you were suffering," said the skipper. "Bob, you are a hero, if ever there was one. This is the second time you have saved my child from certain death; and I shall never forget my obligations to you, though God alone knows whether I shall ever have an opportunity to repay them."
"I say, mister, I wish you wouldn't have quite so much to say about God; it makes a chap feel uncomfortable," growled Dickinson.
"Does it?" said Captain Staunton. "How is that? I thought none of you people believed in the existence of such a Being."
"I can't answer for others," sullenly returned Dickinson, "but I know I believe; I wish I didn't. I've tried my hardest to forget all about God, and to persuade myself that there ain't no such Person, but I can't manage it. The remembrance of my poor old mother's teaching sticks to me in spite of all I can do. I've tried," he continued with growing passion, "to drive it all out of my head by sheer deviltry and wickedness; I've done worse things than e'er another man on this here island, hain't I, mates?"—to his fellow-oarsmen.
"Ay ay, Bill, you have."
"You're a reg'lar devil sometimes."
"A real out-and-outer, and no mistake," were the confirmatory replies.
"Yes," Dickinson continued, "and yet I can't forget it; I can't persuade myself; and the more I try the worse I feel about it, and I don't care who hears me say so."
"Well, you seem to be in earnest in what you say, Dickinson; but I really cannot believe you are. No man who really believed in the existence of a God of Justice would continue to live a life of sin and defiance," said the skipper.
"Wouldn't he?" fiercely retorted the boatswain's mate. "Supposin' he'd done what I've done and lived the life I've lived, what would he do? Answer me that."
"Come up to our hut next Sunday morning at eleven o'clock, and I will answer you."
"What! do you mean to say that you'll let me in, and them women-folks there too?"
"Certainly we will," said Captain Staunton heartily. "We are all mortal, like yourself; and the ladies will not refuse, I am sure, to meet a man who feels as you do."
"Then I'll come," exclaimed the man with a frightful oath, intended to add emphasis to his declaration, and then, as the boat's keel grated on the beach, he and his mates sprang into the shallow water, and, lifting Bob in his impromptu stretcher carefully upon their shoulders, they proceeded with heedful steps to bear him toward the hut.
"Now, there," remarked Captain Staunton in a low voice as they hurried on ahead to get Bob's bunk ready for him, "there is an example of a human soul steeped in sin, yet revolting from it; struggling desperately to escape; and in its despair only dyeing itself with a deeper stain. It is a noble nature in revolt against a state of hideous ignoble slavery; and I pray God that I may find words wherewith to suitably answer his momentous question."
"Amen," said Lance fervently, raising his hat reverently from his head as the word passed his lips.
In another ten minutes they had poor Bob safely in the house and comfortably bestowed in his berth. The medicine-chest had been brought back in the boat and was soon conveyed to the hut; and while Lance busied himself in mixing a cooling draught for his patient, Dale, to the intense astonishment of everybody, voluntarily undertook to prepare some strengthening broth for him. The man's supreme selfishness gave way, for the moment, to admiration of Bob's gallant deed—so immeasurably beyond anything of which he felt himself capable—and, genuinely ashamed of himself, for perhaps the first time in his life, he suddenly resolved to do what little in him lay to be useful.
When Lance came down-stairs for a moment after administering the saline draught, he found Dickinson and his three companions still hanging about outside the door in an irresolute manner, as though undecided whether to go or stay. He accordingly went out to them and, with an earnestness quite foreign to his usual manner, thanked them warmly yet courteously for their valuable assistance (Lance never forgot that he was a gentleman, and was therefore uniformly courteous to everybody), and then dismissed them, adding at the last moment a word or two of reminder to Dickinson as to his promise for the following Sunday, which he emphasised with a hearty shake of the hand.
The boatswain's mate walked away down to the boat silently and in a seemingly dazed condition, holding up his right hand before him, turning it over, and looking at it as though he had never seen it before. He never opened his lips until the boat was in mid-channel, when, resting on his oar for a moment, he said—
"Well, shipmates, you've heard me say to-day words that I wouldn't have believed this morning I could find courage to say to any human being. Now, I'm not ashamed of 'em—I won't go back from a single word—but you know as well as I do what a rumpus there'd be if it got to be known that there'd been said what's been said this arternoon. I don't care about myself, not a single curse; you and as many more fools as choose can laugh at me until you're all tired; but mind—I won't have a word said about them; if this gets abroad they'll be made uncomfortable, and I won't have it—D'ye hear, mates, I WON'T HAVE IT. The first man that says a word about it—well"—with a powerful effort to curb his passion—"the best thing he can do is to take to the water and swim right out to sea; for the sharks 'll be more marciful to him than I will."
"All right, matey, all right," good-humouredly answered one of the men, "you needn't threaten us—no occasion for that; we're not going to split on yer, old man; perhaps, if the truth was knowed, there's others besides yourself as don't feel pertickler comfortable about this here piratin' business—I won't mention no names—and anyhow you may trust me not to say a word about what we've heard to-day upon it; and there's my hand upon it."
The proffered hands were silently grasped with fervour; and then the oars were resumed and the boat sped on her way to the shipyard.
When the three ladies entered Staunton Cottage they were greatly surprised to find Captain Staunton and Lance there, both busy scraping lint; and still more surprised to see Dale bending over a fire with his coat off, diligently stirring the contents of a small tin saucepan.
May was the first to throw any light upon the situation, which she did, directly the door opened, by rushing up to her mother and exclaiming excitedly—
"Oh, mama! what do you think? I fell into the water, and Bobbie jumped in too; and a naughty shark hurt poor Bobbie and made his leg bleed; so papa and Mr Evelin and some sailors brought him home and put him to bed; and he's up there now, mama, so poorly."
Mrs Staunton turned mutely to her husband for an explanation. For a single moment she felt quite incapable of speaking intelligibly. Her mental vision conjured up a picture of her child in some terrible danger, and, in her anxiety, her mind refused to take in more than that one awful fact, overlooking for the time the circumstance of Bob having received an injury. The danger to which May had been exposed; that was all she thought about—all she could think about just then; and, until she had heard the story, she had not attention for anything or anyone else.
So Captain Staunton bade them all sit down, and then he related the full details of May's adventure, with Bob's gallant rescue of her, and the unfortunate accident which accompanied it. It is not necessary to repeat the frequent exclamations of horror and admiration which were elicited from the fair auditors as the various details of the occurrence were related; nor to describe the convulsive way in which May was clasped to her mother's breast, and fondled and cried over by all three of the sensitive loving women together as they listened to the story of her terrible peril. Suffice it say that, when the narrative was over, the womenkind went with one accord up to Bob's bedside, and there so overwhelmed him with thanks and praises that the poor fellow was quite overcome, so that Lance had finally to interfere, and with mock severity order their immediate withdrawal.
Later on, when the excitement had somewhat subsided, and while they were all sitting down quietly to tea, the ladies produced their nuggets, passing them round for inspection, and relating the manner in which they had been found. Lance's experience as a gold-digger now served the party in good stead, for he had no sooner taken the dull yellow lumps into his hand than he pronounced them to be veritable nuggets of pure gold; and after extracting from the fair finders as accurate a description as they could give him of the locality in which the discovery had been made, he declared his belief that one or more "pockets" of gold existed in the immediate vicinity of the pool, and said he would take an early opportunity of personally inspecting the spot.
The somewhat exciting events of the day caused the party to sit up chatting rather late that evening, and about midnight they were startled by the sound of knocking at the door. Captain Staunton opened it, and there stood Dickinson, who explained with some hesitation that, "Bein' as he couldn't sleep very well, he'd made so bold as to come up, seein' a light in the winder, to ask how the little missie was a'ter her ducking, likewise the youngster as had got his leg hurt."
The skipper was able to give satisfactory answers to both inquiries, and Mrs Staunton, hearing that someone was asking after May, came out herself and thanked the ex-boatswain's-mate so sweetly for his interest in her child that the poor fellow went away more dazed than ever, but with a heart so light that he felt as if walking upon air; and during the short journey between the hut and his quarters he solemnly and silently registered sundry fearful vows as to what he would do to anyone who dared so much as to think any harm of the inhabitants of Staunton Cottage.
For the next two days everybody was exceedingly busy; the men being hard at work at the shipyard, while the women felt as though they could not do enough for Bob, or make enough of him; indeed, in their anxiety to show their gratitude and admiration, they—Violet and Blanche, at least—let enthusiasm outrun discretion so far that they bid fair to do the patient more harm than good, so that Mrs Staunton was fain at last to take him under her own exclusive charge, forbidding the younger ladies to enter the room more than twice a day,—once in the morning and again in the evening,—and then rigorously limiting their visits to five minutes on each occasion.
The third day following Bob's accident was Sunday. This day was always observed as a holiday by the pirates; not, it need scarcely be said, in deference to the Fourth Commandment, but simply because the men insisted upon having one day of rest from work—a day on which the more sober and steady members of the band were wont to devote some little attention to the toilet and to the repairs of their clothing; while the remainder—by far the greater number—gave themselves up to unrestrained riot and drunkenness, a circumstance which, as may easily be understood, always caused a considerable amount of anxiety to the inmates of Staunton Cottage.
But however anxious they may have been—however fearful that, in their unbridled licence, the pirates might at any moment break in upon the privacy of the cottage and attempt some outrage—divine service was invariably performed twice each Sunday in the lower apartment of the cottage.
The day in question was no exception to the rule; and when the party began to assemble for the morning service, they saw that Dickinson had posted himself at a little distance from, but within easy hail of, the door. He was accordingly invited in; and when he made his appearance, with his hair freshly cut, his long bushy beard and moustache carefully trimmed, and his person decently arrayed in a nearly new suit of blue pilot-cloth, he looked not only every inch a sailor, but also a very fine specimen of manhood. He entered with some show of diffidence, and seemed half-inclined to beat a hasty retreat again, when Mrs Staunton invited him to occupy a seat next her. However, he remained, conducting himself with the greatest propriety during the service, and evidently still having in remembrance the forms of the Episcopal ceremonial. When prayers were over Captain Staunton delivered, according to his usual custom, a short address, in which he strove earnestly to give a plain and comprehensive answer to the question which Dickinson had propounded to him in the boat. It is not within the province of such a book as this to repeat what was said on the occasion; suffice it to say that the skipper so far succeeded in his object that, when the service was over, the strange guest went away a happier and a more hopeful man than he had been for years. He presented himself again at the evening service, remaining, at Mrs Staunton's invitation, to listen to the sacred music in which the party generally indulged for an hour at the close of the day. Thenceforth he was a changed man.
On the following morning Lance announced that he proposed to make, in Blanche's company, a visit to the "gold mine," as they laughingly called it. Blanche's presence was required ostensibly in order that she might act in the capacity of pilot; but no one attempted to pretend that he or she was blinded by so exceedingly transparent an excuse. Everybody knew how eagerly the occasion was welcomed by the pair as affording an opportunity for a long day's uninterrupted enjoyment of each other's society, and everybody had accordingly something jocular to say about it.
But what cared they, these two, happy in the first rosy flush of mutually acknowledged love. They laughingly returned jest for jest, and set off in high glee directly after breakfast, saying they were not to be expected back at any definite time, as they should stay until Lance had made a thorough examination of the entire locality. Deeply in love, however, as they both were, they had the forethought to provide themselves with a good substantial luncheon, and Evelin also slipped a tolerably heavy hammer and a cold chisel into his pocket.
Blithely the pair stepped out,—for is not happiness always light of foot?—and in due time, a much shorter time, by the way than was occupied in the previous journey, they arrived at the brink of the ravine, and looked down upon the tiny crystal stream and the pool wherein the nuggets had been found.
Lance took in the geological characteristics of the place at a glance. He recognised the rocks as genuine out-crops of gold-bearing quartz, and the minute yellow specks therein as the precious metal itself, their visible presence being an indication of the extraordinary richness of the reef.
"Why, Blanche darling!" he exclaimed, all his miner's instincts fully aroused as he chipped and broke off "specimens" here and there, to find tiny pellets and nodules of gold thickly clustering in each, "this mine of yours is worth a nation's ransom; I do not believe there is such another reef as this in the whole world. With proper crushing machinery we might all make our fortunes in a month. But let us take a look at the pool; unless I am greatly mistaken there is a princely fortune lying about here, and to be had for the mere picking up, without the need of machinery at all."
They scrambled down the side of the ravine and stood by the margin of the pool. Then Lance looked upward in the direction of the flow of the rivulet, attentively noting the "run" of the strata. Glancing about him, he saw a small broken branch lying on the ground at no great distance; and securing it he cut away with his knife the sides of the larger end so as to produce a flat surface, making of the branch a very narrow-bladed wooden spade, in fact. Reaching as far forward as he could, he plunged the blade of his extemporised spade into the sandy bottom of the pool, pressing it gently down into the sand until he could get it no deeper, when he "prized" it upward, so as to bring to the surface a specimen of the subsoil. Raising it very carefully, the end of the branch at length came into view, bringing with it a small quantity of yellow glittering sand. Some of this, by care and patience, he managed to get out of the water before it was quite washed away; and, placing it in the palm of his hand, he gently agitated it to and fro beneath the surface of the water until all the lighter particles were washed away, when there remained in his hand a minute quantity of fine yellow dust.
"There," he said, "what do you think of that, Blanche? It is gold-dust, my dear girl; and if we could drain off the water from this pool—and it might be done without much trouble—we should find plenty of it underneath that fine white sand. Now, let us inspect a little further."
They accordingly began to walk slowly up the border of the stream, which descended the ravine by a series of miniature cataracts a foot or so in height, usually with small sandy-bottomed basins beyond. One of these basins proved to be so small and so shallow that, standing on a projecting ledge of rock, Lance was able to make a tolerably thorough examination of its bed with the aid of the before-mentioned branch, and he had not been very long stirring up the sand with it when he turned up four very fine nuggets, varying in size from a hen's egg to a six-pound shot.
"Just as I expected," he exclaimed. "Now, the spot from which this gold originally came is at the head of this ravine. These nuggets have all been brought down here by the water; and the higher we go the larger will the nuggets be, because of course, the heaviest of them will have travelled the shortest distance. But before pushing our investigations further, I propose that we sit down here and have luncheon; this is a picturesque spot; and, what is perhaps more to the purpose, I am frightfully hungry."
They accordingly seated themselves upon a great moss-grown rock, and partook of the contents of the basket with all the appetite of healthy people who had passed a long morning in the fresh pure air.
Luncheon over, and Lance having, at Blanche's request—or perhaps the word command would be nearer the truth—lighted a cigar, the pair proceeded with their investigations.
The characteristics of the stream continued to be the same; short lengths of sparkling water flowing over a boulder-strewn bed; diminutive rapids; tiny cataracts; and occasional quiet pools between. One or two of the smallest and least difficult of these pools Lance cursorily examined, finding in each case one or more nuggets, the sizes increasing as the searchers made their way upward, and thus confirming Lance's theory. He did not, however, devote much time to the actual search for gold; his object was just then to trace the gold to its source, and, at the same time, to note what capabilities existed for damming off the most promising spots, with a view to future operations.
A happy idea, as Blanche thought it, suddenly occurred to that young lady.
"Oh, Lance!" she exclaimed, "what geese we are?"
"Are we, darling?" said her companion. "Probably if anyone happened to see us just now," sliding his arm round her waist and kissing her, "they would be inclined to think so. Nay, you need not pout, it is entirely your own fault; the fact is, that you looked so pretty the temptation was simply irresistible."
"Was it?" she retorted. "Well, I think it very rude of you to interrupt me like that, just at the moment I was about to give utterance to a brilliant idea; but seriously, Lance dear, do you not think we could collect a sufficiency of this gold to purchase our freedom from these horrid men."
Evelin thought the matter over for a minute or two.
"I am afraid not," he said at last. "I have not the slightest doubt about our being able to collect a sufficient quantity of gold; the ground seems to be absolutely gorged with it; but the difficulty would be in the effecting of an arrangement by which these fellows would be persuaded to release us after the payment of the ransom. They would take the gold and afterwards simply break faith with us. No; our services are of too much value to them, unluckily, for them ever to voluntarily permit our departure; and we shall therefore have to follow out our original plan of escape, if possible—unless a better offers. But we will endeavour to possess ourselves of some of this enormous wealth; and we must trust to chance for the opportunity to convey it away with us."
They were now near the head of the ravine, which seemed to terminate in a sort of cul-de-sac, a huge reef of auriferous rock jutting out of the ground and forming an almost perpendicular wall across the end of the ravine. On reaching the base of this wall, the tiny stream they had been following was found to have its source a yard or two from the face of the rock, bubbling up out of the ground in the midst of a little pool some three yards across. It was near this spot, therefore, in all probability, that the precious metal would be found in richest abundance. Lance accordingly began to look around him for indications of the direction in which he ought to search.
About ten feet up the face of the rock-wall he saw what appeared to be a fissure in the stone; and, thinking it possible that an examination of this fissure might aid him, he, with some difficulty managed to scramble up to it. When he reached the spot he found, however, instead of a mere fissure or crack in the rock, as he had imagined, a wide projecting shoulder of the reef which artfully masked a low narrow recess. Penetrating into this recess, Lance found that, after he had proceeded two or three yards, the walls widened out, and the whole place had the appearance of being the entrance to a subterranean cavern.
Thinking that, if such were indeed the case, the discovery might prove of great value, as affording the party a perfectly secure place of refuge in case of necessity, he emerged once more, and, discovering from his more elevated stand-point an easy means of descent, hastened down to Blanche, and, informing her of his discovery, requested her to sit down and rest whilst he completed his explorations. He then looked about him for something to serve the purpose of a torch, and at length found a fragment of dry wood, which on being ignited promised to burn steadily enough for his purpose. Armed with this he was about to reascend the face of the rock when Blanche begged that she might be allowed to accompany him, as she was sure she would feel lonely sitting out there by herself. Lance accordingly gave her his hand, and without any very great difficulty managed to get her safely up on the narrow platform in front of the opening.
Relighting his torch, which he had extinguished after satisfying himself that it would burn properly, Lance led the way into the cleft; holding his brand well before him and as high as possible, and giving his disengaged hand to Blanche, who suffered from the disadvantage of being in total darkness, her lover's bulky form almost entirely filling up the narrow passage they were traversing, and completely eclipsing the light. Soon, however, they found the walls receding from them on either side, the roof rising at the same time; and when they had penetrated some fifty or sixty yards they were able to walk side by side. It was a curious place in which they found themselves. The rocky walls, which met overhead like an arch, were composed entirely of auriferous quartz, the gold gleaming in it here and there in long thin flakes. The passage sloped gently upward, whilst it at the same time swept gradually round toward the right hand; and though the air was somewhat close, there was an almost utter absence of that damp earthy smell which is commonly met with in subterranean chambers.
As they continued on their way the rocks about them gradually underwent a change, the gold no longer showing in thin detached thread-like layers, but glittering in innumerable specks and tiny nodules all over the surface, so that, as the flickering uncertain light of the torch fell upon the walls, they glistened as though covered with an unbroken coating of gold-leaf.
But this novel appearance, attractive as it was, was nothing to the surprise which awaited them further on. They had penetrated some eight or nine hundred yards, perhaps, into the bowels of the earth, and were thinking of returning, when they suddenly emerged from the passage into a vast cavern, so spacious in all its dimensions that their tiny light quite failed to reveal the farther side or the roof. But what little they did see was sufficient to root them to the ground, speechless for the moment with wonder and admiration.
The rocky floor upon which they stood was smooth as a marble pavement, apparently from attrition by the action of water through countless centuries, though the place was now perfectly dry. What chiefly excited their admiration, however, was the circumstance that the floor was not only smooth, it was as polished as glass, and in places quite transparent, while it glowed and sparkled with all the colours of the rainbow. They seemed to be standing on a surface of purest crystalline ice, seamed, streaked, veined, and clouded in the most marvellous and fantastic manner with every conceivable hue, through and into which the faint light of their torch gleamed, flashed, and sparkled with an effect of indescribable splendour.
"Oh, Lance!" whispered Blanche at last, "was ever anything so lovely seen before?"
"A perfect palace of the gnomes, darling, is it not?" returned Lance in his usual tone of voice; and then they stood awe-struck and enthralled, as his words were caught up by countless echoes and flung backward and forward, round and round, and in the air above them, in as many different tones, from a faint whisper far overhead to deep sonorous musical bell-like notes reverberating round the walls and echoing away and away, farther and farther, fainter and fainter, until at last, after an interminable time, as it seemed to them, the sounds died completely away and silence reigned once more.
"It is marvellous! superb!" whispered Evelin, not caring to again arouse the echoes of the place. "Come, Blanche, sweetheart, let us explore a little further while our torch still holds out."
Hand in hand, and with cautious steps—for the floor was almost as slippery as ice—they began to make the tour of this fairy-like cavern; but they had not proceeded a dozen steps before they were again arrested, spell-bound. The walls, as far as the feeble light of the torch would reveal them, were of rock of the same character as the floor; only that instead of being smooth and even they were broken up into fantastic projections of every imaginable form, while here and there huge masses started boldly out from the face, forming flying buttresses with projecting pinnacles and elaborate carved-work, all executed by Nature's own hand; while elsewhere there clustered columns, so regular and perfect in their shape that they might have been transferred with scarcely a finishing touch of the chisel to the aisles of a cathedral. Where the light happened to fall upon these the effect was bewilderingly beautiful, the rays being reflected and refracted from and through the crystals of which they were composed until they shone and sparkled like columns of prismatic fire.
Then a new wonder revealed itself; for, on approaching more closely to the glittering walls, it became apparent that they were seamed with wide cracks here and there, the cracks being filled with a cement-like substance, so thickly studded with nuggets of gold of all sizes, that in less than five minutes a man might have gathered more than he could carry away. Passing along the walls, Lance found that it was everywhere the same, and that in stumbling upon this subterranean palace of the fairies they had also discovered a mine of incalculable wealth.
Hastily gathering a few of the finest nuggets within reach, they set out to return.
They had apparently made the entire circuit of the cavern, for there close to them yawned the black mouth of a passage. This was fortunate; as the torch had now burned so low that Lance saw with consternation it would be necessary for them to make the greater part of their return journey in darkness.
"But never mind, Blanche darling," he said cheerfully, remarking upon this unpleasant circumstance. "It is all plain sailing; there are no obstacles in our way; and if we have to grope slowly along, still the marvellous sight we have seen is well worth so trifling a penalty. Give me your hand, sweetheart, and let us get into the passage, for I shall have to abandon the light, it is scorching my fingers as it is."