Chapter 26




THE WOMEN IN THE GRAVEYARD.


I turned it over in my hand. Yes; it was a boat such as children make out of paper, many times folded, and "What on earth," thought I, "put such childishness into the head of Captain Branscome or Mr. Jack Rogers?"

Then it occurred to me that they might be caught in some peril higher up the stream, and had launched this message on the chance of its being carried down to the waters of the creek. A far-fetched explanation, to be sure! But what was I to think? If it were the explanation, doubtless the paper contained writing, and, carrying it to the bank, I seated myself and began to unfold it very carefully; for it was sodden, and threatened to fall to pieces in my hands. Then I reflected that the two men carried no writing materials, or, at the best, a lead pencil, the marks of which would be obliterated before the paper had been two minutes in the water.

Yet, as I parted the folds, I saw that the paper had indeed been scribbled on, though the words were a smear; and, moreover, that the writing was in ink!

In ink! My fingers trembled and involuntarily tore a small rent in the pulpy mass. I laid it on the grass to dry in the full sunshine, seated myself beside it, and looked around me with a shiver.

A paper boat--the paper written on--and the writing in ink! I could be sworn that neither Captain Branscome nor Mr. Rogers carried an inkbottle. The paper, too, was of a kind unfamiliar to me; thin, foreign paper, ruled with faint lines in watermark. Certainly no one on board the Espriella owned such writing-paper or the like of it. But again, the paper could not have been long in the water, and the writing seemed to be fresh. As the torn edges crinkled in the heat and curled themselves half-open, I peered between them and distinguished a capital "R," followed by an "i"; but these letters ran into a long smear, impossible to decipher.

I had flung myself prone on the grass, and so lay, with chin propped on both palms, staring at the thing as if it had been some strange beetle--staring till my eyes ached. But now I took it in my fingers again and prised the edges a little wider. Below the smear came a blank space, and below this were five lines ruled in ink with a number of dotted marks between them. . . . A smudged stave of music? Yes, certainly it was music. I could distinguish the mark of the treble clef. Lastly, at the foot of the page, as I unwrapped it at length, came a blurred illegible signature.

But what mattered the sense of it? The writing was here, and recent. No one on board the Espriella could have penned it. The island, then, was inhabited--now, at this moment inhabited, and the inhabitants, whoever they might be, at this moment not far from me.

I crushed the paper into my pocket, and stood up, slowly looking about me. For a second or two panic had me by the hair. I turned to run, but the dense woods through which I had ascended so light-heartedly had suddenly become a jungle of God knows what terrors. I remembered that from the first cascade upward I had scarcely once had a view of more than a dozen yards ahead, so thickly the bushes closed in upon me. I saw myself retracing my steps through those bushes, in every one of which now lurked a pair of watching eyes. I glanced up at the cliff across the stream. For aught I knew, eyes were watching me from its summit.

Needless to say, I cursed the hour of my transgression, the fatal impulse that had prompted me to break ship. I knew myself for a fool; but how might I win back to repentance? As repent I certainly would and acknowledge my fault. Could I keep hold on my nerve to thread my way back and over those five separate and accursed waterfalls? If only I were given a clear space to run!

At this point in the nexus of my fears it occurred to me, glancing along the green lawn ahead, that the ridge on its left must run almost parallel with the creek; that it was sparsely wooded in comparison with the ravine behind me, and that from the summit of it I might even look straight down upon the Espriella's anchorage. Be this as it might, I felt sure, considering the lie of the land, that here must be a short cut back to the creek; and once beside its waters I could head back along the beach and regain my boat. Down there I might dismiss my fears. The upper portion of the beach, if I mistook not, remained uncovered at the top of any ordinary tides, and it wanted yet a good two hours to high-water, so that I had not the smallest doubt of being able to reach the creek-head, no matter at what point of the foreshore I might descend. From the bank where I stood I had the whole ridge in view above the dense foliage, and could select the most promising point to make for; but this would sink out of sight as I approached the first belt of trees, and beyond them I must find my way by guesswork.

I now observed a sharp notch breaking the line of the ridge, about a mile to the westward, and walked some few hundred yards forward on the chance that it might widen as I drew more nearly abreast of it, and open into a passage between the hills. Widen it did, but very gradually--the stream curving away from it all the while; and by and by I halted again, in two minds whether to break straight across for it or continue this slow process of making sure.

I had now reached a point where the tall cliff on the opposite shore either ended abruptly or took a sharp turn back from the stream. I could not determine which, and walked forward yet another two hundred yards to satisfy myself. This brought me in view of a grove of palmettos, clustering under the very lee of the rock--or so it appeared at first, but a second look told me that here the stream again divided, and that the new confluent swept by the base of the rock, between it and the palmettos, three or four of which (their roots, maybe, sapped by bygone floods) leaned sideways and almost hid the junction.

I was turning away, resolved now to steer straight for the notch in the hills, when for the second time a gleam of something white arrested me, and I stood still, my heart in my mouth. The white object, whatever it was, stood within the circle of the palmetto stems, yet not very deep within it--a dozen yards at farthest from the stream's edge. I stared at it, and the longer I stared the more I was puzzled, until I plunged into the water and waded across for a closer look.

Gaining the bank, I saw, first, that the white object was but one of many, disposed behind it in two rows as regular as the tree-stems allowed; next, that these objects were wooden boards, pained white. And with that, as I stepped towards the foremost, my foot slipped and I fell, twisting my ankle and narrowly saving myself from an ugly sprain. I had stumbled in a hollow, shallow depression between the mounds. Picking myself up, I saw that to left and right and all around me the turf was ridged with similar mounds, the whole enclosure full of them. In a flash I read the meaning of the white-painted boards. Yes--and there was writing on them, too--no words, but single letters and dates, roughly painted in black-- "O. M., 1796"--"R. A. S., 1796"--"P d. V. and A. M. d. V., 1800"-- these, and perhaps two score of others. The shape of the mounds interpreted these inscriptions.

I was in a graveyard.

I sat helpless for a minute, dreadfully scanning the gloom through which the massed palmetto-tops admitted but a shaft of light here and there. The flies, which had been a nuisance across the stream, here swarmed in myriads so thick that they seemed to hang in clusters from the boughs; and their incessant buzzing added to the horror of the place a hint of something foul, sinister, almost obscene.

I had a mind to creep away on all-fours, but suddenly forgot my ankle and sprang erect, on the defensive, at the sound of voices. A grassy path led through the enclosure, between the graves, and at the end of it appeared two figures.

They were two women; the first a negress, short, squat, and ugly, wearing a frock of the gaudiest yellow, and for head-dress a scarlet handkerchief, bound closely about her scalp and tied in front with an immense bow; the other--but how shall I describe the other?

She was white, and she wore a dress of fresh white muslin; a short dress, tied about the waist with a pale-blue sash, and above the shoulders with narrow ribbons of the same colour. Her figure was that of a girl; her ringlets hung loose like a girl's. She walked with a girlish step; and until she came close I took her for a girl of sixteen or seventeen.

Then, with a shock, I found myself staring into the face, which might well belong to a woman between sixty and seventy, so faded it was and reticulated with wrinkles; and into a pair of eyes that wavered between ingenuousness and a childish cunning; and from them down to her slim ankles and a pair of dancing-shoes, so fairy-like and diminutive that they seemed scarcely to press the grass underfoot.

The pair had drawn to a halt, while I stood uncertain whether to brave them or make a bid for escape. I heard the negress cry aloud in a foreign tongue, at the same time flinging up her hands; but the other pushed past her and walked straight down upon me, albeit with a mincing, tripping motion, as if she was pacing a dance.

Twice she spoke, and in two different languages (as I recognized, though able to make nothing of either), and then, halting before me, she tried for the third time in English.

"Boy"--she looked at me inquiringly--"what you do here--will you tell?"

"I come from the ship, ma'am," said I, finding my tongue.

"The sheep? He bring a sheep? But why?--and why he bring you?"

I stared at her, not understanding. "Ma'am," said I, pointing over my shoulder, "we came here in a ship--a schooner; and she is lying in the creek yonder. I landed and climbed up through the woods. On my way I found this."

I held out the paper boat. She caught it out of my hand with a sharp cry. But the black woman, at the same instant, turned on her and began to scold her volubly. The words were unintelligible to me, but her tone, full of angry remonstrance, could not be mistaken.

"I am not sorry," said the white woman, speaking in English, with a glance at me. "No, I do not care for his orders. It was by this that you came to me?" she asked, turning to me again, and pointing mincingly at the paper.

"I found it in the stream," I replied; "almost a mile below this."

"Yes, yes; you found it in the stream. And you opened it, and read the writing?"

I shook my head. "The writing, ma'am, was blotted--I could read nothing."

"Not even my little song?" She peered into the paper, threw up her head and piped a note or two, for all the world as a bird chirrups, lifting his bill, after taking a drink. "La-la-la--you did not understand, hey? But, nevertheless, you came, and of your own will. He did not bring you?"

I shook my head again, having no clue to her meaning.

"So best," she said, changing her tone of a sudden to one of extreme gravity. "For if he found you here--here of all places--he would kill you. Yes"--she nodded impressively "for sure we would kill you. He kill all these."

She waved a hand, indicating the grave-mounds. Her voice, at these dreadful words, ran up to an almost more dreadful airiness; and still she continued nodding, but now with a sort of simpering pride. "All these," she repeated, waving her hand again towards the mounds.

"Did you see him kill them?" I asked, wondering whom "he" might be, and scarcely knowing what I said.

"Some," she answered, with a final nod and a glance of extreme childish cunning. "But why you not talking, Rosa?" she demanded, turning on the negress. "You speak English; it is no use to pretend."

The black woman stared at me for a moment from under her loose-hanging lids.

"You go 'way," she said slowly. "You get no good in these parts."

"Very well, ma'am," said I, steadying my voice, "and the sooner the better, if you will kindly tell me the shortest cut back to the creek."

"And," the woman went on, not seeming to heed the interruption, "you tell the same to your friends, that they get no good in these parts. But, of us--and of this"--she pointed to the sodden paper which she had snatched from her mistress's hands--"you will say nothing. It might bring mischief."

"Mischief?" I echoed.

"Mischief--upon her."

"But this is nonsense you talk, Rosa!" broke in the little lady. "At the most, what have I written?--a little song from Gluck, the divine Gluck! Just a little song of Eurydice calling to Orfeo. Ah! you should have heard me sing it--in the days before my voice left me; in the opera, boy, and the King himself splitting his gloves to applaud us! Eh, but you are young, very young. I should not wonder to hear you were born after I left the stage. And you are pretty, but not old enough to be Orfeo yet. I must wait--I must wait, though I wait till I doubt if I am not changed to Proserpine with her cracked voice. Boy, if I kissed you--"

She advanced a step, but the negress caught her by the wrist violently, at the same moment waving me off. I felt faint and giddy, as though some exhalation from the graveyard--not wholly repellent, but sickly, overpowering, like the scent of a hothouse lily--had been suddenly wafted under my nostrils. I fell back a pace as the negress motioned me away. Her hand pointed across the stream, and across the meadow, to the gap in the ridge.

"Fast as you can run," she panted; "and never come this way again."

The strong scent yet hung around me and seemed to bind me like a spell, pressing on my arms and logs. I plunged knee-deep into the stream. The cool touch of the water brought me to my senses. I splashed across, waded up the bank, and set off running towards the gap.




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