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THE MASTER OF THE ISLAND.
But here, as Captain Branscome leaned back and caught feebly at the main rigging for support, there appeared above the after companion (like a cognisance above an escutcheon) a bent fore-arm, the hand grasping a beaver hat. It was presently followed by the head of Miss Belcher, who nodded cheerfully, blinking a little in the level light of the sunset.
"Hallo!" said she, addressing Plinny, while she adjusted the hat upon her brow. "Have you been telling the Captain about our visitor?"
"Miss Plinlimmon, ma'am, has given me a shock, and I won't deny it," answered the Captain, recovering himself.
Miss Belcher continued to nod like a china mandarin.
"I don't wonder," she agreed. "For my part, you might have knocked me down with a feather. The fellow came down the creek, cool as you please, and pulling a nice easy stroke, in Harry's cockboat. Where is Harry, by the way?"--her eyes lit and fastened upon me-- "Good Lord! what have you been doing to the child?"
"Nothing, ma'am. He has been exploring, and lost his way; that's all."
"H'm! he seems to have lost it pretty badly. Well, he deserved it. But, as I was saying, along comes my gentleman, pulling with just the easy jerk which is the way to make a boat of that sort travel. Goodfellow was keeping watch. They say that a sailor will recognize a boat half a mile further off than he'll recognize the man in it, but Goodfellow isn't a sailor, so that explanation won't fit. We'll say that he was prepared for the boat returning, but not to find an entire stranger pulling her. At all events, he let her come within a couple of gunshots before calling down to the cabin and giving the alarm. I had my legs up on a locker, and was taking a siesta over a book--'Parkinson On The Dog'--and, by the way, we were a set of fools not to bring a dog; but I ran up the companion in a jiffy, and had the sense to catch up your spyglass as I went. Goodfellow by this time had begun to dance about the deck in a flutter. He had the tinder-box in his hand, and wanted to know if he should touch off a rocket. I ordered him to drop it, and fetch me a musket, which he did. By this time I could see that the man in the boat was unarmed, so I put up the musket at the 'present,' got the sight on him, and called out to know his business.
"The man jerked the cockboat round with her stern to the schooner-- these boats come right-about with a single twist--and says he, very politely lifting his hat, 'You'll pardon me, ma'am, but (as you see) I have borrowed your young friend's boat. My own was not handy, and this seemed the quickest way to pay my respects.' 'Indeed?' said I, 'and who may you be?' 'My name, ma'am,' said he, 'is Beauregard--Dr. Beauregard.' 'I never heard of you,' said I. 'That, ma'am, is entirely my misfortune,' said he, lifting his hat again; 'but allow me to say that I am the proprietor of this island, and very much at your service.'
"Well, this was a facer. It never occurred to any of us--eh?--that this island might have an owner. To tell the truth, I'm a stickler for the rights of property, at home; but somehow the notion of an island like this belonging to any one had never entered my head. Yet the thing is reasonable enough when you come to think it over; and, of course, I saw that it put an entirely different complexion upon our business here."
"My dear Lydia," put in Mr. Rogers, impatiently, "the man's claim must be absurd. Why, the island is right in the tropics!"
"You wouldn't have thought it a bit absurd if you had heard him," retorted Miss Belcher. "He appeared to be quite sure of his ground. Very pleasant about it, too, he was; said that few visitors ever honoured his out-of-the way home, but that as soon as any arrived he always made it a matter of--of punctilio (yes, that was the word) to put off and bid them welcome. He spoke with the slightest possible foreign accent, but used admirable English: and, I don't know why," wound up Miss Belcher, ingenuously, "but he seemed to divine from the first that I was an Englishwoman."
"And it wasn't as if we had come here flaunting British colours," added Plinny.
"But what sort of man was he?" asked the Captain.
"Height, six foot two or three in his stockings; age, about sixty; face, clean shaven and fleshy; the features extraordinarily powerful; hair, jet black, and dyed (if at all) by a process that would make his fortune if he sold the secret; clothes, black alpaca and well cut, with silk stockings that would be cheap at two guineas, and shoes with gold buckles on 'em. I couldn't take my eyes off--no display about 'em--and yet I doubt if King Louis of France over wore the like before they cut his head off. Complexion, pale for this climate, with a sort of silvery shine about it. Manner charming, voice charming, bearing fit for a grand seigneur; and that's what he is, or something like it, unless, as I rather incline to suspect, he's the biggest scoundrel unhung."
"Oh, Miss Belcher!" protested Plinny. "When you agreed with me that he might have sat for a portrait of a gentleman of the old school!"
"Tut, my dear! When I saw that you had lost your heart to him as soon as he set foot on deck! Did I say 'of the old school'? Yes, indeed, and of the very oldest; and, in fact, quite possibly the Old Gentleman himself."
Now, either I had spoiled Captain Branscome's temper for the day, or something in this speech of Miss Belcher's especially rasped it.
"But who is this man?" he demanded, in a sharp, authoritative voice.
Miss Belcher stepped back half a pace. I saw her chin go up, and it seemed to grow square as she answered him with a dangerous coldness.
"I beg your pardon. I thought I told you that he gave his name as Dr. Beauregard."
"You had no business, ma'am, to allow him on board the ship."
"No business, ma'am. I have just been having words with young Harry, here, over his disobedience this afternoon; but this is infinitely more serious. We are here to search for treasure. We no sooner drop anchor than a man visits us, who claims that the island is his. This at once presupposes his claim upon any treasure that may be hidden upon it, and consequently that, as soon as he discovers our purpose, he will be our enemy. It follows, I should imagine, that of all steps the most fatal was to admit him on board to discover our weakness."
"Our weakness, sir?" asked Miss Belcher, carelessly, as though but half attending.
"Our weakness, ma'am; as it was doubtless to discover our weakness that he came."
"Now, I rather thought," murmured Miss Belcher, "that Miss Plinlimmon and I had spent a great part of this afternoon in impressing him with our strength."
"To be sure," pursued Captain Branscome, "with such a company as he found on board, he can scarcely have suspected a treasure hunt. Still, when he does suspect it--as sooner or later he must--he will know our weakness."
"He could scarcely have dealt with us more frankly than he did, at any rate," said Miss Belcher, with an air of simplicity; "for he assured us he was alone on the island."
"And you believed him, ma'am?"
"I forget, sir, if I believed him; but he certainly knows that we are here in search of treasure, for I told him so myself."
Captain Branscome gasped. "You--you told him so?" he echoed.
"I did, and he replied that it scarcely surprised him to hear it, that of the few vessels which found their way to Mortallone, quite an appreciable proportion came with some idea of discovering treasure. The proportion, he added, had fallen off of late years, and the most of them nowadays put in to water, but there was a time when the treasure-seekers threatened to become a positive nuisance. He said this with a smile which disarmed all suspicion. In fact, it was impossible to take offence with the man."
But at this point Plinny, frightened perhaps at the warnings of apoplexy in Captain Branscome's face, laid a hand gently on Miss Belcher's arm.
"Are we treating our good friend quite fairly?" she asked.
Miss Belcher glanced at her and broke into a ringing laugh.
"You dear creature! No, to be sure, we are not; but from a child I always turned mischievous under correction. Captain Branscome, I beg your pardon."
"It is granted, ma'am."
"And--for I take you to be on the point of resigning, here and now--"
"Ma'am, you have guessed correctly."
"I am going to beg you to do nothing of the sort. No, I am not going to ask it only as a favour, but to appeal to your reason. You think it extremely rash of me to have entertained this man and talked with him so frankly? Well, but consider. To begin with, if I had not told him that we were after the treasure, he would probably have guessed it; nay, I make bold to say that he guessed it already, for--I forgot to mention it--he knows Harry Brooks."
"Knows me, ma'am?" I cried out, as all the company turned and stared at me.
"He says so, and that he recognized you as you were sculling up the creek."
"Knows me?" I echoed. "But who on earth can he be, then? Not--not the man Aaron Glass, surely?"
"I was wondering," said Miss Belcher.
"But--but Aaron Glass wasn't a bit like this man, as you make him out; a thin, foxy-looking fellow, with sandy hair and a face full of wrinkles, about the middling height, with sloping shoulders--"
"Then he can't be Aaron Glass. But whoever he is, he knows you-- that's the important point--and pretty certainly connects you with the treasure. He didn't seem to have met Goodfellow before. Well, now, if he lives alone here--which, I admit, is not likely--we ought to be more than a match for him. If, on the other hand, he has men at his call--and I ask your particular attention here, Captain-- it was surely no folly at all, but the plainest common sense, to admit him on board. He will go off and report that our ship's company consists of two middle-aged maiden ladies (I occupied myself with tatting a chair-cover while he conversed); a boy; Mr. Goodfellow (whatever he may have made of Goodfellow); and two gentlemen ashore to whose mental and physical powers I was careful to do some injustice. You will pardon me, Captain, but I laid more than warrantable stress on your lameness; and us for you, Jack, I depicted you as a mere country booby"--here Mr. Rogers bowed amiably--"and added by way of confirmation that I had known you from childhood. He will go back and report all this, with the certain consequence that he and his confederates will mistake us for a crew of crack-brained eccentrics."
When she had done, the Captain stood considering for a moment, rubbing his chin.
"Yes," he admitted slowly, "there seems reason in that, ma'am; reason and method. But 'tis a kind of reason and method outside all my experience, and you must excuse me if I get the grip of it slowly. I should like a good look at the man before saying more."
"As to that," answered Miss Belcher, "you won't have long to wait for it. He has invited us all ashore to-morrow, for a picnic. He charged me to say--if he did not happen to run against you as he was returning the cockboat--that he would be at the creek-head punctually at nine-thirty to await us."
* * * * * * *
Two hours later Captain Branscome sent word for me to attend him in his cabin.
"I want to tell you, Harry Brooks," said the old man, turning away from me while he lit his pipe, "that I have been thinking over what happened this afternoon."
"I was in the wrong, sir."
"You were; and I am glad to hear you acknowledge it. Now, what I want to say is this. Had affairs gone in the least as I expected, I should have held you to 'strict service,' as we used to say on the old packets. I never tolerated a favourite on board, and never shall. But these ladies don't make a favourite of you; that's not the trouble. The trouble--no, I won't call it even that--is that you and they all cannot help taking the bit between your teeth. It don't appear to be your fault; you wasn't bred to the sea, and can't tumble to sea-fashions. 'So much the worse,' a man might say. The plague of it is, I can't be sure; and after casting it up and down, I've determined to let you have your way."
"You don't mean, sir, that you're going to resign!" said I, confounded.
"No, I don't. Saving your objections, boy, I was elected captain, and it don't do away with my responsibility that I choose to let discipline go to the winds. If mischief comes I shall be to blame, because I might have stopped it but didn't."
I was silent. This should have been the time for me to tell what I had discovered that afternoon; of the graveyard and the two strange women. But shame tied my tongue. I saw that this noble gentleman, in imparting his thoughts to me, was really condescending to ask my pardon; and the injustice of it was so monstrous that I felt a delicacy in letting him know the extent of my unworthiness. I temporized, and promised myself a better occasion.
"But are you quite sure, sir, that yours was not the wisest plan, after all?"
"The question is not worth considering," he answered. "My policy-- you would hardly call it a plan, for it wholly depended on circumstances--no longer exists. The ladies, you see, have forced my hand."
I forbore to tell him that if the ladies had forced his hand his accepting full responsibility was simply quixotic.
"She's a wonderful woman," said I, by way of filling up the pause.
"And so womanly!" assented Captain Branscome, to my entire surprise.
"Indeed, sir," I stammered. "Well, I have heard people say--Mr. Rogers for one--that Miss Belcher ought to have been born a man."
"Miss Belcher? Why, heavens alive, boy, I was referring to Miss Plinlimmon!"
He dismissed me with a wave of the hand, but called me back as I turned to the door.
"Oh, by the way," said he, "I had almost forgotten the reason why I sent for you. This man--have you any notion who he can be?"
"You've thought over every possible person of your acquaintance? Well"--as I nodded--"we shall know to-morrow morning, if he keeps his word. Mr. Rogers has kindly undertaken to stay and look after the schooner. He has a sense of discipline, by the way, has Mr. Rogers."
"If you wish me, sir, to stay with him-"
"Thank you," he interrupted dryly, "but we shall need you ashore; in the first place to indentify this mysterious stranger, and also to help protect the ladies. Their escort, Heaven knows, is not excessive. We take the gig, and if the man fails to appear, or brings even so much as one companion, I give the word to return."
* * * * * * *
But these apprehensions proved to be groundless. As we rowed around the bend next morning into view of the creek-head the man stood there alone, awaiting us. He saw us at once, and lifted his hat in welcome.
"Do you know him, Harry?" asked Miss Belcher.
"No," said I, pretty confidently, and then--"But, yes--in the garden, that evening--the day you went up to Plymouth for the sale!"
"Eh? The garden at Minden Cottage? What on earth was he doing there?"
"Nothing, ma'am--at least, I don't know. He seemed to be taking measurements, and he gave me a guinea. I rather think, ma'am, he was the man that attended the auction."
"You never saw him until that evening?"
"Only that once, ma'am."
"Oh!" said Miss Belcher.
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