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A BOAT ON THE BEACH.
As we drew to shore the stranger stepped down the beach and lifted his hat again.
"Welcome, ladies; and let me thank you and all your party for this confidence. The boy here--bless my soul, how he has grown in these few months!--the boy and I have had the pleasure of meeting before. Eh, Harry Brooks? You remember me? To the Captain I must introduce myself. Shake hands, Captain Branscome. I am proud to make your acquaintance. . . . But what is the meaning of these baskets? You have brought your own provisions? Come, Miss Belcher, that is unkind of you, when we agreed--yes, surely we agreed?--that you were to be my guests."
"We were not sure, sir--" began Miss Belcher.
"That I should keep my word? Worse and worse! Or possibly you distrusted the entertainment of a solitary bachelor on a desert island? But I must prove that you did me an injustice." He pointed to a goodly hamper on the beach and to a frail or carpenter's basket from which half a dozen bottles protruded their necks, topped with red and green seals. "As proprietor of Mortallone--you will forgive my laying stress on it--I may surely claim the right to do the honours. Stay a moment, my good man," he added, as Mr. Goodfellow made a motion to lift out our own hamper. "Miss Plinlimmon, I believe, is an admirer of natural scenery, and, if the ladies will step ashore for a few minutes, there is a waterfall above which may reward her inspection; not by any means, ma'am, the grandest our island can show, yet charming in its way and distant but a short five minutes' walk. Captain Branscome will bear me out, and Harry, too-- yes, Harry, too, if I mistake not, visited it yesterday."
He put out a hand to assist the ladies to disembark, at the same time hitching back the gun on his bandolier.
"You will excuse my having brought a musket. You have brought your own, I see. Quite right. I carry it habitually; for, to tell you the truth, the island contains a few wild boars who dispute possession with me. A very few--we are not likely to meet with one, so the ladies may reassure themselves! But, as I was about to say, with the Captain's permission we will not unload here. Rather, after visiting the waterfall, I would suggest that we row round to the eastern side, where, if I may guide you, you will find choice of a dozen delightful spots for a picnic. In this way, too, we shall cover more ground and get a more general view of the beauties of the island, which, as I dare say my friend Harry discovered yesterday, is somewhat too thickly overgrown for easy travelling."
The man's manner--at once frank, chatty, and easily polite-- completely disconcerted me, and I could see it disconcerted the Captain. It seemed to reduce the whole expedition to an ordinary picnic; and (more astonishing yet) the ladies accepted it for that. They fell in, one on each side of him, as he led the way to the waterfall, and for a climax Miss Belcher shook out a parasol which she had been carrying under her arm and spread it above her beaver hat!
At the waterfall our host surpassed himself. The landscape hereabouts (he declared) always reminded him of Nicholas Poussin. He would like Miss Plinlimmon's opinion on the rock-drawing of Salvator Rosa, a painter whom he gently depreciated. Had Miss Plinlimmon ever visited the Apennines? He plucked a few of the ferns growing in the spray and discoursed on them, comparing them with the common European polypody. He turned to music, and challenged his fair visitors to guess the note made by the falling water: it hummed on E natural, rising now and then by something less than a semitone.
With all this it was not easy to suspect him of acting, as it was next to impossible to mistake him for a trifler. His tall figure, his carriage, the fine pose of his head, his resonant manly voice, all forbade it, no less than did the wild scenery to which he drew our attention with an easy proprietary wave of the hand. I observed that Captain Branscome listened to him with a puzzled frown.
The waterfall having been duly admired, we retraced our steps to the shore. The gig carried a small mast and lugsail, and, the faint wind blowing fair down the creek, the Captain suggested our hoisting them. I think it annoyed him to find himself appealing to Dr. Beauregard.
"By all means," said the Doctor, affably. "It will save labour till we reach open water, when I will ask you to lower them. We had best use the paddles after rounding the point to eastward, and keep close inshore. I have my reasons for recommending this--reasons which I shall be happy to explain to you, sir, at the proper time." Here he bowed to Captain Branscome.
Accordingly we hoisted sail, and in a few minutes opened the view of the lower reach, with the Espriella swinging softly at her cables, her masts reflected on the scarcely rippled water. Miss Belcher broke into a laugh at sight of Mr. Rogers wistfully eyeing us from the deck. Dr. Beauregard echoed it, just audibly.
"Well, well, ma'am; it is hard upon Mr.--Rogers, did you tell me? But we must not blame the Captain for taking precautions. A very neat craft, Captain, and Jamaica-built, by the look of her."
"We picked her up at Savannah-la-Mar," announced Miss Belcher.
"After burning your boats, madam? Pardon me, but I find your frankness as admirable as it is unexpected. Moreover, though Captain Branscome deprecates it, no policy could be wiser."
"I see no reason, sir, for being less than candid with you," said Miss Belcher. "You know whence we come end you know why we are here. How we came is a trifling matter in comparison."
"Believe me, ma'am, your frankness is all in your favour. I may repeat what I told you yesterday, that several expeditions have come to this island seeking treasure; crews of merely avaricious men, mad with greed, whom I have made it my business to baffle. You, on the contrary, may almost count on my help; though whether the treasure will do you much good when you have found it is another question altogether. But we are not treasure-seeking just now, and I shall grudge even the pleasure of talking if it steal your admiration from my island."
The shore by which we steered was, indeed, entrancing, and grew yet more entrancing as we rounded Cape Fea and, downing sail, headed the gig for the north-east, pulling almost in the shadow of the cliffs; for the sea lay calm as a pond, and broke in feeblest ripples even on the beaches recessed here and there in the chasms. We passed Try-again Inlet, and our wonder grew; for the cliffs now were mere cliffs no longer but the bases of a range of mountains, broken into rock slides with matted vines like curtains overhanging their scars; and in the water, ten fathoms deep below us, we could watch the coloured fishes at play.
Mr. Goodfellow and I were at the oars; and we had been pulling, as I judged, for something over an hour, but easily, for the tide could hardly be felt, when Dr. Beauregard, who had taken the tiller, steered us in towards a beach which he announced to be the, perhaps, very choicest in the island for a picnic.
Certainly it was a fairy-like spot, with white sand underfoot, green creepers overhanging, and through the creepers a rill of water splashing down the cliff; yet we had passed at least a dozen other beaches, which to me had looked no less inviting.
"We will leave the ladies to unpack the hampers," said Dr. Beauregard. "I speak as a bachelor, but in my experience there is a half-hour before lunch in which that man is best appreciated who makes himself scarce. Captain Branscome, if you will not mind a short scramble over the rocks here, to the left, I can promise you something worth seeing."
He led the way at once, and we followed, the Captain (who appeared to have lost his temper again) growling that he took no stock in views. But the distance was not far. We scrambled over two low ledges of rock and found ourselves looking down upon a beach even prettier and more fairy-like than the one we had left--and upon something more--a ship's boat, drawn about thirty feet above high-water, and resting there on her side.
"Yours?" asked Captain Branscome, after a long stare at her.
"Certainly not," answered Dr. Beauregard. "And that is why I brought you here."
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