Chapter 35




THE DOOM


"Nothing remained but to search for his body. I was sure they had killed him and taken the chest. I had little expectation of finding him, dead or alive. None after I saw the stream of lava pouring into the sea. One saves his own life by instinct, I suppose. There I was. I had to live. It did not matter much, but I continued to do it by various shifts. That last day on the headland the fumes nearly got me. You may have noted the rather excited scrawl in the back of the ledger? Yes, I thought I was gone that time. But I got to the cave. It was low tide. Then the earthquake, and I was walled in.... Mr. Barnett's very accurate explosives--Slade's insistence--your risking your lives as you did, mites on the crust of a red-hot cheese--I hope you know how I feel about it all. One can't thank a man properly for the life....

"Oh, the pirates. Necessarily it must be a matter of theory, but I think we have it right. Slade and I built it up. For what it's worth, here it is. Let me see: you sighted the glow on the night of the 2d. Next day came the deserted ship. It must have puzzled you outrageously."

"It did," said Captain Parkinson, drily.

"Not an easy problem, even with all the data at hand. You, of course, had none. On Slade's showing, Handy Solomon and his worthy associates thought they had a chest full of riches when they got the doctor's treasure; believed they owned the machinery for making diamonds or gold or what-not of ready-to-hand wealth. It's fair to assume a certain eagerness on their part. Disturbed weather keeps them busy until they're well out from the island. Then to the chest. Opening it isn't so easy: I had the key, you know." He brought a curious and delicately wrought skeleton from his pocket. "Tipped with platinum," he observed. "Rather a gem of a key, I think. You see, there must have been some action, even through the keyhole, or he wouldn't have used a metal of this kind. But the crew was rich in certain qualities, it seems, which I failed, stupidly, to recognise in my acquaintance with them. Both Pulz and Perdosa appear to have been handy men where locks were concerned. First Pulz sneaks down and has his turn at the chest. He gets it open. Small profit for him in that: the next we know of him he is scandalising Handy Solomon by having a fit on the deck."

"That is what I couldn't figure out to save my life," said Slade eagerly.

"If you recollect, I told you of the Professor's plunge in the cold spring, in a sort of paroxysm, one day," said Darrow. "That was the physiological action of the celestium. At other times, I have seen him come out and deliberately roll in the creek, head under. Once he explained that the medium he worked in caused a kind of uncontrollable longing for water; something having none of the qualities of burning or thirst, but an irresistible temporary mania. It worried him a good deal; he didn't understand it. That, then, was what ailed Pulz. When he opened the chest there was, as I surmise, a trifling quantity of this stuff lying in the inner lid. It wasn't the celestium itself, as I imagine, but a sort of by- product with the physiological and radiant effects of the real thing, and it had been set there on guard, a discouragement to the spirit of investigation, as it were. So, when the top was lifted, our little guardian gets in its work, producing the light phenomenon that so puzzled Slade, and inspiring Pulz with a passion for the rolling wave, which is only interrupted by Handy Solomon's tackling him. As he fled he must have pulled down the cover."

"He did," said Slade. "I heard the clang. But I saw the radiance on the clouds. And the whole thickness of a solid oak deck was in between the sky and the chest."

"Oh, a little thing like an oak deck wouldn't interrupt the kind of rays the doctor used. He had his own method of screening, you understand. However, this inconsiderable guardian affair must have used itself up, which true celestium wouldn't have done. So when Perdosa sets his genius for lock-picking to the task, the inner box, full of the genuine article, has no warning sign-post, so to speak. Everything's peaceful until they raise the compound-filled hollow layer of the inner cover, which serves to interrupt the action. Then comes the general exit and the superior fireworks."

"That's when the rays ran through the ship," said Slade. "It seemed to follow the deck-lines."

"The stuff had a strange affinity for tar," said Darrow. "I told you of the circle of fire about Professor Schermerhorn's waist the day he gave me such a scare. That was the celestium working on the tarred rope he wore for a belt. It made a livid circle on his skin. Did I tell you of his experiments with pitch? It doesn't matter. Where was I?"

"At the place where we all jumped," said Slade.

"Oh, yes. And you dove into the small boat, trying to reach the water."

"Wait a bit," said Barnett. "If that was the exhibition of radiance we saw, it died out in a few minutes. How was that? Did they close the chest before they ran?"

"Probably not," replied Darrow. "Slade spoke of Pulz taking to the maintop and being shaken out by the sudden shock of a wave. That may have been a volcanic billow. Whatever it was, it undoubtedly heeled the ship sufficiently to bring down both lids, which were rather delicately balanced."

"Yes, for Billy Edwards found the chest closed and locked," said Barnett.

"Of course; it was a spring lock. You sent Mr. Edwards and his men aboard. No such experts as Pulz or Perdosa were in your crew. Consequently it took longer to get the chest open. When at length the lid was raised, there was a repetition of the tragedy. Mr. Edwards and his men leaped. Probably they were paralysed almost before they struck the water. Your bos'n, whom Slade picked up, was the only one who had time even to grab a life preserver before the impulse toward water became irresistible. There was no element of fright, you understand: no desertion of their post. They were dragged as by the sweep of a tornado." Darrow spoke direct to Captain Parkinson. "If there is any feeling among you other than sorrow for their death, it is unjust and unworthy."

"Thank you, Mr. Darrow," returned the captain quietly.

"We found the chest closed again when the empty ship came back," observed Barnett.

"Being masterless, the schooner began to yaw," continued Darrow. "The first time she came about would have heeled her enough to shut the chest. Now came the turn of your other men."

"Ives and McGuire," said the Captain, as Darrow paused.

"The glow came again that night, and the next day we picked up Slade," said Barnett.

"You know what the glow meant for your companions," said Darrow.

"But the ship. The Laughing Lass, man. She's vanished. No one has seen her since."

"You are wrong there," said Darrow. "I have seen her."

In a common impulse the little circle leaned to him.

"Yes, I have seen her. I wish I had not. Let me bring my story back to the cave on the island. After the volcanic gases had driven me to the refuge, I sat near the mouth of the cave looking out into the darkness. That was the night of the 7th, the night you saw the last glow. It was very dark, except for occasional bursts of fire from the crater. Judge of my incredulous amazement when, in an access of this illumination, I saw plainly a schooner hardly a mile off shore, coming in under bare poles."

"Under bare poles?" cried Slade.

"The halliards must have disintegrated from some slow action of the celestium. It could be destructive: terrifically destructive. You shall judge. There was the schooner, naked as your hand. Possibly I might have thought it a hallucination but for what came after. Darkness fell again. I supposed then that Handy Solomon's crew were managing--or mismanaging--the Laughing Lass without the aid of their leader, whom I had satisfactorily buried. I hoped they would come ashore on the rocks. Yes I was vengeful ... then.

"Of a sudden there sprang from the darkness a ship of light. You have all seen those great electric effects at expositions. Someone touches a button ... you know. It was like that. Only that the piercingly brilliant jewelled wonder of a ship was set in the midst of a swirl of vari-coloured radiance such as I can't begin to describe. You saw it from a distance. Imagine what it was, coming close upon you that way--dead on, out of the night. A living glory, a living terror...."

His voice sank. With a shaking hand he fumbled amid his cigarette papers.

"It came on. A human figure, glowing like a diamond ablaze, leaped out from it; another shot down from the foremast. I don't know how many I saw go. It was like a theatric effect, unreal, unconvincing, incredible. The end fitted it."

Darrow's eye roved. It fell upon a quaintly modelled ship, hung above the door.

"What's that?" he cried.

"Fool thing some Malay gave me," grunted Trendon. "Pretended to be grateful because I cut his foot off. No good. Go on with the story."

"No good? You don't care what happens to it?"

"Meant to heave it overboard before now," growled the other.

Someone handed it down to Darrow.

"If I had something to hold enough water," muttered he, "I'd like to float it. I'd like to see for myself how it worked out. I'd like to see that devil-work in action."

He spoke feverishly.

"Boy, fill the portable rubber tub in Mr. Forsythe's cabin and bring it here," ordered the captain.

"That will do." said Darrow, recovering himself.

He floated the model in the tub.

"Now, I don't know how this will come out," he said. "Nor do I know why the Laughing Lass met her fate under Ives and McGuire, and not before. Perhaps the chest lay open longer ... long enough, anyway. We'll try it."

From his pocket he took a curious small phial.

"Is that what Dr. Schermerhorn gave you?" asked Slade.

"Yes," said Darrow. He set it carefully inside the little model and slipped a lever. Slade quietly turned down the light.

A faint glow shot up. It grew bright and eddied in lovely, variant colours. As if set to a powder train, it ran through the ship. The pale faces of the spectators shone ghastly in its radiance. From someone burst a sudden gasp.

"There is not enough for danger," said Darrow, quietly.

"As a point of interest," grunted Trendon.

Everyone looked at his outstretched hand. A little pocket compass lay in the palm. The needle spun madly, projecting blue, vivid sparklings.

"My God!" cried Slade, and covered his eyes for a moment.

He snatched away his hands as a suppressed cry went up from the others.

"As I expected," said Darrow quietly.

The little craft opened out; it disintegrated. All that radiance dissolved and with its going the substance upon which it shaped itself vanished. The last glow showed a formless pulp, spreading upon the water.

"So passed the Laughing Lass," said Darrow solemnly.

"And the chest is at the bottom of the sea," said Barnett.

"Good place for it," muttered Trendon.

"In all probability it closed as the ship dissolved around it," said Darrow. "Otherwise we should see the effects in the water."

"It might be recovered," cried Slade, excitedly.

"Could you chart it, Darrow? Think of the possibilities--"

"Let it lie," said the captain. "Has it not cost enough? Let it lie."

The water in the tub fumed and sparkled faintly and was still. Darkness fell, except where Darrow's cigarette point glowed and faded.


THE END.

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