Doubloons/Chapter 4

 

CHAPTER IV.

In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the slim schooner Challenge was standing on a long tack to fetch a group of islets which had lifted from the horizon like tiny dots. Captain Kempton was at the wheel, his gray hair bared to the sun, his shirt sleeves rolled up to disclose the tattooed pattern of a mermaid. Dapperly clad in white flannels, William Marmaduke Mannice stood at the rail and aimed a pair of binoculars at the distant Seven Islands. Eudora was in the cabin. It was confoundedly odd, but whenever he appeared on deck she found something to do below, and vice versa; and he was sure of meeting her only at meals. He had expected to make more headway during the voyage, but for once the irresistible suitor had encountered the immovable maid.

Now, however, he forgot the chilling indifference of Eudora in contemplating a problem even more serious. There were the Seven Islands, right enough, but they seemed to be no more than so many naked rocks. In this event, the skipper might turn about and sail straight home again, which meant that Mr. Mannice would shortly be turned adrift to shift for himself. Anxiously, therefore, he stared at the blue sky line and watched the black dots grow larger. The captain shouted an order. The men shortened sail and dropped the sounding lead as the schooner crept to leeward of the southernmost pinnacle of the group. Eudora came on deck, shaded her eyes with her hand, and exclaimed to her parent:

“I suppose I ought to apologize for being such a horrid little skeptic. The Seven Islands really exist, but they look dreadfully skimpy. We shall have to dig one at a time or crowd each other overboard.”

“We are not close enough to get the lay of the land,” he replied, with a nervous gesture. “The admiralty chart shows one island a mile or so long, but much lower than the others. We shall get a sight of it presently.”

Mannice felt much better. The chart of Peleg Peterson was vague enough to fit almost any island big enough to land on. And Captain Kempton was not apt to be too critical. All he desired was the sand and a shovel. The breeze held until the schooner had picked her course so near the largest island that the party could see a strip of white beach in a notch of coast and the land behind it strewn with boulders and thinly covered with a stunted growth. It was a desolate bit of landscape, but charming to the eyes of Captain Kempton, who ran to the companionway to unfold the chart of Peleg Peterson and jubilantly impart:

“A pocket of a bay, precisely as the rogue set it down, and those thundering big rocks were what he took his bearings from. Hooray! Mannice, my boy, we’re on the right track.”

Mannice matched his enthusiasm, saying to himself that this was his lucky day. He had drawn a bay on the chart, of course, for most islands had them, and how else could a pirate put his boat ashore while his low, rakish craft lay in the offing? Eudora, poor girl, was in a confused state of mind. She was no less mistrustful of the dashing Mannice, but he did seem to know his business when it came to directing this singular voyage. She would suspend judgment for the present.

There was sufficient water in the bay for the schooner to swing at a sheltered anchorage. It was in the afternoon when she rested with canvas furled and a boat was dropped from the davits astern. It had been decided, so long as the weather should be fair, to erect a shelter ashore for use during the day, and to return aboard at night. There was a large amount of material to disembark—tools, tarpaulins, wheelbar rows, and so on, and this preliminary task was lustily undertaken by all hands, barring the cook, Harvey Mattoon. A venerable man was he, gnarled and tough, with despondent views concerning human nature. Confidentially, he croaked to Eudora as they watched the seamen load the yawl:

“I never would ha’ thought it of your old man. Did it take him sudden, or was there any previous spells by way of warnin’?”

“It attacked him all at once, Harvey,” she laughed. “Then you don’t approve?”

“A-racketin’ off at his age to cut up didoes like this? It’s awful. Seems as if he had more sense than to tie up to a human sculpin like this Mannice. I’d pisen his grub if I dared.”

“Then you and I think the same way, and we’ll have to stand together,” said Eudora; “but we must keep very quiet about it.”

The cook went grumbling to the galley, manifesting no interest in the thrilling scene. No sooner had the captain finished his work on the beach than, regardless of the supper hour, he unfolded his precious chart and endeavored to find the marks and bearings as recorded by the wicked Peleg Peterson. Mannice dutifully accompanied him, and kept a straight face while the honest mariner trudged from one boulder to another and painfully studied a pocket compass.

It was a puzzling quest, but your treasure seeker is swayed by his imagination, and the captain steered his course by the precious chart with all the confidence in the world.

“‘From ye Grate Rock forty paces to ye Shoare, S. S. E.’” he solemnly quoted from the dingy parchment which Mannice kindly helped him decipher, for the pirate had been a villainous hand with a pen. “Here we are, my boy. The biggest rock on the island. No doubt of it. Now for ‘ye tall oke tree.’ Gone, confound it, but perhaps we can find the stump. It’s not essential. We’ll turn up every inch of the beach before we quit.”

Breakfast was served at daybreak next morning, and only the cook was left on board the schooner. The sea men had been promised extra wages, and they were eager to make the sand fly. Eudora lent her encouraging presence, deciding to save her energy until later. At the indicated spot, the party opened a trench above high-water mark, while the summer sun climbed higher from a windless sea, and the heat became uncomfortable.

Conscious of Eudora’s scrutiny, Mr. Mannice labored valiantly, an example for the others. Sweat ran from him in rivers, and his unaccustomed muscles ached acutely. He grunted as he raised the shovel, and stifled a curse whenever he straightened himself. He dared not loaf. He had to go through with the thing, or the captain’s daughter might denounce him as a fraud. A day or so of this, however, and the captain’s frenzy would abate. There was no sense in digging themselves to death.

The end of the day found all hands so weary that they crawled into their bunks immediately after supper, Mannice falling asleep at the table. Eudora sat on a bench outside the galley with old Harvey Mattoon and listened to his droning memories of vanished ships and seamen. Soaked with the superstitions of his kind, he told of things incredible, until the listening girl turned to ask: “Then why don’t you believe in pirates’ gold, Harvey? It’s not as wild as this yarn of yours that the ghost of the bos’n swam after the ship for days and days.”

“Pirates there was, and mebbe they hid it,” said he, with a rusty wheeze, “but all the gold we’ll see this voyage comes out of the old man’s pocket. Mannice is a Jonah, I tell ye. He instigated suthin’. I feel it in my bones.”

“He worked like a man in earnest to-day, Harvey. I almost pitied him.”

“Don’t do it. Pity is akin to love, and it ’u’d be a dreadful mistake. Yep, he worked, but his heart wa’n’t in it like the rest of ’em. I watched him. And I heard him swearin’ to himself through the skylight when he turned in.”

“Oh, dear, I wish I were home,” sighed Eudora. “This is a blind alley. You are a great comfort, Harvey. I used to tell you my troubles when I was a wee little girl and we were shipmates.”

Next day, the excavating was resumed with unflagging zest, although Mr. Mannice had to ease his blistered palms at frequent intervals. Eudora offered sympathy in which he detected a mocking note, and offered to wield his shovel while he rested. Tiring at length of his company, she walked along the shore, and climbed the rocks beyond the bight of sand. A small schooner was bowling straight toward the islands, with the wind behind her, and the girl gazed, idly interested, expecting to see the craft pass on her way.

Soon, however, the sails were flattened, the course changed, and the schooner appeared to be making for the bay in which Captain Kempton’s Challenge rode at anchor. A quick hope made Eudora’s pulse flutter. It would be like her headstrong knight-errant, Dan Sloan, to come speeding to the rescue as soon as he received her plaintive message of farewell. Bright-eyed and breathless, she watched the schooner veer closer to find the winding passage until the people on deck were plainly visible. Alas, they were all strangers! Not only disappointed, but puzzled, was Eudora, for this vessel could not be on fishing or trading business bound. There were passengers aboard, one of them a woman, and from an open hatch two of the crew were hoisting what looked like rolls of tents and other camping gear.

Eudora tarried no longer, but picked a path down the rocks and ran along the beach to tell her father. He dropped his shovel, and the other toilers joined him to watch the mysterious schooner float gracefully into the entrance of the bay and heave to a few hundred feet from the Challenge. This was an intrusion, resented by all hands, and their mood was far from cordial.

The most conspicuous figure of the schooner’s company was a middle-aged man very accurately clad for roughing it, khaki clothes, leather puttees, campaign hat, a water bottle slung from a strap. He was thin, and stooped a little. His spectacles flashed in the sunlight, and the brown beard was nicely trimmed to a point.

His energy dominated the crew, who continued to drag out of the hold an astonishing amount of equipment. Presently he assisted into a small boat a short-skirted woman of a substantial, more deliberate aspect, and they were rowed ashore by two sailors. Captain Joseph Kempton advanced to meet them at the water’s edge, muttering something about a dashed interloper. The gentleman thus designated appeared rather excited, and his wife was plainly endeavoring to calm him. As the boat grounded in the ripples, he stepped out, took three long strides, and found himself confronted by Captain Kempton, who nodded curtly and exclaimed:

“How do you do? May I ask what it’s all about? Without meaning to be rude, this beach seems to be pretty well occupied.”

The stranger was undaunted. In fact, he smiled in a condescending manner as he wiped his spectacles and replaced them to gaze over the captain’s shoulder at the piles of freshly dug sand and the group of laborers. Carefully modulated were the accents as he replied:

“I am Professor James Hyssop Bodge, of Hemphill University. May I ask who you are, sir? It is easy to perceive what you are doing here. Amusing, very.”

“I don’t see the joke,” said the mariner. “I’m Captain Kempton, retired shipmaster, and I was here first.”

“Permit me to present Mrs. Bodge,” politely returned the professor. Her plain, wholesome features indicated amusement as she spoke up:

“My husband doesn’t seem so awfully pleased to meet you, Captain Kempton, but perhaps we can arrive at some understanding. We have come to find a pirate’s treasure. And you are at this same game? How extraordinary!”

“I am sorry to disappoint you, madam,” said the skipper more graciously, “but there isn’t the slightest use in your bringing your stuff ashore. I have the only authentic information about this treasure, and I propose to keep it to myself.”

“Nonsense! Please let me talk to him, Ellen,” firmly quoth Professor Bodge. “He is laboring under a delusion. We possess the only clew to the whereabouts of Peleg Peterson’s hoard. These other people are merely wasting time and money.”

“And you are wasting your breath,” snapped Captain Kempton. “You propose to land anyhow, do you?”

“Have you any authority to prevent it, sir?” And the spectacles glistened. “Does this island belong to you? If not, have you obtained exclusive permission from the owner?”

“It belongs to nobody, so far as I know,” answered the skipper, who was a bit nonplused. “I don’t think it necessary to look up any owner for this God-forsaken, wind-blown patch of real estate. Have you any papers to show?”

The professor was stumped in his turn, but he logically flung back:

“No, sir, and for the same reason as yours. You have no right, therefore, to dispute my possession.”

“But you haven’t a glimmer of a chance of finding any treasure,” obstinately pursued the other. “You will only be in our way. You’ve been misled somehow.”

“Ridiculous!” cried Professor Bodge, whose ire was rising. “What’s that, Ellen? I am perfectly composed, my dear. This poor man is chasing a will-o’-the-wisp. We shall proceed exactly as was planned.”

He called to one of the sailors, who splashed ashore with a surveyor’s measuring chain, a bundle of stakes, and a sledge hammer. Paying no more heed to the captain. Professor Bodge stalked across the beach and entered the sparse undergrowth among the boulders. Mrs. Bodge considered it her duty to go with him, although she had spied Eudora in the background and desired to make her acquaintance. The professor was seen to be poring over some kind of a document on his hands and knees. Then began a methodical exploration which led him some distance away from the landmarks chosen by Captain Kempton. No more than half an hour passed before he appeared to have found what he sought, for the whack of the hammer was heard as he drove in the first stake by which to guide the measuring chain.

Meanwhile, Captain Kempton had decided to hold a council of war with his partner, the amiable William Marmaduke Mannice, but the latter had strayed to a secluded corner of the beach, leaving word that the sun had given him a severe headache and he needed rest. This was partly true, for his wits were in a scrambled state. While listening to the statements of Professor James Hyssop Bodge, his mouth had hung open for dumb, distracted amazement. There wasn’t any treasure, of course, and he had faked the only chart in existence, yet here was another party with another chart which might be the real thing, after all.

“This guy with the Vandyke beard certainly has me up in the air,” lamented Mannice, who was breathing hard. “Dear, dear, what a tangled web we weave when we try to slip one over. And now what? Bluff it out! Show a firm front, William! You’re living on somebody else’s money, and there’s a pretty girl in sight. You should worry!”

Now, Eudora had beheld the singular effect of the Bodge interview upon Mr. Mannice, and she drew her own conclusions. He was a man far more frightened than surprised. Guilt of some sort had openly betrayed itself. When he returned, and her father began talking with him, she joined the conference as a partner determined to be heard. Summoning his bravado, Mannice said, with a laugh:

“Why not let them amuse themselves? They’ll soon tire of it and go away. Their silly bearings and marks have led them a couple of hundred yards up the beach. They won’t be in our way.”

“I am sorry to see an intelligent man, a college professor, make such an ass of himself,” gravely quoth the father of Eudora. “You may be right Mannice. I want to avoid a clash, if possible. They are harmless lunatics. We’ll mind our own business and watch them break their backs for nothing.”

“Now can’t you see yourself as others see you?” impulsively exclaimed Eudora. “Our expedition is as crazy as Professor Bodge’s. Your chart is as worthless as his. This ought to cure you. Why not sail for home to-morrow and let them have the island to themselves?”

“And leave these infernal trespassers to finish our excavation and find the treasure that belongs to us?” retorted the obdurate mariner. “It’s out of the question, Eudora. There is more reason than ever for us to stick to it if we have to lay here all summer.”

“And you agree to that?” she hotly demanded of Mannice. His eyes wavered and evaded hers as he answered:

“Most certainly. We have the winning dope. This Bodge outfit is a merry jest, pure vaudeville ”

Eudora turned her back on them, sick at heart. Day by day the cost of this folly was eating into her father’s slender fortune, and, worse than this, he was a man changed and warped, as though the ghost of Peleg Peterson had bewitched him. Sadly she went out to the Challenge and watched Professor Bodge send his freight ashore and the white tents rise against the somber background of rock. At supper, the captain announced:

“We shall move ashore to-morrow and stay there. It’s wiser to be right on the ground every minute. That rascally professor may try to steal a march on us. His information is pure buncombe, and, when he finds it out, he’s likely to crowd closer to our diggings and try to beat us to the treasure. And, by Judas, I don’t propose to give an inch!”

“What if he should find the treasure? Would you try to take it away from him?” asked Eudora.

“It belongs to us,” blazed her father. “I’m as mild a man as ever commanded a ship, bu I’ll fight before I’ll let any goggle-eyed shrimp of a professor cheat me out of my lawful rights.”