The Treasure of Sacramento Nick
THE TREASURE OF SACRAMENTO NICK.
By Guy Boothby.
AWAY on the northern most coast of Australia lies a little world all by itself, and unlike anything else to be found in the whole immemorial East. Its chief centre is in Torres Straits, where the majority of the inhabitants employ themselves in pearl-fishing, gathering and tortoise-shell, and generally in accumulating those gigantic fortunes of which one hears so much and sees so little.
Walking the streets of Thursday Island, the smallest of the group, yet the centre of commerce and the seat of such government as the Colony of Queensland can afford it, you will be struck with the number of nationalities represented. Dwelling together, if not in unity, certainly in unison, are Caucasians and Mongolians, Ethiopians and Malayans, John Chinaman living cheek by jowl with the barbarian Englishman, Cingalee with Portuguese, Frenchman with Kanaka—all prejudices alike forgotten in the one absorbing struggle for the unchanging British sovereign. On the verandahs of the hotels sit continually men who talk with the familiarity of old friends about the uttermost parts of the earth, and whose lives are mainly spent in places to which the average man never goes nor dreams of going. If you are a good listener they will tell you many things worth knowing; and towards midnight you will feel stealing over you a hazy conviction that the nineteenth century is as yet unborn, and that you are listening to the personal narrative of Sinbad the Sailor in an unexpurgated form.
One afternoon, as I was sitting in my verandah watching the China mail-boat steam to her anchorage, and wondering if I had energy enough to light a third cheroot, I felt my arm touched. Turning, I discovered a little Solomon boy, about ten years old, attired in an ancient pair of hunting-breeches, and grinning from ear to ear. Having succeeded in attracting my attention, he handed me a letter. It was from my friend McBain, the manager of a pearling station on an adjacent island, and set forth the welcome fact that he would be pleased to see me on a matter of some importance, if I could spare the time to dine with him that evening. There was nothing I could spare more easily or more willingly.
Once comfortably seated in the verandah, McBain explained his reason for sending to me. "You'll think me mad, but I've got a curiosity here that I want to examine before anyone else gets hold of him."
"Black or white?" I asked, with but little interest, for we lived in a land of human curiosities.
"Cosmopolitan, I should fancy."
"Adventurer, with a marvellous big A."
"And hailing from——?"
"Well, he doesn't seem to know himself. One of my luggers took him out of an open boat about two degrees west of the Ladrones."
"But he surely knows how he got into the boat? Men don't go pleasure trips across oceans without knowing whence they started. Hasn't he anything to say for himself?"
"That's just what I want you to hear. Either the man's a superhuman liar, or else he's got a secret of the biggest thing on earth. We'll have him up to-night, and you shall judge for yourself."
When dinner was over we took ourselves and our cigars into the cool verandah, and for half an hour or so sat smoking and talking of many things. Then a footstep crunched upon the path, and a tall, thin man stood before us.
McBain rose and wished him "Good evening," as he did so pushing a chair into such a position that I could see his face. "I beg your pardon, but I don't think you told me your name last night."
"Sir, my name is Nicodemus B. Patten, of Sacramento City, State of California, U.S.A.—most times called Sacramento Nick."
"Well, Mr. Patten, let me introduce you to a friend who is anxious to hear the curious story you told me last night. Will you smoke?"
Gravely bowing to me, he selected a cheroot, lit it, and blew the smoke luxuriously through his nose. The lamp-light fell full and fair upon his face, and instinctively I began to study it. It was a remarkable countenance, and, in spite of its irregularity of feature, contained a dignity of expression which rather disconcerted me. There were evident traces of bodily and mental suffering in the near past, but it was neither the one nor the other which had stamped the lines that so much puzzled me. After satisfying myself on certain other points, I begged him to begin. He did so without hesitation or previous thought.
"Gentlemen, before I commence my story, let me tell you that when first the things I am going to tell you of came about, there were three of us: Esdras W. Dyson, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.; James Dance, of London, England; and Nicodemus B. Patten, of Sacramento City, now before you. I reckon most folks would have called us adventurers, for we'd ferreted into nearly every corner of the globe. Snakes alive! but I've seen things in my time that would fairly stagger even you, and I guess my story of to-night ain't the least curious of 'em.
"Perhaps you don't remember the junk that fell foul of the Bedford Castle nigh upon three years ago, when she was four days out from Singapore?"
I remembered the circumstance perfectly. It was an act of flagrant piracy which had made some noise at the time; and I had also a faint recollection of having been told that white men were suspected of being mixed up in it. On being asked if he knew anything of the matter, he said—
"Well, I don't say we did, mind you, but I had a suspicion we were in China waters at the time. But bless you, in those days there were few places and few things that we hadn't a finger in. Understand, I am telling you this because I don't want to sail under false colours, and also because such work is all over now; the firm's smashed up, and we'll never go on the long trail again.
"Two years ago, for certain reasons not necessary to mention, we wanted to lay by for a while, so, bringing up at Batavia fixed right on to the Nederlander. Java's a one-horse place for business purposes, but if you know the ropes—well, there's not a better place in the world to hide in.
"Now, gentlemen both, you may take it from me that there never was such a chap for browsing about among niggers, finding out what was doing and if there was anything to be made, as Esdras W. Dyson, of Milwaukee, U.S.A. In the first place, he could patter any lingo from Chinese to Malay with a tongue that'd talk round the devil himself; and when he suspicioned a nigger had anything worth knowing—well, he'd just freeze to that charcoal sketch till he fairly got it out of him. Rigged out in native dress and properly coloured, he could pass in anywhere. It was he who found out the thing that ruined us, brought me here, and left Jim and himself feeding the fishes a thousand fathoms deep.
"Directly we arrived in Batavia he began hanging round the native quarter, making himself mighty agreeable for some particular information he wanted. He was away for two or three days; then, one night, as Dance and me were smoking on the piazza, he came striding up the path in the devil's own hurry. 'Boys!' says he in a whisper, 'I'm on it, up to the hilt, the biggest and the all-firedest stroke of good fortune we've hit yet! I'm going fantee to-night, so keep your weather eyes lifted, and when I say come, come right away.' With that he went to his room, and we could hear him rummaging about in his trunks.
"A bit later a native fruit hawker came round the corner, bowing and scraping towards us. We told him to clear out, but he commenced a pitiful yarn, all the time pushing his baskets closer to US. 'Fine duriens and the sweetest of mangosteens, if the Presence will only buy!' But the big night-watchman had caught sight of him, and came trundling down the piazza. You can reckon our astonishment when the hawker said, 'How is it, boys? Do you think they'll savee? Keep your kits packed, and be prepared to trek directly you get the word from me.' Here the watchman came up. ' On the word of a poor man, the duriens are freshly plucked, and the mangosteens hung upon the trees this morning.' We refused to buy, and he went away, crying his fruit, towards the native quarter.
"For two or three days not a shadow of a sign came from him. Then one of those Chinese hawkers came into the square with two coolies carrying his goods, and as soon as we set eyes on the second nigger we recognised Milwaukee, and stood by to take his message in whatever form it might come. Pulling up at our chairs, the Chinkey told his men to set down their loads, himself coming across to us with a tray of fans, scents, and what not; but seeing Milwaukee had a packet of slippers in his hands, we only wanted slippers. The merchant sings out, and he brings 'em over, handing one pair to Dance and another to me. We stepped inside to try them on, and, as we expected, in one of the shoes was a letter neatly stowed away. I forget now how it went, but it was to the effect that he had found out all he wanted to know, and that we were to meet him at eight on the Singapore Wharf at Tanjong Priok, bringing no kit save our revolvers.
"After squaring things at the hotel, and destroying what was dangerous in our baggage, we trekked for the Priok just as dusk was falling. Sharp at eight we were waiting on the wharf where the Messageric boats lie, and wondering what the deuce was going to happen. Inside of ten minutes a native boat came pulling up the river, and as it passed us the rower sneezed twice very sharp and sudden. It was an old signal, and Dance gave the return. The boatman hitches right on to the steps and comes ashore.
"'Good boys,' says he, very quiet and careful; 'up to time—that's right. Now to business. D'ye see that schooner lying outside the breakwater? Well, she sails at daylight. I put the skipper and mate ashore not ten minutes ago, and they're to return in an hour. There's only three chaps aboard, and it's our business to cut her out before the others come back. D'ye understand?'
"'But what d'ye reckon to do then, Milwaukee?' I asked, for it seemed a risky game, just for the sake of a mangy Dutch trader.
"'Never you mind now; when I do tell you, you'll say it's worth the candle. Come, jump in here, and I'll pull you aboard.'
"The harbour was as quiet as the sea out yonder; a Dutch man-of-war lay under the wing of the breakwater, and a Sourabaya mail-boat to the left of her. We passed between them, down towards the lighthouse and out into the open. Outside there was a bit of a sea running, but Milwaukee was always hard to beat, and at last we managed to get alongside. Somebody, most likely the anchor-watch, caught our painter, and took a turn in it, saying in Dutch, 'You're back early. Mynheer.' By the time he twigged his mistake we were aboard, and Dance had clapped a stopper on his mouth. The others were below, and I reckon you'd have laughed if you could have seen the look on their faces when, after Milwaukee's thumping on the foc'sle, they turned out to find their craft in other hands. However, they soon saw what was up, and reckoned it was no use making fools of themselves. Then Milwaukee went to the wheel, singing out to get sail on her and stand by to slip the cable. We knew our business, and in less than twenty minutes were humming down the coast a good ten knots an hour.
"As soon as the course was set and everything going smooth, Milwaukee made right aft to where Dance was steering. 'I guess it's time,' says he, 'to let you into the secret. You know me and I know you, which is enough said between pards. We've been in many good things together, but this is going to be the biggest we've sighted yet. It doesn't mean hundreds of pounds, but thousands, millions maybe; anyhow, enough to set us three up as princes all the world over.'
"'Sounds well; but how did you come to know of it?' we asked, a bit doubtful like.
"Before answering, he took a squint at the card and then aloft. 'Keep her as she goes, Jim. How did I come to hear of it? How does a man hear anything? Why, by going to the places and among the folk who talk. I got wind of it months ago, but never came across anything straight out till I went fantee among the niggers. Losh, boys, if you want yarns to raise your scalp, go down town and smoke among the darkies; I've done it, and you bet I know. There was one old chap who used to drop in every night, and smoke, and chew, and spit, and lie, till you couldn't rest. From his talk, he'd once done a bit in our line, and his great sweat was about an island he'd been to fifty years ago, where there's an old Portugee treasure-ship aground, chock full of gold, diamonds, rubies, and pearls, all waitin' for the man as'll go to get 'em. At first I reckoned he lied, for how he got there he didn't rightly remember; but he swore he found the ship, and was in the act of broaching her cargo, when the natives came and sent him back to sea again. What he did get, except a bloomin' old dagger, was stolen from him in Saigon. Directly I sighted that instrument, I began to guess there might be something in his yarn after all; for, where-ever he got it, it was a genuine Portugee's weapon of a couple of hundred years back. Well, as any lubber knows, the Portugee sailed these seas two hundred years ago; why shouldn't one of 'em have been wrecked with all her cargo and never been heard of since? Answer me that! Anyhow, you bet I froze to that nigger.
"'At first he played cunning, and seemed to suspicion I was after something. So one night I got him alone, and—d'ye remember Hottentot Joe in the Kimberley?—well, p'raps I played the same game on this old cove, and when he was sound off I began to pump him all I knew. The old chap had been sailing pretty near to the truth, but still he'd kept a bit up his sleeve; however, I got that bit, and here's his chart as near as I can fix it.'
"So saying, he drew out a paper and held it to the binnacle. Then putting his finger on a coloured mark, he went on: 'It's a bit hazy steering after we get here, inasmuch as, being a nigger, he couldn't keep proper reckoning. But once among these islands, I guess we can't be far off the right one, and to find it we'll search every mudbank in the Pacific. Accordin' to his fixin' it has a big mountain climbing from its centre, with a monster white rock halfway up, shaped like a man's fist. In a bee-line with the rock there's a creek running inland, big enough to float a seventy-four; follow that creek up a mile or so and you come to a lake, and on the other side of that lake's where the old barge ought to be. Now, what do you think?'
"'What do I think? Why, I think, Milwaukee, you are a fool to have brought us on such a rotten chase, and we're bigger fools to have followed you. The island, I guess, never existed, and we'll get stretched for this boat by the first warship that sights us. But now we are here, we'd better make the best of it. What do you say, Jim?'
"'I stand with you,' said Dance, and that settled it.
"To make a long story short, we sailed that hooker right on end for nigh upon three weeks. The wind was mostly favourable, the boat had a slippery pair of heels, and the stores, considering they were laid in by Dutchmen, were none too bad. Only one thing was wrong to my thinking, and that was the supply of grog aboard. If I had my way there'd have been a gimlet through the lot; but Milwaukee was skipper, and wouldn't hear of it.
"Tuesday, the thirteenth of January, saw the tether of the old darkie's chart, so we held a bit of a palaver, and settled to go on cruising about the islands, which we were picking up and dropping every day.
"You folk who live inside this rot-gut reef don't know what islands are. Out there, you see them on all sides, pushing their green heads up to watch the ships go by, with the air so warm, the sea so green, and the sky so blue that it's like living in a new world. Birds of every colour fly across your bows all day, and in the hush of night, lying out on deck, you can hear the water-falls trickling ashore, and now and again the crash of a big tree falling in the jungle.
"One forenoon, while I was at the wheel, Milwaukee and Jim Dance fell to quarrelling. It started over nothing, and would have come to nothing but for that tarnation liquor. I sung out to them to stop, but it was no use, so, leaving the hooker to look after herself, I went for'ard. Before I could reach him, the skipper had drawn a revolver, and I heard Jim cry, 'For Gawd's sake don't shoot!' Then there was a report, and sure enough Dance fell dead.
"Can you picture it? Overhead the blue sky, a few white clouds, and the canvas just drawing; on the deck, poor Jim lying as if asleep, and Milwaukee leaning against the foremast staring at him. Seein' there was no use in keepin' the body aboard, I called one of the Dutchmen aft and told him to fix it up in a bit of canvas. Then together we hove it overboard; it sank with a dull plunge, and so we lost the first of our mess.
"Milwaukee being too drunk to take his trick at the wheel, I stood it for him. A bit before sundown he comes on deck, looking terrible fierce and haggard. Rolling aft, he says with a voice solemn as a judge, 'Sacramento Nick, you're a good man and true. On your Bible oath, did I shoot James Dance, mariner?'
"Seeing what was passing in his mind, I said simply, 'You did.'
"'Was I drunk, being in charge of this vessel at the time?'
"'That is your word and deed, so help you, God?'
"'Well, that being so, no more need be said. It's the sentence of the court. Shipmate, your hand.'
"We shook hands, and he turned to the taffrail. Before I knew what he was about, he had leaped upon it and plunged into the sea. He only rose once; then the white belly of a shark showed uppermost, and never again did I see Esdras W. Dyson, of Milwaukee City, Wisconsin.
"Three days later, when I was too dog-tired to keep watch, those cut-throat Dutchmen mutinied and sent me adrift in the long boat, with one week's provisions and a small beaker of water.
"Strangers, have you ever been cast adrift? I can see you haven't; well, hope that your luck don't run that way. Fortunately it was fair weather, and I was able to rig a bit of a sail; but how long I was cruising among those islands, drat me if I know. Being ignorant, so to speak, of my position, one way was as another, and when short of provisions I'd just go ashore, pick fruit, fill my beaker, and then set sail again. One warm afternoon I found myself abreast of the largest island I'd seen yet. From its centre rose a high mountain, and, strike me dead if I lie! half way up that last was a big white rock, shaped like a man's fist! When I saw it I was clean staggered; I stood up and stared till I could stare no longer. It was just as if I'd stumbled by mistake on the very island we'd set out to seek. By tacking, I managed to get right under its lee, and there, sure enough, between two high banks, was the entrance to a fairish river. Furling the sail, I took to my oars and pulled inside. The sun was close on down by this time, and I was dog-tired; so as nothing could be gained by bursting the boilers, when, as far as I knew, all the future was afore me, I anchored where I was, and stayed in my boat till morning.
"You bet, as soon as it was light I pushed on again, bringing out on a slap-up lake perhaps a mile long by half a mile across. The water was as clear as crystal and as smooth as glass. Making for a plain of dazzling white sand at the farthest end, I beached my boat and prepared to start explorations. Then, just as her nose grounded, my eyes caught sight of a big, creeper-covered mass lying all alone in the centre of the plain. May I never know a shieve-hole from a harness-cask again, if it wasn't an old galleon of the identical pattern to be seen in the Columbus' picter-books. Trembling like a palsied monkey, I jumped out and ran for it.
"She may have been close on a hundred tons burden, but it was impossible to calculate her size exactly for the heap of stuff that covered her. How she ever got on to that plain, and why she hadn't rotted clean away during the two hundred years or more she must have lain there, are things I can't explain. Anyhow, I didn't stay to puzzle 'em out then, but set to work hunting for a way to get inside her. From the main-deck seemed to be the best course, and to reach that I started hacking at the blooming creepers. It was harder work than you'd think, for they'd spliced and twisted 'emselves into cables, and a jack-knife was about as much use on 'em as a toothpick. When night came I'd done a big day's work, and had only just got a footing on her deck.
"Next morning I went at it again, and by midday had the satisfaction of standing before the cuddy entrance. Again I felt the same blooming funk creeping over me; but when I remembered the treasure, I said good-bye to that, and placed my shoulder against the door. It crumbled away and fell all a heap upon the deck, and when the dust had passed I found myself at the entrance of a small alley-way leading into the saloon. I entered it, stepping gingerly, but had only gone a few steps before the deck suddenly gave way, and I found myself disappearing with a crash into the lower regions. The fall was a sight bigger than I liked, but it served a purpose, for my weight on landing started a plank and brought a glimmer of light into the darkness.
"Finding I was not hurt, I fell to groping for a way out again; then I noticed the rottenness of the timbers, and determined to enlarge the light I had just made. The two kicks and a shove brought a flood of sunshine pouring in, and a horrible sight met my eyes. I was standing beside an old-fashioned bed-place on which lay (you may believe me or not) the mummified body of a man stretched full out and hanging on to the stanchions like grim death. He was not alone, for in the centre of the cabin, clutching at a heavy table, was another chap, also perfectly preserved, half standing, with his feet braced against the thick cross-bars and his shrivelled parchment face, with its staring eyes turned towards me, grinning like a poisoned cat. My scalp seemed to lift and my in'ards to turn to water. Letting out one yell, I clambered for the open air.
"Outside all was sunshine, blue sky and bright colour, and, as if to set off what I had just left, a big butterfly came hovering towards me. In a few minutes my presence of mind returned, and I began to laugh at the idea of Sacramento Nick being afeared of dead men; so back I went in search of further mysteries. Again I entered the cuddy and lowered myself into the under-cabin, but this time I was prepared for anything. The treasure-guard stared, but said nothing.
"While I was wondering how I'd best set about my search, a smart breeze came whistling in, caught the figure at the table, disengaged his hold, and brought his old carcass with a dry rattle to the floor. With his fall a small piece of metal rolled to my feet, and picking it up I found it to be a key of real curious shape and workmanship. Fired with my discoveries, I slipped across to try it on the first of the chests I saw ranged round the cabin, when to my astonishment I found it open. Somebody had been there before me; perhaps I was too late. All of a sweat, I looked in, but 'twas too dark; I tried to pull the whole chest towards the light, but it was a main sight too heavy. Then I plunged my hand in, and—great Jehoshaphat, how I yelled! Clutching what I could hold, I dashed across the cabin, up into the light, and throwing myself upon the ground, spread what I had brought before me. It took less than a second to see that they were diamonds, and by all the stars and stripes, diamonds of the first water! There they lay, winking and blinking at me and the sun, and for the first, time I began to savee my amazing wealth. For the minute I was clean, stark, staring mad. I closed my eyes, and wondered if, when I opened them again, I should find it all a dream; but no, the beauties were there, looking brighter and even larger than before.
"Gentlemen, it's strange how the habits and precautions of civilisation linger with a man even in the queerest places. For while not twenty yards from where I stood was greater wealth than I or fifty men could ever spend, I found myself fearful of losing one, picking each gem up with scrupulous care and securing it inside my jumper. The next box was locked, so I tried the key. In spite of age and rust the wards shot back and the cover lifted. Again I felt the touch of stones, and again seizing a handful I went back into the light. This time they were rubies—Burmese rubies, my experience told me, and not a tarnation flaw in one of 'em. For a second time I carefully picked 'em up and was hiding 'em as before, when I happened to look round. Dash my buttons if I was alone! On all sides were niggers regarding me with considerable attention. I sprang to my feet and felt for my revolver. Fool that I was, I had left it in the boat. Seeing that I was aware of their presence, they closed in on me, and as they did so I took stock of 'em. They were unlike other South Sea natives, being of better build and but little darker than myself. True, they were rigged out in a short loin cloth not unlike tappa, but they carried neither spear nor shield. When I saw this I was for showing fight, but soon gave that idea up; they were too many for me.
"After a few minutes' inspection they began to march me through the forest in a westerly direction, all the time talking a lingo that seemed curiously familiar. Just upon sunset we entered a large clearing, on which stood a fair-sized native village, and I thought as I looked at it that, if ever I got out of this mess and turned to blackbirding, I'd know where to come for niggers. It contained perhaps fifty huts, all built of wood, and with conical-shaped grass roofs. A trim garden ran down the centre, at the farthest end of which stood the largest and the most slap-up building of the lot. As soon as we hove in sight a crowd came out to meet us, and in the middle of hundreds of yelling darkies I was marched up to the big house. The old chief, who had been bossing affairs with the swagger of a New York policeman, told me to wait, while he carried his carcass up some steps and disappeared. After a little while he returned, and signified that I should follow him.
"When I got inside I had plenty of time to look about me, for it must have been full half an hour before anyone came. Then some grass curtains were drawn aside, and what looked like a man entered. I say looked like, because I ain't really clear in my mind as to what he was; anyway, I shouldn't be far from the mark in saying he was quite a hundred years old, and just about as deformed as he well could be. He was as white as myself, and from the antics of the chief who had fetched me to his presence, I could see that he had a great hold over the niggers. Throwing himself upon the ground, that old fool of a chief feebly wagged his toes till told to rise. Then he started explaining where he had found me and what I was doing.
"During his yarn old grandf'er, whose name I afterwards found was Don Silvio, riddled me into auger-holes with his evil little eyes; then, having ordered the chief out, he started to examine me himself. He spoke the same lingo as the niggers, a sort of bastard Portugee, and still looking me through and through, asked, 'Stranger, how came you to this island?'
"I reckoned it best to keep the real truth from him, so said, 'I am a shipwrecked mariner, señor, and fetched here in an open boat.'
"His eyes blazed and his long, lean fingers twitched round his jewelled stick. 'And had you no thought of what treasure you might find?'
"'Señor,' said I, looking him square in the face, 'let me put it to you. Is it likely that a shipwrecked mariner would think of treasure?'
"A storm was brewing in his eyes, and I guessed it would break on me. Suddenly he yelled: 'You lie, you dog, you thief—you lie! You came for what you could steal, but nothing shall you take away, nothing, nothing—not one stone. The Fates that consumed those who came aforetime shall consume you also. Shipwreck or no shipwreck, you shall die!'
"He fell to beating a gong with his stick, and a dozen or so natives came tumbling in. They seemed to know their business, and before I had time to get in a word I was being dragged away down the street to a small and securely guarded hut, where I was pushed in and the door closed. Disliking the look of things, as soon as I recovered my breath I started hunting about for a way of escape, but that was no good. Added to my other troubles, I was just famishing, and was beginning to fix it that my end was to be starvation, when footsteps approached, the door opened, and a native girl appeared, bearing on her head two wooden dishes, which she set down before me. Being a favourite with the sex, I tried to draw her into conversation, but either she didn't understand my talk or fear had taken away her tongue; anyway, not a word would she utter. After she had left me I set to work on the food, and never before or since have I enjoyed a meal so much. Then, stretching myself on some dry reeds in a corner, I soon fell asleep.
"I was awakened in the chill grey of dawn by the entrance of the same beauty, who put down my breakfast, saying as she did so, 'White man, eat well, for at sunrise you die!' For a moment the shock cleared me out of speech; I could only sit and stare at her. She seemed to see what was going on in my mind, and, as if in comfort, added, 'Stranger, why do you fear death? It can only come once.'
"Her reasoning, though logical enough, wasn't of the kind calculated to meet my trouble, and when she had left me I started wondering if anybody in Sacramento City would ever hear of my fate, and bitterly cursing the day I set out in search of this villainous island. As I sat with my head upon my hands, the jewels I had stuck in my jumper fell to the floor and lay there taunting me with their sparkling splendour. Howsomever, it was no use crying over spilled milk; I had brought the situation on myself, and, whatever happened, must go through with it. Suddenly my ear caught the pat of naked feet outside the cell. Then the door was unbarred and the chief entered. 'Come, white man,' he said, 'all is made ready, and the axe waits for the bare flesh!' How would you have felt in such a situation? As for myself, I put a good face on it, and resolved, since I could no longer live a free and independent American citizen, to die as such. Pity, I thought, there wasn't a band. I was led up the village, to the open plot before Don Silvio's house. It might have been the Fourth of July for the crowd that was assembled. In the centre, for my special benefit, was an object which held an awful fascination for me: a curiously carved block of wood, dull brown in colour, and on two sides much stained and worn. It didn't take me a year to understand what it meant; and you may think it strange, seeing the nature of my position, but true as gospel, I fell to wondering how my long neck would figure stretched across it.
"When I was halted I took it for granted that the work of despatching me would commence at once, but I was mistaken. The execution could not take place until the arrival of Don Silvio, and the sun was a good hour up before there was a stir in the crowd, and the withered, monkey-faced little devil came stumping towards me. If he had appeared a hundred years old in the half-dark of his house, he now looked double that age, but the fire in his eyes was as bright as ever. Hobbling to within a dozen paces of where I stood, he took thorough stock of me. Then, tapping the block with his stick, he said, 'Señor, you are about to hunt treasure in a golden country, where I trust your efforts may meet with better success. I wish you farewell' After relieving himself of this, he went to his seat; two natives raised a great grass umbrella above his head, and, all being comfortable, he gave orders for the performance to begin. A nigger stepped from the crowd and approached me, carrying in his hand an axe. Reaching the block, he signed me to kneel. I took a last look round—first at the thick jungle, then at the great mountain pushing itself up into the blue sky. After that my eyes returned to the block, and, gentlemen both, a wonderful circumstance happened. Understand me clearly! Standing on either side of it were two thin columns of palest blue smoke, maybe six feet in height. As I stared at 'em they gradually took the shapes of men, till I could make out the features of old Milwaukee and poor Jim Dance, of London Town. They seemed to be gently beckoning me and telling me not to fear. P'raps I kind of understood, for I stretched my long neck across the block without a sign of funk. I heard the cackling laugh of Don Silvio, I saw the headsman draw a step closer, his arms go up, and then I shut my eyes, and remember no more.
"When I came to my senses I was lying on the bed of rushes in my old quarters, and the native girl before mentioned was seated beside me. On putting my hand to my head to sort of fix matters, she laughed merrily and said, 'Stranger, it is still there, but to-morrow it will certainly be gone.' Why they hadn't killed me I couldn't understand, unless it was to put me to the torture of waiting another day; anyhow, the following morning I was prepared for the guard when they came to lead me out.
"Once more the crowd was there, once more that villainous old Don kept me waiting, and once more the axe went up but failed to strike. I was respited for another day. Well, this sort of thing happened every blessed morning, till I nearly went mad with the strain of it. On the eighth day, instead of being kept in the square, I was marched straight to the Don's house. The old pirate was waiting for me, and as soon as I arrived fell to questioning me about the outer world, seeming to take an all-fired interest in such parts of my own life as I thought fit to tell him. When he had found out all he wanted he said, 'Go now; for the present you are free;. but remember, if you but approach that ship by so much as half a mile, that same moment you die!' I stumbled out of his presence and down the street like a man dazed. That he had some reason for sparing my life was certain, but what it was, for the life of me, I couldn't then determine. Arriving at my hut, I threw myself upon the rushes and tried to think it out.
"That evening, a little after sundown, while walking outside the village and racking my brain for a chance of escape, an event happened which changed all my thoughts and plans. I was passing through a bit of jungle, where the fireflies were beginning to play to and fro, when I came face to face with the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and—well, I'm a free-born American citizen, and as such the equal of any man living, but I reckon that young woman took the conceit out of me. She couldn't have been more than eighteen years of age; her skin was as white as milk, her hair and eyes of the deepest black; and when she walked it was like the sound of falling rose-leaves. Seeing me, she started with surprise, and was half inclined to run, but something seemed to tell her I wasn't particular harmful, so, overcoming her fear, she said, 'Señor, I am glad my grandfather has given you your freedom.' Her grandfather! Not being able to make it out, I said, 'Surely, miss, Don Silvio ain't your grandfather?' 'No, señor, he was my father's grandfather, but I call him so because the other is so tedious.' Perhaps my manner, as I say, didn't appear very dangerous; anyway, after this her bashfulness seemed to vanish, and we walked back to the village as comfortable as you please. She told me that it was she who had induced the old rascal to spare my life, and I reckon the look I gave her for that had something to do with the flush as spread across her face. She also let me into the risk I had run by breaking into the old galleon, which, according to her telling, was a sacred thing upon the island. She did not know how long it had lain there, but suspicioned her great grandfather had commanded it as a young man, and that all the rest who came with him were dead, a fact which, you bet, I could quite believe.
"The moon was full up before we sighted the village, and when she left me I went back to my hut in a flumux of enchantment, as much in love as the veriest schoolboy. Every day Don Silvio came to question me, and you'd better guess I did my best to corral the old chap's confidence.
"Well, each evening, as soon as the sun was down, I visited the grove beyond the village, where, sure enough, I always met the Don's great-granddaughter. Her beauty and amazing innocence so held me that I was nearly mad to make her my wife; and when I found that she reckoned to have the same liking for me, I could bear it no longer, so went right off to ask the old man for her hand. Not having the least hope of being successful, you can judge of my surprise when he promised her to me straight away, and, what's more, fixed it that the wedding should take place next day. He kept his word, and on the following morning, in the presence of all the village, she became my wife.
"The year that followed topped everything I ever knew of happiness. It slipped by in a rosy mist, and when our boy was born my cup was full. I proclaimed him American, according to the constitution of the United States, and the old Don announced a great feast in his honour. It was spread in the square, and all the village sat down to it. I can see the sight now: the shadowy outline of the mountain beyond, the great flaring torches of sweet-smelling wood, the long rows of tables, the shouts and laughter of the niggers, and at the head, between my wife and her great-grandfather, the boy in his cradle. When the feast was right at its height, the old Don rose and handed me a silver mug filled with some sweet liquor. He told me to drink to my son's health, and, suspecting no treachery, I did so. Next moment a change stole over me; I made a try to get on to my feet, but it was no use; everything seemed to be slipping away. I could just see my wife start towards me, and the old Don pull her back, when my head sank on the table and my senses left me.
"The next thing I remember is finding myself lying precious sick and weak at the bottom of my own boat, with nothing but the big green seas rolling around me. The island had vanished, and with it my wife and child. For an eternity I sailed those cursed seas this way and that, seeking for the land I had lost; but I must have drifted into different waters, for I saw no more islands. My food ran out, and I had given up all hope of being saved, when one of your luggers hove in sight and picked me up.
"Now, gentlemen, you've heard my story. Whether you believe it or not, of course I don't know; but I take my affidavy that all I have told you is true; and, what's more, if you'll fit out a vessel to search for that island and its treasure, I'll take command of her. Should we find it, I reckon I can make you the two richest men on earth; and when I get my wife and child I shall be the happiest. In proof that the treasure's there, and as my contribution towards the expenses, I hand you this." From an inner pocket he produced a leather pouch, from which he took what at first appeared to be a small piece of crystal; on inspection it turned out to be a diamond worth at least a hundred pounds. "That stone," said he, holding it at the angle which would best show its fire, "came from the coffers of the treasure-ship, and is the only one left out of all I saw and took. I will leave it with you for the present. Remember, there's thousands more aboard the old galleon, bigger and better nor that. Say, gentlemen, will you adventure for such merchandise?"
It was too late to go into the question that night, so we bade him come up for a further talk in the morning. Rising, he gravely bowed to us, and, without another word, withdrew. Next day he was not to be found, nor has he ever made his appearance since. Whether he lost himself and fell into the sea, or whether he was an impostor and feared detection, I haven't the remotest idea. I only know that I have a valuable diamond in my possession which I am waiting to restore to its uncommonly curious owner.