« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
"Oh, certainly," I interrupted. "A little hammering of it with one of those muskets should render it portable. Your hammock will take its place excellently. Then, with the skylight casement a bit open for the fresh air it would let through, and a shawl swung from that metal rod over the doorway, the room would provide you with as snug a retreat as any hotel could offer; whilst I should make my bed here "—we were conversing in the room which I must call the kitchen— "ready at a moment's notice to interpose, pistol in hand, betwixt that entrance, which your presence beyond will render sacred, and the villainous bell-ringer, whoever he may be."
"You do not think of sleeping here to-night, at all events," she said.
"No, since I see how reluctant you still are. But your health is precious, and mine also is precious for your sake. A few nights of exposure to the damp of these moonlit heavens would, I fear, tell upon us both, breed a fever, afflict us with the ague, disable us by some sort of sickness, and leave us in a very bad case indeed. We have to get away from this island, you know; and if we design to achieve our deliverance we must keep well."
Her good sense came to her rescue; she perceived the truth of my words, and said she would do as I wished, only—not to-night. When that terrible bedstead had been removed, the place would look more wholesome.
"Whatever I propose," said I, "is with thoughts of your comfort, your health, your security. Tis a bitter, hard experience for you, and would to God I knew how to soften it, better still how to end it. But the thing looks us in the face, and we must meet it as bravely as we can. My part is that of a protector. If I know myself I shall play it dutifully."
She glanced at me a moment as if she would speak, then hung her head to hide the tears which filled her eyes, whilst she extended her hand,
saying, "I thank you—I thank you, Mr. Musgrave," just above her breath.
I never recall this strange wild time without asking myself whether I acted as a true, upright, high-minded gentleman should towards this lady, situated as she was, forced by stress of ocean into intimate association with me, at the mercy of my feelings and instincts as a man. I did my best. I know that my one whole-hearted desire was, she should never suffer an instant's pain, be sensible of a moment's grief, of the lightest stir of uneasiness, through this obligation of bare unconventional companionship with me. I could summon no better government of thought for my behaviour than this resolution. But then her own frank, fearless, beautiful nature helped me. Her very purity was like a meeting of my efforts half-way. A little too much of modesty in her would have constrained me with a constant sense of embarrassment by which I might have been led into blunders. Indeed I have to thank her own heroic, honest nature for the successful accomplishment of my desire, that our association on this island should be as painless to her woman's modesty as though the formidable conditions of our isolation, which forced us close and bound us, so to speak, together, had been as stringent as they were indeed relaxing.
I devoted the rest of the afternoon to dismantling the underground rooms; again and again however intermitting the work to repair to the summit of the hummock for a view of the sea, but without beholding the least sign of a vessel, though never could despair have rendered human gaze more strenuously eager and searching than mine. The task I had set myself distracted my thoughts; yet it was extremely depressing. It was as though we felt there was no help or hope for us, and that there was nothing for it but to reconcile ourselves to our miserable lot, and effect the best settlement upon the island that could be contrived by persons who were almost wholly without resources. I caught Miss Grant eyeing the old saucepans and frying-pans with an air of mingled doubt and thoughtfulness, and then she presently made a little collection of them, and was going up the steps. I asked her what she intended to do with the things. She answered that she meant to clean them; they were not fit to use as they were. I looked at her delicate white hands with a movement of remonstrance in me; but then I reflected that occupation of any sort was good for people situated as we were, and that the soiling or coarsening of her hands would be but a very small matter indeed side by side with the desperate needs which might presently grow upon us. But it was with something almost of a laugh of bitterness that I turned from her handsome form as she mounted the steps to the open, and resumed my work. "A pretty leveller is the sea!" thought I. "To think of this stately and lovely lady, who ought to be drawing close to her sweetheart, and to the comforts and refinements of a sunny and pleasant home, scouring old pots and pans upon a desert island; with myself, a gentleman at ease, forsooth! a Piccadilly dawdler, knocking an old bedstead to pieces, as though he had bound himself apprentice to some old ragand-bone merchant, and furbishing up a residence which even a mole might eye with distrust 1"
Nevertheless, denuded of my coat and waistcoat, and my shirt-sleeves rolled above my elbows, I continued to toil manfully, making very little account of the gloomy thoughts that weighed on me. With the stock of one of the muskets I speedily demolished the bedstead, carrying it piecemeal above, where I found Miss Grant seated, shaded by an umbrella, polishing the saucepans and other contrivances with a wet rag and sand. One showed bright to her scrubbing, and she watched me with a well-pleased face as I inspected it. The fact was,
No. 357—Vol. Lx.
there had come to my mind the story of a party of shipwrecked people who had been poisoned by eating food cooked in utensils which they had found in an old house hard by the spot where they had been cast away, and I considered our sufferings already too lively to demand the supplementary punishment of a deadly stew-pan. However, the kettle was of iron, and the other things of stout block tin, and so I went back to my work, leaving her to go on with hers.
I remember I was sufficiently silly, as I cleared this cavernous retreat of such grimy furniture as we did not need, to continue in some small hope of meeting with something unexpected. Must I confess it 1 I was weak enough to suffer myself to be haunted by a little dream of treasure. I was but a young man, with much of the boy still clinging to me. After all, this was a sort of adventure to make even an older heart than mine feel virginal with romantic fancy. A cave into which the light of day may not have penetrated for above a century—as true a copy of a piratical lair as the most ardent imagination could body forth —into which the dullest eye could not have peered without peopling it with a score of spectral things vital with the colours of imagination, and gathering a character of substantiality almost from the odd fantastic surroundings of dim silk and drapery, of a bedstead that carried one's thoughts to the great galleon with its bristling broadsides and its mast-long pennons; of cutlass, matchlock, and hanger charged with suggestions of the Tortugas, Panama, the train of mules laden with silver, bracelets of gold on arms of ebony, and the citadel guarding store-houses of ingots built roofhigh—why, I say, it was impossible for me, with such young eyes as I then carried in my head, man though I was in years, to dismantle such a retreat as this without the sort of hope that must have set me laughing had it been told to me of another. But I explored to no purpose. Floor
and wall were solid; no hint of a trap-door, no sign of a secret hidingplace. Whether the discovery of a chest of bullion, or a sack full of ecclesiastical furniture in precious ore would have served to reconcile us to being marooned, I don't know; but on looking back I cannot but think that we deserved some such reward, and am still weak enough to imagine that had I hunted more diligently I might have met with it.
There was no chimney to the kitchen, but on making up a fire of wood, dry grass, and the sweepings, so to speak, of these rooms, in order to test the furnace, I found that the smoke passed out freely through the open skylight, whilst despite the apparent want of draught, the fire burnt briskly enough to roast us a leg of mutton, had we had such a thing. I should have been glad to take up my abode that same night in these secret chambers, for I could see my way to as comfortable a bed of leaves and grass, with a rug for a sheet and another for a coverlet, as I needed to lie on, with promise besides of escape from the mosquitoes and the cold clip of the land-crab's jaws. But Miss Grant's soft shake of the head determined me to say no more about it. It was her humour to sleep another night in the hammock under the trees, and it was my duty to be near her. I thought to myself, should the bell toll to-night, her mind may come more willingly to the underground shelter to-morrow. For my part it seemed like mocking luck to lie all night with nothing but blue atmosphere betwixt the trembling stars and one's body, when there was as good a roof for one as old mother earth could supply close at hand. But he must be a clever man who can even dimly guess at but a portion of what goes to a woman's timidity and reluctance.
I was mightily glad when sundown came. After the fierce glare of the day the evening fell upon us sweet as a blessing, with its dewy richness and coolness of air and the hush of the discordant voices of the island.
We sat or strolled, as on the previous night, till the moon was high, talking of Rio, of what my cousin would be thinking, of the probable fate of the Iron Crown, of our prospect of escape, and a score of such matters. Once, on the sheer rim of the sheet of glory lying under the moon, we both thought we could make out a black speck, and I never could have imagined how wildly passionate was the desire for deliverance in us both— so smoothly would we talk of our rescue, so quiet was the face we had put upon our distress—until, as we stood gazing with our hearts in our eyes at the extremity of the silver wake with the purple gloom lifting like the banks of a river to it on either side. I felt her hand trembling in mine, while my breath came and went as thick, dry, and difficult as though a poison worked in me. That it was a ship we neither of us could say. Sometimes we fancied we saw it, then it would go, then seemed to blacken out again into a tiny spot. So dead was the calm the lightest craft could scarce have floated the distance of a fathom in an hour. There was something almost of a physical burthen in the profound, stirless tranquillity that seemed to come weighing down with the fine clear dusk of the night. You almost blessed the crickets for their bell-like chirping, and bent the ear to the delicate ripple of surf for the relief you got out of its soft simmering noise. But let it have been a ship or fancy, 'twas all the same to us. The spangled blue of the heavens went down with its stars to the lustrous sea-line, smoothing it there to a flawless rim ; and Miss Grant let fall my hand with a deep sigh, and a sudden look of grief at me in the moonlight, for which there was no answer but silence.
However, partly with the wish to distract her mind, and partly because of the necessity for such a thing, I thought I would see if there were any craw-fish to be obtained ; so first of all I cut a bough from a tree which I had previously observed to be of a resinous nature, and on putting fire to it found that it made just such a torch as I needed. I then fashioned a shawl into a sort of bag, which I requested Miss Grant to hold, desiring her also to take her stand close by the wash of the water on the beach, ready to pick up and pop into the shawl such fish as I might have the luck to capture; then turning up my trousers to above my knees, I waded a little distance into the sea, not without some anxiety regarding my toes, for I knew there would be plenty of crabs hereabouts, big and powerful, with the jaws almost of a young shark in their gripping and cleaving qualities. The smoky flame of my torch threw a yellow illumination through the water to the bottom of it, and after waiting a little I was rewarded by the sight of several black objects crawling like lizards to my legs out of the darkness. I dipped briskly, and in a few minutes had chucked a good round score of craw-fish on to the beach, and as fast as they fell Miss Grant picked them up, till the improvised bag writhed to the movements of the creatures as though it were something living in her hand. There was some labour in the occupation; but the water circled cool to my knees, the breath of it floated refreshingly to the face, and flinging away the smouldering remains of my torch I waded ashore, brisk as though from a bath, and lighted a cigar with immense relish of the fumes of the tobacco. I dropped the bundle of craw-fish down the hole that led to the underground rooms, and sat for a long while with Miss Grant; our camp-stools in the heart of the ivory whiteness of the tract on which I had slept last night, and on which I was again to sleep. Occasionally my companion would look a little nervously towards the forest. Now that the silent night had come, thoughts of the mysterious bell-ringing troubled her afresh. Since it was impossible for the bell to ring itself, she said, it must have been tolled by human agency of some sort. No bird or beast alighting upon or
thrusting against it could have produced the varied ringing we had heard, and consequently she was certain there was a man hidden in the wood.
"Why should he hide?" said I, wanting to reassure her, for some hours of moonlight and gloom yet lay betwixt us and the daybreak.
"For fear of us, perhaps," she answered.
"If that be so," said I, "would not he be mad to make his presence known by ringing the bell 1" She could not answer this. "Besides," continued I, "where would he hide himself? I searched the forest pretty narrowly. 'Tis true he might have a lodging in the hollow of a tree; but you can't reconcile any motive that a man would have in concealing himself, with his lusty ringing of a bell .at midnight — raising about the most alarming clamour that human ingenuity could hit upon."
"Then, Mr. Musgrave, you wish me to believe that the bell rang of its own accord, or that it was struck by some spirit-hand?"
This silenced me in my turn. For my own part, I could not make head or tail of the matter, though, spite of the clear expression of human agency that I had found in the changes of the performance of the mysterious bellringer, I would have been willing to bet all I was worth that I was the only man on that island, as Miss Aurelia was the only woman. But it was not a thing to bother ourselves too much about. It was an odd oceanpuzzle, which grew a bit wild with the deepening of the night and the thickening out of the dusky shadows of the little forest to the westerly drawing down of the moon. But my mind was too greatly worried with other considerations to give it heed enough to render me restless on its account.
Whilst we sat conversing I spied the black shape of a turtle creeping out of the creek, with the moon sparkling on its wet shell. "I must have that lady," said I; "she looks but a tortoise, and a small one at that." I fetched the handspike I had manufactured that day to prize open the skylight in the sand, and then waiting till the creature had got a good distance from the water's edge, I made for it, and, with more dexterity than I should have believed myself capable of, slipped my pole fair between the flippers, and with a hearty spring turned the thing fair on to its back. I then opened my knife and cut its throat, feeling as remorseful through the horror of the needful operation as a conscience-stricken murderer, despite my perceiving how needlessly inhuman it would have been to let the poor creature lie all night in the torment of its capsized posture, only to decapitate it next morning after all. It was a small hawk's-billed turtle, I believe weighing less than one hundred pounds, or I should never have been able to deal with it singlehanded. I returned with a guilty feeling of blood upon my head to Miss Grant, and told her what I had done.
"How shipwreck—to call our condition shipwreck," said I, "forces one's hand! I should have thought myself no more capable of murdering yonder creature than of slaughtering an ox. How much of what is ignoble, of what is purely animal comes out of one in stresses of this kind! A man, to remain only a little lower than the angels, should be luxuriously fed and housed, I think. His vileness grows with his needs. The nature of beasts remains the same in essentials, whether they be pursy with food or mere ribs of famine. But bring human nature down to such destitution as an open boat, for instance, expresses, without a crumb of bread or a thimbleful of fresh water, and how base it will show in its instincts!"
"And all this," she exclaimed, smiling, "because you have killed a turtle 1 Yet I dare say your appreciation of the god-like qualities of man in you would not suffer through your chasing a hare in company with twenty horsemen over miles of ground,
or killing a long afternoon by shooting at harmless little pigeons." She rose. "It is too late to provoke you to an argument," she continued; "what is the time, Mr. Musgrave 1"
I brought the face of my watch to the moonlight. "Twenty minutes past twelve," said I.
"Have you my pistol?"
I had it in my pocket. I loaded, primed, and handed it to her; she adjusted it in her belt as on the previous night, then removed her hat, and gave me her hand, as her manner always was ere retiring to rest. I pressed my lips to it in the old-fashioned salute, grieved to the heart to think of the hardships that had befallen this brave and beautiful girl, and deeply moved by the pathos I found in her uncomplaining acceptance of our sorrowful and seemingly hopeless condition.
When she was fairly in her hammock, I rigged the mosquito-curtain over her, and turned away from the beauty of her face, showing marble in the transparency under which she lay, with a feeling that made me almost wild at heart for a little with a sense of betrayal of the trust whose obligation, confound it! grew more imperious in proportion as it taxed my weakness. I threw a rug upon the sand, rolled up a coat for a bolster, saw to my pistols, threw the mosquito-net over my head, and lay down. This was our second night on the island. I felt the solitude of the place and the dismalness and melancholy of our look-out far more keenly than I had on the previous day. There was something of novelty about our situation during the first few hours which worked with a little quality of buoyancy in the spirits; but that was gone, and there was nothing now between the heart and the crushing burden of imprisonment. The fire-flies swarmed in brilliant constellations, the tingling horn of the mosquito sounded shrill against my ear, odd midnight notes of dreaming fowl broke into the silence out of the inland dusk, down upon the ivory of the creek-side lay