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been some petrifaction of a past age now first exhumed and laid bare to
the cold light of the stars.

Nevertheless, this calm security was presently invaded by a sense of
stealthy life and motion. What had seemed a fixed shadow suddenly
detached itself from the deck and began to slip stanchion by stanchion
along the bulwarks toward the companion-way. At the cabin-door it
halted and crouched motionless. Then rising, it glided forward with the
same staccato movement until opposite the slight elevation of the
forehatch. Suddenly it darted to the hatch, unfastened and lifted it
with a swift, familiar dexterity, and disappeared in the opening. But
as the moon shone upon its vanishing face, it revealed the whitening
eyes and teeth of the Lascar seaman.

Dropping to the lower deck lightly, he felt his way through the dark
passage between the partitions, evidently less familiar to him, halting
before each door to listen.

Returning forward he reached the second hatchway that had attracted
Rosey's attention, and noiselessly unclosed its fastenings. A
penetrating smell of bilge arose from the opening. Drawing a small
bull's-eye lantern from his breast he lit it, and unhesitatingly let
himself down to the further depth. The moving flash of his light
revealed the recesses of the upper hold, the abyss of the well
amidships, and glanced from the shining backs of moving zigzags of rats
that seemed to outline the shadowy beams and transoms. Disregarding
those curious spectators of his movements, he turned his attention
eagerly to the inner casings of the hold, that seemed in one spot to
have been strengthened by fresh timbers. Attacking this stealthily with
the aid of some tools hidden in his oil-skin clothing, in the light of
the lantern he bore a fanciful resemblance to the predatory animals
around him. The low continuous sound of rasping and gnawing of timber
which followed heightened the resemblance. At the end of a few minutes
he had succeeded in removing enough of the outer planking to show that
the entire filling of the casing between the stanchions was composed of
small boxes. Dragging out one of them with feverish eagerness to the
light, the Lascar forced it open. In the rays of the bull's-eye, a
wedged mass of discolored coins showed with a lurid glow. The story of
the Pontiac was true - the treasure was there!

But Mr. Sleight had overlooked the logical effect of this discovery on
the natural villainy of his tool. In the very moment of his triumphant
execution of his patron's suggestions the idea of keeping the treasure
to himself flashed upon his mind. _He_ had discovered it - why should he
give it up to anybody? _He_ had run all the risks; if he were detected
at that moment, who would believe that his purpose there at midnight
was only to satisfy some one else that the treasure was still intact?
No. The circumstances were propitious; he would get the treasure out of
the ship at once, drop it over her side, hastily conceal it in the
nearest lot adjacent, and take it away at his convenience. Who would be
the wiser for it?

But it was necessary to reconnoiter first. He knew that the loft
overhead was empty. He knew that it communicated with the alley, for he
had tried the door that morning. He would convey the treasure there and
drop it into the alley. The boxes were heavy. Each one would require a
separate journey to the ship's side, but he would at least secure
something if he were interrupted, He stripped the casing, and gathered
the boxes together in a pile.

Ah, yes, it was funny too that he - the Lascar hound - the d - - d
nigger - should get what bigger and bullier men than he had died for!
The mate's blood was on those boxes, if the salt water had not washed
it out. It was a hell of a fight when they dragged the captain - Oh,
what was that? Was it the splash of a rat in the bilge, or what?

A superstitious terror had begun to seize him at the thought of blood.
The stifling hold seemed again filled with struggling figures he had
known, the air thick with cries and blasphemies that he had forgotten.
He rose to his feet, and running quickly to the hatchway, leaped to the
deck above. All was quiet. The door leading to the empty loft yielded
to his touch. He entered, and, gliding through, unbarred and opened the
door that gave upon the alley. The cold air and moonlight flowed in
silently; the way of escape was clear. Bah! He would go back for the
treasure.

He had reached the passage when the door he had just opened was
suddenly darkened. Turning rapidly, he was conscious of a gaunt figure,
grotesque, silent, and erect, looming on the threshold between him and
the sky. Hidden in the shadow, he made a stealthy step towards it, with
an iron wrench in his uplifted hand. But the next moment his eyes
dilated with superstitious horror; the iron fell from his hand, and
with a scream, like a frightened animal, he turned and fled into the
passage. In the first access of his blind terror he tried to reach the
deck above through the forehatch, but was stopped by the sound of a
heavy tread overhead. The immediate fear of detection now overcame his
superstition; he would have even faced the apparition again to escape
through the loft; but, before he could return there, other footsteps
approached rapidly from the end of the passage he would have to
traverse. There was but one chance of escape left now - the forehold he
had just quitted. He might hide there until the alarm was over. He
glided back to the hatch, lifted it, and closed it softly over his head
as the upper hatch was simultaneously raised, and the small round eyes
of Abner Nott peered down upon it. The other footsteps proved to be
Renshaw's, but, attracted by the open door of the loft, he turned aside
and entered. As soon as he disappeared Mr. Nott cautiously dropped
through the opening to the deck below, and, going to the other hatch
through which the Lascar had vanished, deliberately refastened it. In a
few moments Renshaw returned with a light, and found the old man
sitting on the hatch.

"The loft-door was open," said Renshaw. "There's little doubt whoever
was here escaped that way."

"Surely," said Nott. There was a peculiar look of Machiavellian
sagacity in his face which irritated Renshaw.

"Then you're sure it was Ferriferes you saw pass by your window before
you called me?" he asked.

Nott nodded his head with an expression of infinite profundity.

"But you say he was going _from_ the ship. Then it could not have been
he who made the noise we heard down here."

"Mebbee no, and mebbee yes," returned Nott, cautiously.

"But if he was already concealed inside the ship, as that open door,
which you say you barred from the inside, would indicate, what the
devil did he want with this?" said Renshaw, producing the
monkey - wrench he had picked up.

Mr. Nott examined the tool carefully, and shook his head with momentous
significance. Nevertheless, his eyes wandered to the hatch on which he
was seated.

"Did you find anything disturbed _there_?" said Renshaw, following the
direction of his eye. "Was that hatch fastened as it is now?"

"It was," said Nott, calmly. "But ye wouldn't mind fetchin' me a hammer
and some o' them big nails from the locker, would yer, while I hang
round here just so ez to make sure against another attack."

Renshaw complied with his request; but as Nott proceeded to gravely
nail down the fastenings of the hatch, he turned impatiently away to
complete his examination of the ship. The doors of the other lofts and
their fastenings appeared secure and undisturbed. Yet it was undeniable
that a felonious entrance had been made, but by whom or for what
purpose, still remained uncertain. Even now, Renshaw found it difficult
to accept Nott's theory that De Ferrières was the aggressor and Rosey
the object, nor could he justify his own suspicion that the Lascar had
obtained a surreptitious entrance under Sleight's directions. With a
feeling that if Rosey had been present he would have confessed all, and
demanded from her an equal confidence, he began to hate his feeble,
purposeless, and inefficient alliance with her father, who believed but
dared not tax his daughter with complicity in this outrage. What could
be done with a man whose only idea of action at such a moment was to
nail up an undisturbed entrance in his invaded house! He was so
preoccupied with these thoughts that when Nott rejoined him in the
cabin he scarcely heeded his presence, and was entirely oblivious of
the furtive looks which the old man from time to time cast upon his
face.

"I reckon ye wouldn't mind," broke in Nott, suddenly, "ef I asked a
favor of ye, Mr. Renshaw. Mebbee ye'll allow it's askin' too much in
the matter of expense; mebbee ye'll allow it's askin' too much in the
matter o' time. But _I_ kalkilate to pay all the expense, and if you'd
let me know what yer vally yer time at, I reckon I could stand that.
What I'd be askin' is this. Would ye mind takin' a letter from me to
Rosey, and bringin' back an answer?"

Renshaw stared speechlessly at this absurd realization of his wish of a
moment before. "I don't think I understand you," he stammered.

"P'r'aps not," returned Nott, with great gravity. "But that's not so
much matter to you ez your time and expenses."

"I meant I should be glad to go if I can be of any service to you,"
said Renshaw, hastily.

"You kin ketch the seven-o'clock boat this morning, and you'll reach
San Rafael at ten" -

"But I thought Miss Rosey went to Petaluma," interrupted Renshaw
quickly.

Nott regarded him with an expression of patronizing superiority.
"That's what we ladled out to the public gin'rally, and to Ferrers and
his gang in partickler. We _said_ Petalumey, but if you go to Madrono
Cottage, San Rafael, you'll find Rosey thar."

If Mr. Renshaw required anything more to convince him of the necessity
of coming to some understanding with Rosey at once it would have been
this last evidence of her father's utterly dark and supremely
inscrutable designs. He assented quickly, and Nott handed him a note.

"Ye'll be partickler to give this inter her own hands, and wait for an
answer," said Nott gravely.

Resisting the proposition to enter then and there into an elaborate
calculation of the value of his time and the expenses of the trip,
Renshaw found himself at seven o'clock on the San Rafael boat. Brief as
was the journey it gave him time to reflect upon his coming interview
with Rosey. He had resolved to begin by confessing all; the attempt of
last night had released him from any sense of duty to Sleight. Besides,
he did not doubt that Nott's letter contained some reference to this
affair only known to Nott's dark and tortuous intelligence.

VIII.

Madroño Cottage lay at the entrance of a little _cañada_ already green
with the early winter rains, and nestled in a thicket of the harlequin
painted trees that gave it a name. The young man was a little relieved
to find that Rosey had gone to the post-office a mile away, and that he
would probably overtake her or meet her returning - alone. The
road - little more than a trail - wound along the crest of the hill
looking across the _cañada_ to the long, dark, heavily-wooded flank of
Mount Tamalpais that rose from the valley a dozen miles away. A
cessation of the warm rain, a rift in the sky, and the rare spectacle
of cloud scenery, combined with a certain sense of freedom, restored
that light-hearted gayety that became him most. At a sudden turn of the
road he caught sight of Rosey's figure coming towards him, and
quickened his step with the impulsiveness of a boy. But she suddenly
disappeared, and when he again saw her she was on the other side of the
trail apparently picking the leaves of a manzanita. She had already
seen him.

Somehow the frankness of his greeting was checked. She looked up at him
with cheeks that retained enough of their color to suggest why she had
hesitated, and said, "_You_ here, Mr. Renshaw? I thought you were in
Sacramento."

"And I thought _you_ were in Petaluma," he retorted gayly. "I have a
letter from your father. The fact is, one of those gentlemen who has
been haunting the ship actually made an entry last night. Who he was,
and what he came for, nobody knows. Perhaps your father gives you his
suspicions." He could not help looking at her narrowly as he handed her
the note. Except that her pretty eyebrows were slightly raised in
curiosity she seemed undisturbed as she opened the letter. Presently
she raised her eyes to his.

"Is this all father gave you?"

"All."

"You're sure you haven't dropped anything?"

"Nothing. I have given you all he gave me."

"And that is all it is." She exhibited the missive, a perfectly blank
sheet of paper folded like a note!

Renshaw felt the angry blood glow in his cheeks. "This is unpardonable!
I assure you, Miss Nott, there must be some mistake. He himself has
probably forgotten the inclosure," he continued, yet with an inward
conviction that the act was perfectly premeditated on the part of the
old man.

The young girl held out her hand frankly. "Don't think any more of it,
Mr. Renshaw. Father is forgetful at times. But tell me about last
night."

In a few words Mr. Renshaw briefly but plainly related the details of
the attempt upon the Pontiac, from the moment that he had been awakened
by Nott, to his discovery of the unknown trespasser's flight by the
open door to the loft. When he had finished, he hesitated, and then
taking Rosey's hand, said impulsively, "You will not be angry with me
if I tell you all? Your father firmly believes that the attempt was
made by the old Frenchman, De Ferrières, with a view of carrying you
off."

A dozen reasons other than the one her father would have attributed it
to might have called the blood to her face. But only innocence could
have brought the look of astonished indignation to her eyes as she
answered quickly:

"So _that_ was what you were laughing at?"

"Not that, Miss Nott," said the young man eagerly; "though I wish to
God I could accuse myself of nothing more disloyal. Do not speak, I
beg," he added impatiently, as Rosey was about to reply. "I have no
right to hear you; I have no right to even stand in your presence until
I have confessed everything. I came to the Pontiac; I made your
acquaintance, Miss Nott, through a fraud as wicked as anything your
father charges to De Ferrières. I am not a contractor. I never was an
honest lodger in the Pontiac. I was simply a spy."

"But you didn't mean to be - it was some mistake, wasn't it?" said
Rosey, quite white, but more from sympathy with the offender's emotion
than horror at the offense.

"I am afraid I did mean it. But bear with me for a few moments longer
and you shall know all. It's a long story. Will you walk on, and - take
my arm? You do not shrink from me, Miss Nott. Thank you. I scarcely
deserve the kindness."

Indeed so little did Rosey shrink that he was conscious of a slight
reassuring pressure on his arm as they moved forward, and for the
moment I fear the young man felt like exaggerating his offense for the
sake of proportionate sympathy. "Do you remember," he continued, "one
evening when I told you some sea tales, you said you always thought
there must be some story about the Pontiac? There _was_ a story of the
Pontiac, Miss Nott - a wicked story - a terrible story - which I might
have told you, which I _ought_ to have told you - which was the story
that brought me there. You were right, too, in saying that you thought
I had known the Pontiac before I stepped first on her deck that day. I
had."

He laid his disengaged hand across lightly on Rosey's, as if to assure
himself that she was listening.

"I was at that time a sailor. I had been fool enough to run away from
college, thinking it a fine romantic thing to ship before the mast for
a voyage round the world. I was a little disappointed, perhaps, but I
made the best of it, and in two years I was the second mate of a whaler
lying in a little harbor of one of the uncivilized islands of the
Pacific. While we were at anchor there a French trading vessel put in,
apparently for water. She had the dregs of a mixed crew of Lascars and
Portuguese, who said they had lost the rest of their men by desertion,
and that the captain and mate had been carried off by fever. There was
something so queer in their story that our skipper took the law in his
own hands, and put me on board of her with a salvage crew. But that
night the French crew mutinied, cut the cables, and would have got to
sea if we had not been armed and prepared, and managed to drive them
below. When we had got them under hatches for a few hours they
parleyed, and offered to go quietly ashore. As we were short of hands
and unable to take them with us, and as we had no evidence against
them, we let them go, took the ship to Callao, turned her over to the
authorities, lodged a claim for salvage, and continued our voyage. When
we returned we found the truth of the story was known. She had been a
French trader from Marseilles, owned by her captain; her crew had
mutinied in the Pacific, killed their officers and the only
passenger - the owner of the cargo. They had made away with the cargo
and a treasure of nearly half a million of Spanish gold for trading
purposes which belonged to the passenger. In course of time the ship
was sold for salvage and put into the South American trade until the
breaking out of the Californian gold excitement, when she was sent with
a cargo to San Francisco. That ship was the Pontiac which your father
bought."

A slight shudder ran through the girl's frame. "I wish - I wish you
hadn't told me," she said. I shall never close my eyes again
comfortably on board of her, I know."

"I would say that you had purified her of _all_ stains of her past - but
there may be one that remains. And _that_ in most people's eyes would
be no detraction. You look puzzled, Miss Nott - but I am coming to the
explanation and the end of my story. A ship of war was sent to the
island to punish the mutineers and pirates, for such they were, but
they could not be found. A private expedition was sent to discover the
treasure which they were supposed to have buried, but in vain. About
two months ago Mr. Sleight told me one of his shipmasters had sent him
a Lascar sailor who had to dispose of a valuable secret regarding the
Pontiac for a percentage. That secret was that the treasure was never
taken by the mutineers out of the Pontiac! They were about to land and
bury it when we boarded them. They took advantage of their imprisonment
under hatches _to bury it in the ship_. They hid it in the hold so
securely and safely that it was never detected by us or the Callao
authorities. I was then asked, as one who knew the vessel, to undertake
a private examination of her, with a view of purchasing her from your
father without awakening his suspicions. I assented. You have my
confession now, Miss Nott. You know my crime. I am at your mercy."

Rosey's arm only tightened around his own. Her eyes sought his. "And
you didn't find anything?" she said.

The question sounded so oddly like Sleight's, that Renshaw returned a
little stiffly:

"I didn't look."

"Why?" asked Rosey simply.

"Because," stammered Renshaw, with an uneasy consciousness of having
exaggerated his sentiment, "it didn't seem honorable; it didn't seem
fair to you."

"Oh you silly! you might have looked and told _me_."

"But," said Renshaw, "do you think that would have been fair to
Sleight?"

"As fair to him as to us. For, don't you see, it wouldn't belong to any
of us. It would belong to the friends or the family of the man who lost
it."

"But there were no heirs," replied Renshaw. "That was proved by some
impostor who pretended to be his brother, and libelled the Pontiac at
Callao, but the courts decided he was a lunatic."

"Then it belongs to the poor pirates who risked their own lives for it,
rather than to Sleight, who did nothing." She was silent for a moment,
and then resumed with energy, "I believe he was at the bottom of that
attack last night."

"I have thought so too," said Renshaw.

"Then I must go back at once," she continued, impulsively. "Father must
not be left alone."

"Nor _must you_," said Renshaw, quickly. "Do let me return with you,
and share with you and your father the trouble I have brought upon you.
Do not," he added in a lower tone, "deprive me of the only chance of
expiating my offense, of making myself worthy your forgiveness."

"I am sure," said Rosey, lowering her lids and half withdrawing her
arm, "I am sure I have nothing to forgive. You did not believe the
treasure belonged to us any more than to anybody else, until you knew
_me_" -

"That is true," said the young man, attempting to take her hand.

"I mean," said Rosey, blushing, and showing a distracting row of little
teeth in one of her infrequent laughs, "oh, you know what I mean." She
withdrew her arm gently, and became interested in the selection of
certain wayside bay leaves as they passed along. "All the same, I don't
believe in this treasure," she said abruptly, as if to change the
subject. "I don't believe it ever was hidden inside the Pontiac."

"That can be easily ascertained now," said Renshaw.

"But it's a pity you didn't find it out while you were about it," said
Rosey. "It would have saved so much talk and trouble."

"I have told you why I didn't search the ship," responded Renshaw, with
a slight bitterness. "But it seems I could only avoid being a great
rascal by becoming a great fool."

"You never intended to be a rascal," said Rosey, earnestly, "and you
couldn't be a fool, except in heeding what a silly girl says. I only
meant if you had taken me into your confidence it would have been
better."

"Might I not say the same to you regarding your friend, the old
Frenchman?" returned Renshaw. "What if I were to confess to you that I
lately suspected him of knowing the secret, and of trying to gain your
assistance?"

Instead of indignantly repudiating the suggestion, to the young man's
great discomfiture, Rosey only knit her pretty brows, and remained for
some moments silent. Presently she asked timidly:

"Do you think it wrong to tell another person's secret for their own
good?"

"No," said Renshaw, promptly.

"Then I'll tell you Monsieur de Ferrières'! But only because I believe
from what you have just said that he will turn out to have some right
to the treasure."

Then with kindling eyes, and a voice eloquent with sympathy, Rosey told
the story of her accidental discovery of De Ferrières' miserable
existence in the loft. Clothing it with the unconscious poetry of her
fresh, young imagination, she lightly passed over his antique gallantry
and grotesque weakness, exalting only his lonely sufferings and
mysterious wrongs. Renshaw listened, lost between shame for his late
suspicions and admiration for her thoughtful delicacy, until she began
to speak of De Ferrières' strange allusions to the foreign papers in
his portmanteau. "I think some were law papers, and I am almost certain
I saw the word Callao printed on one of them."

"It may be so," said Renshaw, thoughtfully. "The old Frenchman has
always passed for a harmless, wandering eccentric. I hardly think
public curiosity has ever even sought to know his name, much less his
history. But had we not better first try to find if there _is_ any
property before we examine his claims to it?"

"As you please," said Rosey, with a slight pout; "but you will find it
much easier to discover him than his treasure. It's always easier to
find the thing you're not looking for."

"Until you want it," said Renshaw, with sudden gravity.

"How pretty it looks over there," said Rosey, turning her conscious
eyes to the opposite mountain.

"Very."

They had reached the top of the hill, and in the near distance the
chimney of Madroño Cottage was even now visible. At the expected sight
they unconsciously stopped - unconsciously disappointed. Rosey broke the
embarrassing silence.

"There's another way home, but it's a roundabout way," she said
timidly.

"Let us take it," said Renshaw.

She hesitated. "The boat goes at four, and we must return to-night."

"The more reason why we should make the most of our time now," said
Renshaw with a faint smile. "To-morrow all things may be changed;
to-morrow you may find yourself an heiress, Miss Nott. To-morrow," he
added, with a slight tremor in his voice, "I may have earned your
forgiveness, only to say farewell to you forever. Let me keep this
sunshine, this picture, this companionship with you long enough to say



Online LibraryBret HarteFrontier Stories → online text (page 31 of 32)