The Stone Chest by G. A. Henty
Chapter I.--A Mystery Of The Storm.
"What a fearful night, Bob!"
"Yes, mother; it's about the worst storm of the season," replied Bob Cromwell, as he entered the seaside cottage and shook the water from his cap. "It will go hard on any vessel near the coast. The wind is rising to a perfect gale. Just listen to it sing."
There was no need to listen. The storm was so violent one could scarcely hear aught else. The little cottage, standing so boldly out upon the sea cliff, shook and rocked from end to end as if preparing to leave its foundations.
"I see supper is ready," went on Bob. "By the way, was Mr. Vasty here?"
At once Mrs. Cromwell's face grew dark and troubled. It was an aristocratic face, and plainly indicated that the lady had seen better days.
"Yes, he was here, Bob."
"And what did he say?"
"We must leave on Monday. The cottage has been sold over our heads."
Tears stood in Mrs. Cromwell's eyes as she spoke.
"Yes, my boy. He said he could wait no longer. He believes, as do all in Sea Cove, that your father is dead."
"Perhaps he is," sighed Bob. "It is now over six months since the Bluebell went down. If he escaped in a small boat we should have heard from him before this."
"Oh, I cannot believe your father dead, Bob," cried the mother, bursting into tears. "If I thought that--" She did not finish.
Bob sat down to the supper table in silence. He had little heart to eat, and swallowed the food mechanically.
Bob was seventeen years of age, bright, handsome, and fearless. He was Mrs. Cromwell's only son and his father had been a sea captain.
We say, had been, for the Bluebell had been wrecked some time before and all in Sea Cove thought the captain dead--all saving Mrs. Cromwell, who still hoped for his safe return--hoping, as it were, against hope.
Years before the Cromwells had been rich, owning four large trading vessels. But bad luck had come and continued until the fortune dwindled down to nothing but the ownership of the old Bluebell. It was then that the captain had determined on a voyage to Alaska, taking with him a party of men who wished to explore the new gold mines in that territory.
The Bluebell was supposed to have gone down in sight of the coast and only two of the survivors had thus far returned.
As time went by the little cottage, a poor affair at the best, was mortgaged to pay outstanding debts. It was the last of the Cromwell belongings.
Bob worked at the docks, handling freight. It was not what he had been brought up to, but it was the best employment he could obtain in the vicinity.
"I don't see what's to be done, Bob," said Mrs. Cromwell, during a lull in the storm. "We must move and I have only three dollars in all."
"Oh, I forgot!" he suddenly exclaimed, and pulled a ten-dollar bill from his pocket. "Here, mother, is a little to help us."
"Why, where in the world did you get that, Bob?" she ejaculated.
"A young gentleman gave it to me--insisted I should take it."
"He said I saved his life."
"And did you?"
"Well, I don't know--perhaps," mused Bob. "You see, it was Captain Randolph Sumner, the gentleman who owns that splendid new yacht down to Marcey's. He fell into the water right in front of the incoming steamer Flag, and I fished him out just as he was on the point of being struck. He was very grateful and made me keep the money, although I didn't want it and told him so."
That was all Bob said. He was too modest to mention that Randolph Sumner had called him a hero and that the crowd standing by had given him a cheer for his bravery.
"Ten dollars is a windfall," began Mrs. Cromwell. "Now if we--Gracious, the signal gun, Bob!"
Bob sprang up from the table. He knew that sound only too well.
"Ship has struck, mother!" he cried. "I must go down and see if I can help in any way."
And waiting for no reply, the youth grabbed up his cap and storm coat and rushed out into the storm.
Bob was right--a ship had struck. Away off through the mist and rain he could see the colored lights and the flash of the gun, calling for help.
The lifeboat men were already out and getting ready to launch their heavy craft.
"Look! look! The ship is going down!"
The cry thrilled everyone to the very heart. It was true. The stately ship was sinking fast. Down she went and came up again, once, twice --and then no more.
The lifeboat went out in a hurry, but it was of no avail. The storm had done its work and all on board had perished.
No, not all. Walking at the foot of the cliff a little later, Bob heard a low moan, and soon came upon the body of an aged seaman jammed in between the rocks. The man was fearfully bruised and did nothing but moan as the youth bore him up to the cottage.
Here he was made as comfortable as possible on a cot. It was an hour before he was able to open his eyes.
"Where am I?" he asked faintly. "Oh, the storm. I was hit in the back--I am dying; I know it. Take me to Mrs. Leon Cromwell."
At this utterance Mrs. Cromwell and Bob were both greatly astonished.
"I am Mrs. Cromwell, sir."
"You! It is not possible!"
"Mother tells the truth," put in Bob. "What do you want?"
"You are the wife of Leon Cromwell?"
"I am," said the woman.
"Heaven be praised! Who brought you to me?"
"I brought you to our cottage," returned Bob. "You lay unconscious on the rocks."
"It is the work of Providence," murmured the sufferer. "I was on my way hither when the storm overtook the Mary Lee. I--I--a drink--I am fainting!"
Water with brandy was brought and the man revived a little. He glared strangely at Mrs. Cromwell.
"I must speak quickly, for I am dying--I know it, feel it. I was sick on board; that's why I know. The doctor said I couldn't live, and the storm has only hastened matters. I want to talk to you about your husband."
"Is he alive?" came from mother and son simultaneously.
"He is--or was three months ago. At Zaruth, on the Siberian coast--where the stone chest was left--we--more drink--quick!"
Again the sufferer had a relapse.
"The stone chest caused the trouble. There was gold and silver, and after the wreck----"
"Never mind the gold and silver. Where is my husband?" interrupted Mrs. Cromwell.
"I was going to tell you. We started for--for----" The man gasped for breath. "It's my head. We started for the coast, when the people living there who had seen the stone chest, got together and--oh!"
The sufferer fell back in a spasm of pain, from which it was almost impossible to revive him. At last he spoke again.
"He was made a prisoner, and;--water, or I die--I can't drink--it is growing dark--the papers in my pocket are for you--and may Heaven forgive me!"
The man leaped almost to his feet, then fell back in another spasm. A minute later he was dead. With tenderness mother and son cared for the body. In one of the seaman's pockets was found a packet of papers yellow with age.
Bob opened the packet and looked over the paper with interest. An hour passed. Then the youth sprang to his feet.
"Mother, I am going to Cedar Island on the Siberian coast and to father's rescue!" he cried, with sudden determination.