Dialstone Lane by W.W. Jacobs
In less than a week Captain Bowers had settled down comfortably in his new command. A set of rules and regulations by which Mr. Joseph Tasker was to order his life was framed and hung in the pantry. He studied it with care, and, anxious that there should be no possible chance of a misunderstanding, questioned the spelling in three instances. The captain's explanation that he had spelt those words in the American style was an untruthful reflection upon a great and friendly nation.
Dialstone Lane was at first disposed to look askance at Mr. Tasker. Old-fashioned matrons clustered round to watch him cleaning the doorstep, and, surprised at its whiteness, withdrew discomfited. Rumour had it that he liked work, and scandal said that he had wept because he was not allowed to do the washing.
[Illustration: "Old-fashioned matrons clustered round to watch him cleaning the doorstep."
The captain attributed this satisfactory condition of affairs to the rules and regulations, though a slight indiscretion on the part of Mr. Tasker, necessitating the unframing of the document to add to the latter, caused him a little annoyance.
The first intimation he had of it was a loud knocking at the front door as he sat dozing one afternoon in his easy-chair. In response to his startled cry of "Come in!" the door opened and a small man, in a state of considerable agitation, burst into the room and confronted him.
"My name is Chalk," he said, breathlessly.
"A friend of Mr. Tredgold's? "said the captain. "I've heard of you, sir."
The visitor paid no heed.
"My wife wishes to know whether she has got to dress in the dark every afternoon for the rest of her life," he said, in fierce but trembling tones.
"Got to dress in the dark?" repeated the astonished captain.
"With the blind down," explained the other.
Captain Bowers looked him up and down. He saw a man of about fifty nervously fingering the little bits of fluffy red whisker which grew at the sides of his face, and trying to still the agitation of his tremulous mouth.
"How would you like it yourself?" demanded the visitor, whose manner was gradually becoming milder and milder. "How would you like a telescope a yard long pointing--"
He broke off abruptly as the captain, with a smothered oath, dashed out of his chair into the garden and stood shaking his fist at the crow's-nest at the bottom.
"Joseph!" he bawled.
"Yes, sir," said Mr. Tasker, removing the telescope described by Mr. Chalk from his eye, and leaning over.
"What are you doing with that spy-glass?" demanded his master, beckoning to the visitor, who had drawn near. "How dare you stare in at people's windows?"
"I wasn't, sir," replied Mr. Tasker, in an injured voice. "I wouldn't think o' such a thing--I couldn't, not if I tried."
"You'd got it pointed straight at my bedroom window," cried Mr. Chalk, as he accompanied the captain down the garden. "And it ain't the first time."
"I wasn't, sir," said the steward, addressing his master. "I was watching the martins under the eaves."
"You'd got it pointed at my window," persisted the visitor.
"That's where the nests are," said Mr. Tasker," but I wasn't looking in at the window. Besides, I noticed you always pulled the blind down when you saw me looking, so I thought it didn't matter."
"We can't do anything without being followed about by that telescope," said Mr. Chalk, turning to the captain. "My wife had our house built where it is on purpose, so that we shouldn't be overlooked. We didn't bargain for a thing like that sprouting up in a back-garden."
"I'm very sorry," said the captain. "I wish you'd told me of it before. If I catch you up there again," he cried, shaking his fist at Mr. Tasker, "you'll remember it. Come down!"
Mr. Tasker, placing the glass under his arm, came slowly and reluctantly down the ratlines.
"I wasn't looking in at the window, Mr. Chalk," he said, earnestly. "I was watching the birds. O' course, I couldn't help seeing in a bit, but I always shifted the spy-glass at once if there was anything that I thought I oughtn't--"
"That'll do," broke in the captain, hastily. "Go in and get the tea ready. If I so much as see you looking at that glass again we part, my lad, mind that."
"I don't suppose he meant any harm," said the mollified Mr. Chalk, after the crestfallen Joseph had gone into the house. "I hope I haven't been and said too much, but my wife insisted on me coming round and speaking about it."
"You did quite right," said the captain, "and I thank you for coming. I told him he might go up there occasionally, but I particularly warned him against giving any annoyance to the neighbours."
"I suppose," said Mr. Chalk, gazing at the erection with interest-- "I suppose there's a good view from up there? It's like having a ship in the garden, and it seems to remind you of the North Pole, and whales, and Northern Lights."
Five minutes later Mr. Tasker, peering through the pantry window, was surprised to see Mr. Chalk ascending with infinite caution to the crow's-nest. His high hat was jammed firmly over his brows and the telescope was gripped tightly under his right arm. The journey was evidently regarded as one of extreme peril by the climber; but he held on gallantly and, arrived at the top, turned a tremulous telescope on to the horizon.
Mr. Tasker took a deep breath and resumed his labours. He set the table, and when the water boiled made the tea, and went down the garden to announce the fact. Mr. Chalk was still up aloft, and even at that height the pallor of his face was clearly discernible. It was evident to the couple below that the terrors of the descent were too much for him, but that he was too proud to say so.
"Nice view up there," called the captain.
"B--b--beautiful," cried Mr. Chalk, with an attempt at enthusiasm.
The captain paced up and down impatiently; his tea was getting cold, but the forlorn figure aloft made no sign. The captain waited a little longer, and then, laying hold of the shrouds, slowly mounted until his head was above the platform.
"Shall I take the glass for you?" he inquired.
Mr. Chalk, clutching the edge of the cask, leaned over and handed it down.
"My--my foot's gone to sleep," he stammered.
"Ho! Well, you must be careful how you get down," said the captain, climbing on to the platform. "Now, gently."
He put the telescope back into the cask, and, beckoning Mr. Tasker to ascend, took Mr. Chalk in a firm grasp and lowered him until he was able to reach Mr. Tasker's face with his foot. After that the descent was easy, and Mr. Chalk, reaching ground once more, spent two or three minutes in slapping and rubing, and other remedies prescribed for sleepy feet.
"There's few gentlemen that would have come down at all with their foot asleep," remarked Mr. Tasker, pocketing a shilling, when the captain's back was turned.
Mr. Chalk, still pale and shaking somewhat, smiled feebly and followed the captain into the house. The latter offered a cup of tea, which the visitor, after a faint protest, accepted, and taking a seat at the table gazed in undisguised admiration at the nautical appearance of the room.
"I could fancy myself aboard ship," he declared.
"Are you fond of the sea?" inquired the captain.
"I love it," said Mr. Chalk, fervently. "It was always my idea from a boy to go to sea, but somehow I didn't. I went into my father's business instead, but I never liked it. Some people are fond of a stay-at-home life, but I always had a hankering after adventures."
The captain shook his head. "Ha!" he said, impressively.
"You've had a few in your time," said Mr. Chalk, looking at him, grudgingly; "Edward Tredgold was telling me so."
"Man and boy, I was at sea forty-nine years," remarked the captain. "Naturally things happened in that time; it would have been odd if they hadn't. It's all in a lifetime."
"Some lifetimes," said Mr. Chalk, gloomily. "I'm fifty-one next year, and the only thing I ever had happen to me was seeing a man stop a runaway horse and cart."
He shook his head solemnly over his monotonous career, and, gazing at a war-club from Samoa which hung over the fireplace, put a few leading questions to the captain concerning the manner in which it came into his possession. When Prudence came in half an hour later he was still sitting there, listening with rapt attention to his host's tales of distant seas.
It was the first of many visits. Sometimes he brought Mr. Tredgold and sometimes Mr. Tredgold brought him. The terrors of the crow's-nest vanished before his persevering attacks, and perched there with the captain's glass he swept the landscape with the air of an explorer surveying a strange and hostile country.
It was a fitting prelude to the captain's tales afterwards, and Mr. Chalk, with the stem of his long pipe withdrawn from his open mouth, would sit enthralled as his host narrated picturesque incidents of hairbreadth escapes, or, drawing his chair to the table, made rough maps for his listener's clearer understanding. Sometimes the captain took him to palm-studded islands in the Southern Seas; sometimes to the ancient worlds of China and Japan. He became an expert in nautical terms. He walked in knots, and even ordered a new carpet in fathoms--after the shop-keeper had demonstrated, by means of his little boy's arithmetic book, the difference between that measurement and a furlong.
"I'll have a voyage before I'm much older," he remarked one afternoon, as he sat in the captain's sitting-room. "Since I retired from business time hangs very heavy sometimes. I've got a fancy for a small yacht, but I suppose I couldn't go a long voyage in a small one?"
"Smaller the better," said Edward Tredgold, who was sitting by the window watching Miss Drewitt sewing.
Mr. Chalk took his pipe from his mouth and eyed him inquiringly.
"Less to lose," explained Mr. Tredgold, with a scarcely perceptible glance at the captain. "Look at the dangers you'd be dragging your craft into, Chalk; there would be no satisfying you with a quiet cruise in the Mediterranean."
"I shouldn't run into unnecessary danger," said Mr. Chalk, seriously. "I'm a married man, and there's my wife to think of. What would become of her if anything happened to me?"
"Why, you've got plenty of money to leave, haven't you?" inquired Mr. Tredgold.
"I was thinking of her losing me," replied Mr. Chalk, with a touch of acerbity.
"Oh, I didn't think of that," said the other. "Yes, to be sure."
"Captain Bowers was telling me the other day of a woman who wore widow's weeds for thirty-five years," said Mr. Chalk, impressively. "And all the time her husband was married again and got a big family in Australia. There's nothing in the world so faithful as a woman's heart."
"Well, if you're lost on a cruise, I shall know where to look for you," said Mr. Tredgold. "But I don't think the captain ought to put such ideas into your head."
Mr. Chalk looked bewildered. Then he scratched his left whisker with the stem of his churchwarden pipe and looked severely over at Mr. Tredgold.
"I don't think you ought to talk that way before ladies," he said, primly. "Of course, I know you're only in joke, but there's some people can't see jokes as quick as others and they might get a wrong idea of you."
"What part did you think of going to for your cruise?" interposed Captain Bowers.
"There's nothing settled yet," said Mr. Chalk;" it's just an idea, that's all. I was talking to your father the other day," he added, turning to Mr. Tredgold; "just sounding him, so to speak."
"You take him," said that dutiful son, briskly. "It would do him a world of good; me, too."
"He said he couldn't afford either the time or the money," said Mr. Chalk. "The thing to do would be to combine business with pleasure--to take a yacht and find a sunken galleon loaded with gold pieces. I've heard of such things being done."
"I've heard of it," said the captain, nodding.
"Bottom of the ocean must be paved with them in places," said Mr. Tredgold, rising, and following Miss Drewitt, who had gone into the garden to plant seeds.
Mr. Chalk refilled his pipe and, accepting a match from the captain, smoked slowly. His gaze was fixed on the window, but instead of Dialstone Lane he saw tumbling blue seas and islets far away.
"That's something you've never come across, I suppose, Captain Bowers?" he remarked at last.
"No," said the other.
Mr. Chalk, with a vain attempt to conceal his disappointment, smoked on for some time in silence. The blue seas disappeared, and he saw instead the brass knocker of the house opposite.
"Nor any other kind of craft with treasure aboard, I suppose?" he suggested, at last.
The captain put his hands on his knees and stared at the floor. "No," he said, slowly, "I can't call to mind any craft; but it's odd that you should have got on this subject with me."
Mr. Chalk laid his pipe carefully on the table.
"Why?" he inquired.
"Well," said the captain, with a short laugh, "it is odd, that's all."
Mr. Chalk fidgeted with the stem of his pipe. "You know of sunken treasure somewhere?" he said, eagerly.
The captain smiled and shook his head; the other watched him narrowly.
"You know of some treasure?" he said, with conviction.
"Not what you could call sunken," said the captain, driven to bay.
Mr. Chalk's pale-blue eyes opened to their fullest extent. "Ingots?" he queried.
The other shook his head. "It's a secret," he remarked; "we won't talk about it."
"Yes, of course, naturally, I don't expect you to tell me where it is," said Mr. Chalk, "but I thought it might be interesting to hear about, that's all."
"It's buried," said the captain, after a long pause. "I don't know that there's any harm in telling you that; buried in a small island in the South Pacific."
"Have you seen it?" inquired Mr. Chalk.
"I buried it," rejoined the other.
Mr. Chalk sank back in his chair and regarded him with awestruck attention; Captain Bowers, slowly ramming home a charge of tobacco with his thumb, smiled quietly.
"Buried it," he repeated, musingly," with the blade of an oar for a spade. It was a long job, but it's six foot down and the dead man it belonged to atop of it."
The pipe fell from the listener's fingers and smashed unheeded on the floor.
"You ought to make a book of it," he said at last.
The captain shook his head. "I haven't got the gift of story-telling," he said, simply. "Besides, you can understand I don't want it noised about. People might bother me."
He leaned back in his chair and bunched his beard in his hand; the other, watching him closely, saw that his thoughts were busy with some scene in his stirring past.
"Not a friend of yours, I hope?" said Mr. Chalk, at last.
"Who?" inquired the captain, starting from his reverie.
"The dead man atop of the treasure," replied the other.
"No," said the captain, briefly.
"Is it worth much?" asked Mr. Chalk.
"Roughly speaking, about half a million," responded the captain, calmly.
Mr. Chalk rose and walked up and down the room. His eyes were bright and his face pinker than usual.
"Why don't you get it?" he demanded, at last, pausing in front of his host.
"Why, it ain't mine," said the captain, staring. "D'ye think I'm a thief?"
Mr. Chalk stared in his turn. "But who does it belong to, then?" he inquired.
"I don't know," replied the captain. "All I know is, it isn't mine, and that's enough for me. Whether it was rightly come by I don't know. There it is, and there it'll stay till the crack of doom."
"Don't you know any of his relations or friends?" persisted the other.
"I know nothing of him except his name," said the captain, "and I doubt if even that was his right one. Don Silvio he called himself--a Spaniard. It's over ten years ago since it happened. My ship had been bought by a firm in Sydney, and while I was waiting out there I went for a little run on a schooner among the islands. This Don Silvio was aboard of her as a passenger. She went to pieces in a gale, and we were the only two saved. The others were washed overboard, but we got ashore in the boat, and I thought from the trouble he was taking over his bag that the danger had turned his brain."
"Ah!" said the keenly interested Mr. Chalk.
"He was a sick man aboard ship," continued the captain, "and I soon saw that he hadn't saved his life for long. He saw it, too, and before he died he made me promise that the bag should be buried with him and never disturbed. After I'd promised, he opened the bag and showed me what was in it. It was full of precious stones--diamonds, rubies, and the like; some of them as large as birds' eggs. I can see him now, propped up against the boat and playing with them in the sunlight. They blazed like stars. Half a million he put them at, or more."
"What good could they be to him when he was dead?" inquired the listener.
Captain Bowers shook his head. "That was his business, not mine," he replied. "It was nothing to do with me. When he died I dug a grave for him, as I told you, with a bit of a broken oar, and laid him and the bag together. A month afterwards I was taken off by a passing schooner and landed safe at Sydney."
Mr. Chalk stopped, and mechanically picking up the pieces of his pipe placed them on the table.
"Suppose that you had heard afterwards that the things had been stolen?" he remarked.
"If I had, then I should have given information, I think," said the other. "It all depends."
"Ah! but how could you have found them again?" inquired Mr. Chalk, with the air of one propounding a poser.
"With my map," said the captain, slowly. "Before I left I made a map of the island and got its position from the schooner that picked me up; but I never heard a word from that day to this."
"Could you find them now?" said Mr. Chalk.
"Why not?" said the captain, with a short laugh. "The island hasn't run away."
He rose as he spoke and, tossing the fragments of his visitor's pipe into the fireplace, invited him to take a turn in the garden. Mr. Chalk, after a feeble attempt to discuss the matter further, reluctantly obeyed.