The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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As he gazed, trembling, at the precious piece of dusty much-creased paper, scribbled over in the unlettered schoolboy hand of the wild old sea-dog, Cecil Mitford could hardly restrain himself for a moment from uttering a cry. Untold wealth swam before his eyes: he could marry Ethel now, and let her drive in her own carriage! Ah, what he would give if he might only shout in his triumph. He couldn't even read the words, he was so excited. But after a minute or two, he recovered his composure sufficiently to begin deciphering the crabbed writing, which constant practice and familiarity with the system enabled him to do immediately, without even referring to the key. And this was what, with a few minutes' inspection, Cecil Mitford slowly spelled out of the dirty manuscript: —
Cecil Mitford laid the paper down as he finished reading it with a face even whiter and paler than before, and with the muscles of his mouth trembling violently with suppressed emotion. At the exact second when he felt sure he had discovered the momentous secret, it had slipped mysteriously through his very fingers, and seemed now to float away into the remote distance, almost as far from his eager grasp as ever. Even there, in the musty Record Office, before all the clerks and scholars who were sitting about working carelessly at their desks at mere dilettante historical problems – the stupid prigs, how he hated them! – he could hardly restrain the expression of his pent-up feelings at that bitter disappointment in the very hour of his fancied triumph.Jamaica! How absolutely distant and unapproachable it sounded! How hopeless the attempt to follow up the clue! How utterly his day-dream had been dashed to the ground in those three minutes of silent deciphering! He felt as if the solid earth was reeling beneath him, and he would have given the whole world if he could have put his face between his two hands on the desk and cried like a woman before the whole Record Office.
For half an hour by the clock he sat there dazed and motionless, gazing in a blank disappointed fashion at the sheet of coffee-coloured paper in front of him. It was late, and workers were dropping away one after another from the scantily peopled desks. But Cecil Mitford took no notice of them: he merely sat with his arms folded, and gazed abstractedly at that disappointing, disheartening, irretrievable piece of crabbed writing. At last an assistant came up and gently touched his arm. "We're going to close now, sir," he said in his unfeeling official tone – just as if it were a mere bit of historical inquiry he was after – "and I shall be obliged if you'll put back the manuscripts you've been consulting into F. 27." Cecil Mitford rose mechanically and sorted out the Cyriack Skinner papers into their proper places. Then he laid them quietly on the shelf, and walked out into the streets of London, for the moment a broken-hearted man.
But as he walked home alone that clear warm summer evening, and felt the cool breeze blowing against his forehead, he began to reflect to himself that, after all, all was not lost; that in fact things really stood better with him now than they had stood that very morning, before he lighted upon John Cann's last letter. He had not discovered the actual hiding-place of the hoard, to be sure, but he now knew on John Cann's own indisputable authority, first, that there really was a hidden treasure; second, that the hiding-place was really in England; and third, that full particulars as to the spot where it was buried might be found in John Cann's own coffin at Port Royal, Jamaica. It was a risky and difficult thing to open a coffin, no doubt; but it was not impossible. No, not impossible. On the whole, putting one thing with another, in spite of his terrible galling disappointment, he was really nearer to the recovery of the treasure now than he had ever been in his life before. Till to-day, the final clue was missing; to-day, it had been found. It was a difficult and dangerous clue to follow, but still it had been found.
And yet, setting aside the question of desecrating a grave, how all but impossible it was for him to get to Jamaica! His small funds had long ago been exhausted in prosecuting the research, and he had nothing on earth to live upon now but his wretched salary. Even if he could get three or six months' leave from the Colonial Office, which was highly improbable, how could he ever raise the necessary money for his passage out and home, as well as for the delicate and doubtful operation of searching for documents in John Cann's coffin? It was tantalising, it was horrible, it was unendurable; but here, with the secret actually luring him on to discover it, he was to be foiled and baffled at the last moment by a mere paltry, petty, foolish consideration of two hundred pounds! Two hundred pounds! How utterly ludicrous! Why, John Cann's treasure would make him a man of fabulous wealth for a whole lifetime, and he was to be prevented from realizing it by a wretched matter of two hundred pounds! He would do anything to get it – for a loan, a mere loan; to be repaid with cent. per cent. interest; but where in the world, where in the world, was he ever to get it from?
And then, quick as lightning, the true solution of the whole difficulty flashed at once across his excited brain. He could borrow all the money if he chose from Ethel! Poor little Ethel; she hadn't much of her own; but she had just enough to live very quietly upon with her Aunt Emily; and, thank Heaven, it wasn't tied up with any of those bothering, meddling three-per-cent. – loving trustees! She had her little all at her own disposal, and he could surely get two or three hundred pounds from her to secure for them both the boundless buried wealth of John Cann's treasure.
Should he make her a confidante outright, and tell her what it was that he wanted the money for? No, that would be impossible, for though she had heard all about John Cann over and over again, she had not faith enough in the treasure – women are so unpractical – to hazard her little scrap of money on it; of that he felt certain. She would go and ask old Mr. Cartwright's opinion; and old Mr. Cartwright was one of those penny-wise, purblind, unimaginative old gentlemen who will never believe in anything until they've seen it. Yet here was John Cann's money going a-begging, so to speak, and only waiting for him and Ethel to come and enjoy it. Cecil had no patience with those stupid, stick-in-the-mud, timid people who can see no further than their own noses. For Ethel's own sake he would borrow two or three hundred pounds from her, one way or another, and she would easily forgive him the harmless little deception when he paid her back a hundredfold out of John Cann's boundless treasure.
That very evening, without a minute's delay, Cecil determined to go round and have a talk with Ethel Sunderland. "Strike while the iron's hot," he said to himself. "There isn't a minute to be lost; for who knows but somebody else may find John Cann's treasure before I do?"
Ethel opened the door to him herself; theirs was an old engagement of long standing, after the usual Government clerk's fashion; and Aunt Emily didn't stand out so stiffly as many old maids do for the regular proprieties. Very pretty Ethel looked with her pale face and the red ribbon in her hair; very pretty, but Cecil feared, as he looked into her dark hazel eyes, a little wearied and worn-out, for it was her music-lesson day, as he well remembered. Her music-lesson day! Ethel Sutherland to give music-lessons to some wretched squealing children at the West-end, when all John Cann's wealth was lying there, uncounted, only waiting for him and her to take it and enjoy it! The bare thought was a perfect purgatory to him. He must get that two hundred pounds to-night, or give up the enterprise altogether.
"Well, Ethel darling," he said tenderly, taking her pretty little hand in his; "you look tired, dearest. Those horrid children have been bothering you again. How I wish we were married, and you were well out of it!"
Ethel smiled a quiet smile of resignation. "They are rather trying, Cecil," she said gently, "especially on days when one has got a headache; but, after all, I'm very glad to have the work to do; it helps such a lot to eke out our little income. We have so very little, you know, even for two lonely women to live upon in simple little lodgings like these, that I'm thankful I can do something to help dear Aunt Emily, who's really goodness itself. You see, after all, I get very well paid indeed for the lessons."
"Ethel," Cecil Mitford said suddenly, thinking it better to dash at once into the midst of business; "I've come round this evening to talk with you about a means by which you can add a great deal with perfect safety to your little income. Not by lessons, Ethel darling; not by lessons. I can't bear to see you working away the pretty tips off those dear little fingers of yours with strumming scales on the piano for a lot of stupid, gawky school-girls; it's by a much simpler way than that; I know of a perfectly safe investment for that three hundred that you've got in New Zealand Four per Cents. Can you not have heard that New Zealand securities are in a very shaky way just at present?"
"Very shaky, Cecil?" Ethel answered in surprise. "Why, Mr. Cartwright told me only a week ago they were as safe as the Bank of England!"
"Mr. Cartwright's an ignorant old martinet," Cecil replied vigorously. "He thinks because the stock's inscribed and the dividends are payable in Threadneedle Street that the colony of New Zealand's perfectly solvent. Now, I'm in the Colonial Office, and I know a great deal better than that. New Zealand has over-borrowed, I assure you; quite over-borrowed; and a serious fall is certain to come sooner or later. Mark my words, Ethel darling; if you don't sell out those New Zealand Fours, you'll find your three hundred has sunk to a hundred and fifty in rather less than half no time!"
Ethel hesitated, and looked at him in astonishment. "That's very queer," she said, "for Mr. Cartwright wants me to sell out my little bit of Midland and put it all into the same New Zealands. He says they're so safe and pay so well."
"Mr. Cartwright indeed!" Cecil cried contemptuously. "What means on earth has he of knowing? Didn't he advise you to buy nothing but three per cents., and then let you get some Portuguese Threes at fifty, which are really sixes, and exceedingly doubtful securities? What's the use of trusting a man like that, I should like to know? No, Ethel, if you'll be guided by me – and I have special opportunities of knowing about these things at the Colonial Office – you'll sell out your New Zealands, and put them into a much better investment that I can tell you about. And if I were you, I'd say nothing about it to Mr. Cartwright."
"But, Cecil, I never did anything in business before without consulting him! I should be afraid of going quite wrong."
Cecil took her hand in his with real tenderness. Though he was trying to deceive her – for her own good – he loved her dearly in his heart of hearts, and hated himself for the deception he was remorsefully practising upon her. Yet, for her sake, he would go through with it. "You must get accustomed to trusting me instead of him, darling," he said softly. "When you are mine for ever, as I hope you will be soon, you will take my advice, of course, in all such matters, won't you? And you may as well begin by taking it now. I have great hopes, Ethel, that before very long my circumstances will be so much improved that I shall be able to marry you – I hardly know how quickly; perhaps even before next Christmas. But meanwhile, darling, I have something to break to you that I dare say will grieve you a little for the moment, though it's for your ultimate good, birdie – for your ultimate good. The Colonial Office people have selected me to go to Jamaica on some confidential Government business, which may keep me there for three months or so. It's a dreadful thing to be away from you so long, Ethel; but if I manage the business successfully – and I shall, I know – I shall get promoted when I come back, well promoted, perhaps to the chief clerkship in the Department; and then we could marry comfortably almost at once."
"To Jamaica! Oh, Cecil! How awfully far! And suppose you were to get yellow fever or something."
"But I won't, Ethel; I promise you I won't, and I'll guarantee it with a kiss, birdie; so now, that's settled. And then, consider the promotion! Only three months, probably, and when I come back, we can be actually married. It's a wonderful stroke of luck, and I only heard of it this morning. I couldn't rest till I came and told you."
Ethel wiped a tear away silently, and only answered, "If you're glad, Cecil dearest, I'm glad too."
"Well now, Ethel," Cecil Mitford went on as gaily as he could, "that brings me up to the second point. I want you to sell out these wretched New Zealands, so as to take the money with me to invest on good mortgages in Jamaica. My experience in West Indian matters – after three years in the Department – will enable me to lay it out for you at nine per cent. – nine per cent., observe, Ethel, – on absolute security of landed property. Planters want money to improve their estates, and can't get it at less than that rate. Your three hundred would bring you in twenty-seven pounds, Ethel; twenty-seven pounds is a lot of money!"
What could poor Ethel do? In his plausible, affectionate manner – and all for her own good, too – Cecil talked her over quickly between love and business experience, coaxing kisses and nine per cent. interest, endearing names and knowledge of West Indian affairs, till helpless little Ethel willingly promised to give up her poor little three hundred, and even arranged to meet Cecil secretly on Thursday at the Bank of England, about Colonial Office dinner-hour, to effect the transfer on her own account, without saying a single word about it to Aunt Emily or Mr. Cartwright. Cecil's conscience – for he had a conscience, though he did his best to stifle it – gave him a bitter twinge every now and then, as one question after another drove him time after time into a fresh bit of deceit; but he tried to smile and smile and be a villain as unconcernedly and lightly as possible. Once only towards the end of the evening, when everything was settled, and Cecil had talked about his passage, and the important business with which he was entrusted, at full length, a gleam of suspicion seemed to flash for a single second across poor Ethel's deluded little brains. Jamaica – promotion – three hundred pounds – it was all so sudden and so connected; could Cecil himself be trying to deceive her, and using her money for his wild treasure hunt? The doubt was horrible, degrading, unworthy of her or him; and yet somehow for a single moment she could not help half-unconsciously entertaining it.
"Cecil," she said, hesitating, and looking into the very depths of his truthful blue eyes; "you're not concealing anything from me, are you? It's not some journey connected with John Cann?"
Cecil coughed and cleared his throat uneasily, but by a great effort he kept his truthful blue eyes still fixed steadily on hers. (He would have given the world if he might have turned them away, but that would have been to throw up the game incontinently.) "My darling Ethel," he said evasively, "how on earth could the Colonial Office have anything to do with John Cann?"
"Answer me 'yes' or 'no,' Cecil. Do please answer me 'yes' or 'no.'"
Cecil kept his eyes still fixed immovably on hers, and without a moment's hesitation answered quickly "no." It was an awful wrench, and his lips could hardly frame the horrid falsehood, but for Ethel's sake he answered "no."
"Then I know I can trust you, Cecil," she said, laying her head for forgiveness on his shoulder. "Oh, how wrong it was of me to doubt you for a second!"
Cecil sighed uneasily, and kissed her white forehead without a single word.
"After all," he thought to himself, as he walked back to his lonely lodgings late that evening, "I need never tell her anything about it. I can pretend, when I've actually got John Cann's treasure, that I came across the clue accidently while I was in Jamaica; and I can lay out three hundred of it there in mortgages; and she need never know a single word about my innocent little deception. But indeed in the pride and delight of so much money, all our own, she'll probably never think at all of her poor little paltry three hundred."
It was an awfully long time, that eighteen days at sea, on the Royal Mail Steamship Don, bound for Kingston, Jamaica, with John Cann's secret for ever on one's mind, and nothing to do all day, by way of outlet for one's burning energy, but to look, hour after hour, at the monotonous face of the seething water. But at last the journey was over; and before Cecil Mitford had been twenty-four hours at Date Tree Hall, the chief hotel in Kingston, he had already hired a boat and sailed across the baking hot harbour to Port Royal, to look in the dreary, sandy cemetery for any sign or token of John Cann's grave.
An old grey-haired negro, digging at a fresh grave, had charge of the cemetery, and to him Cecil Mitford at once addressed himself, to find out whether any tombstone about the place bore the name of John Cann. The old man turned the name over carefully in his stolid brains, and then shook his heavy grey head with a decided negative. "Massa John Cann, sah," he said dubiously, "Massa John Cann; it don't nobody buried here by de name ob Massa John Cann. I sartin, sah, becase I's sexton in dis here cemetry dese fifty year, an' I know de grabe ob ebbery buckra gentleman dat ebber buried here since I fuss came."
Cecil Mitford tossed his head angrily. "Since you first came, my good man," he said with deep contempt. "Since you first came! Why, John Cann was buried here ages and ages before you yourself were ever born or thought of."
The old negro looked up at him inquiringly. There is nothing a negro hates like contempt; and he answered back with a disdainful tone, "Den I can find out if him ebber was buried here at all, as well as you, sah. We has register here, we don't ignorant heathen. I has register in de church ob every pusson dat ebber buried in dis cemetry from de berry beginnin – from de year ob de great earthquake itself. What year dis Massa John Cann him die, now? What year him die?"
Cecil pricked up his ears at the mention of the register, and answered eagerly, "In the year 1669."
The old negro sat down quietly on a flat tomb, and answered with a smile of malicious triumph, "Den you is ignorant know-nuffin pusson for a buckra gentleman, for true, sah, if you tink you will find him grabe in dis here cemetry. Don't you nebber read your history book, dat all Port Royal drowned in de great earthquake ob de year 1692? We has register here for ebbery year, from de year 1692 downward; but de grabes, and de cemetry, and de register, from de year 1692 upward, him all swallowed up entirely in de great earthquake, bress de Lord!"
Cecil Mitford felt the earth shivering beneath him at that moment, as verily as the Port Royal folk had felt it shiver in 1692. He clutched at the headstone to keep him from falling, and sat down hazily on the flat tomb, beside the grey-headed old negro, like one unmanned and utterly disheartened. It was all only too true. With his intimate knowledge of John Cann's life, and of West Indian affairs generally, how on earth could he ever have overlooked it? John Cann's grave lay buried five fathoms deep, no doubt, under the blue waters of the Caribbean. And it was for this that he had madly thrown up his Colonial Office appointment, for this that he had wasted Ethel's money, for this that he had burdened his conscience with a world of lies; all to find in the end that John Cann's secret was hidden under five fathoms of tropical lagoon, among the scattered and waterlogged ruins of Old Port Royal. His fortitude forsook him for a single moment, and burying his face in his two hands, there, under the sweltering midday heat of that deadly sandbank, he broke down utterly, and sobbed like a child before the very eyes of the now softened old negro sexton.
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