The Messageñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
In no respect was the truth of the image more convincing than in the treatment of the eyes. A minute mosaic of chalcedony was used to portray white and iris and cornea. Small pieces of clear crystal formed the pupils, and the rays of light glinted from their depths with an effect that was appalling in its realism. Thus might the eyes of a cobra sparkle with vindictive fire. They exercised a diabolical mesmerism. Warden, rapt in his admiration of a genuine work of art, remained wholly unconscious of their spell till he heard a faint gasp of horror from the girl.
He turned and looked at her in quick dismay. All the roses had fled from her cheeks, leaving her wan indeed. Her own fine eyes were distended with fright. She, like Peter Evans, gave no heed to the consummate skill of the designer. She was fascinated at once by that basilisk glare. It thrilled her to the core, threatened her with immeasurable wrongs, menaced her with the spite of a demon.
“This is the most wonderful thing of its kind I have ever seen,” said Warden eagerly.
Though he was not yet awakened to the magnetic influence exercised by the vile visage he could not fail to note the girl’s consternation. He thought to reassure her by pointing out the marvelous craft displayed in its contriving.
“It is amazing in every sense,” he went on, bringing the gourd nearer for her inspection. “Although the calabash is of a variety unknown in West Africa, the face gives a perfect likeness of an Oku chief. There is a man in Oku now who might have sat to the sculptor, though he is far from possessing the power, the tremendous strength, of the original. Yet it seems to me to be very old. I cannot, for the life of me – ”
A loud crash interrupted him. Chris, removing the remains of the feast, had gazed for an instant at the astounding object in Warden’s hands. The boy backed away, and tripped over a coil of rope, with disastrous result to the crockery he was carrying.
Warden’s voice, no less than the laugh with which he greeted Chris’s discomfiture, restored the poise of the girl’s wits.
“You obtained that for me, did you not?” she cried with a curious agitation.
“Yes, of course,” said he.
“Then give it to me, please.”
He was certainly surprised, but passed the gourd to her without further comment. She half averted her eyes, took it unhesitatingly, and tried to pitch it into the water. For its size, it was astonishingly light. Were it as heavy as she imagined, it must have dropped into the Solent several yards from the vessel. As it was, it flew unexpectedly high, struck a rope, and fell back on deck, whence it bounded, with the irregular bounce of a Rugby football, right into Warden’s hands again.
“That was a mad trick,” he said almost angrily.
“Oh, please, throw it away,” she pleaded.
“Throw away a rare and valuable curio! Why?”
“Because it will bring you nothing but ruin and misery. Can you not see its awful meaning? Throw it away, I implore you!”
“But that would be a crime, the act of a Vandal.
It may be the chiefest treasure of a connoisseur’s collection. Would you have me ape some fanatic Mussulman hammering to atoms a statue by Phidias?”
“There is no beauty in that monstrous thing. It is – bewitched.”
“Oh really, Miss Dane – we are in England, in the twentieth century.”
He laughed indulgently, with the air of an elder brother who had forgiven her for an exhibition of pettish temper. He held out the calabash at arm’s length and viewed it critically. He saw immediately that the crown inside the ring was misplaced.
“Hello!” he muttered, “you did some damage, then!”
Closer inspection revealed that the fall had loosened a tightly fitting lid hitherto concealed by the varnish used as a preservative. He removed it, and peered within.
“A document!” he announced elatedly. “Perhaps, after all, your unaccountable frenzy was a blessing in disguise. Now, Miss Dane, we may learn what you termed its ‘awful meaning.’ But, for pity’s sake, don’t yield to impulse and rend the manuscript. You have cracked his chiefship’s skull – I pray you spare his brains.”
WHEREIN A STRONG MAN YIELDS TO CIRCUMSTANCES
Curiosity, most potent of the primal instincts, conquered the girl’s fear. As it happened, Warden was still kneeling. He sat back on his heels, rested the calabash against his knees, and withdrew a strip of dried skin from its cunningly devised hiding–place. It was so curled and withered that it crackled beneath his fingers when he tried to unfold it. Quite without premeditation, he had placed the calabash in such wise that the negro’s features were hidden, and this fact alone seemed to give his companion confidence.
“What is it?” she asked, watching his efforts to persuade the twisted scroll to remain open.
“Parchment, and uncommonly tough and leathery at that.”
He did not look up. A queer notion was forming in his mind, and he was unwishful to meet her eyes just then.
“It looks very old,” she said.
“A really respectable antique, I fancy. Have you any pins – four, or more?”
She produced from a pocket a small hussif with its store of sewing accessories.
“A genie of the feminine order!” he cried. “I was merely hoping for a supply of those superfluous pins that used to lurk in my sister’s attire and only revealed their presence when I tried to reduce her to subjection.”
“Oh, you have a sister?”
“Yes – married – husband ranching in Montana.”
Meanwhile he was fastening the refractory document to the deck. With patience, helped by half a dozen pins, he managed to smooth it sufficiently to permit of detailed scrutiny. The girl, wholly interested now, knelt beside him. Any observer in a passing boat might have imagined that they were engaged in some profoundly devotional exercise. But the planks were hard. Miss Dane, seeing nothing but wrinkled parchment, yellow with age, and covered with strange scrawls that seemed to be more a part of the actual material than written on its surface, soon rose.
“Those hieroglyphics are beyond my ken,” she explained.
“They are Arabic,” said Warden – “Arabic characters, that is. The words are Latin – at least to some extent. Epistola Pauli Hebraicis has the ring of old Rome about it, even if it wears the garb of Mahomet.”
He straightened himself suddenly, and shouted for Chris with such energy that the girl was startled.
Chris popped his head out of the fore hatch, and was told to bring his father’s Bible, for Peter read two of its seven hundred odd pages each day in the year.
Warden compared book and scroll intently during many minutes. Miss Dane did not interrupt. She contented herself with a somewhat prolonged investigation of Warden’s face, or so much of it as was visible. Then she turned away and gazed at the Sans Souci. There was a wistful look in her eyes. Perhaps she wished that circumstances had contrived to exchange the yacht for the pilot–boat. At any rate, she was glad he had a sister. If only she had a brother! – just such a one!
At last the man’s deep, rather curt voice broke the silence.
“I have solved a part of the puzzle, Miss Dane,” he announced. “My Latinity was severely tried, but the chapter and verse gave me the English equivalent, and that supplied the key. Some one has that – some one has written here portions of the 37th and 38th verses of the eleventh chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. Our version runs: ‘They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword … they wandered in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.’ The remainder of the text is in yet another language – Portuguese, I imagine – but my small lore in that tongue is of no avail. In any case my vocabulary could not possibly consort with the stately utterances of St. Paul, as it consists mainly of remarks adapted to the intelligence of a certain type of freebooter peculiar to the West African hinterland.”
“What do you make of it all?” she asked.
“At present – nothing. It is an enigma, until I secure a Portuguese–English dictionary. Then I shall know more. Judging by appearances, the message, whatsoever it may be, is complete.”
“What sort of skin is that?”
He lifted his eyes slowly. She was conscious of a curious searching quality in his glance that she had not seen there before.
“It is hard to say,” he answered. And, indeed, he spoke the literal truth, being fully assured that the shriveled parchment pinned to the deck had once covered the bones of a white man.
“The writing is funny, too,” she went on, with charming disregard for the meaning of words.
“It is pricked in with a needle and Indian ink,” he explained. “That is an indelible method,” he continued hurriedly, seeing that she was striving to recall something that the phrase reminded her of, and here was a real danger of the suggestive word which had so nearly escaped his lips being brought to her recollection. “You see, I have been able to identify the gentleman who served the artist as model,” and he tapped the gourd lightly. “Therefore, I am sure that this comes from a land where pen and ink were unknown in the days when some unhappy Christian fashioned such a quaint contrivance to carry his screed.”
“Some unhappy Christian!” she repeated. “You mean that some European probably fell into the hands of West African savages years and years ago, and took this means of safeguarding a secret?”
“Who can tell?” he answered, picking up the calabash and gazing steadfastly at the malignant visage thus brought again into the full glare of the sun. “This fellow can almost speak. If only he could – ”
“Oh, don’t,” wailed the girl. “My very heart stops beating when I see that dreadful face. Please put it away. If you will not throw it overboard, or smash it to atoms, at least hide it.”
“Sorry,” he said gruffly, fitting the loose lid into its place. He disliked hysterical women, and, greatly to his surprise, Evelyn Dane seemed to be rather disposed to yield to hysteria.
“The more I examine this thing the more I am bewildered,” he went on, endeavoring to cover his harshness by an assumption of indifference. “Where in the world did this varnish come from? It has all the gloss and smooth texture and absence of color that one finds on a genuine Cremona violin. The man who mixed it must have known the recipe lost when Antonio Stradivarius died. Are you good at dates?”
The suddenness of the question perplexed her.
“Do you mean the sort of dates that one acquired painfully at school?” she asked. “If so, I can give you the year of the Battle of Hastings or the signing of Magna Charta.”
“The period of a great artist’s career is infinitely more important,” he broke in. “Stradivarius was at the height of his fame about 1700. Now, if this is the varnish he and Amati and Guarnerius used, we have a shadowy clue to guide us in our inquiry.”
“Please don’t include me in the quest,” she said decisively. “I refuse to have anything to do with it. Leave the matter to me, and that nasty calabash floats off toward the Atlantic or sinks in the Solent, exactly as the fates direct. Positively, I am afraid of it.”
“I really meant to take it out of your sight when I caught a glint of the varnish,” he pleaded.
But his humility held a spice of sarcasm. Rising, he tucked the gourd under his coat. He was half–way down the hatch when his glance fell on the little square of skin on the deck. Already the heat of the sun had affected it, and two of the pins had given way. He came back.
“I may as well remove the lot while I am about it,” he said, stooping to withdraw the remaining pins.
“Oh, I am not to be frightened by that,” she cried, with a pout that was reminiscent of the schoolgirl period.
He laughed, but suppressed the quip that might have afforded some hidden satisfaction.
“Gourd and document are much of a muchness,” he said carelessly.
The parchment curled with unexpected speed, and caught his fingers in an uncanny grip. Without thinking what he was doing, he shook it off as though it were a scorpion. Then, flushing a little, he seized it, and stuffed it into a pocket. Miss Dane missed no item of this by–play. But she, too, could exercise the art of self–repression, and left unuttered the words that her heart dictated. Being a methodical person, she gathered the pins and replaced them in the hussif. She had just finished when Warden returned.
“You don’t mean to say – ” he began, but checked himself. After all, if he harped on the subject, there was some risk that the girl’s intuition might read a good deal of the truth into what she had seen and heard during the past half–hour. So he changed a protest into a compliment.
“Economy is the greatest of the domestic virtues. Now, a mere man would have waited until one of those pins stuck into his foot as he was crossing the deck for his morning dip, and then he would say things. By the way, Peter believes the breeze is freshening. Would you care for a short cruise?”
A delightful color suffused the girl’s face. “I feel like lifting my eyebrows at my own behavior,” she said, “but I must admit that I should enjoy it immensely. Please bring me back here before six o’clock. I wish to go on board the Sans Souci the moment Mrs. Baumgartner arrives.”
In response to Warden’s summons, Peter and Chris appeared on deck. The Nancy cast off from her buoy, her canvas leaped to the embrace of the wind, and soon she was slipping through the water at a spanking pace in the direction of Portsmouth and the anchored fleet, for the cutter could move when her sails filled.
Thenceforth the talk was nautical. Peter entertained them with details of the warships or the yachts competing in the various races. Once, by chance, the conversation veered close to West Africa, when Warden gave a vivid description of the sensations of the novice who makes his first landing in a surf–boat. But Peter soon brought them back to the British Isles by his reminiscences of boarding salt–stained and sooty tramps in an equinoctial gale off Lundy. No unpleasing incident marred a perfect afternoon until tea was served, and the cutter ran to her moorings.
The guardian Gorgon of the Sans Souci watched their return, and it was evident that his solitary vigil was still unbroken. About half–past six, when a swarm of yachts were beating up the roads on the turn of the tide, a steam launch approached the Sans Souci and deposited a lady and gentleman on the gangway. They were alone. The watchman helped them to reach the deck, a financial transaction took place between him and the gentleman, the latter disappeared instantly, and the watchman descended the ladder with the evident intention of entering the launch.
But he hesitated, and pointed to the Nancy, whereupon the lady, to whom he was speaking, looked fixedly at the cutter and her occupants.
“That is Mrs. Baumgartner, I am sure,” said Evelyn eagerly. “Will you take me across in the dinghy at once? Then, if necessary, I can reach Portsmouth easily this evening, as I shall have gained half an hour.”
She gave no heed to the astounding fact that if these people were really the yacht–owner and his wife they were absolutely alone on the vessel. Warden, unwilling to arouse distrust in her mind, bade Peter draw the dinghy alongside.
“Good–by,” he said, extending his hand frankly. “The world is small, and we shall meet again. Remember, you have promised to write, and, in the meantime, do not forget that if the Nancy or her crew can offer you any service we are within hailing distance.”
“You are not leaving Cowes to–night, then?”
“No. To–morrow, if the wind serves, we go east, to Brighton and Dover, and perhaps as far north as Cromer. After that, to Holland. But no matter where I am, I manage to secure my letters.”
Evelyn gave his hand a grateful little pressure. She was not insensible of the tact that sent Peter as her escort.
“You have been exceedingly good and kind to me,” she said. “I shall never forget this most charming day, and I shall certainly write to you. Good–by, Chris. Good–by, dear little ship. What a pity – “ she paused and laughed with pretty embarrassment. “I think I was going to say what a pity it is that these pleasant hours cannot last longer – they come too rarely in life.”
And with that she was gone, though she turned twice during her short voyage, and waved a hand to the man who was looking at her so steadily while he leaned against the cutter’s mast and smoked in silence.
There could be no doubt that the lady on the Sans Souci was Mrs. Baumgartner. No sooner did she realize that Miss Dane’s arrival was imminent than she threw up her hands with a Continental affectation of amazement and ran into the deck cabin. To all seeming, she bade the launch await further orders. Baumgartner and his wife reappeared, they indulged in gesticulations to which Warden could readily imagine an accompaniment of harsh–sounding German, and, evidently as the outcome of their talk, the launch steamed away.
Warden smiled sourly.
“If those people had committed a murder on board, and were anxious to sink their victim several fathoms deep before anybody interfered with them, they could hardly be more excited,” he thought. “Perhaps it won’t do my young friend any good if I remain here staring straight at the yacht.”
He busied himself with an unnecessary stowing away of the cutter’s mainsail, but contrived to watch events sufficiently to note that Mrs. Baumgartner received her guest with voluble courtesy. Baumgartner, a French–polished edition of the bacon–factor type of man, bustled the two ladies out of sight, and thenceforth, during more than an hour, the deck of the Sans Souci was absolutely untenanted.
Twilight was deepening; lights began to twinkle on shore; not a few careful captains showed riding lamps, although the precaution was yet needless; launches and ships’ boats were cleaving long black furrows in the slate–blue surface of the Solent as they ferried parties of diners from shore or yachts – but never a sign of life was there on board the Sans Souci. Peter, undisturbed by speculations anent the future of the young lady whose presence had brightened the deck of the Nancy during the afternoon, cooked an appetizing supper. He was surprised when Warden expressed a wish that they should eat without a light. It did not occur to him that his employer was mounting guard over the Baumgartners’ yacht, and meant to have a clear field of vision while a shred of daylight remained.
The progress of the meal was rudely broken in on by Peter himself. Although the placid silence of the night was frequently disturbed by the flapping of propellers, his sailor’s ear caught the stealthy approach of the one vessel that boded possible danger. Swinging himself upright he roared:
“Where’s that ugly Dutchman a–comin’ to? Quick with a light, Chris, or she’ll be on top of us!”
It was the Emperor’s cruiser–yacht that had so suddenly upset his equanimity. Returning to Cowes after convoying the yacht flotilla, she was now fully a mile away from her usual anchorage. But the Nancy was safe enough. The imperial yacht stopped at a distance of three cables’ lengths, reversed her engines, let go an anchor, and ran up to the chain hawser when the hoarse rattle of its first rush had ceased.
Chris lost no time in producing a lantern, and his father slung it in its proper place.
“It ‘ud be just our luck if we wos run down,” Warden heard him mutter. “That nigger’s phiz we shipped to–day is enough to sink any decent craft, blow me, if it ain’t!”
Warden, whose vigil had not relaxed for an instant, saw that some one was hoisting a masthead light on the Sans Souci. Her starboard light followed, and soon the yellow eyes of a row of closed ports stared at him solemnly across the intervening water. As the principal living–rooms of such a vessel must certainly be the deck saloons, he was more than ever puzzled by the eccentric behavior of her owners. Every other yacht in the roadstead was brilliantly illuminated. The Sans Souci alone seemed to court secrecy.
It has been seen that, in holiday mood, he was a creature of impulse, nor did he lack the audacity of prompt decision when it was called for. He showed both qualities now by hauling the dinghy alongside and stepping into it.
“Goin’ ashore, sir?” cried the surprised Peter.
They kept early hours on board, and Warden’s usual habit was to be asleep by half–past nine when the cutter was at her moorings.
“No. I mean to pay a call. Got a match?”
“Let me take you, sir.”
“No need, thanks. I’m bound for the Sans Souci. I may be back in five minutes.”
He lit a cigar, cast off, and rowed himself leisurely toward the vessel which had filled so large a space in his thoughts ever since he met Evelyn Dane in the street outside the steamer pier. His intent was to ask for her, to refuse to go away unless he spoke to her, and, when she appeared, as his well–ordered senses told him would surely be the case, to frame some idle excuse for the liberty he had taken. She had talked of returning to Portsmouth that evening, and it might serve if he expressed his willingness to carry her imaginary luggage from the quay to the railway station. She was shrewd and tactful. She would understand, perhaps, that he was anxious for her welfare, and it would not embarrass her to state whether or not his services were needed.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî