On the morning of July 21, 1840, the Daily News announced the arrival of the ship Rival at Sydney, New South Wales. As ocean steam navigation had not yet extended so far, the advent of this ship with the English mail created the usual excitement. An eager crowd beset the post-office, waiting for the delivery of the mail; and little knots at the street corners were busily discussing the latest hints at news which had been gathered from papers brought ashore by the officers or passengers.
At the lower end of King Street was a large warehouse, with an office at the upper extremity, over which was a new sign, which showed with newly gilded letters the words:
COMPTON & BRANDON.
The general appearance of the warehouse showed that Messrs. Compton and Brandon were probably commission merchants, general agents, or something of that sort.
On the morning mentioned two men were in the inner office of this warehouse. One was an elderly gentleman, with a kind, benevolent aspect, the senior partner of the firm. The other was the junior partner, and in every respect presented a marked contrast to his companion.
He had a face of rather unusual appearance, and an air which in England is usually considered foreign. His features were regular—a straight nose, wide brow, thin lips, and square, massive chin. His complexion was olive, and his eyes were of a dark hazel color, with a peculiarity about them which is not usually seen in the eye of the Teutonic or Celtic race, but is sometimes found among the people of the south of Europe, or in the East. It is difficult to find a name for this peculiarity. It may be seen sometimes in the gipsy; sometimes in the more successful among those who call themselves "spiritual mediums," or among the more powerful mesmerizers. Such an eye belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, whose glance at times could make the boldest and greatest among his marshals quail. What is it? Magnetism? Or the revelation of the soul? Or what?
In this man there were other things which gave him the look of the great Napoleon. The contour of feature was the same: and on his brow, broad and massive, there might be seen those grand shadows with which French artists love to glorify the Emperor. Yet in addition to this he had that same serene immobility of countenance which characterized the other, which could serve as an impenetrable mask to hide even the intensest person.
There was also about this man a certain aristocratic air and grace of attitude, or of manner, which seemed to show lofty birth and gentle breeding, the mysterious index to good blood or high training. How such a man could have happened to fill the position of junior partner in a commission business was certainly a problem not easily solved. There he was, however, a man in appearance out of place, yet in reality able to fill that place with success; a man, in fact, whose resolute will enabled him to enforce success in any calling of life to which either outside circumstances or his own personal desires might invite him.
"The mail ought to be open by this time," said Brandon, indifferently, looking at his watch. "I am somewhat curious to see how things are looking. I noticed quotations of wool rather higher than by last mail. If the papers are correct which I saw then we ought to do very well by that last cargo."
Mr. Compton smiled.
"Well, Brandon," said he, "if it is so it will show that you are right. You anticipated a rise about this time, you know. You certainly have a remarkable forecast about the chances of business."
"I don't think there is much forecast," said Brandon, with a smile. "It was only the most ordinary calculation made from the well-known fact that the exportation this year had been slight. But there comes Hedley now," he continued, moving his head a little to one side so as to look up the street. "The letters will soon show us all."
Mr. Compton looked out in the direction which Brandon indicated and saw the clerk approaching. He then settled himself back in his chair, put his hands in his pockets, threw one leg over the other, and began whistling a tune with the air of a man who was so entirely prosperous and contented that no news whether good or evil could greatly affect his fortunes.
In a short time the clerk entered the inner office and, laying the letters down upon the table nearest Mr. Compton, he withdrew.
Mr. Compton took up the letters one by one and read the addresses, while Brandon looked carelessly on. There were ten or twelve of them, all of which, except one, were addressed to the firm. This one Mr. Compton selected from among the others, and reaching it out in his hand said:
"This is for you, Mr. Brandon."
"For me?" repeated Brandon, with marked surprise; and taking the letter he looked at the address with eager curiosity.
The address was simply as follows:
Louis Brandon, Sydney, New South Wales.
The letters were irregular and loosely formed, as though written by a tremulous hand—such letters as old men form when the muscles have become relaxed.
Mr. Compton went on opening the letters of the firm without taking any further notice of his partner. The latter sat for some time looking at the letter without venturing to open it. He held it in both hands, and looked fixedly at that address as though from the address itself he was trying to extort some meaning.
He held it thus in both hands looking fixedly at it, with his head bent forward. Had Mr. Compton thought of taking a look at his usually impassive companion, he would have been surprised at the change which had taken place in him at the mere sight of that tremulous handwriting. For in that he had read grief, misfortune, perhaps death; and as he sat there, pausing before he dared to break the seal, the contents of the letter had already been conjectured.
Gloom therefore unutterable gathered upon his face; his features fixed themselves into such rigidity of grief that they became more expressive than if they had been distorted by passionate emotions; and over his brow collected cloud upon cloud, which deepened and darkened every instant till they overshadowed all; and his face in its statuesque fixedness resembled nothing so much as that which the artist gives to Napoleon at the crisis hour of Waterloo, when the Guard has recoiled from its last charge, and from that Imperial face in its fixed agony the soul itself seems to cry, "Lost!" "Lost!"
Yet it was only for a few minutes. Hastily subduing his feeling Brandon rose, and clutching the letter in his hand as though it were too precious to be trusted to his pocket, he quietly left the office and the warehouse and walked up the street.
He walked on rapidly until he reached a large building which bore the sign "Australian Hotel." Here he entered, and walked up stairs to a room, and locked himself in. Then when alone in his own apartments he ventured to open the letter.
The paper was poor and mean; the handwriting, like that of the address, was tremulous, and in many places quite illegible; the ink was pale; and the whole appearance of the letter seemed to indicate poverty and weakness on the part of the writer. By a very natural impulse Brandon hesitated before beginning to read, and took in all these things with a quick glance.
At last he nerved himself to the task and began to read.
This was the letter.
"Brandon, March 10, 1846.
"My dear Boy,—These are the last words which you will ever hear from your father. I am dying, my dear boy, and dying of a broken heart; but where I am dying I am afraid to tell you. That bitterness I leave for you to find out some day for yourself. In poverty unspeakable, in anguish that I pray you may never know, I turn to you after a silence of years, and my first word is to implore your forgiveness. I know my noble boy that you grant it, and it is enough for me to ask it. After asking this I can die content on that score.
"Lying as I do now at the point of death, I find myself at last freed from the follies and prejudices which have been my ruin. The clouds roll away from my mind, and I perceive what a mad fool I have been for years. Most of all I see the madness that instigated me to turn against you, and to put against the loyal love of the best of sons my own miserable pride and the accusation of a lying scoundrel. May God have mercy upon me for this!
"I have not much strength, dear boy; I have to write at intervals, and by stealth, so as not to be discovered, for I am closely watched. He must never know that I have sent this to you. Frank and your mother are both sick, and my only help is your sister, my sweet Edith, she watches me, and enables me to write this in safety.
"I must tell you all without reserve before strength leaves me forever.
"That man Potts, whom you so justly hated, was and is the cause of all my suffering and of yours. You used to wonder how such a man as that, a low, vulgar knave, could gain such an influence over me and sway me as he did. I will try to explain.
"Perhaps you remember something about the lamentable death of my old friend Colonel Despard. The first that I ever heard of this man Potts was in his connection with Despard, for whom he acted partly as valet, and partly as business agent. Just before Despard left to go on his fatal voyage he wrote to me about his affairs, and stated, in conclusion, that this man Potts was going to England, that he was sorry to lose him, but recommended him very earnestly to me.
"You recollect that Colonel Despard was murdered on this voyage under very mysterious circumstances on shipboard. His Malay servant Uracao was convicted and executed. Potts distinguished himself by his zeal in avenging his master's death.
"About a year after this Potts himself came to England and visited me. He was, as you know, a rough, vulgar man; but his connection with my murdered friend, and the warm recommendations of that friend, made me receive him with the greatest kindness. Besides, he had many things to tell me about my poor friend, and brought the newspapers both from Manilla and Calcutta which contained accounts of the trial.
"It was this man's desire to settle himself somewhere, and I gave him letters to different people. He then went off, and I did not see him for two years. At the end of that time he returned with glowing accounts of a tin mine which he was working in Cornwall. He had bought it at a low price, and the returns from working it had exceeded his most sanguine expectations. He had just organized a company, and was selling the stock. He came first to me to let me take what I wished. I carelessly took five thousand pounds' worth.
"On the following year the dividend was enormous, being nearly sixty per cent. Potts explained to me the cause, declaring that it was the richest mine in the kingdom, and assuring me that my L5000 was worth ten times that sum. His glowing accounts of the mine interested me greatly. Another year the dividend was higher, and he assured me that he expected to pay cent. per cent.
"It was then that the demon of avarice took full possession of me. Visions of millions came to me, and I determined to become the richest man in the kingdom. After this I turned every thing I had into money to invest in the mine. I raised enormous sums on my landed estate, and put all that I was worth, and more too, into the speculation. I was fascinated, not by this man, but by the wealth that he seemed to represent. I believed in him to the utmost. In vain my friends warned me. I turned from them, and quarreled with most of them. In my madness I refused to listen to the entreaties of my poor wife, and turned even against you. I can not bear to allude to those mournful days when you denounced that villain to his face before me; when I ordered you to beg his pardon or leave my roof forever; when you chose the latter alternative and became an outcast. My noble boy—my true-hearted son, that last look of yours, with all its reproach, is haunting my dying hours. If you were only near me now how peacefully I could die!
"My strength is failing. I can not describe the details of my ruin. Enough that the mine broke down utterly, and I as chief stockholder was responsible for all. I had to sell out every thing. The stock was worthless. The Hall and the estates all went. I had no friend to help me, for by my madness I had alienated them all. All this came upon me during the last year.
"But mark this, my son. This man Potts was not ruined. He seemed to have grown possessed of a colossal fortune. When I reproached him with being the author of my calamity, and insisted that be ought to share it with me, the scoundrel laughed in my face.
"The Hall and the estates were sold, for, unfortunately, though they have been in our family for ages, they were not entailed. A feeling of honor was the cause of this neglect. They were sold, and the purchaser was this man Potts. He must have bought them with the money that he had plundered from me.
"Now, since my eyes have been opened, I have had many thoughts; and among all that occurs to me none is more prominent than the mysterious murder of my friend. This man Potts was with him at the time. He was chief witness against the Malay. The counsel for the defense bore down hard on him, but he managed to escape, and Uracao was executed. Yet this much is evident, that Potts was largely benefited by the death of Despard. He could not have made all his money by his own savings. I believe that the man who wronged me so foully was fully capable of murder. So strong is this conviction now that I sometimes have a superstitious feeling that because I neglected all inquiry into the death of my friend, therefore he has visited me from that other life, and punished me, by making the same man the ruin of us both.
"The mine, I now believe, was a colossal sham; and all the money that I invested in stocks went directly to Potts. Good God! what madness was mine!
"O my boy! Your mother and your brother are lying here sick; your sister attends on us all, though little more than a child. Soon I must leave them; and for those who are destined to live there is a future which I shudder to contemplate. Come home at once. Come home, whatever you are doing. Leave all business, and all prospects, and come and save them. That much you can do. Come, if it is only to take them back with you to that new land where you live, where they may forget their anguish.
"Come home, my son, and take vengeance. This, perhaps, you can not do, but you at least can try. By the time that you read these words they will be my voice from the grave; and thus I invoke you, and call you to take vengeance.
"But at least come and save your mother, your brother, and your sister. The danger is imminent. Not a friend is left. They all hold aloof, indignant at me. This miscreant has his own plans with regard to them, I doubt not; and he will disperse them or send them off to starve in some foreign land. Come and save them.
"But I warn you to be careful about yourself for their sakes. For this villain is powerful now, and hates you worse than any body. His arm may reach even to the antipodes to strike you there. Be on your guard. Watch every one. For once, from words which fell from him hastily I gathered that he had some dark plan against you. Trust no one. Rely on yourself, and may God help you!
"Poor boy! I have no estate to leave you now, and what I do send to you may seem to you like a mockery. Yet do not despise it. Who knows what may be possible in these days of science? Why may it not be possible to force the sea to give up its prey?
"I send it, at any rate, for I have nothing else to send. You know that it has been in our family for centuries, and have heard how stout old Peter Leggit, with nine sailors, escaped by night through the Spanish fleet, and what suffering they endured before they reached England. He brought this, and it has been preserved ever since. A legend has grown up, as a matter of course, that the treasure will be recovered one day when the family is at its last extremity. It may not be impossible. The writer intended that something should come of it.
"If in that other world to which I am going the disembodied spirit can assist man, then be sure, O my son, I will assist you, and in the crisis of your fate I will be near, if it is only to communicate to your spirit what you ought to do.
"God bless you, dear boy, and farewell.
"Your affectionate father.
This letter was evidently written by fragmentary portions, as though it had been done at intervals. Some parts were written leisurely—others apparently in haste. The first half had been written evidently with the greatest ease. The writing of the last half showed weakness and tremulousness of hand; many words would have been quite illegible to one not familiar with the handwriting of the old man. Sometimes the word was written two or three times, and there were numerous blots and unmeaning lines. It grew more and more illegible toward the close. Evidently it was the work of one who was but ill able to exert even sufficient strength to hold a pen in his trembling hand.
In this letter there was folded a large piece of coarse paper, evidently a blank leaf torn from a book, brown with age, which was worn at the folds, and protected there by pieces of cotton which had been pasted upon it. The paper was covered with writing, in ink that was much faded, though still quite legible.
Opening this Brandon read the following:
"One league due northe of a smalle islet northe of the Islet of Santa Cruz northe of San Salvador——I Ralphe Brandon in my shippe Phoenix am becalmed and surrounded by a Spanish fleete——My shippe is filled with spoyle the Plunder of III galleons——wealth which myghte purchase a kyngdom-tresure equalle to an Empyr's revenue——Gold and jeweles in countless store——and God forbydde that itt shall falle into the hands of the Enemye——I therefore Ralphe Brandon out of mine owne good wyl and intente and that of all my men sink this shippe rather than be taken alyve——I send this by my trusty seaman Peter Leggit who with IX others tolde off by lot will trye to escape in the Boate by nighte——If this cometh haply into the hands of my sonne Philip let him herebye knowe that in this place is all this tresure——which haply may yet be gatherd from the sea——the Islet is knowne by III rockes that be pushed up like III needles from the sande.