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The Tickencote Treasure
William Le Queux
CHAPTER I. IN WHICH JOB SEAL BORROWS A FUSEE
CHAPTER II. WHAT WE SAW AND WHAT WE HEARD
CHAPTER III. THE MYSTERIOUS MAN
CHAPTER IV. IN WHICH I EXAMINE THE PARCHMENTS
CHAPTER V. WITH A STORY TO TELL
CHAPTER VI. AN EXPERT OPINION
CHAPTER VII. WHAT WAS WRITTEN IN THE VELLUM BOOK
CHAPTER VIII. THE SEVEN DEAD MEN
CHAPTER IX. ONE POINT IS MADE CLEAR
CHAPTER X. THE GUARDIAN OF THE SECRET
CHAPTER XI. FORESTALLED
CHAPTER XII. JOB SEAL MAKES A PROPOSAL
CHAPTER XIII. A CALL, AND ITS CONSEQUENCE
CHAPTER XIV. REQUIRES EXPLANATION
CHAPTER XV. REVEALS SOMETHING OF IMPORTANCE
CHAPTER XVI. MRS. GRAHAM’S VISITOR
CHAPTER XVII. THE SELLER OF THE SECRET
CHAPTER XVIII. THE SILENT MAN’S WARNING
CHAPTER XIX. THE LADY FROM BAYSWATER
CHAPTER XX. PHILIP REILLY TELLS A STRANGE STORY
CHAPTER XXI. WE MAKE A DISCOVERY IN THE MANOR HOUSE
CHAPTER XXII. BLACK BENNETT
CHAPTER XXIII. JOB SEAL RELATES HIS ADVENTURES
CHAPTER XXIV. THE MYSTERY OF MARGARET KNUTTON
CHAPTER XXV. REVEALS THE DEATH-TRAP
CHAPTER XXVI. IN WHICH BEN KNUTTON GROWS CONFIDENTIAL
CHAPTER XXVII. DOROTHY DRUMMOND PREFERS SECRECY
CHAPTER XXVIII. WE RECEIVE MIDNIGHT VISITORS
CHAPTER XXIX. DOROTHY MAKES A CONFESSION
CHAPTER XXX. THE SILENT MAN’S STORY
CHAPTER XXXI. THE HOUSE AT KILBURN
CHAPTER XXXII. WHAT WE DISCOVERED AT THE RECORD OFFICE
CHAPTER XXXIII. WE DECIPHER THE PARCHMENT
CHAPTER XXXIV. OUR SEARCH AT TICKENCOTE AND ITS RESULTS
CHAPTER XXXV. THE SPY, AND WHAT HE TOLD US
CHAPTER XXXVI. “NINE POINTS OF THE LAW”
CHAPTER XXXVII. CONTAINS THE CONCLUSION
“ ‘I believe I could take the old tub from the Gib. to Naples without a compass.’ ” (Chapter 1.)
If you are fond of a mystery I believe you will ponder over this curious narrative just as I have pondered.
Certain persons, having heard rumours of the strange adventures that once happened to me, have asked me to write them down in detail, so that they may be printed and given to the world in their proper sequence. Therefore, in obedience, and in order to set at rest for ever certain wild and unfounded reports which crept into the papers at the time, I do so without fear or favour, seeking to conceal no single thing, but merely to relate what I actually saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears.
I read somewhere the other day the sweeping statement, written probably by one of our superior young gentlemen just down from Oxford, that Romance is dead. This allegation, however, I make so bold as to challenge—first, because in my own humble capacity I have actually been the unwilling actor in one of the most remarkable romances of modern times; and, secondly, because I believe with that sage old chronicler, Richard of Cirencester, that the man whose soul is filled with Greek has a heart of leather.
Fortunately I can lay claim to neither. Apart from my association with the present chain of curious events I am but an ordinary man, whose name is Paul Pickering, whose age is thirty-two, and whose profession at the time the romance befell me was the very prosaic one of a doctor without regular practice. You will therefore quickly discern that I was not overburdened either by fame, fortune, or fashionable foibles, and further that, as locum tenens for country doctors in ill-health or on holiday, I advertised regularly in the Lancet, and was glad enough to accept the fee of three guineas weekly.
Hard work in a big practice at Stepney and Poplar had resulted in a bad touch of influenza with its attendant debility; therefore, when one of my patients, a sun-tanned old salt named Seal, suggested that I should go a trip with him up the Mediterranean, I hailed the idea with delight.
Job Seal was quite a chance patient. He called one evening at the surgery in Commercial Road East, where I was acting as locum for a doctor named Bidwell, and consulted me about his rheumatism. A big, deep-chested, thick-set man, with grey hair, reddish uncut beard, big hands, shaggy brows, and a furrowed face browned by sea and sun; he spoke in a deep bass, interlarding his conversation with nautical expressions which were, to me, mostly unintelligible. The liniment I gave him apparently suited his ailment, for he came again and again, until one evening he called and declared that I had effected a cure as marvellous as that of Sequah.
“My boat, the Thrush, is layin’ at Fresh Wharf, and I sail on Saturday for Cardiff, where we take in coal for Leghorn. Now, if you ain’t got anything better to do, doctor, don’t you sign on why as steward at a bob a day, and come with me for the round trip?” he suggested. “You told me the other night that you’re bein’ paid off from here on Saturday. My boat ain’t exactly a liner, you know, but I daresay you could shake down comfortable like, and as the trip’ll take a couple o’ months, you’d see most of the ports up to Smyrna. Besides, this is just the right time o’ year for a blow. It ’ud do you good.”
The suggestion certainly appealed to me. I had never been afloat farther than Ramsgate by the Marguerite, and for years had longed to go abroad and see those wonderful paradises of the Sunny South of which, like other people, I had witnessed highly-coloured dissolving views. Therefore I accepted the bluff old captain’s hospitality, signed the ship’s papers in a back office off Leadenhall Street, and on Saturday evening boarded as black, grimy, and forbidding a craft as ever dropped down the Thames.
Job Seal was right. The Thrush was not by any means a liner, and its passenger accommodation was restricted. My cabin was very small, very stuffy, and very dirty; just as might be expected of a Mediterranean tramp steamer. As the outward cargo was invariably Cardiff steam coal consigned to the well-known firm of Messrs. Agius, of Naples, and Malta, there was over everything a layer of fine coal dust, while the faces of both officers and crew seemed ingrained with black.
The first day out I confess that I did not feel over well. A light vessel and a choppy sea are never pleasant to a landsman. Nevertheless, I very soon got my sea legs, and then the voyage down Channel was pleasant enough. It was the end of June, and the salt breezes were gratifying after the stuffy back streets of Stepney. Before my advent Job Seal was in the habit of eating alone in his cabin, because he was an omnivorous reader, and the chatter of his officers disturbed him. He welcomed me, however, as a companion. Max Pemberton, Conan Doyle, and Hyne he swore by, and in one corner of his cabin he had whole stacks of sixpenny reprints.
The first day out I rather regretted my hasty decision to sail with him, but ere we sighted Lundy Island and Penarth I was as merry and eager to smoke as any of the villainous-looking crew.
After four days loading in Cardiff the vessel was an inch deep in coal dust, and as the heavy-swearing hands in the forecastle began “cleaning up” we slowly glided out of the Bute Docks to the accompaniment of shouting, gesticulating, and strong language. At Seal’s suggestion I had provided myself with certain articles of food to my taste, but as the grit of coal and the taste of tar were inseparable from the cuisine, and the cook’s galley the most evil-smelling corner in the whole vessel, I enjoyed eating least of all. The weather was, however, perfect, even in the long roll of the Atlantic, and the greater part of each day I spent with the burly skipper on his bridge, lolling in an old deck-chair behind a screen of canvas lashed to the rail to keep off the wind. I had quite a cosy corner to myself, and there I smoked my pipe, breathed the salt ocean breezes, and yarned with my deep-chested friend.
“We don’t carry forty-quid salooners on this ’ere boat,” remarked Joe Thorpe, the first mate, when I mentioned casually that the rats gnawed my boots at night and scampered around my cabin and over my bunk. “When a passenger comes with us he has to rough it, but he sees a sight more than if he travelled by the P. and O. or the Orient. You’ll see a lot, doctor, before you’re back in London.”
His words were prophetic. I did see a lot, as you will gather later on.
Craft and crew were, as I have said, as forbidding as can be well imagined. The vessel was black, save for a dirty red band around her funnel, old, ricketty, and much patched. On the second day out from Cardiff Mike Flanagan, the first engineer, imparted to me the disconcerting fact that the boilers were in such a state that he feared to work them at any undue pressure lest we might all take an unwelcome flight into space. Hence at night, when I lay in my bunk sleepless owing to the dirty weather in the Bay of Biscay, the jarring of the propeller caused my medical mind to revert to the instability of those boilers and the probability of catastrophe. I am not a seafaring man, but I have often since wondered in what class the Thrush might have been entered at Lloyd’s.
Day followed day, and after we sighted Finisterre the weather became delightful again. Seal told me long yarns of his younger days in the Pacific trade, how he had been wrecked off the Tasmanian coast, and how on another occasion the steamer on which he sailed was burned at sea. The dreamy hours passed lazily. We ate together, laughed together, and at night drank big noggins of rum together. Cape St. Vincent loomed up in the haze one brilliant evening, and afterwards the great rock of Gibraltar; then, on entering the Mediterranean, we steered a straight course for that long, sun-blanched town with the high lighthouse lying at the foot of the blue Apennines, Leghorn, which port we at last entered with shrieking siren and flying our dirty red ensign.
But it is not with foreign towns that this narrative concerns. True, I went ashore with Seal and drank vermouth and seltzer at Nazi’s, but during the weeks I sailed in company with the big-handed, big-hearted skipper and his villainous-looking crew we visited many ports in search of a cargo for London. Naples, Palermo, Smyrna, and Tunis were to me, an untravelled man, all interesting, while Job Seal was, I discovered, a most popular man ashore. Shipping agents welcomed him, and he drank vermouth at their expense; Customs officers were civil, with an eye to the glass of grog that would follow their inspection; and even British consuls were agreeable, unbending and joking with him in their private sanctums.
Yes, Job Seal was a typical Mediterranean skipper, a hard drinker in port, a hard swearer at sea, and a hard task-master at any time. In bad weather he put on his pluck with his oilskins. From the bridge he addressed his men as though speaking to dogs, and woe betide the unfortunate hand who did not execute an order just to his liking. He would roar like a bull, and conclude with an interminable cascade of imprecations until he became red in the face and breathless.
“I’ve done this round trip these nineteen years, doctor,” he explained to me one night while we were having our grog together, “and I really believe I could take the old tub from the Gib. to Naples without a compass.” And then in his deep bass tones he began to yarn as sailors will yarn, telling tales mostly of adventures ashore in foreign towns, adventures wherein Mike Flanagan—to whom he always referred as his “chief”—and alcoholic liquors played leading parts.
After leaving Tunis for Valencia, homeward bound, we experienced bad weather. The wind howled in the rigging, and the sea ran mountains high, as it often does in those parts at certain seasons of the year. One afternoon, attired in the suit of yellow oilskins I had purchased in Cardiff, I was seated on the bridge, notwithstanding the stiff breeze and the heavy sea still running, for I preferred that to my stuffy, tarry cabin with its port-hole screwed down.
Seal, in ponderous sea-boots, black oilskins, and his sou-wester tied beneath his chin, had been chatting, laughing and pacing the deck, when of a sudden his quick eye observed something which to my unpractised vision was indistinguishable. He took his glass from its box, stood astride, and took steady sight of it.
“H’m,” he grunted deeply, “that’s durned funny!” and turning to the helmsman gave an order which caused the man to spin the wheel over, and slowly the bows of the Thrush swung round in the direction in which he had been gazing.
“Like to look, doctor?” he asked, at the same time handing me his glass.
I stood up, but the vessel rolling about like a bottle made it difficult for me to keep my feet, and more especially for me to focus the object. At last, however, after some effort I saw as I swept the horizon a curious-looking thing afloat. Indistinct in the grey haze, it looked to me like two square-built boxes floating high from the water, but close behind each other. I could not, however, see them well on account of the haze.
“That’s curious!” I ejaculated. “What do you think they are, captain?”
“Haven’t any idea, doctor. We’re goin’ to inspect ’em presently.” And he again took sight for a long time, and then replaced his glass in its box with a puzzled air. “Queer lookin’ craft, anyhow,” he remarked. “They don’t seem to be flying any signals of distress, either.”
“Where are we now?” I inquired, much interested in the mysterious object in the distance.
“About midway between Fomentera and Algiers,” was his answer, and then, impatient to overhaul the craft that had attracted his attention, he pulled over the brass handle of the electric signals and turned it back again, causing it to ring thrice. An instant later came the three answering rings, and a few moments afterwards the long cloud of dense black smoke whirling from the funnel told us that Mike Flanagan was about to get all the work out of his boilers that he dared.
Seal roared an order in the howling wind, and a tiny, coal-grimed flag ran up to the mast-head and fluttered in the breeze, while with eyes glued to his glass he watched if any response were given to his signal.
But there was none.
News of something unusual had spread among the crew, and a few moments later the first mate, Thorpe, whose watch had ended an hour before, sprang up the ladder to the skipper’s side.
“Look, Joe!” exclaimed Seal. “What the dickens do you make out o’ that?”
Thorpe swung his body with the motion of the vessel and took a long look at the object of mystery.
“Thunder, cap’n!” he cried. “Looks like Noah’s Ark, sir.”
By this time the smutty-faced crew, in their dirty blue trousers and sea-boots, had emerged from the forecastle and stood gazing in the direction of the mystery, heedless of the waves that now and then swept the deck from stem to stern. Some of the men shaded their eyes with horny hands, and the opinions expressed were both forcible and various.
Job Seal borrowed a fusee from me and lit his foul-smelling pipe, a habit of his when puzzled. With his blackened clay between his teeth he talked to Thorpe, while the spray showered in our faces and the vessel rose and fell in the long trough of the sea.
Again and again he sighted the object which his sea-trained eyes had so quickly detected, and each time growled in dissatisfaction.
At length, in a voice quite unusual to him, and with all the brown gone out of his face, he said: —
“There’s something very uncanny about that blessed craft, doctor! I’ve been afloat these thirty-three years come August, but I never saw such a tarnation funny thing as that before! I believe it’s the Flyin’ Dutchman, as true as I’m here on my own bridge!”
He handed me the binocular again, and steadying myself carefully I managed to focus it.
Sailors are nothing if not superstitious, and I could see that the unusual sight had sent a stir of consternation through the ship.
“What do you make her out to be?” roared Seal to the look-out man.
“Never saw such a thing before, sir,” responded the man in oilskins; “maybe she’s one o’ them secret submarine inventions of the French what’s come to the surface”—a suggestion which pleased the crew mightily, and was greeted with a chorus of laughter.
“Submarine be hanged!” exclaimed one old seaman whom I had heard addressed as Dicky Dunn. “It’s old Noah a-making for Marseilles! Can’t yer see the big square port in the stern where he lets his bloomin’ pigeons out?”
And so the suggestions went on, and while the Thrush rapidly bore down with full steam ahead, with the salt spray flying across her bows, the mystery of our discovery increased.
“Well, I’m blowed!”
The simple ejaculation was Seal’s, but the words of the sentence were most expressive.
The strange object was now but a few cable lengths of us, and certainly the skipper’s surprise was shared by every one of us. Even the blackened, half-naked stokers had emerged on deck and stood gazing at it with wide-open eyes.
Job Seal, the big, roaring man, dauntless of every thing, stood leaning over the bridge and glaring aghast at his discovery. And well he might, for surely no similar object sailed the sea in these modern days.
In the sea, close behind one another, rode two wooden houses, three-storeyed, and having big square windows of thick glass. So near were we to it that now, for the first time, I could distinguish that there was a submerged connexion between the two objects above the surface. Then, in a flash, the astounding truth dawned upon me. It was an ancient ship of that curious Elizabethan build, like those I had seen in pictures of the Spanish Armada!
From the high bows there projected a battered figure-head, shaped like some marine monstrosity, while beyond the submerged deck rose the high stern, from which jutted three projections, each farther over the water than the others. At such close quarters I could see that out of the roof of both houses stood the stumps of masts, but there was not a vestige of cordage.
The strangest fact of all, however, was that everywhere, even over the roof of the high bow and stern, were barnacles, sponges, and shell-fish of all descriptions, while enormous bands of brown seaweed streamed and flapped with the wind. A tangle of marine plants was everywhere, matted, brown and green for the most part, and so luxurious that almost every part of the mysterious vessel was completely covered. The shells, slime, and seaweed certainly indicated that the strange ship had reposed at the bottom of the sea for many a long year, and the uncanny sight caused considerable misgivings among the forecastle hands.
The barnacles and shell-fish had not attached themselves to the windows, hence the outline of the latter was still preserved, but over everything else was a dense slimy tangle a foot or so thick, the higher parts half-dried by the wind, while a quantity of seaweed floated around the hull in long waving masses. Water-logged, she rolled and pitched helplessly in the troubled waters, so that to me, unaccustomed to the sea, it seemed as though she must topple over. Surely it was one of the strangest sights that any eye had witnessed.
A derelict is always of interest alike to sailor and to landsman, but it assuredly does not happen to many to discover a craft that has been lost to human ken for at least three hundred years.
“She’s a beauty, she is!” laughed Seal, although I could see that his discovery somewhat troubled him, for, like all his class, he was full of superstition. “Wonder what her cargo is?”
“Corpses,” suggested Thorpe. “She’s only bobbed up lately, I should say, from her lovely shroud of weeds.”
“Perhaps there may be something on board worth having,” remarked the captain reflectively. “She’s a mystery, anyway, and we ought to solve it.”
“Yes,” I said eagerly. “I’m ready to go on board and investigate. Lower a boat, captain, and let’s see what’s inside.”
Seal glanced at the high sea and shook his head dubiously.
“Beg pardon, sir!” shouted the man Dicky Dunn up to the captain, speaking between his hands. “There’s a face at one o’ them attic windows in the stern. It only showed for a moment, and then disappeared—an awful white face!”
“Dicky’s got another touch of his old complaint,” remarked one of the stokers philosophically; but the statement caused all eyes to be turned to the row of small square windows.
“Ghosts aboard!” remarked Thorpe. “If I were you, cap’n, I’d have nothing to do with that hulking craft. She’s a floatin’ coffin, that’s what she is.”
“You’re a white-livered coward, sonny,” roared Seal. “I’ve discovered Noah’s Ark, and I mean to see what’s aboard her.” Then he shouted an order for a boat to be lowered, adding in a meaning tone: “If any man’s too chicken-hearted to board her let him stay here.”
The effect was magical. Sailors hate to be dubbed cowards, and every man was in an instant eager to face the tempestuous sea and explore.
“Dunn!” cried the skipper. “Are you certain you saw a face, or is it your groggy imagination?”
“I saw a face quite distinct, sir. It was grinning at us like, and then vanished. I’ll bet my month’s pay that there’s somebody aboard—or else it’s spirits.”
“Alcohol, more like,” grunted Seal, beneath his breath, as he turned to the helmsman and ordered him to keep a circular course round the water-logged hulk. The propeller had stopped, and we were now rising and falling in the long sweep of the green water.
“Come on, doctor,” Seal said, after he had ordered Thorpe to take command, and added a chaffing remark about Davy Jones and his proverbial locker; “let’s go and see for ourselves.”
So together we descended to the deck, and after several unsuccessful efforts to enter the boat, I at last found myself being tossed helplessly towards the high seaweed-covered walls that rolled ever and anon at a most fearsome angle.
The excitement was intense, for the boarding of the mysterious vessel was an extremely perilous undertaking, and it was a long time before one of the men could obtain a foothold on the slippery weeds. At last, however, the boat was made fast, and one by one we clambered up a patch of barnacles on to the roof of the stern. At that height, and rolling as we were, our position was by no means an enviable one. We sank to our knees in the brown, slimy seaweed that covered the roof, and at Seal’s order the men, with axes, began chopping away the growth and digging down to the timbers in search of hatches.
At last we found them, but they seemed to have been hermetically closed, and it was a long time before saw and hatchet made any impression on the teak. Still the six of us worked with a will, and in half an hour we succeeded in breaking our way into the vessel.
As we peered down into the gloom of the interior there arose a dank odour of mustiness, and I noticed that even the fearless Seal himself hesitated to descend and explore. When, however, I announced an intention of making the attempt, the others with one accord quickly volunteered to accompany me.
Through the hole I lowered myself, expecting to discover some stairway, but my legs only swung in air with the rolling of the hulk. My head being below the roof, however, I soon discovered in the dim light that the place was a large, wide cabin with a long oaken table down the centre. My feet were only a foot from the table, so I dropped and shouted to the others above to follow.
The place, with its panelled walls and deep window-seats, was more like an old-fashioned dining-room in a country house than a ship’s saloon. The table, a big heavy one, was handsomely carved, and there were high seats with twisted backs, covered with faded velvet, while as I moved I stumbled over some pieces of armour—helmets, breastplates, and swords, all red with rust. There were a few bones, too, which at a glance I saw belonged to a human skeleton.
The place had evidently been air and water tight, for although submerged for years the water had not entered. On the contrary, the bodies of those confined therein had crumbled into dust.
Seal and his men, who joined me one after the other, stood aghast, giving vent to exclamations of surprise, mingled, of course, with strong language.
Knowing something of antiquities, I made an examination of the furniture and armour. On the rusted sword-blades was stamped the name “Tomas,” with the sign of the cross, by which I knew them to be the best-tempered steel of Toledo, and the date of the armour I put at about the end of the sixteenth century.
“Strike me if it ain’t like a bloomin’ museum, doctor!” Seal remarked, pressing the point of a sword to the floor to try its temper.
“A most remarkable find,” I said. “As far as I can see at present it’s an old Spanish ship, but where it’s been all these years no one can tell.”
“It’s been down below, doctor, you can bet your boots on that,” Seal replied. “Been a mermaid’s palace, perhaps!”
The place wherein we stood was evidently the chief saloon. The ghastly bones on the floor interested me, as a medical man, the more so because one of the skeletons—and there were three—was certainly that of a man, who, when alive, must have stood over six feet high.
I gave that as my opinion, whereupon one of the horny-handed men hazarded the remark that it was “a giant’s Sunday-going yacht.”
One of the men who had sailed in the Seahorse—for such we afterwards discovered her name to be—had assuredly been a giant in stature, for I discovered his breastplate and sword, and certainly they were the most formidable I had ever seen. He was no doubt the commander, judging from the inlaid gold upon the armour, which still glistened, notwithstanding the rust.
Wooden platters, rusty knives, and leathern mugs, lay on the floor, having evidently been swept from the table when the vessel had heeled over and sunk, while there were the remains of high-backed chairs, decayed and broken, sliding on the floor with each roll of the unsteady craft.
At the farther end of the curious old cabin was a heavy oaken door, and passing beyond it we entered a smaller cabin projecting over the stern with three little square windows. On the panelled wall hung a helmet and sword, together with a time-mellowed portrait of a sour-faced man with fair pointed beard and ruffle. On the floor lay an old blunderbuss, and at one side, fixed against the wall, was a small oak desk for writing; while on the other, secured to the floor with huge clamps, were three great iron-bound and iron-studded chests, securely locked and heavily bolted.
“Treasure!” gasped Seal. “By Christopher! there may be gold ducats in them there boxes! Let’s have ’em open. Now lads,” he cried, bustling up the men, “ ’er’s your chance to go a-gold finding! Get to work, quick.”
The order to open the boxes was easier given than executed. One man searched in vain for the keys, while the others worked away till the perspiration rolled off their brows, and yet the strong boxes resisted all their efforts. Presently, however, Dicky Dunn discovered a long bar of iron, and the four men, using it as a lever, managed to wrench the lid of the first box off its hinges. To our utter disgust, however, we found it empty.
The second chest did not take quite so long as the first to force open, and as the lid was raised loud cries of joy broke from all our lips.
It was filled to the brim with golden coin!
I examined some and found them to be old Italian, Spanish, and English pieces—the latter mostly bearing the effigies of Queen Elizabeth and King Edward VI.
The excitement had now risen to fever heat. The men would have filled their pockets with the gold, there and then, had not Job Seal drawn a revolver and in a roaring voice threatened to shoot the first man dead who touched a coin.
But the gluttony of gold was upon them, and they attacked the third box with such violence that it was open in a jiffy.
No gold was, however, within—only a big bag of thick hide heavily riveted with copper, and securely fastened with bolt and lock.
“Bank-notes in that, perhaps!” remarked the skipper excitedly, ignorant of the fact that there were no bank-notes in the days when that curious craft had sailed the ocean. “Break it open, boys. Look alive!”
“Be-low!” cried old Dicky Dunn, and as his shipmates drew aside he raised his axe and with one well-directed blow broke off the rusted bolt and in an instant half-a-dozen hands were plunged into the leathern sack.
What they brought forth was certainly disappointing—merely two folded pieces of yellow, time-stained parchment, one having a big seal of lead hanging to it by a cord, and the other a small seal of yellow wax attached to a strip of the parchment itself.
The skipper glanced at them in disgust, and then handed them to me, as a man of some book-learning, to decipher.
I had steadied myself with my back fixed to the panelling and was examining the first of the documents, when of a sudden we were all of us startled by hearing a weird sound which sent through us a thrill of alarm.
It was plain and unmistakable—a deep, cavernous human voice!
Every man of us stood silent, looked at each other, and held his breath.
“Hark! Why, that’s the ghost wot Dicky Dunn saw!” gasped one of the men with scared face. “I’ve had about enough of this, mates. It ain’t no place for us here.”
I stood listening. There was undoubtedly yet another mystery on board that strange, uncanny vessel that the sea had so unaccountably given up.
Again the strange deep voice sounded.
It seemed to come from below the small cabin in which we stood—a snarling noise as though of a man enraged.
Neither Seal nor his men liked the situation. I could see by their faces that they were thoroughly scared. They had found gold, it was true, but below was the owner of it.
“Come on, lads,” urged Dicky Dunn courageously, “I’m going below to make the acquaintance of the skipper of this ’ere craft. The way is down that hatchway at the end of the big saloon.”
Encouraged by the old seaman the men moved back into the cabin we had first entered, and with Dunn I descended the dark stairs to explore, Seal following close behind us armed with his revolver.
I struck a match and, by its light, saw a quantity of ancient arms and armour lying with several skulls and bones. Apparently the men were below when the ship went down, and, the hatches being closed so tightly, neither air nor water reached them, so that they had been asphyxiated.
The passage led along to a bulkhead, where it took a turn at right angles and ended with a closed door.
This Seal opened boldly, and we found ourselves in a small cabin, quite light—for the big square window had been broken out—and furnished in the same antique style as the big saloon above.
It had an occupant—the strangest-looking creature I ever saw.
He was an old man with long white hair and white beard, a man with a thin, haggard face and black, deep-sunken eyes. On first entering he escaped our notice, but we saw him crouching beneath the table, hiding from us in terror.
His dress, ragged and tattered, was of three centuries ago—short breeches, a doublet of faded crimson velvet, and an old coat with puffed sleeves, while in his hand he carried a rusty poniard and seemed prepared to spring out upon us.
I shall never forget the ghastly look of hatred and terror upon the queer old fellow’s countenance as he faced us. We all three stood absolutely dumfounded. It was very interesting to discover a ship lost for three centuries, but to find a survivor still on board was incredible.
Yet there was a human being actually in the flesh; a weird old fellow who, for aught we could tell, had lived on board that vessel for ages.
“Come out, sonny,” cried Seal, when he found tongue; “we won’t eat you.”
In response the weird individual gave vent to that same shrill cry of rage that had first attracted our attention, brandishing his knife threateningly, but not budging an inch from his hiding-place.
“Enough of that, my man,” exclaimed the captain, authoritatively. “Come out and talk like a Christian. Where are you bound for? and how many days are you out?”
“The bloomin’ ship’s about three ’undred years overdue, I should fancy,” remarked Dicky Dunn, who was the ship’s humorist.
“Come along,” Seal urged persuasively, placing his hands on his knees and bending down to him. “Come out of it, old chap, and let’s have a yarn. I ain’t got any time to spare.”
But the old fellow only gnashed his gums and brandished his knife, for he appeared to entertain the greatest antipathy towards our skipper.
Presently, after some further coaxing, but receiving no word in reply, I succeeded in reassuring him that we meant him no harm, and he came forth from his hiding-place and with a savage grin stood before us. He was tall and gaunt, about six feet in height and as thin as a lath. But when we came to question him he steadily refused to answer one single question.
All the skipper’s queries he resented with marked hostility, and with me alone was he tractable.
Before long, however, I discerned the true state of affairs. This strange individual, whoever he was, was dumb, and, further, he was not in his right mind. Privation and solitude were probably the cause of it; but whatever the reason, the fact remained that the queer old fellow was unable to utter one single intelligible word, and he was also not responsible for his actions.
Now and then he burst into peals of laughter, grinning hideously, with all the characteristic symptoms of the maniac, and then he would suddenly strike an attitude as though to attack our skipper.
Fortunately I induced him to put his knife aside, for although rusty it was still very sharp. By all the means I could think of I endeavoured to extract some word from him, but in vain. The sounds that escaped him were deep, gutteral, and utterly unintelligible. By dumb show I tried to inquire who and what he was, but insanity asserted itself, for he only gave vent to a demoniacal shriek and cut some absurd capers that caused all three of us to laugh heartily.
I took out my pocket-book and handed it to him, together with a pencil, but instead of writing, as I hoped to induce him, he only looked to see what was contained in the pockets of the book and handed it back to me.
“Well!” cried Seal, “this chap beats everything! Who in the name of fortune can he be?”
“He’s a mystery,” I answered, utterly puzzled.
“He looks as old as Methuselah,” remarked the skipper. “He’s just as though he walked out o’ one of them old pictures.”
“He’s a lunatic, ain’t he, doctor?” asked Dunn.
“Most decidedly,” I responded; “and judging from the manner he received us, he is a rather dangerous one.”
“Well,” said Seal, “we’d better take him on board with us. Perhaps when he’s had a bit of grub and some rest we’ll be able to make him out. This mystery is a first-class one—better than any I’ve ever read in books. How old is he, doctor?”
“Impossible to tell,” I replied. “A good age certainly.”
“As old as this ship?” asked the seaman.
“I think not,” I responded, laughing.
“Well, we must find out something about him,” declared Seal, decisively.
“And what about that chestful of gold, sir?”
“Oh, we’ll ship that, of course,” answered the skipper. “It perhaps belongs to him, but we may as well hold it till he proves his right to it,” and he grinned meaningly.
The ancient mariner had turned, and was gazing out through the big open window to where the Thrush was lying awaiting our return. He seemed quite calm now, and no longer resented our intrusion upon his privacy. Indeed, with me he became quite friendly, and when I spoke again appeared to make an effort to understand me. He pointed to his mouth, which only emitted unintelligible sounds.
That he was insane there was no doubt. The strange look in his eyes was sufficient proof of it, but I entertained a hope that his mind was only unhinged by privation and solitude, and that by careful treatment his mental balance might become restored.
While we were questioning him the three men we had left above were rummaging the ship. One of them, it seems, managed by the aid of a rope to cross the wave-swept deck to the other cabin in the high bows and with an axe effect an entry. His report was that there were a number of skeletons there, most of them still in armour, together with old-fashioned cannon, and he brought back with him a fine banner of purple silk bearing a golden Maltese cross.
Below where we stood, the waves thundered ever and anon, and the heavy rolling told us that the wind was increasing.
“We’d better be getting aboard,” Seal remarked anxiously. “If we don’t make a start we shan’t be able to ship that there gold. You take charge of the old boy, doctor. What shall we call him, eh?”
“The Mysterious Man would be a good name, sir,” suggested Dunn.
“All right,” responded the skipper. “We’ll put him on the papers as Old Mr. Mystery. Go above and get the lads to shift that box of gold. Be careful with it, and mind it don’t go to the bottom.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” responded the grey-bearded seaman; and he went above, shouting to his shipmates to start work on the removal of the treasure.
He must have made some signal to Thorpe on the Thrush, for a few minutes later we heard the siren blowing, while the men in the small cabin were working away with a strong will stowing the gold coins into anything they could find, for with such a sea running it was impossible to remove the great chest entire, besides which it was heavily bolted to the floor.
The Mysterious Man accompanied me above, and in silence stood watching the coin being removed. Sight of it produced no impression upon him whatever. His agility and fierce antipathy had given place to apathy, as it so often does in certain phases of insanity.
The old portrait of the thin-faced man in ruffle and doublet caught his eye, and he faced it and shook his fist at it, as though the original were his enemy. Then he went through into the main saloon, and, picking up one of the rusty swords, returned and slashed the picture until the canvas hung in its frame in ribbons.
The two parchments that we had found in the old leather bag were secure in my pocket, and the bag was used for the transport of part of the treasure. While the work of removing the coins was in progress, however, I seized the opportunity of searching further in the small cabin, and discovered in the oak panelling a small cupboard, wherein were several big parchment-bound books looking almost like commercial ledgers.
One of them I opened, and found it to be in manuscript in a crabbed hand that I could not decipher, but on certain pages were drawn rough plans. A second volume proved to be a printed book in Latin; and a third a rare old Book of Hours, printed by Pasquali, of Venice, in 1588. I took possession of half-a-dozen, but the others seemed to me to be of no account—one a Latin lexicon, and another a book in which certain household recipes had been written. All were, as far as I could judge, books written or printed in the first half of the sixteenth century, although I knew nothing of the mysteries of palæography or bibliography. Some of the writing was even and well executed, while the other was execrable, with long loops and curious dashes and flourishes above certain letters.
I gave the books I wanted into the hands of one of the sailors, who lashed them together and lowered them to the boat after the gold had been safely shipped.
Every moment the gale was increasing, so Seal thought fit to send the boat back to the steamer with its precious freight before we proceeded, as the gold weighed heavily, and he feared that if we went with it we might be swamped.
Through the square window of the big saloon, very like the window of an old-fashioned house, we watched the boat rise and fall on the long, green waves as it toiled towards the steamer. We watched one of the men shout through his hands, and could see the excitement his news created on board.
Thorpe bent over from the bridge and shouted back, while a dozen willing hands were ready to haul up the gold.
It was half an hour before they returned for us, and Seal expressed some doubts about the vessel weathering the storm. The pitching was terrible, and it was impossible to stand without clinging hold of something.
I occupied the time in searching every nook and crevice in the big saloon, but I discovered practically nothing, save in a cupboard some old pewter, over which a collector of such stuff would probably have gone into raptures, and an old silver tankard, which I took as part of my share of the loot, together with a helmet, sword, and breastplate.
But at length my search was brought to a conclusion by the boat hailing us from below, and we lowered the Mysterious Man by means of a rope around his waist, for he was too decrepit to spring, and the sight of his skinny legs dangling over the sea was certainly ludicrous. Then, when we were all clear, the men pulled us through the boiling waves back to the steamer, and as we looked behind we saw the weird seaweed-covered craft rocking and rolling as though every minute she must heel over.
The advent of the stranger on board the Thrush caused an outburst of surprise and consternation among the men, who stood in a group around him, addressing him and making remarks upon his personal appearance and his clothes.
“ ’E looks like old Father Christmas been starved to death!” I heard one seaman remark. “Look at his shoes. Them buckles are silver, mates!”
And then for the first time I noticed that the buckles on his shoes were very beautiful ones.
“There’s something confoundedly mysterious about both the craft and the man,” declared a seaman who had accompanied us. “There’s lots of skeletons on board, and old armour, cannon, and things. She was a battleship, I believe. At any rate, the men on board her were soldiers.”
“If they were, then the old fossil’s a good specimen,” one of them said, to which the old seaman who had rowed our boat replied: —
“Well, we collared over a thousand quid in gold, sonny. It was in them heavy bags that are stowed in the skipper’s quarters. Besides, the doctor’s got a few things—books, bits of parchment, and the like.”
They asked for a description of the craft, and we gave it to them, explaining the circumstances in which we discovered the Mysterious Man. The latter was seated on a coil of rope, glancing at us but utterly apathetic to the fact that he was the centre of attraction. We told them how the old fellow was both dumb and insane, whereupon their interest in him was increased fourfold. Their jeering remarks regarding his gorilla-like countenance and his quaintness of attire were quickly turned into expressions of sympathy and even the roughest man among them was ready to render the afflicted stranger any little service.
The armour and books had been placed in my cabin, and when Seal had related our experiences to Thorpe, the latter suggested that we should stand by the Seahorse and take her in tow when the gale abated. It would mean a day or two overdue in London, but we should nevertheless secure a prize such as no living man had ever before seen. Apart from the interest in the old vessel and the mystery of how it had come to the surface after being so long submerged, there were on board many things of value from an antiquarian point of view.
And so it was arranged that we should lay to that night, and if the wind went down next day, as Seal believed it would because the morrow was the fourth day of continued bad weather, we should tow the extraordinary craft to Valencia, and, if possible, round to London.
The Mysterious Man, after eating ravenously of food set before him, curled himself up in one of the men’s bunks in the forecastle and soon went to sleep. One man, a well-spoken, middle-aged sailor named Harding, was told off to take care of the madman and to see that he did not get into mischief, while the cure of his intellect was left in my charge.
Together with Seal I proceeded to examine our find. As the sun sank crimson and stormy, flooding the skipper’s cabin with a blood-red glow, he and I carefully counted the gold. There were 1,783 pieces, large and small, and of great variety. The English ones mostly bore the effigies of Edward VI. and Elizabeth. There were none of James I., but many were of Henry IV. of France, together with a variety of Spanish doubloons and Italian pieces. I found none of a later reign than Elizabeth, therefore I put down the date of the Seahorse as about 1603, or a few years earlier.
“I wonder whether Old Mystery will claim the coin?” Seal reflected, as he slowly filled his pipe, having finished the counting.
“As the sole survivor, it most probably belongs to him,” I said.
“But if he’s a lunatic, what claim can he make to it? There’ll be some job to find the vessel’s owner, I reckon.”
His remark caused me to remember the two parchments I had in my pocket, and I drew them out, opened them, and examined them carefully.
The first was beautifully and clearly written, about a foot square, and headed “Cosmvs.” It was in Latin, and I must admit that although I had passed in Latin up at Edinburgh, I was very rusty in it. The document at commencement read as follows: —
Cosmus Dei Gratia Magnus Dux Etruriæ, etc. et sacræ Religionis, et Militiæ Militum S. Stephani Papæ, et Martyris Magnus Magister et Custos, etc., Dilecto Nobis Pompæo Marie a Paule, Nobili Pisano et S. Stephani Militi, gratiam uram, et omne bonum.
Then, after a screed of twenty long lines, the document ended: —
Datum Florentiæ die pa. Februarij anno ab incarn. MDCI. Nostri Magni Ducatus Etruriæ anno VI.
Below were three signatures in ink that had long ago faded yellow, but so badly written were they that I could not decipher them. At the foot of the document was threaded a hempen cord, and to it was attached a heavy leaded seal, a trifle bigger than half a crown. On the obverse was a Maltese cross, the same as upon the faded silken banner at my side, and on the reverse a shield bearing six balls, the arms of the Florentine house of the Medici. Around the cross was the legend “Sancti Stephani Signum Religioni,” while around the armorial bearings were the words: “Cosmvs Mag. Dux Etr. Magn. Magis.”
So insufficient was my knowledge of Latin that all I could make out of the writing was that it was some diploma or deed concerning some one named Paule, a noble of Pisa. But what honour it conferred upon him I could not decipher, so I turned my attention to the second parchment.
It was yellower, and penned in a hand so crabbed that for a long time I could not make out in what language it was written.
“Below were seven scrawly signatures in that strange old Elizabethan hand.”
The Tickencote Treasure] [Chapter IV