Lost Island/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II
THE MYSTERY OF THE BARK HATTERAS

"Here she is," he said at last. "This can't be the same Hatteras that you 're talking about though, because they searched everywhere for her at the time."

Adjusting his glasses, Captain Hallard read:

"A strange mystery of the sea is recalled now that the bark Hatteras is definitely given up for lost. Six months have elapsed since she was last heard of in the Pacific Ocean, and the owners have no alternative but to regard her as sunk. The vessel herself was fully insured, but not the cargo, and it now appears that the latter included one small shipment which was of considerable value, consisting of a quantity of platinum. A good deal of money has been spent, since she was first reported missing, in searching for any trace of the Hatteras, but no sign of her has been discovered.

"A curious feature of the story is that no man knows, or ever will know, exactly where this valuable consignment came from originally. Possibly it was mined in New Guinea, where platinum is known to exist, or possibly in some part of Australia, but that must always remain a matter of conjecture.

"About a year ago Messrs. Jacobs & Krantz of San Francisco, dealers in precious metals, received a letter from one Vance Peters, written at Sydney, New South Wales. Peters stated that he had discovered a rich deposit of platinum, and had worked on it for two years until the supply was exhausted. He said he had melted it down into bars, had deposited it in a Sydney bank, and now wanted Jacobs & Krantz to market it for him, as facilities for disposing of it in Sydney were not good.

"The San Francisco firm consented to handle the transaction, and in due course received a letter from Peters announcing that he was sailing from Sydney on the Hatteras, bringing the platinum with him. There the known history of the platinum almost ends. After the Hatteras put to sea she was spoken twice between Sydney and Honolulu. Then there swept over that part of the Pacific the succession of devastating northeasterly gales which wreaked havoc among shipping there six months ago. Vessels of all kinds were blown far out of their course, and many of them were lost. The last heard of the Hatteras was a report from the ship Minerva that she had passed within a mile of her in the neighbourhood of Fanning Island. The bark was then partly dismasted and flying signals of distress. The Minerva herself was in great difficulties, and was unable to go to her assistance. From that moment the Hatteras became a thing of mystery. It is probable that she foundered with all hands in water a mile deep. There are many islands, mostly low-lying coral reefs, in that part of the Pacific. In the faint hope that the treasure-ship might have gone on one of these, Messrs. Jacobs & Krantz arranged with a vessel that was due to pass there to explore the region thoroughly, and the captains of other ships were offered a reward for definite news. But nothing has ever been heard of the ill-fated vessel or those who were on her."

While his father was reading the old newspaper cutting Dave Hallard sat motionless, his hands gripping the arms of the chair tightly.

"That sailor told me the Hatteras they saw was near Fanning Island, Dad," he said eagerly.

Captain Hallard looked up quickly.

"That's queer," he said. "I wonder if she could have been the same ship."

"Well, if she was, Dad, and nobody's got that platinum out of her—"

"If," Captain Hallard interrupted, laughing. "I guess there are lots of ifs. To begin with, your sailor probably was spinning a yarn, and even if he did see the old wreck of the Hatteras, she must have been nearly smashed to pieces long ago. Everything in her would be washed away by now. Besides, where was this island he saw her on?"

"I remember he mentioned Fanning Island when you read it just now," said Dave, "and besides that he said they were sailing between there and an island called Christmas when they came across the wreck of the Hatteras."

"That's a pretty wide field," commented Captain Hallard."Those two places are hundreds of miles apart, and you might spend a lifetime hunting about there for what you were after."

"He also said there was a hill," declared Dave, as the ancient mariner's story came back to his memory, "that looked like the back of a camel."

"You're sure he didn't say a cow, or a rabbit?" Captain Hallard asked jocularly. "I'm afraid, Dave, he was having fun with you."

"I don't think so," Dave replied quietly. He had the greatest faith in his father's judgment, but on the other hand he had a vivid memory of the old sailor's simple directness.

Aunt Martha, who had been sitting knitting industriously, as usual, throughout the conversation, made no comment, and registered a mental note of the fact that Dave was growing more like his father every day. The Hallards did not have those steady grey eyes for nothing. It had been inflexible devotion to one purpose which enabled the retired sea-captain to amass his original fortune, and Dave was already exhibiting the same capacity for sticking to his guns, whatever object he wished to achieve. And she knew that the boy's determination to go to sea would never leave him until the salt water was rolling under him. This new notion that had entered his head, of treasure-ships lying waiting to disgorge their precious stores, would most likely add a romantic tinge to his desire, making certain that still another of the Hallards was to take to the roving life.

A day or two later, after supper, Dave produced a school atlas, and pored over it with a pencil and paper, measuring off distances.

"Dad, how long would it take for a bark to sail a hundred and fifty miles?" he asked.

"About a thousand years if there wasn't any wind."

"Yes, but with a fair wind?"

"Oh, maybe a day or two. Why?"

"Then it only takes a day or two to go from Fanning Island to Christmas Island in a bark in a fair wind?" said Dave.

"It depends how long you waste on the way picking up that treasure," replied Captain Hallard, with a twinkle in his eye. "Don't you worry, my lad. Hard dollars don't come like that. You're just as likely to bump up in Broadway against a solid chunk of gold so big that it holds up the traffic as anybody is to rescue a fortune that's been lost in the sea for years."

"I know that, Dad," Dave agreed. "But it does seem an awful shame that the man who spent two years mining the stuff should never have got here with it safely. I asked Billy Tench yesterday to find out from his father what platinum is worth. Billy's father works in a jewelry store. I wrote down what he said to show you. How much do you guess Mr. Peters would have got for the stuff if he had reached America with it?"

Captain Hallard puffed at his pipe and wrinkled his brows in an effort of mental arithmetic.

"I suppose somewhere between ten and twenty dollars an ounce," he guessed.

"Wrong," corrected Dave. "At that time it was worth over thirty dollars an ounce."

"Rough luck on Peters," commented Captain Hallard. He knew by bitter experience what it felt like to lose a fortune.

"But that isn't all," Dave went on. "The price of platinum has gone up to three times its old value since then. That means if any one were lucky enough to find the treasure now, it would be worth about a hundred dollars an ounce."

Captain Hallard raised his eyebrows.

"I vote we start an expedition to find treasure-ships, Dave," he said, wincing as his rheumatism gave an extra twinge. "Then we'll be able to come back and buy Aunt Martha that new coffee-percolator she's set her heart on. Then we might go over to Europe and hunt up some of those Spanish galleons. There were lots of 'em sunk, half full of gold coins. I'm badly in need of a new pipe."

"Yes, and we'd buy 'Journey's End' back, eh, Dad?" Dave suggested.

"Aye, lad," his father agreed, with a sigh. The loss of his home on the cliff was still a very sore point to Captain Hallard. "But don't ever get such notions of easy money into your head. You have a lot of hard work to put in at school yet before you earn your first cent."

"How soon can I go to sea?" Dave asked abruptly.

"Not until this time next year," said his father. "I don't suppose you'll ever rest contentedly until you have tried it out and found that a sailor's life isn't a bit as they say it is in story-books. I went through it. I thought I was going to have a wonderful time when I joined my first ship. She was a square-rigger, of the old-fashioned type. I remember I had a coat with some brass buttons on it, and I had an idea that I should spend most of my time on the poop, or the fo'c'sle-head, looking through a long telescope. But they set me on to peeling potatoes, and kept me at it though I was so seasick I didn't care whether I lived or died. Then the mate told me to dress up, as I had to do something special for the captain. I put on my best duds, including the coat with the brass buttons, and they started me on the job of tarring the rigging. By the time I'd got through with that, and after I'd upset the tar-bucket when the ship gave an extra hard roll, I was so messed up from head to foot I hardly knew my own name, though I'd learnt that sailoring didn't consist chiefly of looking smart in brass buttons and navigating the ship."

"But you didn't give up the sea for years and years after that, did you?" the boy persisted.

"No, I'll admit that, though there was many a time I'd have done 'most anything to get back home and put on some dry clothes. The grub wasn't too good, either, in those days, and the older hands got the pick of what was going. Ship-owners don't believe in overfeeding their crews. The men might get too fat to shin up the rigging if they had three square meals a day, so they're given ship's biscuits to keep 'em in condition and cut expenses down."

Dave plied his father with questions about life afloat, and Captain Hallard gave him as accurate a picture as he could of routine on board ship. To the boy it all seemed fascinating, including the hard, dirty work and the "salt horse" which, he gathered, together with the extremely hard biscuits, formed the staple diet on many craft.

The only thing worrying him was that he had to start at high school and wait a whole year before he would be allowed to eat "salt horse" and feel the motion of the boat under him as she nosed her way out of the harbor, past that flashing light in the distance at Sandy Hook, and carried him to those entrancing distant lands of which he had heard so much.

School seemed a dull affair during the next two months when such radiant possibilities lay in store. Dave went on with his studies, but his heart was not in them. Every day, after dark, he spent hours at the window from which he could see the lights of passing vessels, and in the afternoons he haunted the wharves, where screaming winches were hauling bales and cases from the mysterious depths of different vessels. The smell of tarred ropes became a thing of joy to him, and when, on occasions, the mate or "bo'sun" of some ship invited him on board to look around after they had had a long chat, Dave thrilled with a new delight. The snug cabins and berths, not always as clean or tidy as they might have been, were a source of infinite wonder.

Though he did not realize it, Dave was fanning the flame within him. At home he came out with nautical terms which he had picked up, to the great distress of Aunt Martha, for, to her, it was clearly the beginning of the end. Secretly she had always treasured the hope that her brother would put his foot down firmly and prevent Dave from risking his life on the sea, and occasionally, even now, she would have a passage of arms with Captain Hallard on the subject.

"Let the boy have a taste of it," he always declared. "You wouldn't bring ducks up without water, and the Hallards are worse than any ducks I ever knew, only they want salt water. He'll go whether I let him or not, so I might just as well let him, when he's old enough."

Aunt Martha bent over her knitting on these occasions, making the needles fly and missing stitches, because you can't see to knit, even with spectacles, when your eyes are full of tears.

"Don't worry, Martha dear," Andrew Hallard said once, when this happened. "He won't come to any harm, and if I had my time over again, I'd be a sailor just the same, so we can't blame him. Now, stop crying. It's a healthy life at sea, after all; and to listen to you, one would think every mariner who left the wharf went straight to Davy Jones's locker as soon as he got into deep water."

Soon after the summer vacation began, Dave stood on one of the wharves within a mile of his home and watched a trim-looking steamer sidle to her berth. She was low in the water with a heavy cargo. Some time after the gangway was let down and traffic on it had started, an undersized youth, whose pockets bulged strangely, strolled casually ashore. He was about Dave's age, had red hair, and an extremely dirty face. Something about the boy attracted Dave's attention. He noticed that the red-headed youth looked quickly to the right and left, and then, dodging behind a truck, began to walk hurriedly away from the ship.

Dave stepped across the wharf so that the owner of the red hair would have to pass close to him. The boy was glancing over his shoulder and nearly bumped into Dave.

"Hello, kid, which is the way to New York?" he asked jerkily.

"It's miles from here. This is Brooklyn," Dave said.

"Do you know the way around here?" the boy asked. "I want to get out of this quick."

"Come with me," said Dave, growing more interested. He had learned every turn and corner of the docks. Three minutes later they were in a busy street, and the boy seemed to breathe more freely. His face began to wear a triumphant smile.

"That's fine!" he said. "I'll be safe now."

"Safe from what?"

"I've skipped the ship. I was scared to death somebody would spot me. I've got all my things in my pockets."

"What did you skip the ship for?" Dave asked, hugely pleased at being concerned, even in a small way, with a nautical adventure.

"Wanted to see America," responded the youth. "Don't you let on that you 've seen me. So long."

A moment later the owner of the red hair and dirty face was swallowed up in Brooklyn, and Dave went back to the steamer with new interest. An idea had occurred to him. It was only a vague idea, but it concerned the fact that he felt perfectly capable of doing anything that red-headed, undersized chap had done on the ship; and moreover, the ship was now short of a boy.

A curious tight feeling gripped him at the throat. For the space of perhaps five minutes he stood still, thinking hard, and then he boldly walked down the gangway.

"Can I see the captain, please?" he said to a tall man who was standing on deck talking to a companion.

"What do you want the captain for?"

"I want to see him on—on business," said Dave.

The man looked down into the boy's grey eyes which showed neither fear nor disrespect.

"Well, sonny, I'm the captain," he said. "What is it?"

"I guess you want a boy, sir," said Dave. "The other one's gone. I'd like his job."