The Dream of William Elgood
THE DREAM OF WILLIAM ELGOOD
By E. BRAMAH
HAD that ubiquitous individual, "the casual observer," been in Carston Cottage on a certain September morning, he could not have failed to notice that something unusual was passing in the mind of its owner, William Elgood, retired sea captain. It was not wonderful, therefore, that these signs forced themselves upon the attention of those who were best acquainted with the habits of Mr. Elgood, and his wife and daughter exchanged frequent looks of interrogation and surprise, though they refrained from making any comment, for, to tell the truth, the ex-captain of the Petrel had not a nature that invited confidence or sympathy, and had carried not a little of the manner of the forecastle into his own parlour.
Rousing himself from his reverie, and leaving his scarcely-touched breakfast, Elgood crossed the room and, after pausing before a framed chart that hung on the wall, he picked up his hat and went out, nor did his pre-occupied look leave him till he had covered the mile that lay between Carston Cottage and Westport.
"Whatever can be the matter with your father this morning, Letty?" said the elder of the two ladies when they were alone, "he's scarcely touched his breakfast. He's been a little strange for the last two or three days. Can it be anything to do with Mr. Vernon?"
"Oh, mamma!" cried Letty, jumping up, "it was shameful the way father behaved the last time Mr. Vernon was sketching the ruins from the garden. You know he had our permission, at any rate, and he only came there because the view is better on our side—you can see quite a long piece of wall from behind the laurels; but from the field the ivy half hides it. And, then, to call Mr. Vernon a—oh, well, something nautical."
"Yes, dear, you know it always irritates William to see anyone earning a living in an easy way. He has had to work hard himself."
"But Mr. Vernon doesn't earn a living, mother. He said that he's never sold a picture yet, although he's always been very successful at getting them in a lot of exhibitions he told me about. And to think that father should say that he'd be doing more good tarring a rope!"
"I don't suppose that William really minded his painting, or being in the garden so much," sighed Mrs. Elgood, "but—well, you know, dear, he has been about here a good deal lately, and your father naturally thought that it was you, and not the ruin, that attracted him."
"Me, mother? Oh, mother, however could you imagine that? Indeed, I'm sure he never thought of me at all. Why should he? You don't really think that, do you?—it's only father. He's so ridiculous. Mr. Vernon cares for nothing but his art, I'm sure. Why, he even offered to teach me to sketch the other day; he thinks of nothing else, I believe."
"It is just as well," said her mother consolingly, "for, of course, he will not come here again now."
In the meanwhile the dissipator of this artistic idyll had reached the water-side, and, after a brief search, apparently found the object of his journey, who rose from the cabin of the Nymph in response to a stentorian shout from the quay. Seeing Mr. Elgood, the captain of the Nymph waved a pleased and surprised greeting, and, after giving a few instructions, worked his way ashore and reached his friend.
"This is luck, seemingly," said Elwood, after they had shaken hands; "I was afraid that the Nymph would be out. How's Mrs. Timms and the family?"
"Very fit," replied Mr. Timms; "I was just thinking of going up to the house when you came. We got in on Tuesday night, and have scarcely finished unloading. You'd better come up with me; the missis was saying only yesterday that we didn't see anything of you now that you'd dropped anchor and become a gentleman."
"Don't think it, Ned," said the retired captain, hastily. "There's never any feeling of difference between us, I hope. Pals we've been, and will be to the end, if it rests with me."
The earnestness of Mr. Elgood's good feeling appeared to surprise his companion a little. He was thinking perhaps, that since a recent and unexpected legacy, his old companion had not manifested any overwhelming desire for the company of his humbler friends.
"There's something I want to talk over with you, Ned," continued Elgood, after a pause; "it's better where we can be alone; come in here."
They turned into a small inn, which at that time of day was quite deserted. Elgood led the way into the remotest corner, and after calling for a glass of beer for his companion and a pipe for himself, began cautiously:
"This is a matter between ourselves, Ned," he said. "Take it or leave it, it goes no further. I must have your word for that."
Mr. Timms gave the required promise, and awaited Elgood's proposal with some curiosity.
"It's a matter that may be worth nothing or it maybe worth thousands," continued the ex-captain, slowly. "It would be out of the way of some, and others would jump at the chance. I tell you that beforehand in case you think that I talked you over afterwards. It's not every man's cargo, and if so be as how you want to cancel beforehand, why——"
"Go on," said Timms. He was getting a little excited, and in any case he did not see why he should not hear all.
"It's a matter of a dream," said Elgood, who was becoming more and more constrained and emphatic as he neared his climax. "These three nights it's come to me, always the same. You know the coast by Sidcombe Point? Well, about two knots beyond the point there's a bit of a bay. I've often seen my grandfather point it out when I was a lad, and say that he'd had it from his grandfather that a Spanish ship had gone down there, full of gold; brought on to the rocks by wreckers, they did say. Anyhow, some of the crew got ashore with a lot of the money, and jewels as well. They buried it near, as deep as they could in the dark, wild night, and then had to fly for their lives. War broke out soon after that, and they had no chance of returning for it. The secret died with them, and to this day no one has ever seen a single piece of Spanish gold round there."
"I've often heard the same tale myself," said Timms; "it used to be common talk about here when I was young."
"There must be something in it, or it would never have been spoken of so much. Well, these three nights this has come to me: I was standing, leaning on a spade, at the foot of a single oak, growing by itself just outside a three-cornered wood above the bay. It was just as if I was going to begin digging, but each time I've woke then, and with a voice ringing in my ears, 'Dig here and the treasure will be found. That's just all there is of it," he concluded, half defiantly, "and now it's for you to say."
"What do you want me to do in it?" asked Timms cautiously. "You aren't offering me a share in whatever there may be for nothing."
"We've been pals, Ned," said Elgood reproachfully, "and you're the one man I could trust with a thing like this; besides, I should like to help you. Then, I've thought it over, and it seems to me that the only way it's to be done is to take a craft and get there at dark. If two or three men could bury whatever there is in a few hours, we can dig it up and get it aboard by morning ,and no one's likely to be about at that time. The Nymph will draw light enough without cargo to get a landing there."
"And who's to stay with her while we're away?"
"I never thought of that. Better take your lad with us. He'd be all right. Well, what do you say?"
"There's something powerful attractive both about dreams and buried treasure to a sailor-man," replied Timms thoughtfully; "I had an uncle who ran on to Walston Head following a dream, which so annoyed him that he never would believe in them again till he lost his boat through neglecting another. Yes, I'll go, if it's share and share alike."
"Share and share alike it is," replied Elgood, and they shook hands on it and fell to arranging details.
The following day, at about four o'clock, the Nymph, with a crew of only two men and a boy, cast off from the quay and stood down the Channel. At ten o'clock in the evening she brought to slowly in a secluded creek, and the two adult members of her crew waded ashore, each carrying a spade and a mattock. On reaching the higher land beyond the bay, Timms uttered a word of disappointment. It was almost dark, but there was still a faint light line on the horizon, and against this, as far as the eye could reach, there was not a sign of a wood or even a solitary tree; it was all open moorland, with a thick undergrowth of brushwood. He looked at his companion inquiringly.
"You are the only man I'd trust on an errand like this, Ned," said Elgood, "but I thought it better to alter the land a little in case you didn't come. I don't doubt you, not for a minute, but you might talk in your sleep."
He struck inland, leading the way as if he had been brought up on the ground. After ten minutes' walking he began to go slower, and to peer about anxiously from side to side. Suddenly he gave an exclamation of relief, and, walking a few paces to one side, stopped on the brink of a small dry pit in which grew a single stunted thorn bush. They descended the shallow sloping side and threw down their tools by the bush
Without a word Timms knew by instinct that this was the place, and that the critical moment had arrived. "Which side?" he whispered; his voice seemed to have left him.
Elgood shook his head. "It has the same looks from every side," he muttered. Now that they were actually on the spot, the whole quest seemed much more hopeless and ridiculous than it had even in the full light of day. Without another word they threw off their coats, and both began to dig a yard from the tree, and on different sides. The ground was hard, and every now and then an obstructing root made it necessary to bring the mattocks into play. For nearly an hour they dug on in silence, so absorbed in their work that they did not notice the dark figures that silently approached and stood on the edge of the pit, all round, watching them, so that when a voice suddenly called out, "You are surrounded my lads; it's not worth while making a fight for it!" the shock was horrible, and for a moment they seemed to cease living. Elgood was the first to recover himself.
"Who are you?" he cried. "What do you want?"
"I'm Bill Bristow, if you don't know me," replied the voice, "head keeper for Mrs. Winton, lady of the Manor. And where are you from? You aren't moor men."
It did not take long for the two adventurers to convince the keeper and his men that they were not poachers, but the circumstances did not lend themselves to a plausible explanation of their motives for being on the moor at that time of night.
Still less were they disposed to divulge the secret of the Spanish treasure. Under these circumstances, Bristow ordered his men to march their prisoners to the lady of the manor, who was anxiously awaiting news of the result of the raid that had been planned on the information that a gang of poachers would be out that night.
Mrs. Winton was in the habit of exercising a somewhat magisterial authority in all matters connected with her estate. She stood with folded arms, and wearing an expression of mixed severity and judicial calm, when the two unfortunate men were brought into her presence. The sombreness of her costume of dark dress and black Indian lace shawl enhanced the frigidness of her appearance. By this time Elgood had come to the conclusion that the only possible way out of the predicament was to explain the true object of the expedition. Mrs. Winton listened to his story with scorn, but with evident relief.
"I can quite accept your tale," she said, "because I have a weak-witted fellow in my employ who is forever babbling about a buried treasure somewhere else. Eh, Land?"
The man addressed looked down sheepishly. "It be common talk hereabouts, and was so in gran'feyther's time, that there be hundreds of pounds of gold buried under the ruins of old Carston House, higher up the Channel," he said.
Elgood started and looked at Timms. The same thought struck them both. Had they been sent mysteriously down here to learn a local legend, that would otherwise never have reached them? Was there really a treasure after all, and that at their very doors? The voice of Mrs. Winton recalled them to their surroundings; she was formally discharging them, with no worse a stain to their names than the presumption of mental weakness. They were once more free to pursue their chimera, and just eight hours after first setting out, they again weighed anchor and beat up the Channel.
If the affairs of William Elgood were not progressing altogether satisfactorily abroad, he would have had still more occasion for annoyance could he have witnessed the sequence of events that his absence brought about at home. Hardly had the Nymph cleared the harbour before Eustace Vernon—how informed of his opportunity I cannot pretend to know—walked openly along the lane that bounds one side of the garden around Carston Cottage. It happened at that moment that Letty wearing her prettiest dress, was coming from the house to get some flowers. Now the real gist of William Elgood's remarks to Vernon, divested of much that was superfluous padding—but not on that account calculated to break their force—on that memorable occasion referred to at the beginning of this narrative, was to the effect that the artist was never to enter the grounds of Carson Cottage again. Letty would not have dreamed of disobeying her father; at the same time she could not wilfully hurt the feelings of anyone and therefore she walked out into the lane.
"You haven't your easel," she said, after they had shaken hands; and then she stopped and wished she had said anything but that: it was so reminiscent.
Vernon did not appear to notice anything.
"No," he replied, "I came just for a last look; I have to go back to-morrow."
Letty did not say anything. Everything she could think of, every commonplace that arose in her mind, seemed to lead back to that last dreadful interview. In silence they walked on, and presently found themselves standing by the ruins that formed the ostensible reason of Vernon's visits.
"Do you know," said the artist at length, "there seems to be very little that one can learn about this place? There is not enough left to tempt the antiquarians, and the country people seem to have no traditions at all. Yet it was an important stronghold two or three hundred years ago, and held out bravely against Cromwell."
"Yes," said the girl, "that is all that we know of it, almost. I believe that our cottage is built from its stones. Nobody seems to own the place; only a few weeks ago a neighbour of ours took away whole cartloads of earth and stones to use in his garden and in making a wall; when they were digging they found a curious old silver ring; look, here it is."
Vernon took the clumsy silver band, eagerly, and scrutinised the inner side closely.
"There has been a motto," he said, "but it is all worn away except the "ing" of the word 'King'."
"Oh, let me look," said the girl eagerly, "I did not know that there was anything there."
Vernon handed it back, but his fingers trembled as they touched hers, and the ring fell to the ground, then it rolled a little way and disappeared in the crevice between two large flat stones that lay half buried in the earth.
"How clumsy of me," said Vernon, apologetically; "wait a minute, there are some tools here."
He brought a crowbar and, placing it between the stones, raised one a little way, but the hold was not sufficient, and it fell back again. As it struck the ground the two looked at one another in astonishment, for the sound it gave forth was hollow and almost uncanny. Vernon tried again, and this time raised the stone, completely throwing it over. He struck the bar into the earth beneath, and the noise was repeated, while the bar encountered some hard substance at the depth of only a few inches.
"Oh, do dig," cried Letty keenly. "I am sure there's something there;" she had quite forgotten the silver ring till Vernon picked it up and restored it to her.
The removal of a few shovelfuls of earth revealed an iron-studded board, which was obviously the lid of a box. After a little more digging and work with the bar the chest was raised from its bed amid breathless excitement. It proved to be small, but very strong, heavily clamped with iron bands and secured by three locks. "Do break it open!" said Letty excitedly—she was almost dancing round it. "I'm dying to see what's inside!"
"Do you know," said Vernon, who was inwardly little calmer than she was, "it's very curious. Under ordinary circumstances, I suppose that we ought to take it to some authorities, but I really believe that it's mine."
"Of course it is," said Letty convincingly; "you found it."
"Ah, but apart from that. Look here!"—he pulled an antique ring from his finger—"you see that?"
He painted to the metal shield in the centre of the lid. "Oh!" she cried rapturously, "another just like it! Who are you?"
"I am Eustace Vernon," he replied smiling, "and nothing more."
"And this?" pointing to the crest on the box.
"That was Stephen Vernon, I suppose; my eighth great-grandfather, and third Baron Carston."
Letty had become quiet again—her excitement suddenly gone: "Oh, I thought you were just an artist, and quite poor!" she almost whispered.
"Dear one," he said, taking her hand, "I am nothing more. When my ancestor lost his life at Naseby his young children were left poor and almost friendless. They were brought up by the peasants as themselves, and became yeoman. The title was dropped, and has never been used since; as for this box—why, if you are afraid of it, let us bury it unopened!"
"No, Eustace," she replied, with a happy smile, "let us open it first, and then bury it if necessary."
Just as Elgood and the captain of the Nymph were leaving the quay, some few hours later, they suddenly encountered Vernon, who was carrying a hand-bag, and followed by a porter groaning under the weight of an exceedingly well corded, brown paper package. Elgood had quite recovered his spirits, and was looking forward with certainty to the discovery of the treasure towards which he had been so fatefully guided. He could afford to be disinterested now that the artist was obviously leaving the place, and in a burst of generous forgiveness he shook him by the hand and wished him a pleasant journey. It was not until the following morning, just as he was about to commence active digging operations, that the contents of a letter, in Vernon's handwriting, caused him to recollect the exceedingly good terms on which that gentleman seemed to be with himself. For a moment it appeared as though the emotions of the forecastle would gain the ascendancy, but even from the first they were tempered by the conviction that there is a vast difference between an impecunious artist and the Baron Carston, especially when the latter has just discovered the family gold and jewels; so that in the end the paternal feelings triumphed, and two days later saw Vernon established within the shadow of his ancestral home.
This happy consummation leaves only one person badly used—Mr. Timms, to wit, who is still threatening to "have the law on" most of the principals of this history.