It must have been midnight when I opened my eyes; a clock was striking as though it never would stop. My mouth seemed fire; a pungent flavor filled my nostrils; the wineglass felt cold against my teeth. "That's more like it!" muttered a voice close to my ear. An arm was withdrawn from under my shoulders. I was allowed to sink back upon some pillows. And now I saw where I was. The room was large and poorly lighted. I lay in my clothes on an old four-poster bed. And my enemies were standing over me in a group.
"I hope you are satisfied!" sneered Joaquin Santos, with a flourish of his eternal cigarette.
"I am. You don't do murder in my house, wherever else you may do it."
"And now better lid 'im to the nirrest polissstation; or weel you go and tell the poliss yourself?" asked the Portuguese, in the same tone of mordant irony.
"Ay, ay," growled Harris; "that's the next thing!"
"No," said Rattray; "the next thing's for you two to leave him to me."
"We'll see you damned!" cried the captain.
"No, no, my friend," said Santos, with a shrug; "let him have his way. He is as fond of his skeen as you are of yours; he'll come round to our way in the end. I know this Senhor Cole. It is necessary for 'im to die. But it is not necessary this moment; let us live them together for a leetle beet."
"That's all I ask," said Rattray.
"You won't ask it twice," rejoined Santos, shrugging. "I know this Senhor Cole. There is only one way of dilling with a man like that. Besides, he 'as 'alf-keeled my good Jose; it is necessary for 'im to die."
"I agree with the senhor," said Harris, whose forehead was starred with sticking-plaster. "It's him or us, an' we're all agen you, squire. You'll have to give in, first or last."
And the pair were gone; their steps grew faint in the corridor; when we could no longer hear them, Rattray closed the door and quietly locked it. Then he turned to me, stern enough, and pointed to the door with a hand that shook.
"You see how it is?"
"They want to kill you!"
"Of course they do."
"It's your own fault; you've run yourself into this. I did my best to keep you out of it. But in you come, and spill first blood."
"I don't regret it," said I.
"Oh, you're damned mule enough not to regret anything!" cried Rattray. "I see the sort you are; yet but for me, I tell you plainly, you'd be a dead man now."
"I can't think why you interfered."
"You've heard the reason. I won't have murder done here if I can prevent it; so far I have; it rests with you whether I can go on preventing it or not."
"With me, does it?"
He sat down on the side of the bed. He threw an arm to the far side of my body, and he leaned over me with savage eyes now staring into mine, now resting with a momentary gleam of pride upon my battered head. I put up my hand; it lit upon a very turban of bandages, and at that I tried to take his hand in mine. He shook it off, and his eyes met mine more fiercely than before.
"See here, Cole," said he; "I don t know how the devil you got wind of anything to start with, and I don't care. What I do know is that you've made bad enough a long chalk worse for all concerned, and you'll have to get yourself out of the mess you've got yourself into, and there's only one way. I suppose Miss Denison has really told you everything this time? What's that? Oh, yes, she's all right again; no thanks to you. Now let's hear what she did tell you. It'll save time.
I repeated the hurried disclosures made by Eva in the rhododendrons. He nodded grimly in confirmation of their truth.
"Yes, those are the rough facts. The game was started in Melbourne. My part was to wait at Ascension till the Lady Jermyn signalled herself, follow her in a schooner we had bought and pick up the gig with the gold aboard. Well, I did so; never mind the details now, and never mind the bloody massacre the others had made of it before I came up. God knows I was never a consenting party to that, though I know I'm responsible. I'm in this thing as deep as any of them. I've shared the risks and I'm going to share the plunder, and I'll swing with the others if it ever comes to that. I deserve it hard enough. And so here we are, we three and the nigger, all four fit to swing in a row, as you were fool enough to tell us; and you step in and find out everything. What's to be done? You know what the others want to do. I say it rests with you whether they do it or not. There's only one other way of meeting the case."
"Be in it yourself, man! Come in with me and split my share!"
I could have burst out laughing in his handsome, eager face; the good faith of this absurd proposal was so incongruously apparent; and so obviously genuine was the young villain's anxiety for my consent. Become accessory after the fact in such a crime! Sell my silence for a price! I concealed my feelings with equal difficulty and resolution. I had plans of my own already, but I must gain time to think them over. Nor could I afford to quarrel with Rattray meanwhile.
"What was the haul?" I asked him, with the air of one not unprepared to consider the matter.
"Twelve thousand ounces!"
"Forty-eight thousand pounds, about?"
"And your share?"
"Fourteen thousand pounds. Santos takes twenty, and Harris and I fourteen thousand each."
"And you offer me seven?"
"I do! I do!"
He was becoming more and more eager and excited. His eyes were brighter than I had ever seen them, but slightly bloodshot, and a coppery flush tinged his clear, sunburnt skin. I fancied he had been making somewhat free with the brandy. But loss of blood had cooled my brain; and, perhaps, natural perversity had also a share in the composure which grew upon me as it deserted my companion.
"Why make such a sacrifice?" said I, smiling. "Why not let them do as they like?"
"I've told you why! I'm not so bad as all that. I draw the line at bloody murder! Not a life should have been lost if I'd had my way. Besides, I've done all the dirty work by you, Cole; there's been no help for it. We didn't know whether you knew or not; it made all the difference to us; and somebody had to dog you and find out how much you did know. I was the only one who could possibly do it. God knows how I detested the job! I'm more ashamed of it than of worse things. I had to worm myself into your friendship; and, by Jove, you made me think you did know, but hadn't let it out, and might any day. So then I got you up here, where you would be in our power if it was so; surely you can see every move? But this much I'll swear - I had nothing to do with Jose breaking into your room at the hotel; they went behind me there, curse them! And when at last I found out for certain, down here, that you knew nothing after all, I was never more sincerely thankful in my life. I give you my word it took a load off my heart."
"I know that," I said. "I also know who broke into my room, and I'm glad I'm even with one of you."
"It's done you no good," said Rattray. "Their first thought was to put you out of the way, and it's more than ever their last. You see the sort of men you've got to deal with; and they're three to one, counting the nigger; but if you go in with me they'll only be three to two."
He was manifestly anxious to save me in this fashion. And I suppose that most sensible men, in my dilemma, would at least have nursed or played upon good-will so lucky and so enduring. But there was always a twist in me that made me love (in my youth) to take the unexpected course; and it amused me the more to lead my young friend on.
"And where have you got this gold?" I asked him, in a low voice so promising that he instantly lowered his, and his eyes twinkled naughtily into mine.
"In the old tunnel that runs from this place nearly to the sea," said he. "We Rattrays have always been a pretty warm lot, Cole, and in the old days we were the most festive smugglers on the coast; this tunnel's a relic of 'em, although it was only a tradition till I came into the property. I swore I'd find it, and when I'd done so I made the new connection which you shall see. I'm rather proud of it. And I won't say I haven't used the old drain once or twice after the fashion of my rude forefathers; but never was it such a godsend as it's been this time. By Jove, it would be a sin if you didn't come in with us, Cole; but for the lives these blackguards lost the thing's gone splendidly; it would be a sin if you went and lost yours, whereas, if you come in, the two of us would be able to shake off those devils: we should be too strong for 'em."
"Seven thousand pounds!" I murmured. "Forty-eight thousand between us!"
"Yes, and nearly all of it down below, at this end of the tunnel, and the rest where we dropped it when we heard you were trying to bolt. We'd got it all at the other end, ready to pop aboard the schooner that's lying there still, if you turned out to know anything and to have told what you knew to the police. There was always the possibility of that, you see; we simply daren't show our noses at the bank until we knew how much you knew, and what you'd done or were thinking of doing. As it is, we can take 'em the whole twelve thousand ounces, or rather I can, as soon as I like, in broad daylight. I'm a lucky digger. It's all right. Everybody knows I've been out there. They'll have to pay me over the counter; and if you wait in the cab, by the Lord Harry, I'll pay you your seven thousand first! You don't deserve it, Cole, but you shall have it, and between us we'll see the others to blazes!"
He jumped up all excitement, and was at the door next instant.
"Stop!" I cried. "Where are you going?"
"Downstairs to tell them."
"Tell them what?"
"That you're going in with me, and it's all right."
"And do you really think I am?"
He had unlocked the door; after a pause I heard him lock it again. But I did not see his face until he returned to the bedside. And then it frightened me. It was distorted and discolored with rage and chagrin.
"You've been making a fool of me!" he cried fiercely.
"No, I have been considering the matter, Rattray."
"And you won't accept my offer?"
"Of course I won't. I didn't say I'd been considering that."
He stood over me with clenched fists and starting eyes.
"Don't you see that I want to save your life?" he cried. "Don't you see that this is the only way? Do you suppose a murder more or less makes any difference to that lot downstairs? Are you really such a fool as to die rather than hold your tongue?"
"I won't hold it for money, at all events," said I. "But that's what I was coming to."
"Very well!" he interrupted. "You shall only pretend to touch it. All I want is to convince the others that it's against your interest to split. Self-interest is the one motive they understand. Your bare word would be good enough for me."
"Suppose I won't give my bare word?" said I, in a gentle manner which I did not mean to be as irritating as it doubtless was. Yet his proposals and his assumptions were between them making me irritable in my turn.
"For Heaven's sake don't be such an idiot, Cole!" he burst out in a passion. "You know I'm against the others, and you know what they want, yet you do your best to put me on their side! You know what they are, and yet you hesitate! For the love of God be sensible; at least give me your word that you'll hold your tongue for ever about all you know."
"All right," I said. "I'll give you my word - my sacred promise, Rattray - on one condition."
"That you let me take Miss Denison away from you, for good and all!"
His face was transformed with fury: honest passion faded from it and left it bloodless, deadly, sinister.
"Away from me?" said Rattray, through his teeth.
"From the lot of you."
"I remember! You told me that night. Ha, ha, ha! You were in love with her - you - you!"
"That has nothing to do with it," said I, shaking the bed with my anger and my agitation.
"I should hope not! You, indeed, to look at her!"
"Well," I cried, "she may never love me; but at least she doesn't loathe me as she loathes you - yes, and the sight of you, and your very name!"
So I drew blood for blood; and for an instant I thought he was going to make an end of it by incontinently killing me himself. His fists flew out. Had I been a whole man on my legs, he took care to tell me what he would have done, and to drive it home with a mouthful of the oaths which were conspicuously absent from his ordinary talk.
"You take advantage of your weakness, like any cur," he wound up.
"And you of your strength - like the young bully you are!" I retorted.
"You do your best to make me one," he answered bitterly. "I try to stand by you at all costs. I want to make amends to you, I want to prevent a crime. Yet there you lie and set your face against a compromise; and there you lie and taunt me with the thing that's gall and wormwood to me already. I know I gave you provocation. And I know I'm rightly served. Why do you suppose I went into this accursed thing at all? Not for the gold, my boy, but for the girl! So she won't look at me. And it serves me right. But - I say - do you really think she loathes me, Cole?"
"I don't see how she can think much better of you than of the crime in which you've had a hand," was my reply, made, however, with as much kindness as I could summon. "The word I used was spoken in anger," said I; for his had disappeared; and he looked such a miserable, handsome dog as he stood there hanging his guilty head - in the room, I fancied, where he once had lain as a pretty, innocent child.
"Cole," said he, "I'd give twice my share of the damned stuff never to have put my hand to the plough; but go back I can't; so there's an end of it."
"I don't see it," said I. "You say you didn't go in for the gold? Then give up your share; the others'll jump at it; and Eva won't think the worse of you, at any rate."
"But what's to become of her if I drop out?
"You and I will take her to her friends, or wherever she wants to go."
"No, no!" he cried. "I never yet deserted my pals, and I'm not going to begin."
"I don't believe you ever before had such pals to desert," was my reply to that. "Quite apart from my own share in the matter, it makes me positively sick to see a fellow like you mixed up with such a crew in such a game. Get out of it, man, get out of it while you can! Now's your time. Get out of it, for God's sake!"
I sat up in my eagerness. I saw him waver. And for one instant a great hope fluttered in my heart. But his teeth met. His face darkened. He shook his head.
"That's the kind of rot that isn't worth talking, and you ought to know it," said he. "When I begin a thing I go through with it, though it lands me in hell, as this one will. I can't help that. It's too late to go back. I'm going on and you're going with me, Cole, like a sensible chap!"
I shook my head.
"Only on the one condition."
"You - stick - to - that?" he said, so rapidly that the words ran into one, so fiercely that his decision was as plain to me as my own.
"I do," said I, and could only sigh when he made yet one more effort to persuade me, in a distress not less apparent than his resolution, and not less becoming in him.
"Consider, Cole, consider!"
"I have already done so, Rattray."
"Murder is simply nothing to them!"
"It is nothing to me either."
"Human life is nothing!"
"No; it must end one day."
"You won't give your word unconditionally?"
"No; you know my condition."
He ignored it with a blazing eye,his hand upon the door.
"You prefer to die, then?" "Infinitely."
"Then die you may, and be damned to you!"Next