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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Treasure of the 'San Philipo' » Chapter II THE WRECK
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IT was not a long letter that Uncle Herbert wrote; but, on the other hand, it was to the point—


At last I have had this affair settled, and by the time you receive this I hope to be on my way home.

Old Humphrey's cipher, together with several other interesting old documents, is now in my possession, but I am afraid that we are not out of the wood yet, as the cipher requires a lot of puzzling out.

Chappell, an English mining engineer out here, who has done me good service as an interpreter, tells me that all sorts of vague rumours are flying about regarding my presence in Pernambuco, and advises me to take great care both of myself and the papers while I am here. I wonder why?

However, there's no need to write more, as I hope to be back again in dear old Polruan ere long. I've had a draft sent on to the Devon and Cornwall Bank, representing the cash part of the business, as I think it's safer.

Love to Reggie, and remembrances to any friends you run across.

With Humphrey Trevena's cipher, as well as the long-lost log, in our possession, the outlook certainly seemed more hopeful, and both my father and I looked eagerly forward to my uncle's return. "Just like him, not to say by what boat he's coming," grumbled my father good-naturedly. "I suppose he'll turn up like the proverbial bad ha'penny."

A few days after the receipt of my uncle's letter, I went for a ramble along the cliffs towards Polperro. It was about seven in the evening when I started. All day a thick white mist had hung over the sea, but just before I set out on my walk the mist disappeared with remarkable suddenness, and a strong southerly wind began to send the heavy rollers thundering against the cliffs. As twilight deepened into night, I could see the double half-minute flash of the Eddystone, till a cloudbank obscured the friendly light.

"We're in for a dirty night," I remarked to myself in nautical parlance, and the dark-brown sails of the fishing-boats, showing dimly against the white-crested waves as they ran for shelter, supported my supposition. Before I reached home the storm was at its height, the wind howling over our chimney-pots in spite of the comparatively sheltered position of the house.

"Your Uncle Herbert will be having a lively time of it, if he is anywhere near the Channel," remarked my father, while we were at supper.

"Yes; but it doesn't matter so much on a liner," I replied. "It's the fishing-boats and small coasters that suffer as a rule in these gales."

"That's true; so long as the navigation lights are visible, steamers have little to fear. But, my word! Crosbie was bringing his ten-tonner round from Falmouth to-day. I wonder how he got on. I suppose you didn't notice her in the harbour as you came across?"

"You mean the 'Dorothy'? No, she wasn't on her moorings at five o'clock."

"It's too late to make inquiries at the club," replied my father, consulting his watch. "But I think I'll stroll up to the coastguard station and ask if she has been seen. Put on your oilskins, Reggie, and come too—that is, if you don't mind the rain."

Together we toiled up the steep path that led up to the coastguard look-out hut, and every step towards the hill brought us more exposed to the howling wind and the biting rain, till we were glad to gain the shelter of a rough cairn that served as a wind-screen.

Out of the darkness loomed an object that resolved itself into the coastguard on duty, who, clad in oileys and sou'-wester, kept faithful watch and ward on this exposed and bleak position.

"Good evening, McCallum."

"Good evening, sir; it blows a bit fresh to-night."

"Anything startling?"

"Not so far as I knows of, sir; all the boats 'ave come in."

"That's something to be thankful for," remarked my father. "But has anything been seen or heard of Mr. Crosbie's 'Dorothy'? I believe she is making a passage from Falmouth to-day."

"Mr. Crosbie ain't no mug at the game," replied the man. "Strikes me he's either put back or run into Mevagissey."

"I hope so, too," rejoined my father; and the conversation, which had been conducted by sheer strength of lungs, owing to the howling of the wind, ceased, and we relapsed into complete silence.

From our position we could see both within and without the harbour; and what a contrast! Within the harbour, though the waves caused a nasty "lop," the twinkling lights of Fowey, and the oscillating anchor-lamps of scores of weather-bound vessels in the Pool, caused quite a glare in the dark, rain-laden sky; while seaward, as far as the mirk allowed one to see, was one confused tumble of white-crested waves, which, with a noise that was heard above the singing of the wind, hurled themselves against the rockbound cliffs, sending up columns of white spray, that burst in hissing showers over our shelter, 200 feet above the sea. Not the faintest glimmer of a ship's light was visible, and only the blinking eye of St. Catherine's gave out its warning red flash to break the awful desolation of the raging waves.

"Bitterly cold for May," shouted my father into my ear. "We are doing no good by stopping here."

"Good-night, McCallum," he added, turning towards the coastguardsman; but at that moment a pale blue light flashed upwards in the darkness.

Instantly the look-out man became the personification of alertness. With his night-glass bearing in the direction of the light he waited till the signal was repeated; then, doubling across the open ground between us and the signal-hut, he proceeded to "ring up" the rest of the detachment.

"A vessel in distress!" exclaimed my father; and, following the coastguardsman, we entered the hut to gain further information.

"There's a ship ashore on the Cannis. Message just through from the Gribben. Mevagissey and Polkerris lifeboats called out, and our men to patrol the cliffs between Point Neptune and Pridmouth," reported the man with the abruptness of years of discipline. "If you wants to see anything of the business, sir, our chaps 'll put you across, for 'tain't likely there'll be any watermen about this sort of night."

"We may as well make a night of it, Reggie," remarked my father, "though I am afraid we cannot be of much practical use. Run home as hard as you can, and bring as many biscuits as you can stow in your pockets, and rejoin me at the ferry. We may be hungry before morning."

I did as I was bid, and five minutes later we were crossing the harbour in the stern-sheets of a Service gig, the boat plunging violently in the short, steep seas.

On landing at White House steps (for, owing to the flood tide, it was impossible to make Ready Money Cove), we found that the news of the catastrophe had already spread, and crowds of people were hurrying along the road leading to the Gribben. Staggering against the furious gusts, we crossed the head of the Cove, finding temporary shelter in the wooded slopes of Point Neptune; but, on gaining the high ground at the back of St. Catherine's lighthouse, we were in full view of the sea, only a low fence of wire netting separating the rough path from the edge of the cliffs, against which the waves tumbled a hundred feet below.

It must have been close on two o'clock when we reached the base of the Gribben day-mark, around which were gathered about two hundred persons—fishermen, coastguards, and civilians—all of whom were looking intently seaward towards the Cannis, a half-submerged rock lying a quarter of a mile from shore.

There was nothing to be seen, for the darkness was too intense, while the signals of distress had long since been discontinued—the absence of which gave rise to the most despondent conjectures.

"'Tain't no good waitin' 'ere," grumbled one of the onlookers, a pensioned coastguardsman. "She's broke up hours ago."

"Supposin' some of they chaps comes ashore?"

"What can us do for the likes o' they?" replied the first speaker contemptuously. "Why, with this tide a-makin' to the west'ard, they'll all be corpses long afore they reaches shore. Even if they don't, there's the rocks——" and with a shrug of the shoulders that conveyed a significant meaning, the sentence remained unfinished.

Slowly the day dawned, but the fury of the gale did not abate, although the wind shifted more to the south-west. The old coastguardsman was right: the ship had "broke up," and not a vestige remained.

"What time be 'igh water?" asked one of the men.

"A quarter to five, George," replied another. "See, the lifeboats are off 'ome."

"Do you happen to know the name of the vessel?" asked my father.

"No, sir, we don't; and what's more, we can't make out 'ow she got in there, unless it was she couldn't make out the leadin' lights."

"I think we may as well make for home, Reggie," said my father. "There's nothing to be seen, and no good to be done."

We descended the headland, and reached the sea-level at Pridmouth beach, where the waves were tumbling in heavily, though, owing to the shift of wind, with not so much violence. Under the shelter of a friendly rock, we rested for nearly half an hour, making a sorry meal from the biscuits my father had been thoughtful enough to remind me to bring.

On resuming our way we had just passed the cottages near the grotto, and were about to take the steep path leading to the top of the cliffs on the other side of the little bay, when, a well-known voice shouted—

"Wait a bit, Howard!"

We both turned round, and, to our intense astonishment, within five yards of us stood my Uncle Herbert.

Coatless, hatless, and clad only in a pair of trousers that were much too small for him, a grey shirt, and a pair of canvas shoes, he looked like a regular tramp, while a strip of linen bound round his forehead half concealed his features. Yet it was Uncle Herbert, sure enough, and we stood still in speechless surprise.

"Is that all you have to say to a fellow?" he exclaimed, wringing my father's hand.

"However, in the name of all that's wonderful, did you get here?" asked my father.

"Come ashore from the wreck, of course," he replied, speaking as if it were an everyday occurrence.

"I am afraid you are the only one who did so. Where did you get that rig-out?"

"At yonder cottage. They were awfully kind to me. But let's make for home, for I'm terribly tired, hungry, and knocked about. I'll tell you everything later on."

We began to ascend a steep, tree-fringed path that led up from Pridmouth Bay to the top of the cliffs, and I noticed that my uncle limped painfully. Without speaking a word, my father helped him over the stile, then, one on each side of him, we assisted his halting footsteps.

In this manner we slowly negotiated two fields; and at length came to a hollow, where a rifle-range is situated. Here the cliffs were not more than twenty feet in height, and the sea was sweeping over the exposed pathway. It was now broad daylight, though the sun was hidden by fleeting masses of cloud, and the wind still blew furiously, whistling through the barley and young shoots of corn.

"We shall never be able to get him up this next rise without assistance, Reggie," said my father, glancing at his wellnigh helpless brother. "Just run to the top of the cliff and see if any one is in sight."

Running, while clad in oilskins, is hot and tiring work, and I was almost breathless when I reached the highest part of the cliff path. Not a creature was in sight, so I began to return. Just at that moment, in some bushes to the side of the path, there was a movement, and I caught a momentary glimpse of a face I shall never forget.

A man was lying full length in the gorse. He had evidently been watching us as we descended the hollow. He was without doubt a foreign sailor, judging by his olive complexion, black eyes, long hair, and the large earrings he wore. He was clad in a red shirt, blue trousers, and red stocking cap, while round his waist was a soiled leather belt, from which hung a sheath-knife in a long pig-skin case, and by the saturated state of his clothes and his matted hair I knew he had been in the water. But for an instant he eyed me with a look of diabolical rage on his face, then, springing to his feet, he rushed past and sped towards the town, leaving me standing in bewilderment at the strange apparition.

However, I did not mention the matter when I returned, for it was evident that there were more important things to consider.

"There's no help for it," said my father when I told him of the uselessness of my errand. "We must manage it somehow. Come along, Herbert, old boy," he added encouragingly. "Buck up, and you'll soon be safely home."

My uncle struggled gamely to his feet, and the tedious progress was resumed, but ere we had gone a few steps he suddenly staggered and fell unconscious to the ground.

Thereupon I saw my father perform a feat of strength and endurance which, strong as he was, utterly astonished me. Throwing off his oilskins, he bent down, and, hauling his brother's inanimate form upon his broad back, raised himself and set off at a rapid pace towards Fowey, I struggling in the rear, though I carried nothing but his discarded coat.

Up the steep path he pressed, without pausing a moment; as sure-footed as a goat he trod the narrow way, made additionally dangerous by reason of the slime, and, in less than half an hour, gained the town, never resting till he placed his burden on the steps of the ferry.

Willing hands helped us lift my uncle out of the boat, and, accompanied by a doctor, and followed by a pair of reporters and a knot of curious onlookers, the little procession reached my father's house, my uncle's strange escape from the sea being a subject of much conjecture and not a little romance.

"Absolute quietness is essential," was the doctor's mandate, and in obedient silence our neighbours went away, the reporters following, on hearing that no details were forthcoming, to prepare a column of sensational copy based on the flimsiest material imaginable.

Worn out with my night's vigil, I turned in before noon and slept like a top till the following morning. My father watched by the patient's bedside till nearly midnight, when, satisfied that there was no cause for serious anxiety, and that the expected symptoms of brain fever had not shown themselves, he allowed himself to be persuaded to snatch a few hours' sleep; but before I was awake he was up and about, showing no signs of the physical and mental strain he had undergone.

Uncle Herbert, too, was awake, and beyond complaining of a slight stiffness, refused to admit that he was ill. No mention of the shipwreck had passed between the brothers, but my father, taking me aside, told me that it was surmised that the unfortunate ship was the "Andrea Doria," that being the name painted on a couple of lifebuoys and a shattered whaler that had been washed ashore at Pridmouth Bay, and that my uncle was the only survivor.

"The only survivor?" I repeated. "Then where did that foreign-looking sailor come from?"

"What foreign sailor was that?" inquired my father, and, having told him of my encounter with the mysterious stranger on the cliff, he remarked—

"I wonder what his little game is."

The doctor called again in the afternoon and pronounced his patient out of danger; and, free from the ban of silence, Uncle Herbert began his narrative.


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