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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Treasure of the 'San Philipo' » Chapter III UNCLE HERBERT'S NARRATIVE
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Chapter III UNCLE HERBERT'S NARRATIVE
"NO doubt you wondered why I returned home by the vessel which came to a bad ending on the Cannis, instead of by the regular mail service. However, before explaining why I took this apparently erratic step, I'll tell you about the documents I obtained from Sarmientos. First and foremost there was the cipher, still preserved in the little metal box. I have not got it here; but, thank goodness, it's safe enough in the keeping of the cottagers at Pridmouth, the same people who kindly lent me the garb in which I made my appearance to you. There's not much in it to look at, but in all probability we shall find it a tough nut to crack. It is a piece of parchment, on which is drawn a square, subdivided into over two hundred smaller squares, most of which are blank, but a few contain various hieroglyphics, and the vague directions, 'steer nor'-east.' However, we will go into that when we get it. The other papers, which, unfortunately, were stolen——"

"Stolen?" exclaimed my father anxiously.

"Yes, stolen; but I was going to say that they were of no apparent value—merely a sort of diary kept by Ross Trevena during his residence in Brazil, the title-deeds of his plantation at San Antonio de Riachaya, a few indentures, and an old piece of parchment, covered with figures—apparently a sort of ready-reckoner.

"As I told you in my last letter, the natives did not appear to appreciate my presence in Pernambuco, or, rather, in the outskirts, for San Antonio is about four miles from the city. Once the hacienda where I was staying was broken into, but the intruders were foiled by Chappell's bulldog, Chappell being, by the way, an English engineer with whom I became friendly, and he happened to be staying with me at the time of the attempted burglary. Twice I was set upon by a party of Brazilians, but the sight of the muzzle of a revolver cooled their ardour, and one night as I was sitting in the patio a pistol bullet whizzed unpleasantly close to my head. Why they bestowed these attentions on me I cannot imagine, unless they had a mistaken idea that I had a secret hoard or a clue to a treasure somewhere in the district. Possibly they do not realize that it is a far cry from Brazil to the Islands of the Pacific.

"However, under the circumstances, I thought that the best thing I could do was to clear out as quickly as possible, and, as it happened, an Italian tramp, the 'Andrea Doria,' was about to sail direct to Fowey to load up with china clay. She wasn't a bad sort of vessel, as foreigners go, being built so lately as 1893, and her captain and officers were quite decent fellows, especially from a social point of view. Probably you remember the 'old man,' Luigi Righi; he's been in this harbour several times, but, poor chap, I'm afraid he won't enter again, unless his corpse is carried in by the tide. The crew were all Italian, excepting a couple of Brazilians shipped to replace some of the men who had deserted at Bahia. Well, we cleared out of the harbour, high in ballast, and had an uneventful run until we sighted the Longships, and here we fell in with thick weather, which ended up with a regular southerly gale.

"We were able to catch only a glimpse of the Lizard lights, then everything was blotted out in the mirk. I stayed up all night, keeping on the bridge with the skipper and the second mate. About 11 p.m. the captain decided we were too close in shore, and telegraphed to the engine-room to slow down to half-speed, intending to keep well out until he could pick up the Eddystone lights, so I came to the conclusion that he thought it safer to make for Plymouth rather than enter Fowey Harbour in such a gale.

"Just as our helm was put hard-a-port, I saw a huge wave bearing down on our starboard bow. It burst over our fo'c'sle in a solid mass, carrying away everything movable, and, hearing a warning shout from the captain, I cowered behind the canvas storm-dodgers, and held on like grim death. The crest of the wave swept the bridge, tearing away the greater part of the rail and the ladder, and with the former went the mate. I could just distinguish his cry of terror above the howling of the gale. The captain slid down one of the bridge stanchions, and, needless to say, I followed suit, and on gaining the shelter of the wheel-house we found that the steam steering-gear had broken down. Almost at the same moment the chief engineer rushed on deck reporting four feet of water in the engine-room, and the quartermaster, staggering along from aft, announced that the loss of the rudder had caused an alarming leak in the after-hold.

"The skipper seemed calm enough, for he translated his subordinate's reports to me; but a few minutes afterwards up came the panic-stricken engine-room staff, gesticulating, and calling on all the saints in the calendar, while from the engine-room-hatch poured a thick cloud of steam, and immediately afterwards the dull throb of the propeller ceased, and we were helpless in the trough of the sea.

"It seemed hours that we drifted in utter helplessness, sea after sea breaking in, carrying away all the boats on the starboard side, while, by the vessel's sluggishness in shaking herself free, I knew she was sinking fast.

"Something prompted me to go below and secure the precious papers, but on gaining my berth I found the cabin door had been forced open and the place hurriedly ransacked, all my personal belongings being scattered on the floor. There were no signs of the documents, though luckily I had the box containing the cipher sewn in my waistbelt. At first thoughts I came to the conclusion that the motion of the vessel had caused the disorder in the cabin, but the sight of the two locked portmanteaux cut open, apparently with a sharp knife, destroyed this theory. In spite of the peril of the situation, I argued that, if robbery had been the motive, the papers, being of no apparent value, would have been overlooked; but further search showed that there was some deliberate reason that had induced the thief to take them.

"In the midst of my hurried search came a shock that made the vessel shudder so violently that I was thrown against the for'ard bulkhead of the cabin. The ship was aground.

"I sprang forward to rush on deck, but, to my horror, I found that the cabin-door had jammed in its frame and I was a prisoner.

"I remember once, when I was a small boy (you were not there at the time), our pet cat was caught by its head in a jug while trying to steal some milk. How I laughed at the wretched creature's antics, as in an agony of fright it tore round the room with the jug adhering firmly to its head. Poor brute! It has my sympathy now, for its state of mind must have been very much like mine when I found myself trapped in the cabin of the sinking ship.

"I was mad with terror. Shouting, I flung myself again and again at the unyielding door, pounding at it with my fists, till, with my knuckles streaming with blood, I was obliged to desist through sheer exhaustion.

Suddenly the doomed vessel listed heavily to port, and I threw myself bodily against the door in a forlorn effort. The framework crashed outwards, and I fell ponderously into the alleyway, where I lay in a half-conscious condition till a rush of water flooding the narrow passage brought back my scattered senses.

"I managed to squeeze through the partially closed companion and gain the deck. The scene of confusion had increased with all the horrors of shipwreck. A few of the less-frenzied members of the crew had lit a tar-barrel, and by the vivid glare of the flames I saw a crowd of half-maddened seamen making a rush for the sole remaining lifeboat.

"In the desperate struggle knives flashed, but whether it was by steel or by water that the wretched, demented creatures met their fate matters little, for directly the boat was lowered it was crushed like an eggshell against the ship's side. There was a short yet terrible shriek of terror, and then the noise of Nature's weapons alone was heard.

"The surviving members of the crew sent up a few rockets, and, in spite of the peril of our situation, we felt cheered by the answering flash from a rocket ashore, and at about the same time the atmosphere cleared somewhat, and I saws a red light giving a double flash at quick intervals.

"Then I knew by the irony of fate that this was St. Catherine's light, and that we were cast on the rocks within sight of home.

"All this time the ship was breaking up fast, and, as wave after wave swept over the doomed vessel, the little knot of survivors grew steadily less, the men being so numbed with continued exposure that they retained no strength to resist their relentless fate.

"I could see that the longer I held on, the more chance there would be of the breaking dawn helping, so that the possibilities of reaching shore in safety would be correspondingly greater, though I had sad misgivings of ever gaining dry land, alive.

"However, I lashed myself securely to a fife-rail, which seemed the least likely to carry away, making a simple hitch, so as to cast myself adrift at the critical moment. The vessel had now listed to such an extent that walking would have been an impossibility, while the remaining portion of the ship trembled under the violent shocks as waves struck the gaping sides and fell in a green cascade over the miserable wretches who cowered to lee'ard.

"At length, after hours of interminable waiting, as it seemed, a grey light began to break over the awful scene, and, looking landwards, I saw the misty outline of the Gribben, though, of course, there were no people visible, neither could they have seen us in that dim light.

"The ship had struck within a hundred yards of the Cannis rock, and in the trough of the breaking seas I could make out the iron standard of the danger beacon, a mockery in our present state.

"At that moment something prompted me to look sideways to see how my fellow-sufferers fared, and to my surprise I made out the figure of one of the Brazilian seamen crawling cautiously towards me. In the semi-darkness I saw that in his right hand he grasped a knife; then, before I could realise the situation, he made a vicious thrust at me with the glittering steel. Even as he did so, the deck seemed to burst upwards, and the miscreant stumbled. The knife fell, but not where it was intended, and, descending on the rope that held me to the rail, it severed it like pack-thread, and the next moment I found myself struggling in the waves.

"I must have been swept across the deck with considerable force, for some time elapsed before I reached the surface, and it was with mingled feelings of despair and exultation that I began to strike out for the shore.

"'Cheer up, Herbert, old man!' I continually exclaimed to myself. 'Everything helps to set you shorewards—wind, waves, and your own efforts. Better be drowned than perish by a knife-thrust, anyway.' And then, in the midst of these encouragements, I thought of the pitiless rocks, and, knowing them as I did, I could form a pretty sure idea of my fate. Just then I noticed something that filled me with renewed hope. The ship was aground, as I have related, within a hundred yards of the Cannis, and now I saw that I was not cast over that jagged rock, but had been borne well to the eastward of it, so that there was a hope—a mere fighting chance—of being swept into the comparatively sheltered waters of Pridmouth Bay.

"I continued to strike out with swift strokes, relying on my strength to last till I reached shore, and my ability to withstand the cold.

"Slowly I neared the shore till the bold headland of the Gribben was abreast, and I had all my work cut out to keep parallel to the ledge of rocks on its eastern side and to prevent myself being swept away from the mouth of the little bay; and, in spite of my efforts, I felt the numbing effects of the icy water gradually telling on my exhausted limbs. How long I kept on swimming I cannot tell, for my actions had become more or less mechanical, till in the trough of an enormous roller I felt my feet touch bottom.

"In another moment I was in the midst of the broken seas, and alternately thrown violently shorewards by one wave and washed back by the undertow, without possessing the strength to save myself, I realized dimly that the little remaining breath I had was being dashed out of my body. Yet in the midst of it all I felt no actual pain, neither did I seem to mind the danger. A vague, unaccountable sensation of indifference gave place to a rapid succession of mental pictures. In a few seconds I had lived my life once again. In times past I have scoffed at similar statements, but now I know it for a fact.

"My last impression of that awful struggle was that I was lying in the soft, yielding sand, with the backwash pouring over me, and the dull roar of an approaching breaker. Then came the crash of the falling cataract, the flash of thousands of brilliant lights, and complete oblivion.

"When I opened my eyes I found myself lying on a rough wooden stool in the garden of a cottage, and a couple of men were chafing my limbs with rough towels. My head throbbed horribly, and I was aware that there was a bandage tied tightly over my temples, from which the blood trickled in a little stream down my face.

"Directly they saw I had come to my senses they carried me over to the cottage, stripping off my wet clothes, and put me into a bed; but, in spite of a dizzy sensation, I soon insisted on getting up, my one desire being to make for home as fast as I could.

"Seeing that I was terribly in earnest, the men rigged me out in some dry clothes, and left me with the intention of borrowing a pony and cart from a neighbouring house; but directly they had gone, a sudden impulse seized me—possibly I was temporarily out of my mind—and I staggered out of the cottage, without reckoning on the long walk home in my tottering condition; but fortunately for me, I had not gone many yards before I saw you and Reggie on ahead, and the rest you know."

"You always were a hare-brained rascal in some respects," remarked my father; "and there was a great possibility of your pegging out through sheer exhaustion, in which case there would have been no survivors from the ill-fated 'Andrea Doria.'"

"Then I suppose I am the only survivor?" asked my uncle.

"I have every reason to believe so," replied my father sadly.

"I think not—at least, I believe I'm right," I exclaimed. "But I didn't like to interrupt Uncle Herbert at the time." And thereupon I told him about my meeting with the foreign-looking sailor on the cliff.

"Yes, I remember you mentioned the circumstance to me," remarked my father. "But why do you suppose the man was a member of the crew of the 'Andrea Doria'? Foreign sailors are not unusual in Fowey."

"But foreigners in saturated clothes do not generally lie concealed in long grass early in the morning."

"What was he like?" asked Uncle Herbert anxiously.

"That's the man to a certainty," declared my uncle decisively, when I had completed the description. "Paulo, they called him. He was one of the two Brazilians we had aboard, and he it was who tried to stab me with a knife."

"Why?"

"That's where you have me. I cannot even guess—unless he was after the cipher."

"Then possibly it was he who stole the papers from your cabin?"

"More than likely. Mark my words, Howard, there is some villainy afoot. Don't you think it would be advisable to set the police on his track?"

"Pooh!" exclaimed my father contemptuously. "We'll hear or see no more of him. Even now he may be working his passage homewards. However, that reminds me: I'll go over to Pridmouth to-morrow and return those well-fitting clothes you were rigged out in, and, at the same time, I'll get hold of the cipher; for, really, I am burning with impatience to tackle the mystery."


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