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Chapter XIII WE FIND THE WRECK
THE day was well advanced before the preparations for the finding of the wreck were completed, and the blazing sun beat down with terrific heat upon the surface of the glassy sea. Both boats were lowered, and tropical awnings rigged to protect their crews, who, clad in the lightest of white clothing and wearing straw hats, were full of enthusiasm for work in spite of the enervating heat.

In the whaler went my father, the doctor, and five seamen, while the gig contained Uncle Herbert, three seamen, and myself; the bos'n and the quartermaster, two deck hands, and Yadillah remaining on board the "Fortuna." Both boats were armed, while the Q.-F. was ready for instant action in case of a surprise.

A gentle pull for about half a mile brought the boats to the approximate position of the wreck of the Spanish treasure ship. This we found to be just inside the reef, which at this point was less than a foot above the surface, the gush of the breakers causing a heavy swell as the larger of the rollers broke over the ridge of coral.

Inside the reef at this point the lagoon was too deep to distinguish the bottom, while, judging from the colour of the water, it descended abruptly into a large hole or crater. After sounding for two hours we found that such was the case, for, although the average depth of the lagoon was but six fathoms, there was a sunken bed, roughly 400 yards in length and 120 in breadth, where bottom was found at from twelve to fifteen fathoms, the deepest part being close to the reef. By the "arming" of the lead—the tallow placed in a cavity in the bottom of the sinker—the bed was found to be composed, not of fine white sand like the greater part of the lagoon, but of mud and sand mixed into a dark, gritty substance, with plenty of vegetable growth.

It was the time of spring tides, and the rise, though but three feet, was sufficient to prevent the divers from descending on account of the constant swell over the reef; so, while waiting till the tide had subsided sufficiently to allow the coral to act as a breakwater, the grapnels were brought into play in the hope of finding some portions of the wreck.

Cast after cast resulted in nothing more than the disturbing of the bottom to such an extent that the clear water became discoloured till it resembled liquid mud, and though masses of long, tendril-like seaweed were brought up, there were no indications of any foreign substance lying on the floor of the lagoon. At length one of the irons brought up a piece of wood, water-logged and covered with weeds and barnacles.

Whipping out his knife, Uncle Herbert scraped the excrescences from the piece of timber and, to the delight of the crews of both boats—for the whaler, on hearing of the find, had come alongside the gig—he announced that it was a fragment of oak planking, with the marks of the bolts and trenails still plainly visible.

"It's part of an old ship, beyond doubt," he remarked. "See! the wood is almost as hard as iron, yet black with years of submersion in salt water. I think we are somewhere near the mark."

"So far, so good," replied my father. "But I think we'll have a spell now. Just buoy the spot before we leave, and the divers can descend later in the day."

We returned to the "Fortuna," the boats being left at the booms instead of being hoisted inboard, while the diving-suits were carefully overhauled and the valves tested.

While we were at lunch the bos'n reported: "Natives coming off, sir."

"Bother the natives!" exclaimed Dr. Conolly. "Their attentions are becoming too frequent. Let's see what they want this time."

Upon going on deck we found that a fleet of twenty small outrigger canoes was approaching, their occupants being without the war costumes which they wore on the previous occasion. As they came nearer they waved their hands in token of friendship, and displayed baskets of yams, coconuts, taro, and bananas, while one or two had live pigs trussed to bamboos.

"We shall have to watch them carefully," remarked my father, "although they are not armed. Keep your rifles handy, but on no account frighten them. The provisions will be most acceptable, for we will have to be dependent on the island for food and water for some time."

The leading canoe came dexterously alongside, and a tall, well-built man, who was apparently a chief, sprang up the side and gained the deck, accompanied by five of his companions. Others would have followed, but by a peremptory gesture the bos'n kept them off.

The chief, who was head and shoulders taller than the rest of the natives, ran towards my father and went through the nose-rubbing ceremony, doing the same honour to my Uncle Herbert, Dr. Conolly, and myself; then, rapidly speaking a few words to his companions, he made signs for us to accept the presents they brought.

In a few minutes the various eatables were flying over the bulwarks in a manner somewhat resembling, but far more pleasant than, the shower of stones with which they had greeted us on the previous day, till the skylight was heaped with enough fruit and vegetables to last us a week, and half a dozen squealing pigs lay struggling in the scuppers.

In return we presented the chief with a small looking-glass, which he hung round his neck, a hatchet, some cloth and beads, and two empty three-pounder brass cylinders. The latter he received with considerable trepidity, but finally he bound them with a strip of cocoa-fibre and dangled them from his mop of thick hair, laughing in high glee as they clanked with every movement of his head.

We then took him all over the yacht, keeping a sharp eye on the natives, who, having recovered their usual spirits, were laughing and talking and making signs in dumb show like delighted children, and showed a tendency to pilfer any small metal articles they could conveniently hide. Even when detected in the act of thieving they would roar with merriment as if proud of being found out, and on putting down the stolen articles they would rub noses with the nearest member of the crew, and immediately lay hands on the next object that took their fancy.

For the chief's edification the Q.-F. was discharged, upon which he fell on the deck and hid his head in his arms. To still further impress him, a barrel was towed to a good distance from the yacht and a few rounds from the maxim knocked it into a multitude of splinters. The bilgepump took his fancy to such an extent that he ordered two of his followers to continue working on it, till the pump sucked dry with a gurgling noise that caused the men to drop the levers as if they were red-hot.

At length, after many signs whereby he clearly expressed a wish for us to visit him ashore, the chief was induced to go over the side, and to the accompaniment of a weird song of welcome uttered by fifty lusty voices, he was paddled at a great rate to the beach.

"A spell ashore will be a change, Reggie," remarked my father. "Shall we have a look at their village?"

"Will it be safe?"

"I think so, if we take proper precautions. The natives evidently have had a good object-lesson, and I don't think they will give us any trouble."

So the gig was manned, and my father, the doctor, myself, and five men went ashore. We were all armed, and, in addition, four large breakers were taken in order to replenish the supply of fresh water.

"We will be back within two hours, I hope," said my father to Uncle Herbert on pushing off; "keep an eye on the shore, however, although I don't anticipate any trouble. In the meantime get the diving-gear into the whaler and we'll make a start directly we return."

Nearly the whole village awaited us on the sandy shore, and once again the ceremony of rubbing noses was performed with the chief and several of the head men. Leaving two of the men to guard the boat, with instructions to lie a few yards off shore and to fire their rifles should they hear the report of ours, we made our way towards the village, accompanied by the chief men and followed by the shouting throng.

There was a broad but winding path through the dense scrub, which, ascending a gentle rise, presently entered a thick belt of palm-trees. On one side of the road was a bubbling stream, but from the "Fortuna" there were no signs of its entering the sea, so we concluded it fed a lake in the depths of the brushwood.

On emerging from the palm-wood half an hour later we came upon a large clearing, in the centre of which was a stockade surrounding the village. A narrow gateway gave access to the huts, which were substantially built and roofed with palm-leaves. The chief led the way to his house, a long structure built of trimmed trunks of trees, decorated in many vivid colours.

Outside was a kind of veranda, under which rugs of coco-fibre were placed, and squatting down on his heels, the chief motioned us to do likewise, while pieces of baked meat, yams, and coco-nuts were placed before us.

"I don't think we had better touch the meat," remarked the doctor. "It might be——" and a suggestive shrug of his shoulders completed the sentence.

"Do you think it possible that these men are cannibals?" I asked.

"Possible and highly probable," replied Dr. Conolly. "But that we shall soon find out."

Presently the chief clapped his hands, and the crowd in front of us, who were regarding us with the greatest curiosity, fell back, forming a large semicircle. Into the space sprang two men, dressed in full native armour of thick fibre with fish-skin helmets, and without a moment's hesitation they attacked each other with large clubs of heavy wood.

Yelling and shouting, they jumped about with marvellous agility, their ponderous weapons clashing with a dull thud so frequently that the sound resembled the beating of a rattle.

"Don't worry, Reggie," said my father, noticing the anxious look on my face; "they are only playing to amuse us—a sort of return on the part of the chief for showing him——"

"Are they playing? Look!" exclaimed the doctor, springing to his feet, for at that moment one of the combatants, nimbly avoiding a sweeping blow, had shortened his club and struck his opponent fairly between the eyes. The fish-skin crumpled before the blow as if made of paper, and the man sank senseless to the ground, and with a whoop of triumph the victor tore off the other's head-dress, and, drawing a jagged-edged sword of shark's teeth, proceeded to make a variety of fancy cuts and passes before hewing off the head of his senseless victim.

"Stop that!" shouted the doctor, in a voice that made his meaning perfectly clear, and, seeing that the savage was still bent on carrying out his intention, Dr. Conolly sprang over the intervening ground in three bounds, and, before the man could grasp the situation, he struck him such a blow on the extremity of the jaw-bone that, in spite of the protection afforded by the stiff cocoafibre, the native was hurled backwards as if struck by a thunderbolt.

Fortunately for us, the chief took this interruption in apparent good part; the stricken victor of the fight picked himself up and disappeared amongst the crowd while the senseless man was carried to a hut in a most indifferent manner by a party of women.

Presently my father made signs to the chief that he would like to inspect the village, to which request he assented.

Facing the chief's hut was a stockade similar to, though smaller than, that which surrounded the village, and towards this he led the way. At the gateway were two men, dressed in long cloak-like dresses of white feathers, their faces painted red and yellow, and their hair stiffened out like an enormous turban. Bending thrice, the chief made obeisance to these fearsome-looking individuals, then he turned and walked slowly past the gate, without attempting to enter.

"What's inside, I wonder?" exclaimed the doctor. "Let's have a peep in." And, leaving us, he made for the entrance to the inner stockade; but, before he could carry out his intention, the crowds of natives who followed in our footsteps ran between him and the gate, uttering shrill cries of rage, while the chief, roused to sudden anger, seized him by the shoulders and dragged him away, as if incensed at the doctor's audacity.

It seemed as if a serious affray was imminent, but at length the tumult died away, and the chief resumed his tour of inspection, though, I noticed, he scowled at Dr. Conolly whenever he glanced that way.

"They cut up pretty rough over that affair, didn't they?" remarked the doctor, on returning to the shore.

"Yes; I thought we were in for trouble. You really must be careful, Conolly, not to offend them."

"But I couldn't sit there and see a fellow's head hacked off in that cold-blooded fashion."

"I do not refer to that, although the consequences might have been awkward. It's the other incident. No doubt that enclosure contains a temple, and is held in veneration by these savages."

"They are only a horde of heathen fanatics."

"Yes, but there are quite enough of them to wipe us out. Remember, we are not here to give the British Government an excuse for colonial expansion, but to try and wrest a treasure from the depths of the ocean. However, here come the men with the breakers, so we'll hurry back to the yacht."

The fresh-water barricoes were placed in the gig, and we shoved off, the boat cutting through the placid water at a great pace, for much work had to be done in the three hours that remained before sunset.

On running alongside the "Fortuna" the breakers were slung on board, and, in company with the whaler, in which were the divers and their apparatus, we made for the buoy marking the spot where the piece of timber had been brought up by the grapnel.

Here the whaler was anchored fore and aft, and the two divers, Lewis and Burbidge, who were already clad in their dresses, were taken in hand by their attendants, who proceeded to affix the lead weights to their shoes, back, and chest. Then the copper helmets were firmly secured, the life-line and air-tube connections made, and the glass front was screwed in position.

The air-pumps began to work, and, assisted by willing hands, both divers crawled over the side of the whaler, and amidst a turmoil of bubbles caused by the escaping air, they sank beneath the surface. For a considerable distance they were plainly visible, but gradually their grotesque outlines grew fainter and fainter, till a slight bubbling on the surface alone betrayed their whereabouts.

Over half an hour passed, but no signal came from either man, though we observed that the water became discoloured with dirt, and the train of bubbles, after leading some distance from the boats, finally became stationary. The divers had ceased their submarine walk, and had evidently found something worthy of their attention.

At length came a series of tugs on the life-lines, and slowly ropes and air-tubes came home over the gunwale, till both copper helmets appeared simultaneously on opposite sides of the whaler, where ready hands helped the wearers on board.

"Found anything?" asked my father, the moment the glass discs were unscrewed.

"Yes, sir," replied Lewis, who held in his hand a weed-grown object that had once been a dead-eye. "Yes, sir. She's there, right enough, but she's sunk in the mud and sand, and her decks are covered with long weeds ."

"Aye," assented Burbidge. "She's on an even keel, but nearly flush with the bottom; and, worse luck, her decks seem as sound as ever they were."

"Not worse luck," replied my father "for had the decks been rotten, the timbers would have been rotten also, and the wreck would have been strewn all over the bed of the lagoon. All we have to do, my lads, is to put a charge under her upper deck and blow it up."

"And then?" asked the doctor.

"And then," rejoined my father, with a voice that carried conviction, "we'll bring up the treasure."


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