Our Midnight Visitor III
In the morning it was still blowing a whole gale, though the sky was blue for the most part. Our guest was up betimes, and we walked down to the beach together. It was at sight to see the great rollers sweeping in, overtopping one another like a herd of oxen, and then bursting with a roar, sending the Carracuil pebbles flying before them like grapeshot and filling the whole air with drifting spume.
We were standing together watching the scene, when, looking round, I saw my father hurrying towards us. He had been up and out since early dawn. When he saw us looking he began waving his hands and shouting, but the wind carried his voice sway. We ran towards him, however, seeiing that he was heavy with news.
“The brig’s wrecked, and they’re all drowned!” he cried as we met him.
“What!” roared our visitor.
If ever I heard exceeding great joy compressed into a monosyllable it vibrated in that one.
“They’re a’ drowned and naething saved! repeated my father. “Come yoursel’ and see.”
We followed him across the Combera to the level sends on the other side. They were strewn with wreckage, broken pieces of bulwark and handrail, paneling of a cabin, and an occasional caks. A single large spar was tossing in the waves close to the shore, occasionally shooting up towards the sky like some giant’s javelin, then sinking and disappearing in the trough of the great scooping seas. Digby hurried up to the nearest piece of timber, and stooping over It examined it intently.
“By God!” he said at last, taking in a long breath between his teeth, “you are right. It’s the Proserpine, and all hands are-lost. What a termble thing!”
His face was very solemn as he spoke, but his eyes danced and glittered. I was beginning to conceive .a great repugnanee and distrust toward this man.
“Is there no chance of any one having got ashore?” he said.
“Na, na, nor cargo neither,” my father answered with real grief in his voice. “Ye dinna ken this coast. There’s an awful undertow outside the Winners, and it’s a’ swept round to Holy Isle. De’il take it, if there was to be a shipwreck what for should they no run their ship agroond to the east’ard o’ the point and let an honest mun have the pickings instead o’ they rascally loons in Arran? An empty barrel might float in here, but there’s no chance o’ a sea chest, let alane a body.”
“Poor fellows!” said Digby. ” But there—-we must meet it some day, and why not here and now? I’ve lost my ship, but, thank heaven, I can buy another. It is sad about them though—very sad. I warned Lamarck that he was waiting too long with a low barometer and an ugly shore under his lee. He has himself to thank. He was my first officer, a prying, covetous, meddlesome hound.”
“Don’t call him names!” I said. “He’s dead.”
“Well said, my young prig!” he answered. “Perhaps you wouldn’t be so mealy-mouthed yourself if you lost five thousand pounds before breakfast. But there—there’s no use crying over spilt rnilk. Vogue la galère! as the French say. Things are never so bad but that they might be worse.”
My father and Digby stayed at the scene of the wreck, but I walked over to Corriemains to reassure Minnie’s mind as to the apparition at the window. Her opinion, when I had told her all, coincided with mine, that perhaps the crew of the brig knew more about the stranger than he cared for. We agreed that I should keep a close eye upon him without letting him know that he was watched.
“But oh, Archie,” she said, “ye munna cross him or anger him while he carries them awfu’ weapons. Ye maun be douce and saft, and no’ gainsay him·.”
I laughed, and promised her to be very prudent, which reassured her a little. Old Fullarton walked back with me in the hope of picking up a piece of timber, and both he an my father patrolled the shore for many days, without, however, finding any prize of importance, for the undercurrent off the Wiinners was very strong, and everything had probably drifted right round to Lamlash Bay, in Arran.
It was wonderful how quickly the stranger accommodated himself to our insular ways, and how useful he made himself about the homesteading. Within a fortnight he knew the island almost as well as I did myself. Had it not been for that one unpleasant recollection of the shipwreck which rankled in my remembrance. I could have found it in my heart to become fond of him. His nature was a tropical one—fiiercely depressed at times, but sunny as a rule, bursting continually into jest and song from pure instinct, in a manner which is unknown among us Northerners. In his graver moments he was a most interesting companion, talking shrewdly and eloquently of men and manners and his own innumerable and strange adventures. I have seldom heard a more brilliant conversationalist. Of an evening he would keep my father and myself spellbound by the kitchen fire for hours and hours, while he chatted away in a desultory fashion and smoked his cigarettes. It seemed to me that the packet he had brought with him on the first night must have consisted en-tirely of tobacco. I noticed that in these conversations, which were mostly addressed to my father, he used, unconsciously perhaps, to play upon the weak side of the old man’s nature. Tales of cunning, of smartness, of various ways in which mankind had been cheated and money gained, came most readily to his lips, and were relished by an eager listener. I could not help one night remarkiug upon it, when my father had gone out of the room, laughing hoarsely, and vibrating with amusement over some story of how the Biscayan peasants will strap lanterns to a bullock’s horns and, taking the beast some distance inland on a stormy night will make it prance and rear so that the ships at sea may imagine it to be the lights of a vessel, and steer fearlessly in that direction only to find themselves on a rockbound coast.
“You shouldn’t tell such tales to an old man,” I said.
“My dear fellow,” he answered very kindly, “you have seen nothing of the world yet. You have formed fine ideas, no doubt, and notions of delicacy and such things, and you are very dogmatic about them, as clever men of your age always are. I had notions of right and wrong once, but it has been all knocked out of me. It’s just a sort of varnish which the rough friction of the world soon rubs off. I started with a whole soul, but there are more gashes and seams and scars in it now than there are in my body, and that’s pretty fair, as you’ll allow”—with which he pulled open his tunic aud showed me his chest.
“Good heavens!” I said. “How on earth did you get those?”
“This was a bullet,” he said, pointing to a deep bluish pucker underneath his collar bone. “I got it behind the barricades in Berlin in eighteen hundred and forty-eight. Langenback said it just missed the subclavian artery. And this,” he went on, indicating a pair of curious elliptical scars upon his throat, “was a bite from a Sioux chief, when I was under Custer on the plains —I’ve got an arrow wound ou my leg from the same party. This is from a mutinous Lascar aboard ship, and the others are mere scratches— Californian vaccination marks. You can excuse my being a little ready with my own irons, though, when I’ve been dropped so often.”
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to a little chamois leather bag which was hung by a strong cord around his neck. “It looks like a charm.”
He buttoned up his tunic again hastily, looking extremely disconcerted. “It is nothing,” he said brusquely. “I am a Roman Catholic, and it is what we call a scapular.”
I could hardly get another word out of him that night, and even next day he was reserved and appeared to avoid me. This little incident made me very thoughtful, the more so as I noticed shortly afterward, when standing over him, that the string was no longer around his neck. Apparently he had taken it off after my remark about it. What could there be in that leather bag which needed such secrecy and precaution! Had I but known it, I would sooner have put my left hand in the fire than have pursued that inquiry.
One of the peculiarities of our visitor was that in all his plans for the future, with which he often regaled us, he seemed entirely untrammeled by any monetary considerations. He would talk in the lightest and most offhand way of schemes which would involve the outlay of much wealth. My father’s eyes would glisten as he heard him talk carelessly of sums which in our frugal minds appeared enormous It seemed strange to both of us that a man who by his own confession had been a vagabond and adventurer all his life should he in possession of such a fortune. My father was inclined to put it down to some stroke of luck on the American gold fields. I had my own ideas even then —chaotic and half-formed as yet, but tending in the right direction. It was not long before these suspicions began to assume a more definite shape, which came about in this way. Minnie and I made the summit of the Combera cliff a favorite trystiug place, as I think I mentioned before, and it was rare for a day to pass without our spending two or three hours there. One morning, not long after my chat with our guest, we were seated together in a littlo nook there, which we had chosen as sheltering us from the wind as well as from my father’s observation, when Minnie caught sight of Digby walking along the Carracuil beach. He sauntered up to the base of the cliff, which was boulder- studded and slimy from the receding tide, but instead of turning back he kept on climbing over the great green slippery stones, and threading his way among the pools until he was standing immediately beneath us, so that we looked straight down at him. To him the spot must have seemed the very acme of seclusion, with the great sea in front, the rocks on each side and the precipice behind. Even had he looked up he could hardly have made out the two human faces which peered down at him from the distant ledge. He gave a hurried glance around, and then slipping his hand into his pocket he pulled out the leather bag which I had noticed and took out of it a small object which he held in the palm of his hand and looked at long and, as it were, lovingly. We both had an excellent view of it from where we lay. He then replaced it in the bag, and shoving it down to the very bottom of his pocket picked his way back more cheerily than he had come. Minnie and I looked at each other. She was smiling; I was serious. “Did you see it?” I asked.
“Yon? Aye, I saw it,”
“What did you think it was, then?”
“A wee bit of glass,” she answered, looking at me with wondering eyes.
“No,” I cried excitedly, “glass could never catch the sun’s rays so. It was a diamond, and, if I mistake not, one of extraordinary value. It was as large as all I have seen put together, and must be worth a fortune.”
A diamond was a mere name to poor, simple Minnie, who had never seen one before, nor had any conception of their value, and she prattled away to me about this and that, but I hardly heard her. In vain she exhausted all her little wiles in attempting to recall my attention. My mind was full of what I had seen. Look where I would, the glistening of the breakers, or the sparkling of the mica-laden rocks, recalled the brilliant facets of the gem which I had seen. I was moody and distraught, and eventually let Minnie walk back to Corriemains by herself, while I made my way to the homesteading. My father and Digby were just sitting down to the midday meal, and the latter hailed me cheerily.
“Come along mate,” he cried, pushing over a stool, “we were just wondering what had become of you. Ah! you rogue, I’ll bet my bottom dollar it was that pretty wench I saw the other day that kept you.”
“Mind your own affairs,” I answered angrily.
“Don’t be thin skinned,” he said, “young people should control their tempers, and you’ve got a mighty bad one. my lad. Have you heard that I am going to leave you?”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” I said frankly; “when do you intend to go?”
“Next week,” he answered, “but don’t be afraid; you’ll see me again. I’ve had too good a time here to forget you easily. I’m going to buy a good steam yacht—250 tons or thereabouts—and I’ll bring her round in a few months and give you a cruise.”
“What would be a fair price for a craft of that sort?” I asked.
“Forty thousand dollars,” said our visitor carelessly.
“You must very rich,” I remarked, “to throw away so much’ money on pleasure.”
“Rich!” echoed my companion, his southern blood mantling up for a moment. “Rich; why, man, there is hardly a limit—but there, I was romancing a bit. I’m fairly well off, or shall be very shortly.”
“How did you make your money?” I asked. The question came so glibly to my lips that I had no time to check it, though I felt the moment afterward that I had made a mistake. Our guest drew himself into himself at once, and took no notice of my query, whilo my father said:
“Hush, Archie laddie, ye munna speer they questions of the gentleman!” I could see, however, from the old man’s eager gray eyes, looking out from under the great thatch of his brows, that he was meditating over the same problem himself.
During the next couple of days I hesitated very often as to whether I should tell my father of what I had seen and the opinions I had formed about our visitor; but he forestalled me by making a discovery himself which supplemented mine and explained all that had been dark. It was one day when the stranger was out for a ramble that, entering the kitchen, I found my father sitting by the fire deeply engaged in perusing a newspaper, spelling out the words laboriously and following the lines with his great forefinger. As I came in he crumpled up the paper as if his instinct were to conceal it, but then, spreading it out again on his knee, he beckoned me over to him.
“Wha d’ye think this chiel Digby is?” he asked. I could see by his manner that he was much excited.
“No good,” I answered.
“Come here, laddie, come here!” he croaked. “You’re a braw scholar. Read this tae me alood—read it and tell me if you dinna think I’ve fitted the cap on the right heid. It’s a Glasgey Herald only four days auld —a Loch Ranza feeshin’ boat brought it in the morn. Begin frae here —’Oor Paris Letter.’ Here it is. ‘Fuller details;’ read it a’ to me.”
I began at the spot indicated, which waa a paragraph of the ordinary French correspondence of the Glasgow paper. It ran in this way:
“Fuller details have now come before the public of the diamond robbery by which the Duchesse de Rochevieille lost her celebrated gem. The diamond is a pure brilliant weighing eighty-three and one-half carats, and is supposed to be the third largest in France and the seventeenth in Europe. It came into the possession of the family through the great-granduncle of the duchess, who fought under Bussy in India, and brought it back to Europe with him. It represented a fortune then, but its value now is simply enormous. It was taken, as will be remembered, from the jewel case of the duchess two months ago during the night, and though the police have made every effort, no real clue has been obtained as to the thief. They are very reticent upon the subject, but it seems that they have reason to suspect one Achille Wolff, an Americanized native of Lorraine, who had called at the chateau a short time before. He is an eccentric man, of bohemian habits, and it is just possible that his sudden disappearance at the time of the robbery may have been a coincidence. In appearance he is described as romantic-looking, with an artistic face, dark eyes and hair, and a brusque manner. A large reward is offered for his capture.”
When I finished reading this my father and I sat looking at each other in silence for a minute or so. Then my father jerked his finger over his shoulder. “Yon’s him,” he said.
“Yes, it must be he,” I answered, thinking of the initials on the handkerchief.
Again we were silent for a time. My father took one of the faggots out of the grate and twisted it ahout in his hands. “It maun be a muckle stane,” he said. “He canna hae it aboot him. Likely he’s left it in France.”
“No, he has it with him,” I said, like a cursed fool as I was.
“Hoo d’ye ken that?” asked the old man, looking up quickly with eager eyes.
“Because I have seen it.”
The faggot which he held broke in two in his grip, but he said nothing more. Shortly afterward our guest came in, and we had dinner, but neither of us alluded to the arrival of the paper.