The Watchers

Chapter XIII

In the Abbey Grounds

A.E.W. Mason

WE KEPT along the ridge of hill towards the east of the island, and met no one, nor, indeed, were we likely to do. I could look down on either side to the sea. I saw the cottages on the shore of New Grimsby harbour on the one side, and on the other the house at Merchant’s Point, and the half-dozen houses scattered on the grass at Old Grimsby, that went by the name of Dolphin Town, and nowhere was there a twinkle of light.

Tresco was in bed.

We descended a little to our left, and rounded the shoulder of the hill at the eastern end of the island, through a desolate moorland of gorse; but once we had rounded the shoulder, we were in an instant amongst trees of luxuriant foliage, and in a hollow sheltered from the winds. The Abbey ruins stood up from a small plateau in the bosom of the trees, its broken arches and columns showing very dismal against the sky, and everywhere fragments of crumbling wall cropped up unexpected through the grass.

The burial ground was close to an eel pond, which glimmered below, nearer to the sea, and a path overgrown with weeds wound downwards to the graves.

I could not tell in which corner Adam Mayle was buried, so Roper was sent forward with the lantern to look amongst the headstones. For half an hour he searched; the flame of the candle danced from grave to grave as though it were the restless soul of some sinner buried there. The men who remained with me grew impatient, for opposite to us, across the road, lay St. Mary’s and the harbour of Hugh Town; and on this clear night the speck of light in the Abbey grounds would be visible at a great distance. I was beginning to wonder whether Adam had a headstone at all to mark his resting-place, when a cry came upwards to our ears and the lantern was swung aloft in the air.

One loud, unanimous shout answered that cry.

“Come,” shouted Glen, and seizing hold of the end of the rope where it went round my chest, he began to run down the path. The others jostled and tumbled after him in an extreme excitement. All discretion was tossed to the winds. They laughed, shouted, and leaped while they ran as though they already had the cross in their keeping. What with Glen tugging at the end in front and the others pushing and thrusting at me from behind, it was more than I could do to keep my feet. Twice I fell forward on my knees and brought them to a stop. Glen turned upon me in a fury.

“Loose his hands then, George,” said Tortue.

“No,” returned George, with an oath, and he plucked on the rope until somehow I stumbled on to my feet, and we all set to running again.

Things were taking on an ugly look for me. Those men were growing ten times more savage since the grave had been discovered; they were in a heat of excitement. In their movements, in their faces, in their words, a violent ferocity was evident. They had made their bargain with me, but would they keep it once they had the plan in their hands? I had no doubt their arrangements were made for an instant departure from the islands. One could not be a day upon Tresco without hearing some hint of the luggers which did a great smuggling trade between Scilly and the port of Roscoff in Brittany. No doubt Glen and Tortue had made their account with one of these to carry them into France. I was the more sure of this when Blads returned. I could not but think he had been sent so that a boat might be ready, and it seemed unlikely they would leave me alive behind them when the mere scruple of a bargain only held their hands.

We were now come to the grave. It had a headstone but no slab to cover it; only a boulder from the seashore by which Adam had lived was with a pretty fancy imposed upon the mound.

Roper hung the lantern on to a knob of the headstone; and already Glen had snatched the pick and thrust it under the boulder. It needed but one heave upon the pick, and the boulder tottered and rolled from the grave with a crash. It stopped quite close to my feet. I looked at it, then I looked at the grave, and from the grave to the sailors. But they had noticed nothing; they were already digging furiously at the grave. In their excitement they had noticed nothing; even Tortue was kneeling in the lantern-light watching the gleam of the spades, sensible of nothing but that each shovelful cast up on the side brought them by a shovelful nearer to their prize. And they dug with such furious speed, taking each his turn, each anticipating his turn! For before one man had stepped, dripping with sweat from the trench, another had leaped in, and the spade fell from one man’s grasp into the palm of another. Once a spade jarred upon a piece of rock, and the man who drove it into the earth cursed. I had a sudden flutter of hope that the spade was broken, and that by so much the issue would be delayed, but the digger resumed his work. I looked over to St. Mary’s, but the town was quiet; one light gleamed, it was only the light at the head of the jetty. And even in Tresco such infinitesimal chance of interruption as there had ever been had disappeared. For the men had ceased even from their oaths. There was not even a whisper to be shared amongst them; there was no sound but the laboured sound of their breathing. They worked in silence.

I had no longer any hope. I saw now and again Roper, as he slapped down a spadeful of earth beside me, look with a grim significant smile at me, and perhaps his fellow would catch the look and imitate it. I noticed that George Glen, as he took down the lantern from time to time and held it over the trench, would flash it towards me; and he, too, would smile and perhaps wink at Roper in the trench. The winks and smiles were easy as print to read. They were agreeing between themselves: the unspoken word was going round; they did not mean to keep their part of the bargain, and when they left the Abbey grounds the mound upon Adam’s grave would be a foot higher than when they entered them.

But this unspoken understanding had no longer any power to frighten me. I tried to catch Peter Tortue’s attention; I shuffled a foot upon the ground; but he paid no heed. He was on all fours by the grave-side peering into the trench, and I dared not call to him. I wanted to contradict what I had said outside the shed upon the hillside. I wanted to whisper to him:

“The plan you search for is not there.”

If they were meaning to break their part of the bargain it mattered very little, for I was unable to keep mine.

I had suspected that from the moment the boulder was uprooted; I knew it a moment after the lantern was hung upon the headstone. The stone had rested on that grave for two years, yet at the fresh pressure of the pick it had given and swayed and rolled from its green pedestal. It had tumbled at my feet, and there was not even a clot of earth or a pebble clinging to it. Moreover, on the grave itself there was grass where it had rested. For all its weight, it had not settled into the ground or so much as worn the herbage. Yet it had rested there two years!

The lantern was hung upon the headstone, and its light showed to me that close to the ground the headstone had been chipped. It was as though some one had swung a pick and by mistake had struck the edge of the headstone. Moreover, whoever had swung the pick had swung it recently. For whereas the face of the granite was dull and weatherbeaten, this chipped edge sparkled like quartz.

The aspect of the grave itself confirmed me. Some pains had been taken to replace the sods of grass upon the top, but all about the mound, wherever the lantern-light fell, I could see lumps of fresh clay.

The grave had been opened, and recently—I did not stop then to consider by whom—and secretly. It could have been opened but for the one reason. There would be no plan there for Glen to find.

Roper uttered an exclamation and stopped digging. His spade had struck something hard. Glen lowered the lantern into the trench, and the light struck up on to his face and the face of the diggers.

I hazarded a whisper to Tortue, and certainly no one else heard it, but neither did Tortue. Roper struck his spade in with renewed vigour, and a stifled cry which burst at the same moment from the five mouths told me the coffin-lid was disclosed. I whispered again the louder:

“Tortue! Tortue!” and with no better result.

The pick was handed down at Roper’s call. I spoke now, and at last he heard. He turned his head across his shoulder towards me, but he only motioned me to silence. The pick rang upon wood, and now I called:

“Tortue! Tortue!”

Still no one but Tortue heard. This time, however, he rose from his knees and came to me. Glen looked up for an instant.

“See that he is fast!” he said, and so looked back into the grave.

“What is it?” asked Tortue.

“The plan has gone. Loose my hands!”

I could no longer see Roper; he had stooped down below the lip of the trench.

“Gone!” said Tortue. “How?”

“Some one has been here before you, but within this last week, I’ll swear. Loose my hands.”

“Some one!” he exclaimed savagely. “Who? who?” and he shook me by the arms.

“I do not know.”

“Swear it.”

“I do. Loose my hands.”

“Remember it is I who save you.”

His knife was already out of his pocket; he had already muffled it in his coat and opened it; he was making a pretence to see whether the end was still fast. I could feel the cold blade between the rope and my wrist, when, with a shout. Roper stood erect, the stick in one hand, a sheet of paper flourishing in the other.

He drew himself out of the trench and spread the paper out on a pile of clay at the graveside. Glen held his lantern close to it. There were four streaming faces bent over that paper. I felt a tug at my wrists and the cord slacken as the knife cut through it.

“Take the rope with you,” whispered Tortue.

The next moment there were five faces bent over that paper.

“On St. Helen’s Island,” cried Glen.

“Let me see!” exclaimed Tortue, leaning over his shoulder. “Three—what’s that?—chains. Three chains east by the compass of the east window in the south aisle of the church.”

And that was the last I heard. I stepped softly back into the darkness for a few paces, and then I ran at the top of my speed westwards towards New Grimsby, freeing my arms from the rope as I ran. Once I turned to look back. They were still gathered about that plan; their faces, now grown small, were clustered under the light of the lantern, and Tortue, with his flashing knifeblade, was pointing out upon the paper the position of the treasure. Ten minutes later I was well up the top of the hill. I saw a lugger steal round the point from New Grimsby and creep up in the shadow towards the Abbey grounds.

I spent that night in the gorse high up on the Castle Down. I had no mind to be caught in a trap at the Palace Inn.

From the top of the down, about an hour later, I saw the lugger come round the Lizard Point of Tresco and beat across to St. Helen’s. As the day broke she pushed out from St. Helen’s, and reaching past the Golden Ball into the open sea, put her tiller up and ran by the islands to the south.

There was no longer any need for me to hide among the gorse. I went down to the Palace Inn. No one was as yet astir, and the door, of course, was unlocked. I crept quietly up to my room and went to bed.

The Watchers - Contents    |     Chapter XIV - In Which Peter Tortue Explains his Intervention on My Behalf

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