MESMER at this date was a youth of twenty-four, but the writings of Van Helmont and Wirdigand G. Maxwell had already thrown more than a glimmering of light upon the reciprocal action of bodies upon each other, and had already demonstrated the existence of a universal magnetic force by which the human will was rendered capable of influencing the minds of others. It was not, however, till seventeen years later—in the year 1775, to be precise—that Mesmer published his famous letter to the Academies of Europe. And by a strange chance it was in the same year that I secured a further confirmation of his doctrines and at the same time an explanation of the one matter concerned with this history of which I was still in ignorance. In a word, I learned at last how young Peter Tortue came by his death.
I did not learn it from his father. That implacable man I never saw after the night when we listened to his footsteps descending the stairs in the darkness. He was gone the next morning from the islands, nor was any trace of him, for all the hue and cry, discovered for a long while—not, indeed, for ten years, when my son, who was then a lad of eight, while playing one day among the rocks of Peninnis Head on St, Mary’s, dropped clean out of my sight, or rather out of Helen’s sight, for I was deep in a book, and did not raise my head until a cry from my wife startled me.
We ran to the loose pile of boulders where the boy had vanished, and searched and called for a few minutes without any answer. But in the end a voice answered us, and from beneath our feet. It was the boy’s voice sure enough, but it sounded hollow, as though it came from the bowels of the earth. By following the sound we discovered at last between the great boulders an interstice, which would just allow a man to slip below ground. This slit went down perpendicularly for perhaps fifteen or twenty feet, but there were sure footholds and one could disappear in a second. At the bottom of this hole was a little cave, very close and dark, in which one could sit or crouch.
On the floor of this cave I picked up a knife, and, bringing it to the light, I recognised the carved blade, which I had seen Tortue once polish upon his thigh in the red light of a candle. The cave, upon inquiry, was discovered to be well known amongst the smugglers, though it was kept a secret by them, and they called it by the curious name of Issachum-Pucchar.
This discovery was made in the year of 1768, and seven years later I chanced to be standing upon the quay at Leghorn when a vessel from Oporto, laden with wine and oil, dropped anchor in the harbour, and her master came ashore. I recognised him at once, although the years had changed him. It was Nathaniel Roper. I followed him up into the town, where he did his business with the shipping agent and thence repaired to a tavern. I entered the tavern, and sitting down over against him at the same table, begged him to oblige me by drinking a glass at my expense, which he declared himself ready to do. “But I cannot tell why you should want to drink with me rather than another,” said he.
“Oh! as to that,” said I, “we are old acquaintances.”
He answered, with an oath or two, that he could not lay his tongue to the occasion of our meeting.
“You swear very fluently and well,” said I. “But you swore yet more fluently, I have no doubt, that morning you sailed away from St. Helen’s Island without the Portuguese King’s cross.”
His face turned the colour of paper, he half rose from his chair and sat down again.
“I was never on Tresco,” he stammered.
“Who spoke of Tresco, my friend?” said I, with a laugh. “I made mention of St. Helen’s. Yet you were upon Tresco. Have you forgotten? The shed on Castle Down? The Abbey burial ground?” and then he knew me, though for awhile he protested that he did not.
But I persuaded him in the end that I meant no harm to him.
“You were at Sierra Leone with Cullen, maybe,” said I. “Tell me how young Peter Tortue came by his death?” and he told me the story which he had before told to old Peter in an alehouse at Wapping.
Peter, it appeared, had not been able to hold his tongue at Sierra Leone. It became known through his chattering that Glen’s company and Cullen Mayle were going up the river in search of treasure, and it was decided for the common good to silence him lest he should grow more particular, and relate what the treasure was and how it came to be buried on the bank of that river. George Glen was for settling the matter with the stab of a knife, but Cullen Mayle would have none of such rough measures.
“I know a better and more delicate way,” said he, “a way very amusing too. You shall all laugh to-morrow;” and calling Peter Tortue to him, he betook himself with the whole party to the house of an old buccaneering fellow, John Leadstone, who kept the best house in the settlement, and lived a jovial life in safety, being on very good terms with any pirate who put in. He had, indeed, two or three brass guns before his door, which he was wont to salute the appearance of a black flag with. To his house then the whole gang repaired, and while they were making merry, Cullen Mayle addressed himself with an arduous friendliness to Peter Tortue, taking his watch from his fob and bidding the Frenchman admire it. For a quarter of an hour he busied himself in this way, and then of a sudden in a stern commanding voice he said:
“Stand up in the centre of the room,” which Peter Tortue obediently did.
“Now,” continued Cullen, with a chuckle to his companions, “I’ll show you a trick that will tickle you. Peter,” and he turned toward him. “Peter,” and he spoke in the softest, friendliest voice, “you talk too much. I’ll clap a gag on your mouth, you stinking offal! To-morrow night, my friend, at ten o’clock by my watch, when we are lying in our boat upon the river, you will fall asleep. Do you hear that?”
‘’Yes,” said Peter Tortue, gazing at Mayle. “At half-past ten, as you sleep, you will feel cramped for room, and you will dangle a leg over the side of the boat in the river. Do you hear that?”
“Very well,” said Cullen. “That will learn you to hold your tongue. Now come back to your chair.”
Peter obeyed him again.
“When you wake up,” added Cullen, “you will continue to talk of my watch which you so much admire. You will not be aware that any time has passed since you spoke of it before. You can wake up now.”
He made some sort of motion with his hands and Peter, whose eyes had all this time been open, said:
“I’ll buy a watch as like that as a pea to a pea. First thing I will, as soon as I handle my share.”
Cullen Mayle laughed, but he was the only one of that company that did. The rest rather shrank from him as from something devilish, at which, however, he only laughed the louder, being as it seemed flattered by their fear.
The next day the six men started up the river in a long-boat which they borrowed of Leadstone, and sailed all that day until evening when the tide began to fall.
Thereupon Cullen, who held the tiller, steered the boat out of the channel of the river and over the mudbanks, which at high tide were covered to the depth of some feet.
Here all was forest: the great tree-trunks, entwined with all manner of creeping plants, stood up from the smooth oily water, and the roof of branches over head made it already night.
“I have lost my way,” said Cullen. “It will not be safe to try to regain the channel until the tide rises. It falls very quickly here, Leadstone tells me, and we should get stuck upon some mudbank. Let us look for a pool where we may lie until the tide rises in the morning.”
Accordingly they took their oars and pulled in and out amongst the trees, while Cullen Mayle sounded with the boat-hook for a greater depth of water. The tide fell rapidly; bushes of undergrowth scraped the boat’s side, and then Mayle’s boathook went down and touched no bottom.
“This will do,” said he.
It was nine o’clock by his watch at this time, and the crew without any fire or light made their supper in the boat as best they could. Meanwhile the tide still sank; banks of mud rose out of the black water; the forest stirred, and was filled with a horrible rustling sound, of fish flapping and crabs crawling and scuttering in the slime; and on the pool on which the boat lay every now and then a ripple would cross the water as though a faint wind blew, and a broad black snout would show, and a queer lugubrious cough echo out amongst the tree-trunks.
“Crocodiles, Peter,” said Cullen gaily, and he clapped Tortue on the shoulder. “It would not be prudent to take a bath in the pool. Hand the lantern over, Glen!” and when he had the lantern in his hand he looked at his watch.
“Five minutes to ten,” said he. “Well, it is not so long to wait.”
“Four hours,” grumbled Tortue, who was thinking of the tide.
“No, only five minutes, my friend,” Cullen corrected him, softly; and sure enough in five minutes Peter stretched himself and complained that he was sleepy.
Cullen laughed with a gentle enjoyment and whistled a tune between his teeth. But the others waited in a sort of paralysis of horror and amazement. Even these hardened men were struck with a cold fear. The suggestions of the place, too, had their effect. Above them was a black roof of leaves, the close air was foul with the odour of things decaying and things decayed, and everywhere about them was perpetually heard the crawling and pattering of the obscene things which lived in the mud.
Peter Tortue stirred in his sleep, and Cullen held up the face of his watch in the light of the lantern so that all in the boat might see. It was half-past ten. Peter lifted his leg over the side and let it fall with a splash in the water. It dangled there for about five minutes, and then the man uttered a loud scream and clutched at the thwart, but the next instant he was dragged over the boat’s side.
Roper told me this story, and the horror of it lived again upon his face as he spoke.
‘’Well,” said I, ‘’the father took his revenge. He stabbed Cullen Mayle to the heart as he lay in bed. There is one thing more I would like to know. Can you remember the paper with the directions of the spot where the cross was buried?”
“Yes,” said he; “am I likely to forget it?”
“Could you write them out again, word for word and line for line, as they were written?”
“Yes,” said he.
I called for a sheet of paper and a pen and ink, and set them before Roper, and he wrote the directions laboriously, and handed the paper back to me. There were only two lines with which I was concerned, and they ran in this order:
“The S aisle of St. Helen’s Church. Three chains east by the compass of the east window.”
“Are you sure you have made no mistake?” I asked. “This is a facsimile of the paper which you took from the hollow of the stick. Look again!”
I gave it back to him and he scratched his head over it for a little. Then he wrote the directions again upon a second sheet of paper, and when he had written, tore off a corner of the paper.
“Ah!” said I, “that is what I thought.” He handed it to me again, and it ran now:—
“The S aisle of S. Helen’s Church. Three chains east by the compass of the east window.”
On that corner which had been torn a word had been written. I knew the word. It would be “Cornish.” I knew, too, who had torn off the corner.
The cross still lies then three Cornish chains east of that window, or should do so. We at all events have not disturbed it, for we do not wish to have continually before our eyes a reminder of those days when the sailors watched the house at Merchant’s Point. Even as it is, I start up too often from my sleep in the dark night and peer forward almost dreading again to see the flutter of white at the foot of the bed, and to hear again the sound of some one choking.