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Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: Seamew Cavern
Author: Herbert Russell
eBook No.: 1100481h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: June 2011
Most recent update: December 2023

This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy and Colin Choat

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Seamew Cavern


Herbert Russell

Author of "The Longshoreman," "True Blue," "Elmira," "The Wreck," "The Lost Land," &c.

Published in The Queenslander, Saturday 30 November, 1918.

I spun the coin in the air and let it fall upon the table. As I had anticipated, it dropped without any responsive ring.

"Bad!" I ejaculated.

A man sitting in the corner of the smoking-room looked up quickly, and exclaimed, "What's that? A bad piece of money? Where did you get it?"

"If you want to know, I picked it up on the esplanade," I answered. "Why?"

I put the bad half-crown back into my pocket, eyeing the stranger meanwhile. He was a man about forty, not ill-looking, but of a somewhat scorbutic complexion, dressed in commonplace clothes.

* * *

The following morning I was talking to one of the boatmen upon the little pier when I saw the man again. He flashed a glance at me out of the corners of his eyes as he passed, and I saw that he recognised me.

"Who is that, William?" I asked.

"Well, he's a bit of a mystery to us chaps," answered the longshoreman, drying his lips with the end of his scarf. "He's been about here for some weeks. Very fond of fishing. Goes away of nights to the whiting grounds. That's all right enough. But nobody ever seems to see him come back, or to know whether be catches anything. That's his boat lying off at moorings there, the little centre-board craft."

"What do you think he is, then? A smuggler?" I asked, laughing.

"What's he a-going to smuggle here-abouts? No, I don't reckon he does any work of that sort. He buys his bait all right, and hangs his lines out to dry."

"It seems to me that there is not one jot of reason for assuming the man to be anything else than a keen amateur fisherman," said I.

* * *

It was three or four days after this—I forget exactly—that I hired one of this same waterman's little punts to go for a row. About two miles from the eastern head of the bay within the embrace of which lies the town wherein I was staying is a small, steep islet. The tide plays around it rather strongly, and it is reputed to be both difficult and dangerous to land upon; but, anyhow, I was determined to pull out and have a closer look at Seamew Island. I noticed as I left the harbour that the centre-board craft to which I have previously referred lay at her moorings.

The islet is about five miles from the town, from which it is hidden around the high bluff of Stork Point. It was somewhere about five o'clock when I had approached Seamew Island and looked for a landing place.

This, however, I could see no indication of. Although there was not much strength in the neap tide, the light swell creamed back from the rocky shore in a moan of surf. I pulled around the islet just clear of this, and was almost giving up the idea of attempting to land when I noticed a kind of streak of smooth water in the wide lacery of froth, indicating the existence of a little channel. This I subsequently discovered to be really a miniature chine, with a few fathoms of shingle beach sloping steeply out of the water. I headed the punt for this smooth passage, looking over my shoulder at the island as I rowed. Suddenly there was a bump, a sharp rending sound, and the little craft stopped dead as she sank to the under-run of the swell, with a jagged spike of barnacled rock through her bilge.

My best chance was to try and get her clear and beach her, for the tide was falling. By dint of jumping, and pushing with the oars upon the ledge of rock, I got the punt off into deeper water, then standing up astride the main thwart I paddled her into the little cove of which I have spoken.

I floundered out, taking the end of the painter with me, which I hitched to a large boulder. My first impression was that I had come ashore in a cul-de-sac, but, gazing about me whilst I drained the water out of my boots, I detected what appeared to be a kind of trail in the dry gravel above high-water mark. When I came to follow it up, noticing that it was formed by definite human footprints, I found myself standing before a tiny grotto, not more than about three feet high, which bent off sharp at a little distance in. From the character of the place I should say it was a natural cave. Crouching down, I entered, but on turning the corner I found myself confronted by sheer darkness. It seemed to me that there was a smell as of recently burning wood in the atmosphere of the interior. My curiosity was aroused, and I determined to explore.

Suddenly my head bumped rather smartly into some obstruction. I struck a match and held it up. To my astonishment, I found that I was up against a door, fitting snugly into a regular frame built against the face of the rock, and secured with a large padlock.

This was a very singular experience to be sure, and in the wonderment and, indeed, I might almost say mild excitement caused by it, I forgot all about my plight. For a long while I sprawled upon the shingle, expending nearly all my matches in surveying the door, its hinges, staple, and ponderous padlock, and speculating as to what story of romance was associated with it. Then a twinge of cramp in one of my feet recalled the fact that I was marooned, and so I made my way out into the daylight again.

But when I stood up, stretching my limbs and looking about in a blinking way, for the sunshine was still brilliant, I made another startling discovery. My boat was gone. Then I realised what had happened. I had grounded the boat upon an oozy patch, and as she lost her water-logged buoyancy with the ebbing of the tide, she had squatted right out of sight.

It very promptly occurred to me that if I did not want to spend the night upon Seamew Island I had better take advantage of the two or three remaining hours of daylight to try and attract assistance.

It was no easy matter to scale the cliffs of the little chine, not so much because of the lack of foothold as on account of the difficulty of picking out progressive stepping places. However, I succeeded in gaining a small belt of plateau, beyond which the ground ascended in an easy slope to the summit.

I got but little satisfaction out of my climb. Stork Point loomed in a blue smudge almost merged into the haze, but I collected a few handfuls of parched growth from amongst the sparse vegetation, to which I can give no name, and made a good display of smoke, although I felt the signal would be lost. As I pulled out the box of matches to start this fire, the bad half-crown to which I referred at the opening of this story fell at my feet.

* * *

I cannot pretend to say how long I had been asleep upon a mossy patch near the brink of the little belt of plateau, but when I awoke the full moon was shining, and I felt cold. Recollection came upon me with a rush. I was just about to get up and stretch my limbs when I was arrested by the sound of men's voices. I was not left long in uncertainty. One man was asking another whether he had the key, and the man speaking was the same who had accosted me about the bad half-crown.

I crawled to the very edge of the cliff and peered over. The moon threw a regular flood of light into the little chine. In the gentle seethe of the surf lay the centre-board boat of mysterious repute, with her mast stepped and her lug lowered into a heap upon her thwarts. Two men were just leaving her, carrying what were manifestly heavy packages, judging from the manner in which they lurched in their gait. One of them I recognised; the other I had never seen before.

The idea came to me in a flash. The tide was now flowing—I could see that the beach was dry right down to the lap of the water. I counted upon the two men having gone into the unknown chamber beyond the locked door I had encountered, and upon their being likely to remain there for some time. With my pulse beating rapidly to a sense of perilous adventure, I began to descend the cliff. I reached the bottom without mishap, and quite noiselessly. Without pausing a moment I made for the boat. To cast adrift was the work of seconds; coiling the rope as I went I gained the bows of the little craft, jumped inboards, and went right aft so as to lift her forefront off the ground. By the lift she gave to the undulation of the swell I knew that she was afloat. Softly sliding one of her oars along I put it over the side without a splash, felt bottom, and punted the boat astern. When I could no longer feel the ground with the oar I gently pulled her head around, laid hold of the halliards, and hoisted the lug.

The high dawn of a perfect summer's morning was broadening in the sky as I steered the boat into the harbour. The waterman from whom I had hired the lost punt was the first figure I saw, and the immediate question he levelled at me was as to what had become of his craft.

I briefly told him my story. Dismay at the loss of the punt gave place to astonishment as I talked.

"I must go and report my act of piracy, and the reason for it, to the Customs," said I. "You had better come with me."

We found a uniformed man, who clearly was not a person of any responsibility. He said that the whole thing sounded to him more like a job for the police; and I felt that he was probably right. On his suggestion the waterman returned to remain in possession of the boat, whilst I went back to the hotel, changed my clothes, got some food and coffee, with the assistance of the night porter, and then made my way to the police station. After I had finished talking to the sergeant in charge he telephoned to the Chief Constable, who said he would come down if I would wait whilst he dressed. When he presently arrived and had heard my tale he stroked his moustache in a puzzled way saying he had never heard anything like this before.

I answered it seemed pretty clear that there was some mystery which required clearing up; that I had my own suspicions, but preferred not to state them until investigations had been made, and that the obvious thing to do was to return to the island, explore the cavern, and find out what the two men were really up to. So just as the life of the little town was astir, the Chief Constable and myself, accompanied by four policemen and the waterman, embarked in the centre-board boat.

The waterman took a natural professional interest in the smart little craft. When he had finished a lengthy and critical survey of her topsides and rigging, he lifted a loose board near the mast to see what was beneath.

"As pretty a bit of ballast as ever I see," he ejaculated.

"What is it?" I asked, looking over his shoulder.

"Pig lead, small and handy for stowing."

"Can you lift out one of the pigs?" I asked.

He did so, and extended it to me. It was about the size of a brick, and weighed as near as I could judge some twenty pounds. I pulled out my knife and scraped the surface.

"This is not ordinary lead ballast," said I. "It is much too hard." I pulled the bad half-crown from my pocket and laid it on top of the spot I had scraped bright.

"By Jingo, sir! Now I see your drift. And we've had a number of cases of bad money of late. What a discovery!"

* * *

As I piloted the boat cautiously into the chine, recollecting my experience of the previous afternoon, I saw the two men standing as motionless as statues near the line of the surf. We grounded the boat, and the chief constable kept his right hand suggestively in his breast pocket.

"May I ask where you found our boat?" said the man who had spoken to me in the smoking-room.

"Perhaps you will answer some of my questions first," said the Chief Constable. "What are you doing on this island?"

"We landed here to wait for daylight before beginning to fish," replied the fellow promptly enough.

"Let us hear what you do in the cavern; what there is that interests you so much in the place behind the locked door?" went on the Chief Constable.

"Place behind the locked door?" repeated the first speaker with a blank stare.

"Oh, come!" said I. "If you will not show it to us, then we must show it to you."

I led the way into the low entrance of the little cavern. The Chief Constable crawled in after me. But when I turned the bend I came almost immediately up against a mass of splintered rock.

"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "Am I mad or dreaming?"

The Chief Constable was silent a minute; then he sniffed and sneezed violently.

"Let us get back outside where we can stand up and talk," said he.

This we did. My old acquaintance of the smoking-room eyed us with a leering, ugly grin.

"Well, gentlemen, have you found the place behind the locked door?" he asked.

The Chief Constable stepped right up to him, and looked him squarely in the eyes. "When did you blow it up, and where did you get the gelatine?"

The fellow winced. It was an instantaneous gesture—a heartbeat later he was smiling superciliously. But the revelation had sufficed.

"I suppose you have destroyed either the factory or the store whence these came?" said I, flourishing the bad half-crown under his nose.

"You are making a most serious accusation, and one for which you have not got one atom of proof," he answered soberly enough.

"The ballast in your boat may give us a start in that direction," I replied.

"This is not the time to enter into any discussion," put in the Chief Constable. "Depend upon it a searching inquiry will be made, and if there is no proof of what this gentleman suggests, you will have your remedy. I confess it was a clever scheme to blow up the cavern, and probably you have done it so successfully as to destroy any incriminating evidence which might have existed. Get into the boat, and we will return."

A little more than an hour later we were all back in the town.

* * *

The strangest part of the whole business was that no amount of inquiry could elicit any discovery as to the antecedents of these two men. They had certainly blown up Seamew Cavern, but nobody either saw or heard them do it. The metal with which their boat was ballasted was proved to be the same as that from which several bad coins that the police recovered in the district were struck. Goodness knows how much time and money were spent in trying to clear Seamew Cavern, but the explosion had displaced such a great mass of rock, and it was so obvious that a devastating charge would have been placed amid any plant, that the efforts were abandoned as hopeless. Never, perhaps, did such an overwhelming chain of circumstantial evidence fail to lead to justice through inability to establish any one essential legal technicality.


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