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Title: The Desert Ship
Author: Fred M White
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Language: English
Date first posted: February 2012
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The Desert Ship

by

Fred M White


ILLUSTRATED BY ALEC BALL


Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol. XXXIII, May 1911, pp 805-810



JELTHAM smote the chart lying on the bark of a fallen mimosa angrily.

"We've made no mistake, Hilton," he said; "it's that infernal chart that's wrong. I'll back my instruments against any that ever came out of Greenwich. I've figured out our position to an inch. According to mathematical formula, we should now be sailing over eighty fathoms of water. We should be within a mile of the treasure ship. As it is, we are two leagues from the sea, and on firm, hard ground whichever way we go." "It's certainly very exasperating," George Hilton murmured.

"It's maddening!" Feltham went on. "Who ever heard of a ship in the middle of an island? These treasure ships are never found except in a boy's story, though a good many fools like ourselves have sunk hard money looking for them. But, dash it all, one does expect to find the ocean where the ship has gone down—not a solid chunk of land like this!"

Hilton murmured something to the effect that he gave it up. He and Reggie Feltham had been unfortunate from the first. They had embarked every penny they could rake together in this venture of the sunken treasure, inspired in the first instance by an old chart and cipher, which had originally been in the possession of Admiral Sir Amyas Feltham, in the good old days when the Spanish Main had been the field, so to speak, of considerable profit to Elizabethan commanders. The founder of the Feltham fortunes, regarded in the light of romance, was a picturesque figure enough, but he had been a murderous old pirate, all the same. He left behind him considerable property, and inter alia the cipher and chart that was the cause of all the present mischief.

Unhappily, the march of civilisation was responsible for a generation that looked coldly upon the profession of buccaneering, and of recent years the Feltham fortunes had waned. There was very little now beyond the old family mansion and the old family pride. So when it had occurred to George Hilton to ask the head of the house for the hand of his daughter Alys, there had been what the early dramatists called "alarums and excursions," followed by the disgrace of a young couple and a tearful parting under one of the hundred and fifty oaks in which Charles II. is supposed to have hidden himse lf upon occasion—not necessarily Boscobel.

George Hilton was young, he was in love, he had the command of two thousand pounds, plus expectations from a distant—a very distant—relative. Here was a chance to show Alys and Sir Gregory Feltham what he was made of. He had seen the cipher and the chart, to question which, at Feltham Court, was flat blasphemy. The mere suggestion of the scheme was sufficient for Reggie Feltham. Anything was better than loafing about at home with hardly the price of a gun licence in his pocket. It was all very well to have the old house and all that lovely furniture, to say nothing of the pictures, but it was impossible to live on the contemplation of those treasures.

They started out filled with ambitious dreams and high spirits. They had learnt everything there was to learn, short of experience itself, but misfortune had dogged them from the first. They had been robbed right and left, and finally deserted by a rascally crew. Within a few leagues of their destination, their cutter had drifted on to a reef and became a total wreck, and they had been hard put to it to save their skins. And here they were on the very spot at last, only to find that, in the place of eighty fathoms of water, they were practically in the centre of an island!

"There is only one plausible explanation, so far as I can see," Hilton suggested. "The islands here are largely volcanic. There has been an earthquake here within the last century or so, and this island is the result. We shall be able to put the Admiralty chart right, anyway. And no doubt the treasure ship is here all right, only there are about a million tons of solid island on the top of it. We shall shut down the lid on our hopes in that direction. The question is, how are we going to get out of this?"

The prospect was not altogether alluring; the Robinson Crusoe element was too strongly marked. There was nothing the matter with the island; the climate was perfect, there were fish and game and fruit in abundance. They had tobacco in their patent collapsible lifeboat, a couple of shot-guns and sporting rifles; their wardrobe was more than sufficient for the moment. Sooner or later a ship would come along and take them off, but that would probably be a matter of months.

"Let's make a survey of the island," Feltham suggested; "we might find gold here."

It was something to do, any rate. Apparently there was no gold, but there were orchids of price, had they only known it, brilliant tropical birds, and plenty of fish in the clear streams. For a mile or two back from the sea, the luxurious vegetation rioted, but beyond that was a strange, arid plain of dry, hot sand, practically covering the whole of the island, giving it a grotesque resemblance to a bald man with a fringe of hair. The sun beat down mercilessly on this forbidding-looking waste, where the sand rolled away to the horizon in long, irregular hollows. A mile or two distant the limb of a dead pine stood out erect and stark, like a warning signpost. The blinding sand radiated heat so that the grey landscape was all quivering. There was no sign of life here; no bird passed in the sky overhead; the whole place was one vast, oppressive silence. Feltham turned from the contemplation of it with a shudder.

"I should go mad if I looked at that for long," he said. "Fancy a desert like that in the midst of a jewel of an island like this! You're right about the earthquake, old chap. That stuff is all baked pretty fine, but it's volcanic, all the same. The whole desert must have been thrown up by some big volcanic disturbance. But how, in the name of Fate, did that solitary pine tree get there? I'd like to find that out."

2Better leave it at that," Hilton suggested —"too much of a nightmare. Look here!"

He strode a step or two across the sand, and turned over a log of wood with his foot. Three or four forbidding-looking land-crabs scuttled out, followed by the shining blackness of a scorpion.

"You can bet that the sand is full of those loathsome beasts," he said. "Still, I am going some day when it is cloudy. We shall be safe with a pair of sea-boots each.

I'm not sorry, on the whole, that we've got the island to ourselves; it is just as well. The devil!"

A rifle-shot rang out clear and crisp, and Feltham's panama fell over his left eye. With one accord they dropped flat on a heap of long, dry grass.

"Bit abrupt," Feltham said coolly. "No, I'm not hurt, but it was a pretty near thing. Rather lucky that we brought our guns with us."

They lay there snugly for a moment or two, discussing the situation. Locomotion was not a healthy form of exercise just then. Clearly there was somebody here who resented their intrusion on the island. Hilton began to grow restless.

"Stick up your hat again," he suggested. "Let's try and draw his fire and locate him. If there happens to be more than one of them, I guess and calculate we're in a tight place. If we can get back to the boat in safety, I vote that we change our diggings."

Feltham elevated the perforated panama on a stick. A second later the rifle rang out again, and Hilton popped up his head swiftly. Like a flash he was down again.

"He's over yonder by the mangoes," he said. "You stay here and lie low whilst I stalk the beggar. It's a bit of a risk, but something has to be done. If we stay here, we shall be potted like so many little rabbits. When I tip you our whistle, stick up your hat again. If I can draw his fire, I shall be able to open diplomatic relations with him."

Feltham lay there sweltering on the grass. The blistering heat seemed to be seething his brain. It seemed a long time before he heard the peculiar whistle that he knew so well. He lost no time in lifting his panama; the rifle spoke almost on the instant. Before the echo of it had died away, Hilton stepped from behind a tree with his gun to his shoulder.

"Put up your hands!" he said. He repeated the command in Spanish, and immediately a tall figure rose from a kneeling position and confronted him. There was a rapid motion of the stranger's arm, the hint of a blue-rimmed revolver barrel, but Hilton was too quick for him. His gun spoke, and the right arm of the stranger dropped to his side. Dropping the revolver, he turned, writhing with pain; he showed a fine set of white teeth in a convulsive grin. Strangely enough, his aspect was not wholly unfriendly.



"Call up the rest of the party," Hilton commanded. "Summon the balance of the garrison."

"I am quite alone, señor," the other said in passable English; "I have no friends here."

"Ah, a passion for solitude—the last thing in the way of Selkirks," Hilton responded. "Passion evidently developed to the verge of monomania. This accounts for your hospitable reception of self and partner. I shouldn't have winged you only you brought it on yourself. I'm afraid I've broken your arm."

Feltham came up at the same moment. He took in the situation at a glance.

"I had to do it," Hilton explained. "Our friend says he is quite alone. Let us introduce ourselves in due form. Reggie, this is Señor Alexander Selkirk."

"I understand," the Spaniard said. "Let the name pass. I prefer it to my own. I came here hoping to be quite alone. For four years nobody has come. To the world I am dead. If they find me, they will put a rope about my neck. In the eyes of the world I committed a great crime; in my eyes it was an act of vengeance. For it I forfeited my good name, my position, my friends. When I saw your boat, I thought that you were the representatives of the law. I said to myself: 'They are from Brazil.' That is why I tried to kill you. I bear no malice."

"That is uncommonly good of you," Feltham said. "We are English, as you see. To be quite candid, we came here hunting for a treasure ship, only to find that this island is unfortunately on the top of it. But you are in considerable pain. Let me help you as far as your house."

A significant smile played over the face of the Spaniard. In spite of his pain he was interested. It seemed almost impossible that he had heard of the treasure ship before.

"I shall be obliged," he said. "You are very kind. I have rude appliances in my hut. My wrist is merely broken, and only needs warm water and a bandage—a splint. Señors, I am in your hands. You are English gentlemen; my secret is. safe with you. I am going to show you my hiding-place. Will you be so good as to give me your arm?"

They came at length to a thicket of mimosa, a bush of which the Spaniard pushed aside, and revealed beyond a hut apparently built of ship's timbers. The glass in the windows had undoubtedly been taken from an ancient wreck. Inside was a large sitting-room, with a bedroom beyond. The whole place had a curiously home-like suggestivness to the Englishmen. There was a tall antique cabinet filled with china, a carved oak sideboard unmistakably Elizabethan, a brass lantern clock on a bracket. The Spaniard appeared to take all this for granted. He produced bandages and a splint. Hot water was to be had from a spring by the side of the hut. Here was proof of the volcanic origin of the island.

"I am obliged to you," the Spaniard murmured, when the rude surgery was finished. "I am feeling a bit faint, so, with your permission, I will retire till the mid-day meal. Meanwhile, it will be a gratification to me that you make yourselves at home here."

"Polite sort of assassin!" Feltham murmured, as he sauntered round the sitting-room. "Equally charmed to bury you or ask you to dinner! Now, I wonder where this fine old furniture came from? It's pretty certain that our pal didn't bring it with him, as he seems to have come here in a hurry. Just cast your eye over those sea-chests. And look at this old compass! It must have come out of a Spanish galleon. Those windows came from the poop of a privateer, I'll swear. It's a million to one that the Spaniard found these things on the island. Did he find the Sir Amyas as well?"

Sir Amyas was the missing treasure ship. Hilton replied flippantly, but he was deeply interested, all the same. He stopped suddenly before an ancient brass-bound mirror on the wall, and took from it a miniature. It was the miniature of a girl, painted on ivory with a crystal face. The setting was plain silver, and fitted tightly to the edges of the glass.

"In the name of Heaven, how did this get here?" he said excitedly. "A year ago I saw it at Feltham Court—in the east drawing-room, on the big buhl cabinet. Reggie, it's Alys!"

Feltham turned the miniature over in his hand. The face of his sister was smiling up at him; there was no mistaking her blue eyes and fair, w avy hair. She had a cap upon her head, a wrap of rose-point lace was about her shoulders. Something seemed to grip Feltham by the throat.

"You're right," he said huskily. "It's Alys, painted as she appeared dressed for that big fancy dance at the Chantrey two years ago, and in the same old frame I found in one of the attics. Pinch me, George, and let me make sure that I am awake!"

"Oh, you're awake, right enough," Hilton replied. "I almost wish it was a dream! Now, who is our host, when all is said and done? And why did he lie to us in this way? He must have been in England the last year or so; he must be acquainted with Feltham Court. It is out of the question to suppose that Alys gave him that miniature; he stole it. He—he fell in love with Alys. Reggie, we must force him to explain."

It was certainly a strange situation; there was something almost uncanny about it. Hilton put the little miniature back in its place, and strolled into the open. He was trying to persuade himself that his thoughts were entirely free from jealousy; he was trying to find some logical explanation of this amazing turn of affairs. It was three days later before he got his chance. Feltham was after some rare bird he was anxious to shoot; Hilton and his host were smoking in the shade.

"I am going to ask you a personal question," Hilton said. "You may answer it or not, as you feel inclined. When were you in England last, señor?"

"I have never been in England at all," the Spaniard said quietly.

Hilton lost control of himself for the moment; the hot blood flowed into his face.

"Oh, well," he said, "if you are going to tell me a deliberate lie, I'll go no further! I dare say I can—"

"Stop, señor!" the Spaniard commanded. "You are my guest, and that being the case, why—"

"I beg your pardon," Hilton forced himself to say. "But the proofs of your—your mistake—are so strong that—Oh, come, señor! If you have never been in England, where did you get Miss Alys Feltham's portrait from—I mean the miniature on the old brass mirror? You have a portrait of Feltham's sister there. We both recognised it instantly. Feltham recognised the old frame as one that he had found. A year ago that miniature was in a drawing-room at Feltham Court."

The Spaniard showed no sign of embarrassment. On the contrary, he was all polite incredulity.

"Is it possible?" he asked. "It is amazing—extraordinary! So the lady is in the flesh? She actually has an existence after all these years? You are jealous of me, señor?"

"I am engaged to the lady," Hilton said, with a touch of red on his face. "Look here!"

On the impulse of the moment he took a metal case from his pocket and opened it. Inside was the cabinet portrait of a young girl with blue eyes and fair, wavy hair. The Spaniard examined it long and carefully. There was something almost tender in his smile.

"You are quite justified," he said at length; "I can pardon your strong language now. And from the bottom of my heart I congratulate you, my friend. It is, indeed, a charming face, with a charming soul in those blue eyes. And behind it is the same lovely creature as the lady who presides over my household. Do you know that I value that miniature highly? I hold conversations with it; I stand the picture on the table as I eat. That beautiful face has a softening influence on me. But I have never been in England, all the same, and my picture never stood in an English drawing-room. It was painted by a man who has been in his grave over three hundred years."

"Still, it is Miss Feltham's likeness," Hilton persisted. "Feltham recognises the frame."

"I am not prepared to deny it," the Spaniard said. "If you compare your portrait with my miniature, you will not find one single point of difference. And if you could take wings and fly back to England now, you would see the miniature you speak of in its place. This is another one."

"But the thing is amazing—inexplicable!" Hilton protested.

"On the contrary, it is capable of the simplest explanation," the Spaniard said gravely. "Now, you and Mr. Feltham are gentlemen. You are out here on some adventure. What that adventure is I am beginning to guess. Mr. Feltham is a man of good family—he comes of a military stock?"

"Naval," Hilton explained. "The founder of the family was Sir Amyas Feltham, a sailor who did some heroic things in the reign of Queen Elizabeth."

"Oh, precisely! We Spaniards suffered at the hands of the English admirals in those days. Did this fine old sailor possess a ship that he called after his own name? Is there no story connected with a wreck and some buried treasure?"

"So you know all about it?" Hilton asked. "As a matter of fact, we are after the treasure. If it belongs to anybody at all, I suppose my friend Feltham has the first claim to it. But this island is on the top of the treasure, and there is an end of it."

"I fancy not," the Spaniard smiled. "Nature has her own way of arranging these things. Oh, it is a pretty romance altogether! It only needs the touch of the poor but gallant lover and the stern old Puritan father to make it complete."

"Those elements are not lacking," Hilton said grimly. "The Felthams are poor and proud. I also am proud—and poor. But the finding of the Sir Amyas is not likely to help us."

The Spaniard rose from his seat and tossed away his cigarette. There was a friendly light in his eyes.

"Come with me," he said. "Put on your sea-boots, and I will don mine. We are going to cross the belt where the scorpions and land-crabs are, to that solitary tree yonder. You will see what the tree really is when we get there. It is not more than an hour's walk."

With the spirit of adventure strong upon him, Hilton strode across the valley of sand. As he came near to the solitary tree, he could see that it was the mast of a ship. In a deep, billowy hollow a quaint old timber ship lay heeled over to starboard. The standing gear had gone years ago, the deck was bent and split, a family of scorpions had taken possession. Down below was all dust and mildew and decay, but the stout old furniture was as good as ever; the brasswork gleamed here and there where the passing dust-storms had scoured it. The figure-head, carved in the form of an admiral in full uniform, grinned down. Some of the carved lettering could still be read. With some little trouble, Hilton could make out the name of Sir Amyas.

"There is your treasure ship," the Spaniard said quietly. "Soon after it sank, some great upheaval of Nature lifted it from the bottom of the sea on to this immense area of sand. Gradually the coral island was built up around it. Nobody ever came here. If they did, they would never trouble to investigate this hideous desert. You have solved the problem, and found a ship in a desert. I cleared out most of the sand personally; it found me something to do when I first came here. Bit by bit I furnished my hut from what I found here. Amongst other things I found that miniature. It probably was the wife or daughter of that eminent buccaneer, Sir Amyas Feltham. In old families Nature reproduces herself, and that accounts for the lady of your choice being the image of her ancestress. I can quite imagine your astonishment when you picked up my miniature. If you had not seen it, you would have gone away from the island, and the treasure would have remained hidden."

"So the treasure really exists?" Hilton asked.

"Oh, the treasure is there, right enough," the Spaniard said. "There are gold plate and some gems to the value of perhaps a quarter of a million of your money. It is all yours. I have no need of it; money is a thing that I shall never require again. Only leave me in peace and keep my secret, and there is nothing else that I can ask you. I shall never go back to civilisation again."

"But this is very princely of you," Hilton protested.

"Not at all. I have no need of money. It may seem a strange thing to say, but I am quite happy here, or, at least, as happy as I shall be on earth again. There is only one favour I have to ask, and that is your permission to retain the miniature. When you come to tell the story to Miss Alys, I am quite sure that she will be pleased for me to retain the picture of her ancestress as souvenir of a most remarkable romance. I am sure that is what she will say."

The Spaniard spoke no more than the truth. The story is known only to three people, and, naturally enough, Mrs. Hilton is one of them.

"I am glad you gave him the picture, George," she said, "and I hope that no harm may come to him. Some of these days, when we get a little tired of our pretty house here, and want a change, I'll get you to take me out there and see the noble Spaniard."

"I'll do it with the greatest possible pleasure," Hilton said promptly.


THE END

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