Synopsis of Previous Chapters
The Rev. John Joseph Meldon, a genial Irish curate, and his friend, Major Kent, of Ballymoy, a village on the west coast of Ireland, take a trip to the Island of Inishgowlan in search of treasure supposed to have been hidden there by a captain of one of the vessels belonging to the Spanish Armada. The major does not believe in the existence of the treasure but Meldon is very sanguine.
As they approach the island they see a small building with an iron roof denoting the presence of someone other than the inhabitants, and Meldon through his glasses recognizes Higginbotham, an old college chum of his, whom he proceeds to visit.
Higginbotham is engaged in surveying the island for the Government and arranging for sanitary dwellings to be built there. Meldon not wishing to mention the cause of their visit tells Higginbotham that the major is an expert mineralogist sent by the Government to explore the island. He returns in the punt to the yacht to fetch the major and we find them on their way to join Higginbotham at dinner.
“It’s all right. You won’t be made a fool of. Higginbotham will respect you all the more for being an expert. He’s just the sort of man who looks up to experts. And he won’t bother you with questions. I told him you were a man of violent temper and couldn’t bear being worried about your work.”
Meldon began to paddle towards the pier. The Major sat limp in the stern of the punt. A sweat had broken out on his forehead.
“What else did you tell him? Let me have the whole of it.”
“Oh, nothing else. I never say a word more than is necessary. There’s no commoner mistake than overdoing one’s disguise.”
“That’s all well enough, but why couldn’t you have put the disguise, as you call it, on yourself instead of me? Why didn’t you say that you were a mining expert?”
“He wouldn’t have believed that. I simply couldn’t have made him believe that I know anything about pliocene clay.”
“Well, you might have told him something else about yourself, something he would have believed. I hate being dragged into these entanglements.”
“There’s no entanglement that I can see,” said Meldon. “But I’m sorry now that I mentioned you at all. If I’d known the way you’d feel about it. I wouldn’t. I tell you what it is, Major, I’ll take the very first opportunity of telling him something about myself. I’ll shift the whole business off your shoulders. Higginbotham will forget all about you. Come, now, I can’t do more than that. I don’t say it will be easy to get him to swallow a second story immediately on top of the first, but for your sake, Major, I’m willing to try.”
The spirit of Higginbotham’s hospitality was all that could be desired. His means of making his guests comfortable were limited. He had only two plates in his establishment! They were given to Meldon and Major Kent. Higginbotham himself ate off a saucer. The tongue was placed on the table in its tin, and morsels were dug out of it with a knife. There was no dish for the corned beef, so Meldon laid it on a drawing board with a newspaper underneath it. There was one tumbler, a cup, and a sugar-basin to drink out of. Higginbotham turned out not to be a teetotaller. He provided bottled stout for his guests. The lobster, when it came to the time for eating it, was torn in pieces by Meldon and then taken outside to have its shell broken with stones. Major Kent was accommodated with a hammock chair, from which he reached his food with great difficulty. Meldon had a wooden stool. Higginbotham sat on a corner of his bed, which he dragged into the middle of the room.
When the meal was over the three men went out of doors and smoked. The evening was beautifully fine. The breeze which blew earlier in the day had died away. The water of the bay was motionless. The Spindrift lay at her anchor, a double boat, every spar and rope, every detail of her hull, reflected beneath her. On the beach near the pier lay two canvas curraghs, turned upside down, their gunwales resting on the little piles of stones. Some children played round them. On the pier stood a group of five or six men, who smoked, gazed at the Spindrift, and occasionally made a remark to each other. The hammock chair was brought out for Major Kent, and he lay back in it luxuriously. Meldon and Higginbotham sprawled on the grass. When the dew made it uncomfortably wet, Meldon fetched a blanket off Higginbotham’s bed and spread it for himself. Higginbotham perched, stiffly, on a stone.
For a long time the conversation kept on perfectly safe topics. Higginbotham described the operations of the Congested Districts Board on Inishgowlan and elsewhere. He waxed enthusiastic over the social and material regeneration of the islanders; he spoke with pitying contempt of their original way of living. They grew, it appeared, wretched potato crops in fields so badly fenced that stray cattle wandered in and trampled the young plants at critical stages of their growth. The people lived in ill-lighted, ill-ventilated, and, according to modern ideas, wholly insanitary cabins. Their system of land tenure was extraordinarily complicated and inconvenient. The holdings were inextricably mixed up, so that hardly any one could walk through his own fields without trespassing on his neighbor’s.
“You’ll hardly believe me,” said Higginbotham, “but sometimes a man holds a bit of land not much larger than a decent table-cloth, entirely surrounded by a field belonging to some one else.”
This evil condition of things Higginbotham, at the bidding of his Board, had undertaken to remedy. He brought out from his hut a map of the island, and showed how he proposed to divide it into parallel strips. He explained that each strip was to be bounded by a fence six feet high; that good wooden gates were to be erected; that a house was to be built at the top of each strip —a house with a slated roof, three rooms, and a concrete floor in the kitchen. He displayed with great pride a picture, curiously wanting in perspective, of a whole row of singularly ugly houses perched along the western ridge of the island.
The Major yawned without an attempt to hide the fact that he was bored. He had no taste whatever for philanthropy, and hated what he called Government meddling. Higginbotham continued to display plans and elevations with unabated enthusiasm. He was, as Meldon had said, a young man. who took a real interest in his work. His eyes, behind his spectacles, beamed with benignant satisfaction while he described the earthly paradise he meant to create Suddenly his face clouded and the joy died out of it.
“But the whole thing is blocked,” he said, “by the pig-headed stupidity of one old man.”
“Tell the Major about him,” said Meldon.
“They call him the king of the island,” said Higginbotham, “but of course he’s not really a king any more than I am myself.”
“Not nearly so much,” said Meldon. “From all you’ve told us I should say you are what’s called a benevolent despot. ’ ’
“He’s simply a sort of head of the family,” said Higginbotham. “They are all brothers and sisters and cousins on the island. His name is Thomas O’Flaherty Pat. At least, that’s what the people call him. I don’t see much sense myself in sticking in the Pat at the end.”
“No more do I,” said Meldon, “Thomas O’Flaherty ought to be name enough for any king.”
“Of course, there are three other Thomas O’Flahertys on the island, and it might be difficult to distinguish them. There’s Thomas O’Flaherty Tom, and Thomas——”
The Major yawned more obviously than ever. He had spent a long day on the sea; he had eaten with a good appetite ; he had smoked a satisfying quantity of tobacco. He was totally uninterested in the Family of the O’Flahertys. Higginbotham became aware that he was boring his principal guest. Inspired, perhaps, by some malignant spirit, he changed the subject of the conversation to one more likely to hold the attention of Major Kent.
“I’m afraid you won’t find Inishgowlan very interesting, Major, from your point of view.”
“My point of view?”
“I mean as a scientific man.”
The Major woke up and scowled at Meldon.
“The geological formation--” said Higginbotham.
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Meldon, cheerfully. “As a matter of fact the Major’s tremendously interested in pliocene clay. It has been a hobby of his from his childhood. You’d be surprised at all there is to know about pliocene clay. The major has quite a library of books on the subject, and he tells me that it isn’t by any means fully investigated yet.”
As he spoke he leaned forward from his blanket and pinched the calf of Higginbotham’s leg severely.
“All right,” said his victim, “I’ll drop the subject if you like; but I was going to say-”
“I took a walk before dinner,” said Meldon, “and had a look at the island. I came to the conclusion that we couldn’t find a better place for the school-”
“What school?” said Higginbotham.
“The school I was telling you about this afternoon. But perhaps I forgot to mention it.”
The scowl on the Major’s face deepened. He realized that Meldon, in fulfilment of his promise, was going to shift the burden of the disguise to his own shoulders.
“I never heard anything about a school,” said Higginbotham.
“I wonder you didn’t. But I dare say the post is rather irregular here. The fact is that the Board—not your Board, you know, but the Board of National Education—has determined to build a school on the island and asked me to run across and look out for a site.”
The Major with a struggle sat upright in his hammock chair. His mouth opened. He made an effort to speak.
“It’s all right,” said Meldon soothingly. “I know what you are going to say—official reticence, and that sort of thing. But it doesn’t matter mentioning these things to Higginbotham. He’s in the Government service himself.”
The Major opened his mouth again, but his thoughts failed to express themselves. Meldon felt the necessity of modifying his statement.
“Of course the Board didn’t actually send me here specially for the purpose. They heard I was coming here with the Major, and just dropped me a line to say that I may keep my eyes open and let them know if there was a suitable site for a school.”
Higginbotham stared in blank amazement. As an official he knew something of the ways of Irish Governments and was seldom astonished at their doings. He had swallowed, with some little misgiving, the story of Major Kent’s mission. It was just possible that a Lord Lieutenant and a Chief Secretary, in a moment of temporary insanity brought on by over-work and much anxiety, might have sent an expert to make a geological survey of Inishgowlan. It was quite incredible that the National Board of Education could, of its own free will, intend to build a school. Meldon was unpleasantly conscious of having aroused scepticism. He nerved himself to reduce Higginbotham to a condition of passive belief.
“The Board has heard of all you’re doing here,” he said, “and naturally wants to put a finishing touch to the work bv providing for the education of the children. After all you’ve done in the way of improving the material conditions of life, the Commissioners feel that it would be a national disgrace if the rising generation is left in a condition of barbaric ignorance. You recollect what the hymn says:
“ ‘Every prospect pleases And only man is vile.’
That’s how the Commissioners feel, and you can’t blame them.”
“But there are only nine children on the whole island,” said Higginbotham.
“ Still there are nine. Why should nine children go ignorant to their graves? It isn’t the fault of the nine that there aren’t more. Besides, there may be more. That’s what the Board of Education feels—there may be more.
The Commissioners are long-headed men, Higginbotham; not a cuter lot on any Board in Ireland. They look to the future. They see before them generations of Thomas O’Flahertys yet unborn, little toddlers coming out of those slated houses of yours with copy-books in their chubby fists, all of them filled with a desire for knowledge. I tell you what, it’s an inspiring picture, say what you like.”
“Where,” said Higginbotham, overwhelmed by his vision of the future, “where do you propose to build the school?”
“There’s a house,” said Meldon, “if you can call it a house, at the end of a particularly abominable bohireen. The thatch, what there is of it, is tied on with straw ropes, and there’s only one small window to it that I could see. It’s just under the brow of the hill above the place we’re sitting now. It's bang in the middle of the island, and it’s just the place for a school.”
“That’s the very cabin we’ve been talking about,” said Higginbotham. “That’s Thomas O’Flaherty Pat’s—the place he won’t give up.”
“Oh, I’ll manage him,” said Meldon. “Don’t you worry. Give me a week and I’ll talk the old boy round. And now I think the Major and I had better be getting back to our floating home. We've got to navigate the bay in a punt that’s more like the half of the cover of a football than anything else, and I don’t much fancy doing it in the dark.”
The Major remained obstinately silent while Meldon paddled him home. Nor did he make any reply to Meldon's remarks while undressing to go to bed. Half an hour later he put his head over the side of his bunk and said:
“I’m not going to stand this, J. J. It’s all very fine. I don’t deny that you’re a fluent liar, but I’m not going to be made a fool of. I won’t stand it. Either you tell Higginbotham to-morrow that you’ve been pulling his leg, or I leave the island. Do you hear me? Why, man, we might get into serious trouble if these stories of yours ever came out. Are you listening to me?” “More or less,” said Meldon sleepily. “Don’t you worry. Leave it to me! I’ll manage all right. Good-night, Major. Don’t you get dreaming of pliocene clay.”
Meldon woke early next morning. At six o’clock he plunged overboard and swam delightedly round the yacht. Treasure or no treasure, he intended to enjoy his holiday, and the June weather was as good as could be wished for—better than any reasonable man would dare to hope. Half an hour later he roused Major Kent, and then set to work to light the stove in the galley. Every now and then he poked his head tip and shouted a remark to the Major, who was making his toilet on deck.
“We’ll go ashore directly after breakfast and set to work. Have you any plan of operation in your mind?”
The Major stopped shaving and, razor in hand, looked over to the place from which the red head of the curate had already disappeared.
“I have not,” he shouted. “I left that to you. I took it for granted that you would know the exact spot where the treasure lies, and that I would have nothing to do but walk there and put the gold into a hand-bag.”
The Major, though not intellectually nimble, prided himself on his power of polished sarcasm. He was disappointed to find that his taunt bad apparently failed to reach the curate. He received no reply; but a noise of frizzling and a pleasant smell of bacon melting on a frying-pan reached him from the fore hatch. Then Meldon’s voice, this time without the appearance of his head, reached him again:—
“There are only six eggs. I suppose I may as well fry them all.”
“Yes, and some ham along with them."
“It’s bacon I have on the pan, but I’ll do a slice or two of ham for you, if you like.”
Half of Meldon’s body emerged from the hatchway, and the shells of six eggs were pitched overboard.
“It was full tide at six this morning,” he said, returning to the subject of the treasure hunt; “I expect by eight o’clock we ought to be able to make our way round the base of the cliffs on the west side of the island. We’ll be all right there till one or two o’clock, any way. What do you say?”
The Major finished shaving and proceeded to fill a tin basin with water.
“What do you expect to take by doing that?” he said.
He got no answer for a time. The frying-pan demanded Meldon’s whole attention. The noise of frizzling increased rapidly. The Major balanced his basin on the cabin skylight and scrubbed himself vigorously. On the deck beside him lay a cake of soap, a towel, and a small piece of pumice-stone. They who go down to the sea in ships are apt to get tarry substances stuck on their hands, and the Major was a man who liked to be clean once a day at least. Beside the basin on the skylight lay his tooth-brush and a box of carbolic powder, but he did not get a chance of enjoying these.
“Breakfast’s ready,” shouted Meldon. “Shall I drag it all up on deck? The air’s pleasant.”
“No, let’s be as civilized as we can and eat in the cabin.”
Realizing that the curate’s appetite would not endure much delay and that his own chance of securing a fair share of the six eggs depended on his promptitude, the Major slipped on the jacket of his pyjamas and went below. The eggs, bacon, and ham steamed together in a heap on a dish. Plates, knives, and forks were set out. The teapot and a tin of condensed milk stood at the end of the table.
“I call this jolly,” said Meldon. “I only wish my little girl was here to take a share with us.”
“God forbid!” said the Major, with pious gravity. “How can you wish for such a thing, J. J.? Just fancy a woman on a boat like this.”
“You don’t know her. She wouldn't mind a bit. In fact she’d enjoy roughing it. It would be the greatest fun out for her.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be any fun for me,” said the Major. “But tell me, what’s this plan of yours about scrambling about among the rocks?”
“I’ve given a lot of serious thought to the subject of the treasure,” said Meldon. “I sat for nearly an hour on the top of this island yesterday afternoon, and, as the hymn says, ‘I viewed the landscape o’er.’ The result is that I’ve picked out the scene of the shipwreck.”
“Oh, have you? You’re quite certain you’re right, of course.”
“Not quite certain—tolerably certain. It’s this way. The galleon-”
“The galleon. I wish you’d try not to interrupt me so often. All Spanish ships were galleons if they were big and caraques if they were small. Our one was big, therefore she must have been a galleon. We may just as well call things by their right names and go to work in a business-like way. The galleon was wrecked. Very well. Where was she likely to be wrecked? On the west coast of the island.”
“I don’t see why.”
“Because of course if she’d got to the east side she’d have been in calm water under the lee of the land, and she wouldn’t have been wrecked.” “That doesn’t follow. The wind might have been nor’-east.”
“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t,” said Meldon, “because it hardly ever is. Even nowadays, with all the improvements there are in things, there’s hardly ever a nor’-east wind on this coast, and in those days —two hundred years and more ago—I expect the wind .just shifted about through three points of the compass, nor’-west, west, and sou’-west. However, if you like. I’ll argue out the other possibilities afterwards. For the present we’ll say the galleon was most likely wrecked on the west side of the island. Now, put yourself in the place of the Spanish captain.”
“I’ve done that before,” said the Major, “and it was no good.”
“I remember now; it wasn’t. But anyhow we came to the conclusion that he stored his treasure in some hole in the rocks. Obviously, on account of the weight of the treasure and the difficulty of carrying large quantities of loose coin, he’d choose a hole as near the scene of the shipwreck as possible. Having fixed the scene of the shipwreck-”
“You haven’t explained how you fixed that. ’ ’
“I can’t either till I show you the place. Once you’ve seen it you’ll admit that it is by far the likeliest place for a thing of the kind. In fact it’s the only really suitable place I saw. What we’ve to do is to search the rocks in the mediate neighborhood for the hole at caught the eye of the Spanish captain. ’’
“That’s all well enough. But the treasure, if there ever was any treasure, is hidden more than two hundred years ago. The place must be entirely ...ered since then. I understand that the whole island is made up of pliocene clay”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Of course,” said the Major, “I don't know what pliocene clay is. But if it’s like any other kind of clay it’ll be soft ..iff, and any hole there might have been two hundred years ago will be all washed away or covered up now.”
“In the first place,” said Meldon, we’ve only got Higginbotham’s word it that the island is pliocene clay, Id in the next place I don’t believe pliocene clay is that kind of stuff at all stands to reason that it can’t be. Why, man, if it was anything like common clay the whole island would be ages ago. You take my word for pliocene clay is some uncommon hard substance that doesn’t melt anything worth speaking of in a couple of centuries.”
“Then why is it called pliocene clay?”
Oh, that’s the sort of way those scientific Johnnies talk. I believe they , it just to deceive the general public. You know they speak about lunacy, although they know jolly well it hasn’t it anything to do with the moon. What they like is to get hold of a name which sure to deceive plain, straightforward then like you and me, and then when a take it at its face value, put the obvious meaning on to one of their own words, they make us look like fools for not knowing any better. It’s just the same with typhoid fever. I was talking to a doctor once, not a common castor-oil and linseed-poultice doctor, but he of the sort that runs to germs and microscopes and things, and he told me I forget exactly how he put it, but it amounted to this: that any one who went by the name typhoid would get on wrong track altogether—wouldn’t, in iet, have proper typhoid but something else. I think he said he’d have something like typhus, which is an entirely different disease; beastly infectious, for one thing, whereas the real typhoid, the thing that the name doesn’t mean, if you understand me, isn’t catching at all which just shows how much trust you in put in scientific names. No, Major, you take my word for it, pliocene clay is me jolly hard kind of rock—igneous, expect—and this island is pretty much old Don What’s-his-name found it when he scrambled on shore out of the alleon. ’ ’
“Very well,” said the Major, “but I believe we’re on a fool’s errand. I doubt very much if there’s any treasure there at all. And I’m sure we won’t find it.”
“Don’t croke,” said Meldon. “You get into your duds and light your pipe. I'll wash up and get out the punt. It’s getting on for eight o’clock and we ought to be off.”
An elderly man and five out of the nine children resident on the island stood on the end of the pier when Meldon and the Major landed. The man was clad in a very dirty white flannel jacket and a pair of yellowish flannel trousers, which hung in a tattered fringe round his naked feet and ankles. He had a long white beard and grey hair, long as a woman’s drawn straight back from hit forehead. The hair and beard were both unkempt and matted. But the man held himself erect and looked straight at the strangers through great dark eyes. His hands, though battered and scarred with toil, were long and shapely. His face had a look of dignity, of a certain calm and satisfied superiority. Men of this kind are to be met with here and then among the Connacht peasantry. They are in reality children of a vanishing race, of a lost civilization, a bygone culture. They watch the encroachments of another race and new ideas with a sort of sorrowful contempt. It is as if understanding and despising what they see around them, they do not consider it worth while to try and explain themselves; as if, possessing a wisdom of their own, and aesthetic joy of which the modern world knows nothing, they are content to let both die with then rather than attempt to teach them to men of a wholly different outlook upon life.
“I shouldn’t wonder,” said Meldon to the Major, “if that was old Thomas O’Flaherty Pat himself. He has a royal look about him, hasn’t he? But I can’I say much for his robes of state. I wonder if he’d talk to us.” He approached the old man. “Good-morning to you. Glorious weather we’re having Looks as if it meant to hold up, too. ’
“Ni Beurla agam” (“I have no English”), said the old man.
“Come now,” said Meldon cheerfully “you needn’t play that game off on me I can understand your doing it to Higginbotham. He’s a Government official and naturally you distrust him; but I’m a private man, I don’t want to turn you out of your house, and I won’t give you away. ’ ’
“Ni Beurla agam air bith. Ni aoi focal” (“I have no English at all, not one word”), said the old man.
Meldon turned to the five children and singled out a little girl who stood staring open-mouthed at him.
“Molly O’Flaherty,” he said, “come here. ’ ’
The children, holding on to each other edged away doubtfully.
“Bridgy O’Flaherty,” said Meldon “if you’re not Molly I suppose you’re sure to be Bridgy. Tell me what the old gentleman’s name is.”
He stepped forward suddenly and seized the child by the arm. She struggled for a minute and then began to cry.
“There now,” said Meldon soothingly, “don’t cry; I’m not going to hurt you. Major, give me a penny. You haven’t got one? Never mind, a six-pence will do quite as well. Here now, Nora Acushla, look at the pretty silver sixpence. That’s for you. Stretch out your hand and take it, and I’ll tell your mammy what a good girl you are.”
The child seized the sixpence, stopped crying, and looked up timidly to Melin’s face.
“That’s right,” he said, patting her head. “Now we’re friends again. Tell me now, Nora—is it Nora they call you?”
“It is not,” said the child. “It’s Mary Kate.”.
“There now. I might have guessed Sorra a prettier name there is in the whole province of Connacht than Mary Kate, nor a prettier little girl than yourself. I’ve a little girl of my own away in Dublin, and they call her Gladys Muriel, but I declare I think Mary Kate’s a nicer name. Tell me now, Mary Kate, is Thomas O’Flaherty at the name they have on the old man here ? ’ ’
“It might,” said Mary Kate.
“Off with you then,” said Meldon. Have you got the sixpence safe? Take it up to the gentleman that lives in the new iron house, the gentleman from the Board—you know who I mean.”
Mary Kate grinned.
“Is it the man that does be measuring out the land?"
“It is,” said Meldon. “That exact man. Do you take your sixpence up to him and ask him to give you the worth of it in sugar candy. Don’t be put off if he tells you he hasn’t got any. He has sacks and sacks of it stored away there in the house, and he does be eating it himself whenever he thinks there’s nobody looking at him.”
“Do we go round the north or the south side of the island,” said the Major, as he and Meldon left the pier, ‘to reach this treasure-cave of yours?”
“The scene of the shipwreck,” said Meldon severely, “is about the middle if the west coast. We’d get to it just is quick one way as the other, but I think we’ll go by the north. Higginlotham’s house is to the south of us, and there is no use passing his door oftener than we can help; especially just now when Mary Kate is approaching him on the subject of sugar candy.”
Walking in Inishgowlan is slow work because there are no regular roads, and because the whole island is laced with loose stone walls which have to be climbed. These are built not so much to separate the fields from each other, as with a view to collecting into manageable heaps the stones of which the walls consist. Originally the stones lay scattered over the grass in such numbers that ploughing and even digging were difficult. Here and there, where it is evidently impossible to pile any more stones on the walls without making them dangerously top-heavy, cairns have been built in the middle of the fields and the superfluous metal got rid of in that way. This superabundance of stones was a serious trouble to Higginbotham. He had devised a plan for building a very high wall, a solid structure with mortar in its joints, along the western ridge of the island. He represented to his Board that such a wall would form a splendid shelter for the whole island from the westerly gales and would prevent careless sheep from falling over into the sea. The Board was still deliberating on the scheme.
Major Kent grumbled a good deal a having to climb so many walls; but Meldon, generally a field in front of him, encouraged him with false promises of easier walking further on. Thomas O’Flaherty Pat followed them at a distance. Meldon stopped to light his pipe and allowed the Major to overtake him “I rather think,” he said, looking back, “that the old chappie in the ragged clothes is tracking us.”
“Let him,” said the Major, who was rather out of breath and disinclined for discussion. “He can’t do us any harm."
“He might not, but all the same I’d like to know what he has in his mind I wish now that I’d brought Mary Kate along with me. She’d have come for am other sixpence, I expect.”
“Another of my sixpences.”
“Oh, well, you needn’t grumble. What’s sixpence here or there compared to the pile of gold that we’re going to take home with us? Think of it, Major great fat doubloons, no wretched little slips of coins like our modern sovereigns but thick, round chunks, weighing, maybe, as much as an ounce or an ounce and a half each, solid gold! And very likely there’ll be gems, golden goblets with precious stones stuck in them. Those Spaniards were awful dogs for luxury."
“You don’t really expect to fine diamonds and emeralds, do you, J. J.?’’
“Of course I do. What else have I come for if it isn’t to find every kind of treasure? But here we are, Major, at the other end of nowhere. We’ve got to scramble round now.”
The cliffs on the western coast of Inishgowlan are not very lofty, nor, except in odd places, are they really precipitous. Here and there the sea at high tide washes against their bases. Elsewhere there are long shelves of rock which are never more than half-covered by the waves, and wilderness of huge boulders, worn into all sorts of fantastic shapes, among which on calm days the sea winds itself into curiously fascinating pools and channels, where in storms there is a welter of foam and spray and angry water.
Meldon, keeping a few paces in front of the Major, scrambled along with the greatest activity. He scaled apparently impossible rocks, and seemed actually to enjoy slipping and stumbling among the pools. After an hour’s hard work, with scratched hands and a large rent in the knee of his trousers, he reached the mouth of a little bay. There, seated on a large stone at the bottom of the cliff, was Thomas O’Flaherty Pat.
A few hundred yards from the north end of the island there is a break in the line of cliffs. A narrow path, very steep and rough, has been made from the top of the ridge to the beach below. It is used during the kelp-burning season by men and girls; who climb down it, gather sea wrack among the rocks, and toilsomely ascend again with dripping creels on their backs and soaked garments flapping round their legs. Old Thomas O’Flaherty Pat had used this path as a short-cut, and intercepted the men he was following.
Meldon waited for the Major, who was some distance behind.
“Look here,” he said, “there’s that old Gentleman, Higginbotham’s favorite enemy, waiting for us again. Now, what on earth does he want?”
“I don’t know, and what’? more, I don’t care. But I see the path he came by, and I vote we take it as the shortest way home. I’ve had enough of this ridiculous expedition.”
“Nonsense, Major. You can’t go back now. We’ve hours before us still. But we’ll recollect that path. It’ll save us going the whole way back to the north point of the island when we’ve done. I wish I knew what T. O’Flaherty Pat supposes he’s doing. It’s perfectly ridiculous not being able to get him to talk. I can’t imagine why he keeps up the pretence of not knowing English with me.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t know any.”
“Rot! Excuse my putting it plainly, but that’s simple rot. Of course he knows English. Everybody must know English.”
“Well, there’s no use standing here and staring at him. We shan’t find out anything that way. Let’s go on if you’re bent on going.”
“I shouldn’t wonder,” said Meldon, “if he had some kind of inkling of what we’re after. Your great aunt said in her diary-”
“My grandfather. I never had a great aunt that I know of.”
“Well, your grandfather. It’s all the same. He said anyhow that the natives here knew about the treasure in his day. Now that ’s just the kind of information that would be handed down from father to son, and old T. O. P. is just the sort of man--”
“Who’s T. O. P.?”
“T. O. P.? Oh, Thomas O’Flaherty Pat, of course. You can’t expect me to say that whole name over again each time. Our friend Tommy is just the kind of elderly ass who’d be sure to remember the story even if everybody else had forgotten it. You back he’s gone treasure-hunting on his own every fine day for the last fifty years, and now when he sees we’re after it and going about the job in a jolly sight more intelligent way than ever he did, he thinks he’s nothing to do but hang on to us till We find it. and then chip in and claim a share. I’ll tell you what it is, Major, It’s absolutely necessary to put him off the scent.”
“How will you do that when you can’t talk to him?”
“Oh, I’ll manage. Mind you, he can understand every word we say. Come along, now. I’m going to pretend to be a bug hunter, an entomologist, one of the fellows who look for marine monsters of unusual kinds in little pools. I wish to goodness I’d thought of bringing a butterfly net with me; a nice green butterfly net would have completed the disguise. Come along, Major. Take my arm and try and look affectionate. Put on the sort of expression you’d wear if we were scientific pals of the same laboratory in London. Do your best to display an intelligent interest in what I say.”
Stumbling among the stones, but walking arm-in-arm, they approached Thomas O’Flaherty Pat.
“Major,” whispered Meldon, “do you happen to recollect the name of any insect?”
“The flea,” said the Major promptly.
“The scientific name,” said Meldon. “What good are fleas. He knows what fleas are well enough, and is probably much better acquainted with their habits than we are. He knows that we wouldn’t come here to look for fleas. Tell me a scientific name. I can’t think of one myself, except ‘fritillary.’ Well never mind. If you can’t, you can’t. Now, listen.
In a clear, loud voice, calculated to carry some distance, he said—
“I hope, Professor, that our long journey has not been in vain; I hope, I trust, not. This place, the rocks and pools beyond us, seems to me a likely habitat for the Athalonia miserabilis, the marvellous sea-beetle, found nowhere but on these western shores.”
He cast a rapid glance at Thomas O’Flaherty Pat. The old man appeared wholly unimpressed, and sat gazing with wide, dreamy eyes past the strangers straight out to sea. But Meldon was not the man to be baffled by any affectation of indifference and inattention. Convinced that the old man understood English, and was keenly interested in what he heard, he took the Major slowly across the beach, climbed a neighboring ledge of rock, and stooped down as if to make a minute examination of a weedy pool. Looking up, he was gratified to see the eyes of Thomas O’Flaherty Pat fixed on him.
“I thought I’d rouse him,” he said to the Major. “Now I’ll make him sure that I’m after nothing more thrilling than the corpse of an Athalonia miserabilis.”
With every appearance of intense excitement, Meldon dropped on his knees beside the pool. He took off his coat and rolled up one of his shirt sleeves; he lay flat on his stomach; he plunged his bare arm deep into the water. Then he rose and looked round to see how Thomas O ’Flaherty Pat was taking the performance. The old man had left the stone on which he sat, and was approaching the pool.
“I thought I’d draw him,” said Meldon.
After examining minutely some shreds of green seaweed which he had dredged from the depths of the pool, he plunged his arm in again. Thomas O’Flaherty Pat came quite close, looked at the curate with an expression of some wonder, and passed on. Reaching the edge of the sea, he, too, lay flat down, bared his arm and plunged it into the water. Meldon, rising to his knees, looked at him.
“What’s the old boy at now?” he said.
To be continued.