Mr. Chalk made but a poor breakfast next morning, the effort to display a feeling of proper sympathy with Mrs. Chalk, who was presiding in gloomy silence at the coffee-pot, and at the same time to maintain an air of cheerful innocence as to the cause of her behaviour, being almost beyond his powers. He chipped his egg with a painstaking attempt to avoid noise, and swallowed each mouthful with a feeble pretence of not knowing that she was watching him as he ate. Her glance conveyed a scornful reproach that he could eat at all in such circumstances, and, that there might be no mistake as to her own feelings, she ostentatiously pushed the toast-rack and egg-stand away from her.
"You—you're not eating, my dear," said Mr. Chalk.
"If I ate anything it would choke me," was the reply.
Mr. Chalk affected surprise, but his voice quavered. To cover his discomfiture he passed his cup up for more coffee, shivering despite himself, as he noticed the elaborate care which Mrs. Chalk displayed in rinsing out the cup and filling it to the very brim. Beyond raising her eyes to the ceiling when he took another piece of toast, she made no sign.
"You're not looking yourself," ventured Mr. Chalk, after a time.
His wife received the information silence.
"I've noticed it for some time," said the thoughtful husband, making another effort. "It's worried me."
"I'm not getting younger, I know," assented Mrs. Chalk. "But if you think that that's any excuse for your goings on, you're mistaken."
Mr. Chalk murmured something to the effect that he did not understand her.
"You understand well enough," was the reply. "When that girl came whistling over the fence last night you said you thought it was a bird."
"I did," said Mr. Chalk, hastily taking a spoonful of egg.
Mrs. Chalk's face flamed. "What sort of bird?" she demanded.
"Singin' bird," replied her husband, with nervous glibness.
Mrs. Chalk left the room.
Mr. Chalk finished his breakfast with an effort, and then, moving to the window, lit his pipe and sat for some time in moody thought. A little natural curiosity as to the identity of the fair whistler would, however, not be denied, and the names of Binchester's fairest daughters passed in review before him. Almost unconsciously he got up and surveyed himself in the glass.
"There's no accounting for tastes," he said to himself, in modest explanation.
His mind still dwelt on the subject as he stood in the hall later on in the morning, brushing his hat, preparatory to taking his usual walk. Mrs. Chalk, upstairs listening, thought that he would never have finished, and drew her own conclusions.
With the air of a man whose time hangs upon his hands Mr. Chalk sauntered slowly through the narrow by-ways of Binchester. He read all the notices pasted on the door of the Town Hall and bought some stamps at the post-office, but the morning dragged slowly, and he bent his steps at last in the direction of Tredgold's office, in the faint hope of a little conversation.
To his surprise, Mr. Tredgold senior was in an unusually affable mood. He pushed his papers aside at once, and, motioning his visitor to a chair, greeted him with much heartiness.
"Just the man I wanted to see," he said, cheerfully. "I want you to come round to my place at eight o'clock to-night. I've just seen Stobell, and he's coming too."
"I will if I can," said Mr. Chalk.
"You must come," said the other, seriously. "It's business."
"Business!" said Mr. Chalk. "I don't see—"
"You will to-night," said Mr. Tredgold, with a mysterious smile. "I've sent Edward off to town on business, and we sha'n't be interrupted. Goodbye. I'm busy."
He shook hands with his visitor and led him to the door; Chalk, after a vain attempt to obtain particulars, walked slowly home.
Despite his curiosity it was nearly half-past eight when he arrived at Mr. Tredgold's that evening, and was admitted by his host. The latter, with a somewhat trite remark about the virtues of punctuality, led the way upstairs and threw open the door of his study.
"Here he is," he announced.
A slender figure sitting bolt upright in a large grandfather-chair turned at their entrance, and revealed to the astonished Mr. Chalk the expressive features of Miss Selina Vickers; facing her at the opposite side of the room Mr. Stobell, palpably ruffled, eyed her balefully.
"This is a new client of mine," said Tredgold, indicating Miss Vickers.
Mr. Chalk said "Good evening."
"I tried to get a word with you last night," said Miss Vickers. "I was down at the bottom of your garden whistling for over ten minutes as hard as I could whistle. I wonder you didn't hear me."
"Hear you!" cried Mr. Chalk, guiltily conscious of a feeling of disappointment quite beyond his control. "What do you mean by coming and whistling for me, eh? What do you mean by it?"
"I wanted to see you private," said Miss Vickers, calmly, "but it's just as well. I went and saw Mr. Tredgold this morning instead."
"On a matter of business," said Mr. Tredgold, looking at her. "She came to me, as one of the ordinary public, about some—ha—land she's interested in."
"An island," corroborated Miss Vickers.
Mr. Chalk took a chair and looked round in amazement. "What, another?" he said, faintly.
Mr. Tredgold coughed. "My client is not a rich woman," he began.
"Chalk knows that," interrupted Mr. Stobell. "The airs and graces that girl will give herself if you go on like that——"
"But she has some property there which she is anxious to obtain," continued Mr. Tredgold, with a warning glance at the speaker. "That being so——"
"Make him wish he may die first," interposed Miss Vickers, briskly.
"Yes, yes; that's all right," said Tredgold, meeting Mr. Chalk's startled gaze.
"It will be when he's done it," retorted the determined Miss Vickers.
"It's a secret," explained Mr. Tredgold, addressing his staring friend. "And you must swear to keep it if it's told you. That's what she means. I've had to and so has Stobell."
A fierce grunt from Mr. Stobell, who was still suffering from the remembrance of an indignity against which he had protested in vain, came as confirmation. Then the marvelling Mr. Chalk rose, and instructed by Miss Vickers took an oath, the efficacy of which consisted in a fervent hope that he might die if he broke it.
"But what's it all about?" he inquired, plaintively.
Mr. Tredgold conferred with Miss Vickers, and that lady, after a moment's hesitation, drew a folded paper from her bosom and beckoned to Mr. Chalk. With a cry of amazement he recognised the identical map of Bowers's Island, which he had last seen in the hands of its namesake. It was impossible to mistake it, although an attempt to take it in his hand was promptly frustrated by the owner.
"But Captain Bowers said that he had burnt it," he cried.
Mr. Tredgold eyed him coldly. "Burnt what?" he inquired.
"The map," was the reply.
"Just so," said Tredgold. "You told me he had burnt a map."
"Is this another, then?" inquired Mr. Chalk.
"P'r'aps," said Miss Vickers, briefly.
"As the captain said he had burnt his, this must be another," said Tredgold.
"Didn't he burn it, then?" inquired Mr. Chalk.
"I should be sorry to disbelieve Captain Bowers," said Tredgold.
"Couldn't be done," said the brooding Stobell, "not if you tried."
Mr. Chalk sat still and eyed them in perplexity.
"There is no doubt that this map refers to the same treasure as the one Captain Bowers had," said Tredgold, with the air of one making a generous admission. "My client has not volunteered any statement as to how it came into her possession—"
"And she's not going to," put in Miss Vickers, dispassionately.
"It is enough for me that we have got it," resumed Mr. Tredgold. "Now, we want you to join us in fitting out a ship and recovering the treasure. Equal expenses; equal shares."
"What about Captain Bowers?" inquired Mr. Chalk.
"He is to have an equal share without any of the expense," said Tredgold. "You know he gave us permission to find it if we could, so we are not injuring anybody."
"He told us to go and find it, if you remember," said Stobell, "and we're going to."
"He'll have a fortune handed to him without any trouble or being responsible in any way," said Tredgold, impressively. "I should like to think there was somebody working to put a fortune like that into my lap. We shall have a fifth each."
"That'll be five-thousand-pounds for you, Selina," said Mr. Stobell, with a would-be benevolent smile.
Miss Vickers turned a composed little face upon him and languidly closed one eye.
"I had two prizes for arithmetic when I was at school," she remarked; "and don't you call me Selina, unless you want to be called Bobbie."
A sharp exclamation from Mr. Tredgold stopped all but the first three words of Mr. Stobell's retort, but he said the rest under his breath with considerable relish.
"Don't mind him," said Miss Vickers. "I'm half sorry I let him join, now. A man that used to work for him once told me that he was only half a gentleman, but he'd never seen that half."
Mr. Stobell, afraid to trust himself, got up and leaned out of the window.
"Well, we're all agreed, then," said Tredgold, looking round.
"Half a second," said Miss Vickers. "Before I part with this map you've all got to sign a paper promising me my proper share, and to give me twenty pounds down."
Mr. Tredgold hesitated and looked serious. Mr. Chalk, somewhat dazed by the events of the evening, blinked at him solemnly. Mr. Stobell withdrew his head from the window and spoke.
"TWENTY-POUNDS!" he growled.
"Twenty pounds," repeated Miss Vickers, "or four hundred shillings, if you like it better. If you wait a moment I'll make it pennies."
She leaned back in her chair and, screwing her eyes tight, began the calculation. "Twelve noughts are nought," she said, in a gabbling whisper; "twelve noughts are nought, twelve fours are forty—"
"All right," said Mr. Tredgold, who had been regarding this performance with astonished disapproval. "You shall have the twenty pounds, but there is no necessity for us to sign any paper."
"No, there's no necessity," said Miss Vickers, opening her small, sharp eyes again, "only, if you don't do it, I'll find somebody that will."
Mr. Tredgold argued with her, but in vain; Mr. Chalk, taking up the argument and expanding it, fared no better; and Mr. Stobell, opening his mouth to contribute his mite, was quelled before he could get a word out.
"Them's my terms," said Miss Vickers; "take'em or leave'em, just as you please. I give you five minutes by the clock to make up your minds; Mr. Stobell can have six, because thinking takes him longer. And if you agree to do what's right—and I'm letting you off easy—Mr. Tredgold is to keep the map and never to let it go out of his sight for a single instant."
She put her head round the side of the chair to make a note of the time, and then, sitting upright with her arms folded, awaited their decision. Before the time was up the terms were accepted, and Mr. Tredgold, drawing his chair to the table, prepared to draw up the required agreement.
He composed several, but none which seemed to give general satisfaction. At the seventh attempt, however, he produced an agreement which, alluding in vague terms to a treasure quest in the Southern Seas on the strength of a map provided by Miss Vickers, promised one-fifth of the sum recovered to that lady, and was considered to meet the exigencies of the case. Miss Vickers herself, without being enthusiastic, said that she supposed it would have to do.
Another copy was avoided, but only with great difficulty, owing to her criticism of Mr. Stobell's signature. It took the united and verbose efforts of Messrs. Chalk and Tredgold to assure her that it was in his usual style, and rather a good signature for him than otherwise. Miss Vickers, viewing it with her head on one side, asked whether he couldn't make his mark instead; a question which Mr. Stobell, at the pressing instance of his friends, left unanswered. Then Tredgold left the room to pay a visit to his safe, and, the other two gentlemen turning out their pockets, the required sum was made up, and with the agreement handed to Miss Vickers in exchange for the map.
She bade them good-night, and then, opening the door, paused with her hand on the knob and stood irresolute.
"I hope I've done right," she said, somewhat nervously. "It was no good to anybody laying idle and being wasted. I haven't stolen anything."
"No, no," said Tredgold, hastily.
"It seems ridiculous for all that money to be wasted," continued Miss Vickers, musingly. "It doesn't belong to anybody, so nobody can be hurt by our taking it, and we can do a lot of good with it, if we like. I shall give some of mine away to the poor. We all will. I'll have it put in this paper."
She fumbled in her bodice for the document, and walked towards them.
"We can't alter it now," said Mr. Tredgold, decidedly.
"We'll do what's right," said Mr. Chalk, reassuringly.
Miss Vickers smiled at him. "Yes, I know you will," she said, graciously, "and I think Mr. Tredgold will, but—"
"You're leaving that door open," said Mr. Stobell, coldly, "and the draught's blowing my head off, pretty near."
Miss Vickers eyed him scornfully, but in the absence of a crushing reply disdained one at all. She contented herself instead by going outside and closing the door after her with a sharpness which stirred every hair on his head.
"It's a most extraordinary thing," said Mr. Chalk, as the three bent exultingly over the map. "I could ha' sworn to this map in a court of justice."
"Don't you worry your head about it," advised Mr. Stobell.
"You've got your way at last," said Tredgold, with some severity. "We're going for a cruise with you, and here you are raising objections."
"Not objections," remonstrated the other; "and, talking about the voyage, what about Mrs. Chalk? She'll want to come."
"So will Mrs. Stobell," said that lady's proprietor, "but she won't."
"She mustn't hear of it till the last moment," said Tredgold, dictatorially; "the quieter we keep the whole thing the better. You're not to divulge a word of the cruise to anybody. When it does leak out it must be understood we are just going for a little pleasure jaunt. Mind, you've sworn to keep the whole affair secret."
Mr. Chalk screwed up his features in anxious perplexity, but made no comment.
"The weather's fine," continued Tredgold, "and there's nothing gained by delay. On Wednesday we'll take the train to Biddlecombe and have a look round. My idea is to buy a small, stout sailing-craft second-hand; ship a crew ostensibly for a pleasure trip, and sail as soon as possible."
Mr. Chalk's face brightened. "And we'll take some beads, and guns, and looking-glasses, and trade with the natives in the different islands we pass," he said, cheerfully. "We may as well see something of the world while we're about it."
Mr. Tredgold smiled indulgently and said they would see. Messrs. Stobell and Chalk, after a final glance at the map and a final perusal of the instructions at the back, took their departure.
"It's like a dream," said the latter gentleman, as they walked down the High Street.
"That Vickers girl ud like more dreams o' the same sort," said Mr. Stobell, as he thrust his hand in his empty pocket.
"It's all very well for you," continued Mr. Chalk, uneasily. "But my wife is sure to insist upon coming."
Mr. Stobell sniffed. "I've got a wife too," he remarked.
"Yes," said Mr. Chalk, in a burst of unwonted frankness, "but it ain't quite the same thing. I've got a wife and Mrs. Stobell has got a husband—that's the difference."
Mr. Stobell pondered this remark for the rest of the way home. He came to the conclusion that the events of the evening had made Mr. Chalk a little light-headed.