Much to the surprise of their friends, who had not expected them home until November or December, telegrams were received from the adventurers, one day towards the end of September, announcing that they had landed at the Albert Docks and were on their way home by the earliest train. The most agreeable explanation of so short a voyage was that, having found the treasure, they had resolved to return home by steamer, leaving the Fair Emily to return at her leisure. But Captain Bowers, to whom Mrs. Chalk propounded this solution, suggested several others.
He walked down to the station in the evening to see the train come in, his curiosity as to the bearing and general state of mind of the travellers refusing to be denied. He had intended to witness the arrival from a remote corner of the platform, but to his surprise it was so thronged with sightseers that the precaution was unnecessary. The news of the return had spread like wildfire, and half Binchester had congregated to welcome their fellow-townsmen and congratulate them upon their romantically acquired wealth.
Despite the crowd the captain involuntarily shrank back as the train rattled into the station. The carriage containing the travellers stopped almost in front of him, and their consternation and annoyance at the extent of their reception were plainly visible. Bronzed and healthy-looking, they stepped out on to the platform, and after a brief greeting to Mrs. Chalk and Mrs. Stobell led the way in some haste to the exit. The crowd pressed close behind, and inquiries as to the treasure and its approximate value broke clamorously upon the ears of the maddened Mr. Stobell. Friends of many years who sought for particulars were shouldered aside, and it was left to Mr. Chalk, who struggled along in the rear with his wife, to announce that they had been shipwrecked.
Captain Bowers, who had just caught the word, heard the full particulars from him next day. For once the positions were reversed, and Mr. Chalk, who had so often sat in that room listening to the captain's yarns, swelled with pride as he noted the rapt fashion in which the captain listened to his. The tale of the shipwreck he regarded as a disagreeable necessity: a piece of paste flaunting itself among gems. In a few words he told how the Fair Emily crashed on to a reef in the middle of the night, and how, owing to the darkness and confusion, the boat into which he had got with Stobell and Tredgold was cast adrift; how a voice raised to a shriek cried to them to pull away, and how a minute afterwards the schooner disappeared with all hands.
"It almost unnerved me," he said, turning to Miss Drewitt, who was listening intently.
"You are sure she went down, I suppose?" said the captain; "she didn't just disappear in the darkness?"
"Sank like a stone," said Mr. Chalk, decidedly. "Our boat was nearly swamped in the vortex. Fortunately, the sea was calm, and when day broke we saw a small island about three miles away on our weather-beam."
"Where?" inquired Edward Tredgold, who had just looked in on the way to the office. Mr. Chalk explained.
"You tell the story much better than my father does," said Edward, nodding. "From the way he tells it one might think that you had the island in the boat with you."
Mr. Chalk started nervously. "It was three miles away on our weather-beam," he repeated, "the atmosphere clear and the sea calm. We sat down to a steady pull, and made the land in a little under the hour."
"Who did the pulling?" inquired Edward, casually.
Mr. Chalk started again, and wondered who had done it in Mr. Tredgold's version. He resolved to see him as soon as possible and arrange details.
"Most of us took a turn at it," he said, evasively, "and those who didn't encouraged the others."
"Most of you!" exclaimed the bewildered captain; "and those who didn't— but how many?"
"The events of that night are somewhat misty," interrupted Mr. Chalk, hastily. "The suddenness of the calamity and the shock of losing our shipmates—"
"It's wonderful to me that you can remember so much," said Edward, with a severe glance at the captain.
Mr. Chalk paid no heed. Having reached the island, the rest was truth and plain sailing. He described their life there until they were taken off by a trading schooner from Auckland, and how for three months they cruised with her among the islands. He spoke learnedly of atolls, copra, and missionaries, and, referring for a space to the Fijian belles, thought that their charms had been much overrated. Edward Tredgold, waiting until the three had secured berths in the s.s. Silver Star, trading between Auckland and London, took his departure.
Miss Vickers, who had been spending the day with a friend at Dutton Priors, and had missed the arrival in consequence, heard of the disaster in a mingled state of wrath and despair. The hopes of a year were shattered in a second, and, rejecting with fierceness the sympathy of her family, she went up to her room and sat brooding in the darkness.
She came down the next morning, pale from want of sleep. Mr. Vickers, who was at breakfast, eyed her curiously until, meeting her gaze in return, he blotted it out with a tea-cup.
"When you've done staring," said his daughter, "you can go upstairs and make yourself tidy."
"Tidy?" repeated Mr. Vickers. "What for?"
"I'm going to see those three," replied Selina, grimly; "and I want a witness. And I may as well have a clean one while I'm about it."
Mr. Vickers darted upstairs with alacrity, and having made himself approximately tidy smoked a morning pipe on the doorstep while his daughter got ready. An air of importance and dignity suitable to the occasion partly kept off inquirers.
"We'll go and see Mr. Stobell first," said his daughter, as she came out.
"Very good," said the witness, "but if you asked my advice——"
"You just keep quiet," said Selina, irritably; "I've not gone quite off my head yet. And don't hum!"
Mr. Vickers lapsed into offended silence, and, arrived at Mr. Stobell's, followed his daughter into the hall in so stately a fashion that the maid—lately of Mint Street—implored him not to eat her. Miss Vickers replied for him, and the altercation that ensued was only quelled by the appearance of Mr. Stobell at the dining-room door.
"Halloa! What do you want?" he inquired, staring at the intruders.
"I've come for my share," said Miss Vickers, eyeing him fiercely.
"Share?" repeated Mr. Stobell. "Share? Why, we've been shipwrecked. Haven't you heard?"
"Perhaps you came to my house when I wasn't at home," retorted Miss Vickers, in a trembling but sarcastic voice. "I want to hear about it. That's what I've come for."
She walked to the dining-room and, as Mr. Stobell still stood in the doorway, pushed past him, followed by her father. Mr. Stobell, after a short deliberation, returned to his seat at the breakfast-table, and in an angry and disjointed fashion narrated the fate of the Fair Emily and their subsequent adventures. Miss Vickers heard him to an end in silence.
"What time was it when the ship struck on the rock?" she inquired.
Mr. Stobell stared at her. "Eleven o'clock," he said, gruffly.
Miss Vickers made a note in a little red-covered memorandum-book.
"Who got in the boat first?" she demanded.
Mr. Stobell's lips twisted in a faint grin. "Chalk did," he said, with relish.
Miss Vickers, nodding at the witness to call his attention to the fact, made another note.
"How far was the boat off when the ship sank?"
"Here, look here—" began the indignant Stobell.
"How far was the boat off?" interposed the witness, severely; "that's what we want to know."
"You hold your tongue," said his daughter.
"I'm doing the talking. How far was the boat off?"
"About four yards," replied Mr. Stobell. "And now look here; if you want to know any more, you go and see Mr. Chalk. I'm sick and tired of the whole business. And you'd no right to talk about it while we were away."
"I've got the paper you signed and I'm going to know the truth," said Miss Vickers, fiercely. "It's my right. What was the size of the island?"
Mr. Stobell maintained an obstinate silence.
"What colour did you say these 'ere Fidgetty islanders was?" inquired Mr. Vickers, with truculent curiosity.
"You get out," roared Stobell, rising. "At once. D'ye hear me?"
Mr. Vickers backed with some haste towards the door. His daughter followed slowly.
"I don't believe you," she said, turning sharply on Stobell. "I don't believe the ship was wrecked at all."
Mr. Stobell sat gasping at her. "What?" he stammered. "W h-a-a-t?"
"I don't believe it was wrecked," repeated Selina, wildly. "You've got the treasure all right, and you're keeping it quiet and telling this tale to do me out of my share. I haven't done with you yet. You wait!"
She flung out into the hall, and Mr. Vickers, after a lofty glance at Mr. Stobell, followed her outside.
"And now we'll go and hear what Mr. Tredgold has to say," she said, as they walked up the road. "And after that, Mr. Chalk."
Mr. Tredgold was just starting for the office when they arrived, but, recognising the justice of Miss Vickers's request for news, he stopped and gave his version of the loss of the Fair Emily. In several details it differed from that of Mr. Stobell, and he looked at her uneasily as she took out pencil and paper and made notes.
"If you want any further particulars you had better go and see Mr. Stobell," he said, restlessly. "I am busy."
"We've just been to see him," replied Miss Vickers, with an ominous gleam in her eye. "You say that the boat was two or three hundred yards away when the ship sank?"
"More or less," was the cautious reply.
"Mr. Stobell said about half a mile," suggested the wily Selina.
"Well, perhaps that would be more correct," said the other.
"Half a mile, then?"
"Half a mile," said Mr. Tredgold, nodding, as she wrote it down.
"Four yards was what Mr. Stobell said," exclaimed Selina, excitedly. "I've got it down here, and father heard it. And you make the time it happened and a lot of other things different. I don't believe that you were any more shipwrecked than I was."
"Not so much," added the irrepressible Mr. Vickers.
Mr. Tredgold walked to the door. "I am busy," he said, curtly. "Good morning."
Miss Vickers passed him with head erect, and her small figure trembling with rage and determination. By the time she had cross-examined Mr. Chalk her wildest suspicions were confirmed. His account differed in several particulars from the others, and his alarm and confusion when taxed with the discrepancies were unmistakable.
Binchester rang with the story of her wrongs, and, being furnished with three different accounts of the same incident, seemed inclined to display a little pardonable curiosity. To satisfy this, intimates of the gentlemen most concerned were provided with an official version, which Miss Vickers discovered after a little research was compiled for the most part by adding all the statements together and dividing by three. She paid another round of visits to tax them with the fact, and, strong in the justice of her cause, even followed them in the street demanding her money.
"There's one comfort," she said to the depressed Mr. Tasker. "I've got you, Joseph. They can't take you away from me."
"There's nobody could do that," responded Mr. Tasker, with a sigh of resignation.
"And if I had to choose," continued Miss Vickers, putting her arm round his waist, "I'd sooner have you than a hundred thousand pounds."
Mr. Tasker sighed again at the idea of an article estimated at so high a figure passing into the possession of Selina Vickers. In a voice broken with emotion he urged her to persevere in her claims to a fortune which he felt would alone make his fate tolerable. The unsuspecting Selina promised.
"She'll quiet down in time," said Captain Bowers to Mr. Chalk, after the latter had been followed nearly all the way to Dialstone Lane by Miss Vickers, airing her grievance and calling upon him to remedy it. "Once she realizes the fact that the ship is lost, she'll be all right."
Mr. Chalk looked unconvinced. "She doesn't want to realize it," he said, shaking his head.
"She'll be all right in time," repeated the captain; "and after all, you know," he added, with gentle severity, "you deserve to suffer a little. You had no business with that map."