AS the grey dawn was stealing over the harbour of a south coast town one autumnal morning, a tug-boat might have been seen making its way out towards the English Channel which lay beyond.
It was a fussy, snorting, grimy, self-sufficient-looking craft, this tug. From the sooty top of its funnel it poured forth almost enough black smoke for a man-o'-war, and it was tooting with its shrill, chirpy siren as though it were a Cunarder at least, and expected everything afloat to clear out of its path.
It was towing a barge, and as it threaded its noisy way amongst the crowd of other vessels, large and small, many of those on board them turned to stare after it. It was not that the pair were unfamiliar objects, for it was known to most mariners thereabouts that the tug was the Otter, and that the barge carried a party of deep-sea divers and their outfit.
"There goes 'Mat, the Diver,'" a sailor on board a schooner lying at anchor remarked to a mate. "He be a-goin' out after gold to the wreck o' the Dolphin, as was run down t'other night in the fog. They do say as it be a mighty risky job, for the wreck lies twenty-four fathoms deep, an' what makes it worse the tide just theer do run uncommon strong. Nobody else would tackle it, not even for the big price as be offered. But I heered yest'day as Mat Herron's took it on. I s'poses if he's lucky he'll make a tidy bit out on it—but I'd rayther him try fur it than me!"
This voiced the general opinion in the port; and it is no matter for wonder, therefore, that the start of the diving party was watched with more than ordinary interest and curiosity.
On board the barge Mat himself was talking to one of his assistants in a fashion which showed that he was fully aware of the unusually dangerous nature of the undertaking he had in hand. He was a man advanced in years, with a weather-worn visage which habitually wore a stern and forbidding, expression, and he was at all times rough and curt, and reticent of speech. The assistant he was addressing was a contrast to him in almost every way. Though working under Mat for the wages of a working diver, everyone who knew him was aware that he must originally have been one of a very different class from that to which such men usually belong. His name was Jack Gale; but amongst his fellow-workers he was more commonly known as Gentleman Jack—a fact which almost explains itself. It tells at once of some young fellow who has been well educated, and brought up amid very different surroundings, and who has manfully thrown all pride to the winds and taken to the first honest work which offered itself in order to avert starvation.
This had been Jack Gale's position three years before, only that in his case it was a question of starvation not merely for himself alone, but for an invalid mother and young sister in their home in the North. So when the crisis came which had cast him suddenly upon his own resources, he had paid the little money he had been able to scrape together as a premium to Herron, the diver, to take him on as his assistant and teach him the work. Jack's people knew not that the money he sent them every week was earned at so risky a trade. He had kept them in ignorance upon that point, fearing that they might otherwise refuse to accept it. It was enough for him to know that he could not have learnt to earn so much in the time in any other way.
Great was his surprise this particular morning at what Mat Herron was saying, and the singular change in the diver's manner. For though he and Herron had got on fairly well together on the whole, and Jack knew him to be plucky and skilful at his work, he had always appeared a sombre, reserved, character, with little to say, surly and unsympathetic in manner, and greedy and grasping in disposition. The latter quality it was, in Jack's estimation, which had caused him to attempt the recovery of the boxes of gold on the wrecked vessel—a task which every other diver in the district had declined, in spite of the tempting reward offered.
"This is what I wants of ye," Mat was saying. "In case anythin' 'appens t' me. Under the bed in my room ye'll find a box, an' the key be in a drawer. I wants ye t' open it an' t' read the papers in it, an' a dociment as I've writ out after a good deal o' thought an 'trouble. Ye'll find some money theer too, an' I wants ye t' apply it t' the purposes I've set down in that dociment, d'ye see—all but what ye'll see ye're t' keep fur yerself fur yer trouble."
As may be supposed, Jack stared as he listened to these details of the strange task thus unexpectedly thrust upon him. More particularly did he wonder at the confidence it implied, and that he, of all the diver's acquaintances, should have been selected for the trust. He put this point to Mat, but the man turned it aside, and in response to Jack's objections only stuck doggedly to his request. Evidently the old man had recognised in his own mind the difference between "Gentleman Jack" and his fellows, and had decided that he would rather trust him than anyone else he knew.
As argument proved fruitless, Jack at last gave the required promise. But he made a mental reservation that it applied to that particular time only. If, as he hoped, they succeeded in the task before them, and returned in safety to the shore, he was resolved that he would make the diver draw up a proper will instead of the informal "dociment" which had been spoken of, and insist upon somebody else being appointed to carry out its provisions, whatever they might be.
In due time the two vessels reached the scene of the wreck, and there the barge was moored, the tug remaining near, to be at hand in case she was wanted. Jack and his fellows helped Mat into his diving suit, and a little later he went over the side and disappeared from view.
As Jack watched him sink beneath the waves a feeling of depression stole over him such as he had never felt before in similar circumstances, and which he could in no wise account for. Certainly the scene was dreary and depressing enough. Overhead the sky was grey and lowering, around there was nothing to be seen save the grey-green waves rising and falling, nothing to be heard save the peculiar sucking sound as they pattered continuously against the sides of the barge, or the desolate cries of the seabirds as they wheeled and circled in the air above.
Jack felt some consolation in the fact that he could talk to the diver and ascertain from him all the while how he was progressing. For the whole of the apparatus was of the best and most up-to-date description, and Mat carried with him a telephone with which he could communicate with those on the barge.
For a time all went well. Mat reported through the telephone that he had found no difficulty in climbing on board the wreck by the bow, and later that he had fixed a ladder there to facilitate his return. A little later still he had made his way into the captain's cabin, and had reached the boxes of gold which he had been told he would find there. Then came the news that he had dragged one of the boxes up on to the deck, ready for a rope to be attached to haul it up.
For a while after this there was silence; and then came the ominous information that while the diver had been in the cabin the tide, which at that time was increasing, in strength, had forced his life-line and air-tube against the bow, and got them tangled up round the anchor and a mass of loose wreckage which lay there.
The minutes which followed were anxious ones, and then came the announcement from Mat that the current was too strong to allow of his getting his lines free, and that he wanted help.
The owners' agent, Mr. Mendford, called for a volunteer to go down; and Jack's heart bounded within him as he saw that the other men, who by reason of their seniority were asked first, hung back. While they hesitated he volunteered, and was accepted; and, as quickly as was possible, he donned a diving-suit and went over the side.
He made his way to where Herron was standing, and found that he was afraid to stir, for the position was such that any movement on his part might have broken or ruptured his air-tube, which would have meant certain death. Jack speedily found out where the trouble lay, and set to work to free him. But he also found that as fast as he freed one part another would get entangled, and all the time he had a growing conviction that the conditions at that depth were very different from any he had experienced before.
The great pressure of the water made itself felt more and more, there was a singing in his ears, and he began to suffer from headache. Presently, when he thought he had nearly freed Herron's lines, he suddenly discovered that his own had become entangled.
Then there began a terrible fight for life—for his own as well as for Mat's. As fast as he disentangled the lines or tubes in one place, the swirl of the current carried them against wreckage in another, and the work had to be commenced all over again. The worst of it was that Herron, who was up on the deck, while Jack was now working below him, was so situated that he could not help at all. He dared not move, but had to remain in the one place hour after hour, watching and waiting, while his would-be rescuer toiled and strove, wrestled with the difficulties of the situation, and persevered with seemingly tireless persistence in his endeavours to save him.
Jack Gale understood now, for the first time, why all the other experienced divers had not volunteered. He perceived why it was that even the rich rewards held out by the owners had failed to tempt them, and he began to feel sore against Mat, considering that it was his greed which had led to their both being in this awful peril.
More than once he debated with himself whether he should make a hauling-line fast round the old man and himself, and signal to those above to haul him up, and then cut the air-tubes and lines, trusting to their both being hauled up before they were suffocated. But each time the idea occurred to him he decided that it would be too perilous.
His head began to feel as if it must burst, and once or twice it seemed to swim and he nearly lost consciousness. And then, at last, when he had almost given up all hope, he found that the tide was slackening. He had been working down there so long that the ebb was near, which meant that the current would practically shortly fall away altogether.
Revived by the hope that this put into him, he started with fresh energy, and at last had the satisfaction of getting all the tubes and lines clear, and finding that they remained so. Then he gave the signal to haul up, and from that moment he remembered no more till he came to himself on board the barge, and found a doctor whom he knew bending over him. While he had been working so heroically below, those on board the tug had provided for possible emergencies by going back to the harbour and bringing off a doctor.
"Ha! You're better now, lad," said Dr. Robins, as he saw Jack's eyes open.
"And Mat—what about him?" Jack gasped out.
The doctor shook his head. "Poor fellow, I fear the worst—I am afraid he is done for. He was bleeding at the nose and mouth when we got him aboard, and he's still unconscious. It was folly for him to offer to go down to such a depth at his age. It's been touch and go with you, I can tell you; and you were not down nearly so long as he was, they tell me."
Herron was still unconscious when he was carried ashore, taken to his cottage, and put to bed. As he lived quite alone, Jack, although still very shaky himself, went with him to look after him.
It was not till late at night that the old man opened his eyes, and after a time recognised his rescuer. Jack would have had him remain quiet, but all his cautions were vain.
"My lad," he said, "I feels as if I ain't got much more time in this world. My cable's a'most run out, so it doant make much diff'rence whether I talk or not. Anyway, theer's that t' be said, an' must be said, so I wants you t' listen, and gi' me your solemn oath as you'll do as I ask ye to."
"I'll give you my word—my solemn promise, Mat, if it is nothing against my conscience."
"Agen yer conscience? No; it be t'other way about; it be t' right a wrong—a crool wrong—that's what I wants ye t' do.
"It be about four or five year agone as I wur tempted by the devil. Up t' then I'd allus tried t' do me dooty—but—well, I went through 'ard times. I 'ad a boat—a fine lugger—an' she wur lost, an' she weren't insured. Then my whoam, that I had then, was burnt down about me ears, an' I only just crawled out wi' me wife an' our darter. Before that I'd given up divin' work, thinkin' I wur gettin' too old, but I 'ad t' go back to it when I lost my boat.
"A'most the fust job I got arter I started agen wur one very much like this one as 'a bin too much fur me. I was asked t' go down t' a wreck as lay very deep; but 'twasn't fur the owners nor 'twasn't fur the underwriters. 'Twer for a private matter. A gent came an' offered me a tidy sum o' money if I'd try t' find the body of a passenger who'd bin aboard her, and recover whatever I could belongin' to 'im. I found the poor feller right enough, and took a belt from round his waist. Now, belts like that be sometimes filled wi' gold; but this 'ad only papers—a lot of 'em, done up tight in indja rubber, 'so 's t' keep 'em from gettin' wet if anything 'appened.
"Now, I somehow guessed as the man who wanted them papers 'adn't no right t' 'em—an' I wur tempted t' read 'em in order t' see if I couldn't make 'im gi' me more 'n he'd bargained for. Sure enough it turned out so. I didn't unnerstan' 'em all exactly, but I guessed at a good deal, an' seem' as he wur so anxious t' get 'em I made 'im gi' me a good round sum for 'em—quite enuff t' set me up agen. But I warn't satisfied wi' that. I says t' meself, 'Praps some day more misfortins may come about an' I may want more money.' So I kep' back some o' the papers, an' he never knew but what he 'ad 'em all.
"Now, me lad, let this be a lesson to ye. It never did me no good. I didn't come t' want money agen, it is true; but I had no luck other ways. Our darter died, an' then me wife died, an' I wur left alone in the world; an' I saw as I'd bin wrong, an' I cursed the day when I sold them papers to a man as I knowed 'ad no right to 'em an' helped t' keep another—as I believes now—out o' his rights. Since I saw things in that light I've bin doin' me best t' make restetooshun. I've worked, an' saved t' get enuff t' send out advertisements an' pay lawyers or somebody t' find the chap as ought t' 'ave had them papers. D'ye see? Now, will ye swear t' me solemn as ye'll do this fur me? Ye'll find theer'll be 'nuff money over t' pay yerself lib'ral—an' I b'leeves I can trust t' yer honour t' carry it all out honest."
"I'll do that, Mat, my friend," said Jack, in earnest tones that carried comfort and conviction to the heart of the repentant diver. "But I can't take any money payment for it beyond bare expenses. I couldn't bring myself to make any profit out of such a trust. Tell me the names, and give me some idea how you want me to set to work."
"Get out the box from under the bed, an' gi' me the key ye'll find in the drawer over yonder. It takes a load off me mind t' hear ye promise so hearty—but, lad, it would take a greater load off if ye could find the right man afore I die, an' I could hear 'im say as he'll forgive me."
Jack found the box and the key, and a little later he was engaged in looking over the papers.
Suddenly he uttered a startled cry, the blood rushed from his heart to his head, and then back again, leaving his face deadly pale.
"Mat!" he gasped, in a voice that seemed half-stifled. "Mat! What is this? Surely! it cannot be! The name can't be Elsworthy?"
Herron stared at the questioner in surprise. "Aye," he said, feebly, "that be the name. Do ye know it?"
"Know it? Why—it's ours. That—is, I mean my mother's name was Elsworthy. Was the ship you went down to named the Tasmanian?"
"Aye, aye, but—"
"Mat, you have here the papers we want to prove my title to the Elsworthy Estates! I am the heir to them! My father was lost on that ship! He had been out to Australia to try to secure these very papers, and was returning when the vessel was wrecked. It was from his dead body that you took the belt! Where—is—he—buried? Under what name?"
"He wur took ashore an' buried wi'out no name," was the shamefaced answer. "Because, ye see, most of the people on board was drowned wi' him, an' nobody seemed t' know him."
"Aye, I see!" cried Jack. "You and this other man between you had stolen everything by which he could be identified, and so—so—you left him to he buried in a pauper's grave, nameless and unknown!"
Jack had risen to his feet, his eyes flashing with anger and indignation, and he was pointing an accusing finger at the shrinking figure on the bed.
"Heaven help me! I know I've bin wicked, wicked, wicked!" groaned the diver. "An' what makes it worse fur me be that you, that I've wronged so, have nearly lost yer own life this day a-tryin' t' save mine! What shall I do? How shall I die? I wanted ter make some restetooshun, but now—now—" The voice died away in a hopeless, despairing moan.
Jack, who had begun to pace restlessly up and down the little room, stopped and gazed hard at the diver. And in those few moments many thoughts passed through his mind. He had thought this man greedy and miserly. But had he been? If he had been scraping, and saving, and denying himself in order, as the poor fellow quaintly put it, to 'make restitution,' why, then, there was much to be said on the other side. That his repentance had been sincere was evidenced by the trust he had proposed to place in Jack's hands, by which he was to use the money thus scraped together to find out the true heir, and do the best that could be done to remedy the wrong in which he had aided. And, after all, Jack reflected, the man who had tempted him had been most to blame.
Jack went to the bed, and, leaning over it, took Herron's hand in his.
"Mat!" he said, softly. "Mat, cheer up! Let there be no bad feeling between you and me! You have dealt honestly by me in trying to teach me all you could, and it is thanks to you that I, a mere 'prentice hand, have been able to earn as much money as older men, and so have had some over to send home. I am not going to forget it, and if I say that I forgive you—"
Mat roused up, as though there had come to him a fresh lease of life.
"Ye forgives me?" he exclaimed, incredulously, staring hard at the young fellow. "Say it agen—say it agen! I carn't b'leeve me ears!"
Jack said it again, and more, too, while Mat lay there listening hungrily to words that sounded too good to be true.
And, strange to say, in spite of what the doctor had feared, Mat did not die. From the moment when the terrible burden that had so long lain on his mind had been lifted, and he felt that he was in very truth forgiven, he began to mend, and finally recovered.
But neither he nor Jack did any more diving work. When the latter, in due time, took the place in the world to which he was entitled, Mat went to live in a trim little cottage on his estate. And Jack, and his mother and sister, and Mat, are now all great friends, much to the wonderment of the gossiping folk of the countryside. But that is because Jack keeps his own counsel, and has never told those curious people this strange story of the Diver's. Secret.