Story type: Literature
Cape May and Cape Henlopen form, as it were, the upper and lower jaws of a gigantic mouth, which disgorges from its monstrous gullet the cloudy waters of the Delaware Bay into the heaving, sparkling blue-green of the Atlantic Ocean. From Cape Henlopen as the lower jaw there juts out a long, curving fang of high, smooth-rolling sand dunes, cutting sharp and clean against the still, blue sky above–silent, naked, utterly deserted, excepting for the squat, white-walled lighthouse standing upon the crest of the highest hill. Within this curving, sheltering hook of sand hills lie the smooth waters of Lewes Harbor, and, set a little back from the shore, the quaint old town, with its dingy wooden houses of clapboard and shingle, looks sleepily out through the masts of the shipping lying at anchor in the harbor, to the purple, clean-cut, level thread of the ocean horizon beyond.
Lewes is a queer, odd, old-fashioned little town, smelling fragrant of salt marsh and sea breeze. It is rarely visited by strangers. The people who live there are the progeny of people who have lived there for many generations, and it is the very place to nurse, and preserve, and care for old legends and traditions of bygone times, until they grow from bits of gossip and news into local history of considerable size. As in the busier world men talk of last year’s elections, here these old bits, and scraps, and odds and ends of history are retailed to the listener who cares to listen–traditions of the War of 1812, when Beresford’s fleet lay off the harbor threatening to bombard the town; tales of the Revolution and of Earl Howe’s warships, tarrying for a while in the quiet harbor before they sailed up the river to shake old Philadelphia town with the thunders of their guns at Red Bank and Fort Mifflin.
With these substantial and sober threads of real history, other and more lurid colors are interwoven into the web of local lore–legends of the dark doings of famous pirates, of their mysterious, sinister comings and goings, of treasures buried in the sand dunes and pine barrens back of the cape and along the Atlantic beach to the southward.
Of such is the story of Blueskin, the pirate.
It was in the fall and the early winter of the year 1750, and again in the summer of the year following, that the famous pirate, Blueskin, became especially identified with Lewes as a part of its traditional history.
For some time–for three or four years–rumors and reports of Blueskin’s doings in the West Indies and off the Carolinas had been brought in now and then by sea captains. There was no more cruel, bloody, desperate, devilish pirate than he in all those pirate-infested waters. All kinds of wild and bloody stories were current concerning him, but it never occurred to the good folk of Lewes that such stories were some time to be a part of their own history.
But one day a schooner came drifting into Lewes harbor–shattered, wounded, her forecastle splintered, her foremast shot half away, and three great tattered holes in her mainsail. The mate with one of the crew came ashore in the boat for help and a doctor. He reported that the captain and the cook were dead and there were three wounded men aboard. The story he told to the gathering crowd brought a very peculiar thrill to those who heard it. They had fallen in with Blueskin, he said, off Fenwick’s Island (some twenty or thirty miles below the capes), and the pirates had come aboard of them; but, finding that the cargo of the schooner consisted only of cypress shingles and lumber, had soon quitted their prize. Perhaps Blueskin was disappointed at not finding a more valuable capture; perhaps the spirit of deviltry was hotter in him that morning than usual; anyhow, as the pirate craft bore away she fired three broadsides at short range into the helpless coaster. The captain had been killed at the first fire, the cook had died on the way up, three of the crew were wounded, and the vessel was leaking fast, betwixt wind and water.
Such was the mate’s story. It spread like wildfire, and in half an hour all the town was in a ferment. Fenwick’s Island was very near home; Blueskin might come sailing into the harbor at any minute and then–! In an hour Sheriff Jones had called together most of the able-bodied men of the town, muskets and rifles were taken down from the chimney places, and every preparation was made to defend the place against the pirates, should they come into the harbor and attempt to land.
But Blueskin did not come that day, nor did he come the next or the next. But on the afternoon of the third the news went suddenly flying over the town that the pirates were inside the capes. As the report spread the people came running–men, women, and children–to the green before the tavern, where a little knot of old seamen were gathered together, looking fixedly out toward the offing, talking in low voices. Two vessels, one bark-rigged, the other and smaller a sloop, were slowly creeping up the bay, a couple of miles or so away and just inside the cape. There appeared nothing remarkable about the two crafts, but the little crowd that continued gathering upon the green stood looking out across the bay at them none the less anxiously for that. They were sailing close-hauled to the wind, the sloop following in the wake of her consort as the pilot fish follows in the wake of the shark.
But the course they held did not lie toward the harbor, but rather bore away toward the Jersey shore, and by and by it began to be apparent that Blueskin did not intend visiting the town. Nevertheless, those who stood looking did not draw a free breath until, after watching the two pirates for more than an hour and a half, they saw them–then about six miles away–suddenly put about and sail with a free wind out to sea again.
“The bloody villains have gone!” said old Captain Wolfe, shutting his telescope with a click.
But Lewes was not yet quit of Blueskin. Two days later a half-breed from Indian River bay came up, bringing the news that the pirates had sailed into the inlet–some fifteen miles below Lewes–and had careened the bark to clean her.
Perhaps Blueskin did not care to stir up the country people against him, for the half-breed reported that the pirates were doing no harm, and that what they took from the farmers of Indian River and Rehoboth they paid for with good hard money.
It was while the excitement over the pirates was at its highest fever heat that Levi West came home again.
Even in the middle of the last century the grist mill, a couple of miles from Lewes, although it was at most but fifty or sixty years old, had all a look of weather-beaten age, for the cypress shingles, of which it was built, ripen in a few years of wind and weather to a silvery, hoary gray, and the white powdering of flour lent it a look as though the dust of ages had settled upon it, making the shadows within dim, soft, mysterious. A dozen willow trees shaded with dappling, shivering ripples of shadow the road before the mill door, and the mill itself, and the long, narrow, shingle-built, one-storied, hip-roofed dwelling house. At the time of the story the mill had descended in a direct line of succession to Hiram White, the grandson of old Ephraim White, who had built it, it was said, in 1701.
Hiram White was only twenty-seven years old, but he was already in local repute as a “character.” As a boy he was thought to be half-witted or “natural,” and, as is the case with such unfortunates in small country towns where everybody knows everybody, he was made a common sport and jest for the keener, crueler wits of the neighborhood. Now that he was grown to the ripeness of manhood he was still looked upon as being–to use a quaint expression–“slack,” or “not jest right.” He was heavy, awkward, ungainly and loose-jointed, and enormously, prodigiously strong. He had a lumpish, thick-featured face, with lips heavy and loosely hanging, that gave him an air of stupidity, half droll, half pathetic. His little eyes were set far apart and flat with his face, his eyebrows were nearly white and his hair was of a sandy, colorless kind. He was singularly taciturn, lisping thickly when he did talk, and stuttering and hesitating in his speech, as though his words moved faster than his mind could follow. It was the custom for local wags to urge, or badger, or tempt him to talk, for the sake of the ready laugh that always followed the few thick, stammering words and the stupid drooping of the jaw at the end of each short speech. Perhaps Squire Hall was the only one in Lewes Hundred who mis-doubted that Hiram was half-witted. He had had dealings with him and was wont to say that whoever bought Hiram White for a fool made a fool’s bargain. Certainly, whether he had common wits or no, Hiram had managed his mill to pretty good purpose and was fairly well off in the world as prosperity went in southern Delaware and in those days. No doubt, had it come to the pinch, he might have bought some of his tormentors out three times over.
Hiram White had suffered quite a financial loss some six months before, through that very Blueskin who was now lurking in Indian River inlet. He had entered into a “venture” with Josiah Shippin, a Philadelphia merchant, to the tune of seven hundred pounds sterling. The money had been invested in a cargo of flour and corn meal which had been shipped to Jamaica by the bark Nancy Lee. The Nancy Lee had been captured by the pirates off Currituck Sound, the crew set adrift in the longboat, and the bark herself and all her cargo burned to the water’s edge.
Five hundred of the seven hundred pounds invested in the unfortunate “venture” was money bequeathed by Hiram’s father, seven years before, to Levi West.
Eleazer White had been twice married, the second time to the widow West. She had brought with her to her new home a good-looking, long-legged, black-eyed, black-haired ne’er-do-well of a son, a year or so younger than Hiram. He was a shrewd, quick-witted lad, idle, shiftless, willful, ill-trained perhaps, but as bright and keen as a pin. He was the very opposite to poor, dull Hiram. Eleazer White had never loved his son; he was ashamed of the poor, slack-witted oaf. Upon the other hand, he was very fond of Levi West, whom he always called “our Levi,” and whom he treated in every way as though he were his own son. He tried to train the lad to work in the mill, and was patient beyond what the patience of most fathers would have been with his stepson’s idleness and shiftlessness. “Never mind,” he was used to say. “Levi ‘ll come all right. Levi’s as bright as a button.”
It was one of the greatest blows of the old miller’s life when Levi ran away to sea. In his last sickness the old man’s mind constantly turned to his lost stepson. “Mebby he’ll come back again,” said he, “and if he does I want you to be good to him, Hiram. I’ve done my duty by you and have left you the house and mill, but I want you to promise that if Levi comes back again you’ll give him a home and a shelter under this roof if he wants one.” And Hiram had promised to do as his father asked.
After Eleazer died it was found that he had bequeathed five hundred pounds to his “beloved stepson, Levi West,” and had left Squire Hall as trustee.
Levi West had been gone nearly nine years and not a word had been heard from him; there could be little or no doubt that he was dead.
One day Hiram came into Squire Hall’s office with a letter in his hand. It was the time of the old French war, and flour and corn meal were fetching fabulous prices in the British West Indies. The letter Hiram brought with him was from a Philadelphia merchant, Josiah Shippin, with whom he had had some dealings. Mr. Shippin proposed that Hiram should join him in sending a “venture” of flour and corn meal to Kingston, Jamaica. Hiram had slept upon the letter overnight and now he brought it to the old Squire. Squire Hall read the letter, shaking his head the while. “Too much risk, Hiram!” said he. “Mr Shippin wouldn’t have asked you to go into this venture if he could have got anybody else to do so. My advice is that you let it alone. I reckon you’ve come to me for advice?” Hiram shook his head. “Ye haven’t? What have ye come for, then?”
“Seven hundred pounds,” said Hiram.
“Seven hundred pounds!” said Squire Hall. “I haven’t got seven hundred pounds to lend you, Hiram.”
“Five hundred been left to Levi–I got hundred–raise hundred more on mortgage,” said Hiram.
“Tut, tut, Hiram,” said Squire Hall, “that’ll never do in the world. Suppose Levi West should come back again, what then? I’m responsible for that money. If you wanted to borrow it now for any reasonable venture, you should have it and welcome, but for such a wildcat scheme–“
“Levi never come back,” said Hiram–“nine years gone–Levi’s dead.”
“Mebby he is,” said Squire Hall, “but we don’t know that.”
“I’ll give bond for security,” said Hiram.
Squire Hall thought for a while in silence. “Very well, Hiram,” said he by and by, “if you’ll do that. Your father left the money, and I don’t see that it’s right for me to stay his son from using it. But if it is lost, Hiram, and if Levi should come back, it will go well to ruin ye.”
So Hiram White invested seven hundred pounds in the Jamaica venture and every farthing of it was burned by Blueskin, off Currituck Sound.
Sally Martin was said to be the prettiest girl in Lewes Hundred, and when the rumor began to leak out that Hiram White was courting her the whole community took it as a monstrous joke. It was the common thing to greet Hiram himself with, “Hey, Hiram; how’s Sally?” Hiram never made answer to such salutation, but went his way as heavily, as impassively, as dully as ever.
The joke was true. Twice a week, rain or shine, Hiram White never failed to scrape his feet upon Billy Martin’s doorstep. Twice a week, on Sundays and Thursdays, he never failed to take his customary seat by the kitchen fire. He rarely said anything by way of talk; he nodded to the farmer, to his wife, to Sally and, when he chanced to be at home, to her brother, but he ventured nothing further. There he would sit from half past seven until nine o’clock, stolid, heavy, impassive, his dull eyes following now one of the family and now another, but always coming back again to Sally. It sometimes happened that she had other company–some of the young men of the neighborhood. The presence of such seemed to make no difference to Hiram; he bore whatever broad jokes might be cracked upon him, whatever grins, whatever giggling might follow those jokes, with the same patient impassiveness. There he would sit, silent, unresponsive; then, at the first stroke of nine o’clock, he would rise, shoulder his ungainly person into his overcoat, twist his head into his three-cornered hat, and with a “Good night, Sally, I be going now,” would take his departure, shutting the door carefully to behind him.
Never, perhaps, was there a girl in the world had such a lover and such a courtship as Sally Martin.
It was one Thursday evening in the latter part of November, about a week after Blueskin’s appearance off the capes, and while the one subject of talk was of the pirates being in Indian River inlet. The air was still and wintry; a sudden cold snap had set in and skins of ice had formed over puddles in the road; the smoke from the chimneys rose straight in the quiet air and voices sounded loud, as they do in frosty weather.
Hiram White sat by the dim light of a tallow dip, poring laboriously over some account books. It was not quite seven o’clock, and he never started for Billy Martin’s before that hour. As he ran his finger slowly and hesitatingly down the column of figures, he heard the kitchen door beyond open and shut, the noise of footsteps crossing the floor and the scraping of a chair dragged forward to the hearth. Then came the sound of a basket of corncobs being emptied on the smoldering blaze and then the snapping and crackling of the reanimated fire. Hiram thought nothing of all this, excepting, in a dim sort of way, that it was Bob, the negro mill hand, or old black Dinah, the housekeeper, and so went on with his calculations.
At last he closed the books with a snap and, smoothing down his hair, arose, took up the candle, and passed out of the room into the kitchen beyond.
A man was sitting in front of the corncob fire that flamed and blazed in the great, gaping, sooty fireplace. A rough overcoat was flung over the chair behind him and his hands were spread out to the roaring warmth. At the sound of the lifted latch and of Hiram’s entrance he turned his head, and when Hiram saw his face he stood suddenly still as though turned to stone. The face, marvelously altered and changed as it was, was the face of his stepbrother, Levi West. He was not dead; he had come home again. For a time not a sound broke the dead, unbroken silence excepting the crackling of the blaze in the fireplace and the sharp ticking of the tall clock in the corner. The one face, dull and stolid, with the light of the candle shining upward over its lumpy features, looked fixedly, immovably, stonily at the other, sharp, shrewd, cunning–the red wavering light of the blaze shining upon the high cheek bones, cutting sharp on the nose and twinkling in the glassy turn of the black, ratlike eyes. Then suddenly that face cracked, broadened, spread to a grin. “I have come back again, Hi,” said Levi, and at the sound of the words the speechless spell was broken.
Hiram answered never a word, but he walked to the fireplace, set the candle down upon the dusty mantelshelf among the boxes and bottles, and, drawing forward a chair upon the other side of the hearth, sat down.
His dull little eyes never moved from his stepbrother’s face. There was no curiosity in his expression, no surprise, no wonder. The heavy under lip dropped a little farther open and there was more than usual of dull, expressionless stupidity upon the lumpish face; but that was all.
As was said, the face upon which he looked was strangely, marvelously changed from what it had been when he had last seen it nine years before, and, though it was still the face of Levi West, it was a very different Levi West than the shiftless ne’er-do-well who had run away to sea in the Brazilian brig that long time ago. That Levi West had been a rough, careless, happy-go-lucky fellow; thoughtless and selfish, but with nothing essentially evil or sinister in his nature. The Levi West that now sat in a rush-bottom chair at the other side of the fireplace had that stamped upon his front that might be both evil and sinister. His swart complexion was tanned to an Indian copper. On one side of his face was a curious discoloration in the skin and a long, crooked, cruel scar that ran diagonally across forehead and temple and cheek in a white, jagged seam. This discoloration was of a livid blue, about the tint of a tattoo mark. It made a patch the size of a man’s hand, lying across the cheek and the side of the neck. Hiram could not keep his eyes from this mark and the white scar cutting across it.
There was an odd sort of incongruity in Levi’s dress; a pair of heavy gold earrings and a dirty red handkerchief knotted loosely around his neck, beneath an open collar, displaying to its full length the lean, sinewy throat with its bony “Adam’s apple,” gave to his costume somewhat the smack of a sailor. He wore a coat that had once been of fine plum color–now stained and faded–too small for his lean length, and furbished with tarnished lace. Dirty cambric cuffs hung at his wrists and on his fingers were half a dozen and more rings, set with stones that shone, and glistened, and twinkled in the light of the fire. The hair at either temple was twisted into a Spanish curl, plastered flat to the cheek, and a plaited queue hung halfway down his back.
Hiram, speaking never a word, sat motionless, his dull little eyes traveling slowly up and down and around and around his stepbrother’s person.
Levi did not seem to notice his scrutiny, leaning forward, now with his palms spread out to the grateful warmth, now rubbing them slowly together. But at last he suddenly whirled his chair around, rasping on the floor, and faced his stepbrother. He thrust his hand into his capacious coat pocket and brought out a pipe which he proceeded to fill from a skin of tobacco. “Well, Hi,” said he, “d’ye see I’ve come back home again?”
“Thought you was dead,” said Hiram, dully.
Levi laughed, then he drew a red-hot coal out of the fire, put it upon the bowl of the pipe and began puffing out clouds of pungent smoke. “Nay, nay,” said he; “not dead–not dead by odds. But [puff] by the Eternal Holy, Hi, I played many a close game [puff] with old Davy Jones, for all that.”
Hiram’s look turned inquiringly toward the jagged scar and Levi caught the slow glance. “You’re lookin’ at this,” said he, running his finger down the crooked seam. “That looks bad, but it wasn’t so close as this”–laying his hand for a moment upon the livid stain. “A cooly devil off Singapore gave me that cut when we fell foul of an opium junk in the China Sea four years ago last September. This,” touching the disfiguring blue patch again, “was a closer miss, Hi. A Spanish captain fired a pistol at me down off Santa Catharina. He was so nigh that the powder went under the skin and it’ll never come out again. —- his eyes–he had better have fired the pistol into his own head that morning. But never mind that. I reckon I’m changed, ain’t I, Hi?”
He took his pipe out of his mouth and looked inquiringly at Hiram, who nodded.
Levi laughed. “Devil doubt it,” said he, “but whether I’m changed or no, I’ll take my affidavy that you are the same old half-witted Hi that you used to be. I remember dad used to say that you hadn’t no more than enough wits to keep you out of the rain. And, talking of dad, Hi, I hearn tell he’s been dead now these nine years gone. D’ye know what I’ve come home for?”
Hiram shook his head.
“I’ve come for that five hundred pounds that dad left me when he died, for I hearn tell of that, too.”
Hiram sat quite still for a second or two and then he said, “I put that money out to venture and lost it all.”
Levi’s face fell and he took his pipe out of his mouth, regarding Hiram sharply and keenly. “What d’ye mean?” said he presently.
“I thought you was dead–and I put–seven hundred pounds–into Nancy Lee–and Blueskin burned her–off Currituck.”
“Burned her off Currituck!” repeated Levi. Then suddenly a light seemed to break upon his comprehension. “Burned by Blueskin!” he repeated, and thereupon flung himself back in his chair and burst into a short, boisterous fit of laughter. “Well, by the Holy Eternal, Hi, if that isn’t a piece of your tarnal luck. Burned by Blueskin, was it?” He paused for a moment, as though turning it over in his mind. Then he laughed again. “All the same,” said he presently, “d’ye see, I can’t suffer for Blueskin’s doings. The money was willed to me, fair and true, and you have got to pay it, Hiram White, burn or sink, Blueskin or no Blueskin.” Again he puffed for a moment or two in reflective silence. “All the same, Hi,” said he, once more resuming the thread of talk, “I don’t reckon to be too hard on you. You be only half-witted, anyway, and I sha’n’t be too hard on you. I give you a month to raise that money, and while you’re doing it I’ll jest hang around here. I’ve been in trouble, Hi, d’ye see. I’m under a cloud and so I want to keep here, as quiet as may be. I’ll tell ye how it came about: I had a set-to with a land pirate in Philadelphia, and somebody got hurt. That’s the reason I’m here now, and don’t you say anything about it. Do you understand?”
Hiram opened his lips as though it was his intent to answer, then seemed to think better of it and contented himself by nodding his head.
That Thursday night was the first for a six-month that Hiram White did not scrape his feet clean at Billy Martin’s doorstep.
Within a week Levi West had pretty well established himself among his old friends and acquaintances, though upon a different footing from that of nine years before, for this was a very different Levi from that other. Nevertheless, he was none the less popular in the barroom of the tavern and at the country store, where he was always the center of a group of loungers. His nine years seemed to have been crowded full of the wildest of wild adventures and happenings, as well by land as by sea, and, given an appreciative audience, he would reel off his yarns by the hour, in a reckless, devil-may-care fashion that set agape even old sea dogs who had sailed the western ocean since boyhood. Then he seemed always to have plenty of money, and he loved to spend it at the tavern taproom, with a lavishness that was at once the wonder and admiration of gossips.
At that time, as was said, Blueskin was the one engrossing topic of talk, and it added not a little to Levi’s prestige when it was found that he had actually often seen that bloody, devilish pirate with his own eyes. A great, heavy, burly fellow, Levi said he was, with a beard as black as a hat–a devil with his sword and pistol afloat, but not so black as he was painted when ashore. He told of many adventures in which Blueskin figured and was then always listened to with more than usual gaping interest.
As for Blueskin, the quiet way in which the pirates conducted themselves at Indian River almost made the Lewes folk forget what he could do when the occasion called. They almost ceased to remember that poor shattered schooner that had crawled with its ghastly dead and groaning wounded into the harbor a couple of weeks since. But if for a while they forgot who or what Blueskin was, it was not for long.
One day a bark from Bristol, bound for Cuba and laden with a valuable cargo of cloth stuffs and silks, put into Lewes harbor to take in water. The captain himself came ashore and was at the tavern for two or three hours. It happened that Levi was there and that the talk was of Blueskin. The English captain, a grizzled old sea dog, listened to Levi’s yarns with not a little contempt. He had, he said, sailed in the China Sea and the Indian Ocean too long to be afraid of any hog-eating Yankee pirate such as this Blueskin. A junk full of coolies armed with stink-pots was something to speak of, but who ever heard of the likes of Blueskin falling afoul of anything more than a Spanish canoe or a Yankee coaster?
Levi grinned. “All the same, my hearty,” said he, “if I was you I’d give Blueskin a wide berth. I hear that he’s cleaned the vessel that was careened awhile ago, and mebby he’ll give you a little trouble if you come too nigh him.”
To this the Englishman only answered that Blueskin might be—-, and that the next afternoon, wind and weather permitting, he intended to heave anchor and run out to sea.
Levi laughed again. “I wish I might be here to see what’ll happen,” said he, “but I’m going up the river to-night to see a gal and mebby won’t be back again for three or four days.”
The next afternoon the English bark set sail as the captain promised, and that night Lewes town was awake until almost morning, gazing at a broad red glare that lighted up the sky away toward the southeast. Two days afterward a negro oysterman came up from Indian River with news that the pirates were lying off the inlet, bringing ashore bales of goods from their larger vessel and piling the same upon the beach under tarpaulins. He said that it was known down at Indian River that Blueskin had fallen afoul of an English bark, had burned her and had murdered the captain and all but three of the crew, who had joined with the pirates.
The excitement over this terrible happening had only begun to subside when another occurred to cap it. One afternoon a ship’s boat, in which were five men and two women, came rowing into Lewes harbor. It was the longboat of the Charleston packet, bound for New York, and was commanded by the first mate. The packet had been attacked and captured by the pirates about ten leagues south by east of Cape Henlopen. The pirates had come aboard of them at night and no resistance had been offered. Perhaps it was that circumstance that saved the lives of all, for no murder or violence had been done. Nevertheless, officers, passengers and crew had been stripped of everything of value and set adrift in the boats and the ship herself had been burned. The longboat had become separated from the others during the night and had sighted Henlopen a little after sunrise.
It may be here said that Squire Hall made out a report of these two occurrences and sent it up to Philadelphia by the mate of the packet. But for some reason it was nearly four weeks before a sloop of war was sent around from New York. In the meanwhile, the pirates had disposed of the booty stored under the tarpaulins on the beach at Indian River inlet, shipping some of it away in two small sloops and sending the rest by wagons somewhere up the country.
Levi had told the English captain that he was going up-country to visit one of his lady friends. He was gone nearly two weeks. Then once more he appeared, as suddenly, as unexpectedly, as he had done when he first returned to Lewes. Hiram was sitting at supper when the door opened and Levi walked in, hanging up his hat behind the door as unconcernedly as though he had only been gone an hour. He was in an ugly, lowering humor and sat himself down at the table without uttering a word, resting his chin upon his clenched fist and glowering fixedly at the corn cake while Dinah fetched him a plate and knife and fork.
His coming seemed to have taken away all of Hiram’s appetite. He pushed away his plate and sat staring at his stepbrother, who presently fell to at the bacon and eggs like a famished wolf. Not a word was said until Levi had ended his meal and filled his pipe. “Look’ee, Hiram,” said he, as he stooped over the fire and raked out a hot coal. “Look’ee, Hiram! I’ve been to Philadelphia, d’ye see, a-settlin’ up that trouble I told you about when I first come home. D’ye understand? D’ye remember? D’ye get it through your skull?” He looked around over his shoulder, waiting as though for an answer. But getting none, he continued: “I expect two gentlemen here from Philadelphia to-night. They’re friends of mine and are coming to talk over the business and ye needn’t stay at home, Hi. You can go out somewhere, d’ye understand?” And then he added with a grin, “Ye can go to see Sally.”
Hiram pushed back his chair and arose. He leaned with his back against the side of the fireplace. “I’ll stay at home,” said he presently.
“But I don’t want you to stay at home, Hi,” said Levi. “We’ll have to talk business and I want you to go!”
“I’ll stay at home,” said Hiram again.
Levi’s brow grew as black as thunder. He ground his teeth together and for a moment or two it seemed as though an explosion was coming. But he swallowed his passion with a gulp. “You’re a—-pig-headed, half-witted fool,” said he. Hiram never so much as moved his eyes. “As for you,” said Levi, whirling round upon Dinah, who was clearing the table, and glowering balefully upon the old negress, “you put them things down and git out of here. Don’t you come nigh this kitchen again till I tell ye to. If I catch you pryin’ around may I be —-, eyes and liver, if I don’t cut your heart out.”
* * * * *
In about half an hour Levi’s friends came; the first a little, thin, wizened man with a very foreign look. He was dressed in a rusty black suit and wore gray yarn stockings and shoes with brass buckles. The other was also plainly a foreigner. He was dressed in sailor fashion, with petticoat breeches of duck, a heavy pea-jacket, and thick boots, reaching to the knees. He wore a red sash tied around his waist, and once, as he pushed back his coat, Hiram saw the glitter of a pistol butt. He was a powerful, thickset man, low-browed and bull-necked, his cheek, and chin, and throat closely covered with a stubble of blue-black beard. He wore a red kerchief tied around his head and over it a cocked hat, edged with tarnished gilt braid.
Levi himself opened the door to them. He exchanged a few words outside with his visitors, in a foreign language of which Hiram understood nothing. Neither of the two strangers spoke a word to Hiram: the little man shot him a sharp look out of the corners of his eyes and the burly ruffian scowled blackly at him, but beyond that neither vouchsafed him any regard.
Levi drew to the shutters, shot the bolt in the outer door, and tilted a chair against the latch of the one that led from the kitchen into the adjoining room. Then the three worthies seated themselves at the table which Dinah had half cleared of the supper china, and were presently deeply engrossed over a packet of papers which the big, burly man had brought with him in the pocket of his pea-jacket. The confabulation was conducted throughout in the same foreign language which Levi had used when first speaking to them–a language quite unintelligible to Hiram’s ears. Now and then the murmur of talk would rise loud and harsh over some disputed point; now and then it would sink away to whispers.
Twice the tall clock in the corner whirred and sharply struck the hour, but throughout the whole long consultation Hiram stood silent, motionless as a stock, his eyes fixed almost unwinkingly upon the three heads grouped close together around the dim, flickering light of the candle and the papers scattered upon the table.
Suddenly the talk came to an end, the three heads separated and the three chairs were pushed back, grating harshly. Levi rose, went to the closet and brought thence a bottle of Hiram’s apple brandy, as coolly as though it belonged to himself. He set three tumblers and a crock of water upon the table and each helped himself liberally.
As the two visitors departed down the road, Levi stood for a while at the open door, looking after the dusky figures until they were swallowed in the darkness. Then he turned, came in, shut the door, shuddered, took a final dose of the apple brandy and went to bed, without, since his first suppressed explosion, having said a single word to Hiram.
Hiram, left alone, stood for a while, silent, motionless as ever, then he looked slowly about him, gave a shake of the shoulders as though to arouse himself, and taking the candle, left the room, shutting the door noiselessly behind him.
This time of Levi West’s unwelcome visitation was indeed a time of bitter trouble and tribulation to poor Hiram White. Money was of very different value in those days than it is now, and five hundred pounds was in its way a good round lump–in Sussex County it was almost a fortune. It was a desperate struggle for Hiram to raise the amount of his father’s bequest to his stepbrother. Squire Hall, as may have been gathered, had a very warm and friendly feeling for Hiram, believing in him when all others disbelieved; nevertheless, in the matter of money the old man was as hard and as cold as adamant. He would, he said, do all he could to help Hiram, but that five hundred pounds must and should be raised–Hiram must release his security bond. He would loan him, he said, three hundred pounds, taking a mortgage upon the mill. He would have lent him four hundred but that there was already a first mortgage of one hundred pounds upon it, and he would not dare to put more than three hundred more atop of that.
Hiram had a considerable quantity of wheat which he had bought upon speculation and which was then lying idle in a Philadelphia storehouse. This he had sold at public sale and at a very great sacrifice; he realized barely one hundred pounds upon it. The financial horizon looked very black to him; nevertheless, Levi’s five hundred pounds was raised, and paid into Squire Hall’s hands, and Squire Hall released Hiram’s bond.
The business was finally closed on one cold, gray afternoon in the early part of December. As Hiram tore his bond across and then tore it across again and again, Squire Hall pushed back the papers upon his desk and cocked his feet upon its slanting top. “Hiram,” said he, abruptly, “Hiram, do you know that Levi West is forever hanging around Billy Martin’s house, after that pretty daughter of his?”
So long a space of silence followed the speech that the Squire began to think that Hiram might not have heard him. But Hiram had heard. “No,” said he, “I didn’t know it.”
“Well, he is,” said Squire Hall. “It’s the talk of the whole neighborhood. The talk’s pretty bad, too. D’ye know that they say that she was away from home three days last week, nobody knew where? The fellow’s turned her head with his sailor’s yarns and his traveler’s lies.”
Hiram said not a word, but he sat looking at the other in stolid silence. “That stepbrother of yours,” continued the old Squire presently, “is a rascal–he is a rascal, Hiram, and I mis-doubt he’s something worse. I hear he’s been seen in some queer places and with queer company of late.”
He stopped again, and still Hiram said nothing. “And look’ee, Hiram,” the old man resumed, suddenly, “I do hear that you be courtin’ the girl, too; is that so?”
“Yes,” said Hiram, “I’m courtin’ her, too.”
“Tut! tut!” said the Squire, “that’s a pity, Hiram. I’m afraid your cakes are dough.”
After he had left the Squire’s office, Hiram stood for a while in the street, bareheaded, his hat in his hand, staring unwinkingly down at the ground at his feet, with stupidly drooping lips and lackluster eyes. Presently he raised his hand and began slowly smoothing down the sandy shock of hair upon his forehead. At last he aroused himself with a shake, looked dully up and down the street, and then, putting on his hat, turned and walked slowly and heavily away.
The early dusk of the cloudy winter evening was settling fast, for the sky was leaden and threatening. At the outskirts of the town Hiram stopped again and again stood for a while in brooding thought. Then, finally, he turned slowly, not the way that led homeward, but taking the road that led between the bare and withered fields and crooked fences toward Billy Martin’s.
It would be hard to say just what it was that led Hiram to seek Billy Martin’s house at that time of day–whether it was fate or ill fortune. He could not have chosen a more opportune time to confirm his own undoing. What he saw was the very worst that his heart feared.
Along the road, at a little distance from the house, was a mock-orange hedge, now bare, naked, leafless. As Hiram drew near he heard footsteps approaching and low voices. He drew back into the fence corner and there stood, half sheltered by the stark network of twigs. Two figures passed slowly along the gray of the roadway in the gloaming. One was his stepbrother, the other was Sally Martin. Levi’s arm was around her, he was whispering into her ear, and her head rested upon his shoulder.
Hiram stood as still, as breathless, as cold as ice. They stopped upon the side of the road just beyond where he stood. Hiram’s eyes never left them. There for some time they talked together in low voices, their words now and then reaching the ears of that silent, breathless listener.
Suddenly there came the clattering of an opening door, and then Betty Martin’s voice broke the silence, harshly, shrilly: “Sal!–Sal!–Sally Martin! You, Sally Martin! Come in yere. Where be ye?”
The girl flung her arms around Levi’s neck and their lips met in one quick kiss. The next moment she was gone, flying swiftly, silently, down the road past where Hiram stood, stooping as she ran. Levi stood looking after her until she was gone; then he turned and walked away whistling.
His whistling died shrilly into silence in the wintry distance, and then at last Hiram came stumbling out from the hedge. His face had never looked before as it looked then.
Hiram was standing in front of the fire with his hands clasped behind his back. He had not touched the supper on the table. Levi was eating with an appetite. Suddenly he looked over his plate at his stepbrother.
“How about that five hundred pounds, Hiram?” said he. “I gave ye a month to raise it and the month ain’t quite up yet, but I’m goin’ to leave this here place day after to-morrow–by next day at the furd’st–and I want the money that’s mine.”
“I paid it to Squire Hall to-day and he has it fer ye,” said Hiram, dully.
Levi laid down his knife and fork with a clatter. “Squire Hall!” said he, “what’s Squire Hall got to do with it? Squire Hall didn’t have the use of that money. It was you had it and you have got to pay it back to me, and if you don’t do it, by G—-, I’ll have the law on you, sure as you’re born.”
“Squire Hall’s trustee–I ain’t your trustee,” said Hiram, in the same dull voice.
“I don’t know nothing about trustees,” said Levi, “or anything about lawyer business, either. What I want to know is, are you going to pay me my money or no?”
“No,” said Hiram, “I ain’t–Squire Hall ‘ll pay ye; you go to him.”
Levi West’s face grew purple red. He pushed back, his chair grating harshly. “You–bloody land pirate!” he said, grinding his teeth together. “I see through your tricks. You’re up to cheating me out of my money. You know very well that Squire Hall is down on me, hard and bitter–writin’ his —- reports to Philadelphia and doing all he can to stir up everybody agin me and to bring the bluejackets down on me. I see through your tricks as clear as glass, but ye sha’n’t trick me. I’ll have my money if there’s law in the land–ye bloody, unnatural thief ye, who’d go agin your dead father’s will!”
Then–if the roof had fallen in upon him, Levi West could not have been more amazed–Hiram suddenly strode forward, and, leaning half across the table with his fists clenched, fairly glared into Levi’s eyes. His face, dull, stupid, wooden, was now fairly convulsed with passion. The great veins stood out upon his temples like knotted whipcords, and when he spoke his voice was more a breathless snarl than the voice of a Christian man.
“Ye’ll have the law, will ye?” said he. “Ye’ll–have the law, will ye? You’re afeared to go to law–Levi West–you try th’ law–and see how ye like it. Who ‘re you to call me thief–ye bloody, murderin’ villain ye! You’re the thief–Levi West–you come here and stole my daddy from me–ye did. You make me ruin–myself to pay what oughter to been mine–then–ye–ye steal the gal I was courtin’, to boot.” He stopped and his lips writhed for words to say. “I know ye,” said he, grinding his teeth. “I know ye! And only for what my daddy made me promise I’d a-had you up to the magistrate’s before this.”
Then, pointing with quivering finger: “There’s the door–you see it! Go out that there door and don’t never come into it again–if ye do–or if ye ever come where I can lay eyes on ye again–by th’ Holy Holy I’ll hale ye up to the Squire’s office and tell all I know and all I’ve seen. Oh, I’ll give ye your belly-fill of law if–ye want th’ law! Git out of the house, I say!”
As Hiram spoke Levi seemed to shrink together. His face changed from its copper color to a dull, waxy yellow. When the other ended he answered never a word. But he pushed back his chair, rose, put on his hat and, with a furtive, sidelong look, left the house, without stopping to finish the supper which he had begun. He never entered Hiram White’s door again.
Hiram had driven out the evil spirit from his home, but the mischief that it had brewed was done and could not be undone. The next day it was known that Sally Martin had run away from home, and that she had run away with Levi West. Old Billy Martin had been in town in the morning with his rifle, hunting for Levi and threatening if he caught him to have his life for leading his daughter astray.
And, as the evil spirit had left Hiram’s house, so had another and a greater evil spirit quitted its harborage. It was heard from Indian River in a few days more that Blueskin had quitted the inlet and had sailed away to the southeast; and it was reported, by those who seemed to know, that he had finally quitted those parts.
It was well for himself that Blueskin left when he did, for not three days after he sailed away the Scorpion sloop-of-war dropped anchor in Lewes harbor. The New York agent of the unfortunate packet and a government commissioner had also come aboard the Scorpion.
Without loss of time, the officer in command instituted a keen and searching examination that brought to light some singularly curious facts. It was found that a very friendly understanding must have existed for some time between the pirates and the people of Indian River, for, in the houses throughout that section, many things–some of considerable value–that had been taken by the pirates from the packet, were discovered and seized by the commissioner. Valuables of a suspicious nature had found their way even into the houses of Lewes itself.
The whole neighborhood seemed to have become more or less tainted by the presence of the pirates.
Even poor Hiram White did not escape the suspicions of having had dealings with them. Of course the examiners were not slow in discovering that Levi West had been deeply concerned with Blueskin’s doings.
Old Dinah and black Bob were examined, and not only did the story of Levi’s two visitors come to light, but also the fact that Hiram was present and with them while they were in the house disposing of the captured goods to their agent.
Of all that he had endured, nothing seemed to cut poor Hiram so deeply and keenly as these unjust suspicions. They seemed to bring the last bitter pang, hardest of all to bear.
Levi had taken from him his father’s love; he had driven him, if not to ruin, at least perilously close to it. He had run away with the girl he loved, and now, through him, even Hiram’s good name was gone.
Neither did the suspicions against him remain passive; they became active.
Goldsmiths’ bills, to the amount of several thousand pounds, had been taken in the packet and Hiram was examined with an almost inquisitorial closeness and strictness as to whether he had or had not knowledge of their whereabouts.
Under his accumulated misfortunes, he grew not only more dull, more taciturn, than ever, but gloomy, moody, brooding as well. For hours he would sit staring straight before him into the fire, without moving so much as a hair.
One night–it was a bitterly cold night in February, with three inches of dry and gritty snow upon the ground–while Hiram sat thus brooding, there came, of a sudden, a soft tap upon the door.
Low and hesitating as it was, Hiram started violently at the sound. He sat for a while, looking from right to left. Then suddenly pushing back his chair, he arose, strode to the door, and flung it wide open.
It was Sally Martin.
Hiram stood for a while staring blankly at her. It was she who first spoke. “Won’t you let me come in, Hi?” said she. “I’m nigh starved with the cold and I’m fit to die, I’m so hungry. For God’s sake, let me come in.”
“Yes,” said Hiram, “I’ll let you come in, but why don’t you go home?”
The poor girl was shivering and chattering with the cold; now she began crying, wiping her eyes with the corner of a blanket in which her head and shoulders were wrapped. “I have been home, Hiram,” she said, “but dad, he shut the door in my face. He cursed me just awful, Hi–I wish I was dead!”
“You better come in,” said Hiram. “It’s no good standing out there in the cold.” He stood aside and the girl entered, swiftly, gratefully.
At Hiram’s bidding black Dinah presently set some food before Sally and she fell to eating ravenously, almost ferociously. Meantime, while she ate, Hiram stood with his back to the fire, looking at her face–that face once so round and rosy, now thin, pinched, haggard.
“Are you sick, Sally?” said he presently.
“No,” said she, “but I’ve had pretty hard times since I left home, Hi.” The tears sprang to her eyes at the recollection of her troubles, but she only wiped them hastily away with the back of her hand, without stopping in her eating.
A long pause of dead silence followed. Dinah sat crouched together on a cricket at the other side of the hearth, listening with interest. Hiram did not seem to see her. “Did you go off with Levi?” said he at last, speaking abruptly. The girl looked up furtively under her brows. “You needn’t be afeared to tell,” he added.
“Yes,” said she at last, “I did go off with him, Hi.”
“Where’ve you been?”
At the question, she suddenly laid down her knife and fork. “Don’t you ask me that, Hi,” said she, agitatedly, “I can’t tell you that. You don’t know Levi, Hiram; I darsn’t tell you anything he don’t want me to. If I told you where I been he’d hunt me out, no matter where I was, and kill me. If you only knew what I know about him, Hiram, you wouldn’t ask anything about him.”
Hiram stood looking broodingly at her for a long time; then at last he again spoke. “I thought a sight of you onc’t, Sally,” said he.
Sally did not answer immediately, but, after a while, she suddenly looked up. “Hiram,” said she, “if I tell ye something will you promise on your oath not to breathe a word to any living soul?” Hiram nodded. “Then I’ll tell you, but if Levi finds I’ve told he’ll murder me as sure as you’re standin’ there. Come nigher–I’ve got to whisper it.” He leaned forward close to her where she sat. She looked swiftly from right to left; then raising her lips she breathed into his ear: “I’m an honest woman, Hi. I was married to Levi West before I run away.”
The winter had passed, spring had passed, and summer had come. Whatever Hiram had felt, he had made no sign of suffering. Nevertheless, his lumpy face had begun to look flabby, his cheeks hollow, and his loose-jointed body shrunk more awkwardly together into its clothes. He was often awake at night, sometimes walking up and down his room until far into the small hours.
It was through such a wakeful spell as this that he entered into the greatest, the most terrible, happening of his life.
It was a sulphurously hot night in July. The air was like the breath of a furnace, and it was a hard matter to sleep with even the easiest mind and under the most favorable circumstances. The full moon shone in through the open window, laying a white square of light upon the floor, and Hiram, as he paced up and down, up and down, walked directly through it, his gaunt figure starting out at every turn into sudden brightness as he entered the straight line of misty light.
The clock in the kitchen whirred and rang out the hour of twelve, and Hiram stopped in his walk to count the strokes.
The last vibration died away into silence, and still he stood motionless, now listening with a new and sudden intentness, for, even as the clock rang the last stroke, he heard soft, heavy footsteps, moving slowly and cautiously along the pathway before the house and directly below the open window. A few seconds more and he heard the creaking of rusty hinges. The mysterious visitor had entered the mill. Hiram crept softly to the window and looked out. The moon shone full on the dusty, shingled face of the old mill, not thirty steps away, and he saw that the door was standing wide open. A second or two of stillness followed, and then, as he still stood looking intently, he saw the figure of a man suddenly appear, sharp and vivid, from the gaping blackness of the open doorway. Hiram could see his face as clear as day. It was Levi West, and he carried an empty meal bag over his arm.
Levi West stood looking from right to left for a second or two, and then he took off his hat and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. Then he softly closed the door behind him and left the mill as he had come, and with the same cautious step. Hiram looked down upon him as he passed close to the house and almost directly beneath. He could have touched him with his hand.
Fifty or sixty yards from the house Levi stopped and a second figure arose from the black shadow in the angle of the worm fence and joined him. They stood for a while talking together, Levi pointing now and then toward the mill. Then the two turned, and, climbing over the fence, cut across an open field and through the tall, shaggy grass toward the southeast.
Hiram straightened himself and drew a deep breath, and the moon, shining full upon his face, showed it twisted, convulsed, as it had been when he had fronted his stepbrother seven months before in the kitchen. Great beads of sweat stood on his brow and he wiped them away with his sleeve. Then, coatless, hatless as he was, he swung himself out of the window, dropped upon the grass, and, without an instant of hesitation, strode off down the road in the direction that Levi West had taken.
As he climbed the fence where the two men had climbed it he could see them in the pallid light, far away across the level, scrubby meadow land, walking toward a narrow strip of pine woods.
A little later they entered the sharp-cut shadows beneath the trees and were swallowed in the darkness.
With fixed eyes and close-shut lips, as doggedly, as inexorably as though he were a Nemesis hunting his enemy down, Hiram followed their footsteps across the stretch of moonlit open. Then, by and by, he also was in the shadow of the pines. Here, not a sound broke the midnight hush. His feet made no noise upon the resinous softness of the ground below. In that dead, pulseless silence he could distinctly hear the distant voices of Levi and his companion, sounding loud and resonant in the hollow of the woods. Beyond the woods was a cornfield, and presently he heard the rattling of the harsh leaves as the two plunged into the tasseled jungle. Here, as in the woods, he followed them, step by step, guided by the noise of their progress through the canes.
Beyond the cornfield ran a road that, skirting to the south of Lewes, led across a wooden bridge to the wide salt marshes that stretched between the town and the distant sand hills. Coming out upon this road Hiram found that he had gained upon those he followed, and that they now were not fifty paces away, and he could see that Levi’s companion carried over his shoulder what looked like a bundle of tools.
He waited for a little while to let them gain their distance and for the second time wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve; then, without ever once letting his eyes leave them, he climbed the fence to the roadway.
For a couple of miles or more he followed the two along the white, level highway, past silent, sleeping houses, past barns, sheds, and haystacks, looming big in the moonlight, past fields, and woods, and clearings, past the dark and silent skirts of the town, and so, at last, out upon the wide, misty salt marshes, which seemed to stretch away interminably through the pallid light, yet were bounded in the far distance by the long, white line of sand hills.
Across the level salt marshes he followed them, through the rank sedge and past the glassy pools in which his own inverted image stalked beneath as he stalked above; on and on, until at last they had reached a belt of scrub pines, gnarled and gray, that fringed the foot of the white sand hills.
Here Hiram kept within the black network of shadow. The two whom he followed walked more in the open, with their shadows, as black as ink, walking along in the sand beside them, and now, in the dead, breathless stillness, might be heard, dull and heavy, the distant thumping, pounding roar of the Atlantic surf, beating on the beach at the other side of the sand hills, half a mile away.
At last the two rounded the southern end of the white bluff, and when Hiram, following, rounded it also, they were no longer to be seen.
Before him the sand hill rose, smooth and steep, cutting in a sharp ridge against the sky. Up this steep hill trailed the footsteps of those he followed, disappearing over the crest. Beyond the ridge lay a round, bowl-like hollow, perhaps fifty feet across and eighteen or twenty feet deep, scooped out by the eddying of the winds into an almost perfect circle. Hiram, slowly, cautiously, stealthily, following their trailing line of footmarks, mounted to the top of the hillock and peered down into the bowl beneath. The two men were sitting upon the sand, not far from the tall, skeleton-like shaft of a dead pine tree that rose, stark and gray, from the sand in which it may once have been buried, centuries ago.
Levi had taken off his coat and waistcoat and was fanning himself with his hat. He was sitting upon the bag he had brought from the mill and which he had spread out upon the sand. His companion sat facing him. The moon shone full upon him and Hiram knew him instantly–he was the same burly, foreign-looking ruffian who had come with the little man to the mill that night to see Levi. He also had his hat off and was wiping his forehead and face with a red handkerchief. Beside him lay the bundle of tools he had brought–a couple of shovels, a piece of rope, and a long, sharp iron rod.
The two men were talking together, but Hiram could not understand what they said, for they spoke in the same foreign language that they had before used. But he could see his stepbrother point with his finger, now to the dead tree and now to the steep, white face of the opposite side of the bowl-like hollow.
At last, having apparently rested themselves, the conference, if conference it was, came to an end, and Levi led the way, the other following, to the dead pine tree. Here he stopped and began searching, as though for some mark; then, having found that which he looked for, he drew a tapeline and a large brass pocket compass from his pocket. He gave one end of the tape line to his companion, holding the other with his thumb pressed upon a particular part of the tree. Taking his bearings by the compass, he gave now and then some orders to the other, who moved a little to the left or the right as he bade. At last he gave a word of command, and, thereupon, his companion drew a wooden peg from his pocket and thrust it into the sand. From this peg as a base they again measured, taking bearings by the compass, and again drove a peg. For a third time they repeated their measurements and then, at last, seemed to have reached the point which they aimed for.
Here Levi marked a cross with his heel upon the sand.
His companion brought him the pointed iron rod which lay beside the shovels, and then stood watching as Levi thrust it deep into the sand, again and again, as though sounding for some object below. It was some while before he found that for which he was seeking, but at last the rod struck with a jar upon some hard object below. After making sure of success by one or two additional taps with the rod, Levi left it remaining where it stood, brushing the sand from his hands. “Now fetch the shovels, Pedro,” said he, speaking for the first time in English.
The two men were busy for a long while, shoveling away the sand. The object for which they were seeking lay buried some six feet deep, and the work was heavy and laborious, the shifting sand sliding back, again and again, into the hole. But at last the blade of one of the shovels struck upon some hard substance and Levi stooped and brushed away the sand with the palm of his hand.
Levi’s companion climbed out of the hole which they had dug and tossed the rope which he had brought with the shovels down to the other. Levi made it fast to some object below and then himself mounted to the level of the sand above. Pulling together, the two drew up from the hole a heavy iron-bound box, nearly three feet long and a foot wide and deep.
Levi’s companion stooped and began untying the rope which had been lashed to a ring in the lid.
What next happened happened suddenly, swiftly, terribly. Levi drew back a single step, and shot one quick, keen look to right and to left. He passed his hand rapidly behind his back, and the next moment Hiram saw the moonlight gleam upon the long, sharp, keen blade of a knife. Levi raised his arm. Then, just as the other arose from bending over the chest, he struck, and struck again, two swift, powerful blows. Hiram saw the blade drive, clean and sharp, into the back, and heard the hilt strike with a dull thud against the ribs–once, twice. The burly, black-bearded wretch gave a shrill, terrible cry and fell staggering back. Then, in an instant, with another cry, he was up and clutched Levi with a clutch of despair by the throat and by the arm. Then followed a struggle, short, terrible, silent. Not a sound was heard but the deep, panting breath and the scuffling of feet in the sand, upon which there now poured and dabbled a dark-purple stream. But it was a one-sided struggle and lasted only for a second or two. Levi wrenched his arm loose from the wounded man’s grasp, tearing his shirt sleeve from the wrist to the shoulder as he did so. Again and again the cruel knife was lifted, and again and again it fell, now no longer bright, but stained with red.
Then, suddenly, all was over. Levi’s companion dropped to the sand without a sound, like a bundle of rags. For a moment he lay limp and inert; then one shuddering spasm passed over him and he lay silent and still, with his face half buried in the sand.
Levi, with the knife still gripped tight in his hand, stood leaning over his victim, looking down upon his body. His shirt and hand, and even his naked arm, were stained and blotched with blood. The moon lit up his face and it was the face of a devil from hell.
At last he gave himself a shake, stooped and wiped his knife and hand and arm upon the loose petticoat breeches of the dead man. He thrust his knife back into its sheath, drew a key from his pocket and unlocked the chest. In the moonlight Hiram could see that it was filled mostly with paper and leather bags, full, apparently of money.
All through this awful struggle and its awful ending Hiram lay, dumb and motionless, upon the crest of the sand hill, looking with a horrid fascination upon the death struggle in the pit below. Now Hiram arose. The sand slid whispering down from the crest as he did so, but Levi was too intent in turning over the contents of the chest to notice the slight sound.
Hiram’s face was ghastly pale and drawn. For one moment he opened his lips as though to speak, but no word came. So, white, silent, he stood for a few seconds, rather like a statue than a living man, then, suddenly, his eyes fell upon the bag, which Levi had brought with him, no doubt, to carry back the treasure for which he and his companion were in search, and which still lay spread out on the sand where it had been flung. Then, as though a thought had suddenly flashed upon him, his whole expression changed, his lips closed tightly together as though fearing an involuntary sound might escape, and the haggard look dissolved from his face.
Cautiously, slowly, he stepped over the edge of the sand hill and down the slanting face. His coming was as silent as death, for his feet made no noise as he sank ankle-deep in the yielding surface. So, stealthily, step by step, he descended, reached the bag, lifted it silently. Levi, still bending over the chest and searching through the papers within, was not four feet away. Hiram raised the bag in his hands. He must have made some slight rustle as he did so, for suddenly Levi half turned his head. But he was one instant too late. In a flash the bag was over his head–shoulders–arms–body.
Then came another struggle, as fierce, as silent, as desperate as that other–and as short. Wiry, tough, and strong as he was, with a lean, sinewy, nervous vigor, fighting desperately for his life as he was, Levi had no chance against the ponderous strength of his stepbrother. In any case, the struggle could not have lasted long; as it was, Levi stumbled backward over the body of his dead mate and fell, with Hiram upon him. Maybe he was stunned by the fall; maybe he felt the hopelessness of resistance, for he lay quite still while Hiram, kneeling upon him, drew the rope from the ring of the chest and, without uttering a word, bound it tightly around both the bag and the captive within, knotting it again and again and drawing it tight. Only once was a word spoken. “If you’ll lemme go,” said a muffled voice from the bag, “I’ll give you five thousand pounds–it’s in that there box.” Hiram answered never a word, but continued knotting the rope and drawing it tight.
The Scorpion sloop-of-war lay in Lewes harbor all that winter and spring, probably upon the slim chance of a return of the pirates. It was about eight o’clock in the morning and Lieutenant Maynard was sitting in Squire Hall’s office, fanning himself with his hat and talking in a desultory fashion. Suddenly the dim and distant noise of a great crowd was heard from without, coming nearer and nearer. The Squire and his visitor hurried to the door. The crowd was coming down the street shouting, jostling, struggling, some on the footway, some in the roadway. Heads were at the doors and windows, looking down upon them. Nearer they came, and nearer; then at last they could see that the press surrounded and accompanied one man. It was Hiram White, hatless, coatless, the sweat running down his face in streams, but stolid and silent as ever. Over his shoulder he carried a bag, tied round and round with a rope. It was not until the crowd and the man it surrounded had come quite near that the Squire and the lieutenant saw that a pair of legs in gray-yarn stockings hung from the bag. It was a man he was carrying.
Hiram had lugged his burden five miles that morning without help and with scarcely a rest on the way.
He came directly toward the Squire’s office and, still surrounded and hustled by the crowd, up the steep steps to the office within. He flung his burden heavily upon the floor without a word and wiped his streaming forehead.
The Squire stood with his knuckles on his desk, staring first at Hiram and then at the strange burden he had brought. A sudden hush fell upon all, though the voices of those without sounded as loud and turbulent as ever. “What is it, Hiram?” said Squire Hall at last.
Then for the first time Hiram spoke, panting thickly. “It’s a bloody murderer,” said he, pointing a quivering finger at the motionless figure.
“Here, some of you!” called out the Squire. “Come! Untie this man! Who is he?” A dozen willing fingers quickly unknotted the rope and the bag was slipped from the head and body.
Hair and face and eyebrows and clothes were powdered with meal, but, in spite of all and through all the innocent whiteness, dark spots and blotches and smears of blood showed upon head and arm and shirt. Levi raised himself upon his elbow and looked scowlingly around at the amazed, wonderstruck faces surrounding him.
“Why, it’s Levi West!” croaked the Squire, at last finding his voice.
Then, suddenly, Lieutenant Maynard pushed forward, before the others crowded around the figure on the floor, and, clutching Levi by the hair, dragged his head backward so as to better see his face. “Levi West!” said he in a loud voice. “Is this the Levi West you’ve been telling me of? Look at that scar and the mark on his cheek! This is Blueskin himself.”
In the chest which Blueskin had dug up out of the sand were found not only the goldsmiths’ bills taken from the packet, but also many other valuables belonging to the officers and the passengers of the unfortunate ship.
The New York agents offered Hiram a handsome reward for his efforts in recovering the lost bills, but Hiram declined it, positively and finally. “All I want,” said he, in his usual dull, stolid fashion, “is to have folks know I’m honest.” Nevertheless, though he did not accept what the agents of the packet offered, fate took the matter into its own hands and rewarded him not unsubstantially. Blueskin was taken to England in the Scorpion. But he never came to trial. While in Newgate he hanged himself to the cell window with his own stockings. The news of his end was brought to Lewes in the early autumn and Squire Hall took immediate measures to have the five hundred pounds of his father’s legacy duly transferred to Hiram.
In November Hiram married the pirate’s widow.