“Of course there is a man in it. You know how it is in these South American States, sir. A man may be President one week and hunted like a dog the next. They are for ever flying for their lives. My idea is that there is some fellow in hiding there, who is armed and desperate, and who will fight to the death before he is taken.”
“But his food and drink?”
“It’s a roomy chest, sir, and he may have some provisions stowed away. As to his drink, he had a friend among the crew upon the brig who saw that he had what he needed.”
“You think, then, that the label asking people not to open the box was simply written in his interest?”
“Yes, sir, that is my idea. Have you any other way of explaining the facts?”
I had to confess that I had not.
“The question is what are we to do?” I asked.
“The man’s a dangerous ruffian who sticks at nothing. I’m thinking it wouldn’t be a bad thing to put a rope round the chest and tow it alongside for half an hour; then we could open it at our ease. Or if we just tied the box up and kept him from getting any water maybe that would do as well. Or the carpenter could put a coat of varnish over it and stop all the blowholes.”
“Come, Allardyce,” said I, angrily. “You don’t seriously mean to say that a whole ship’s company are going to be terrorised by a single man in a box. If he’s there I’ll engage to fetch him out!” I went to my room and came back with my revolver in my hand. “Now, Allardyce,” said I. “Do you open the lock, and I’ll stand on guard.”
“For God’s sake, think what you are doing, sir,” cried the mate. “Two men have lost their lives over it, and the blood of one not yet dry upon the carpet.”
“The more reason why we should revenge him.”
“Well, sir, at least let me call the carpenter. Three are better than two, and he is a good stout man.”
He went off in search of him, and I was left alone with the striped chest in the cabin. I don’t think that I’m a nervous man, but I kept the table between me and this solid old relic of the Spanish Main. In the growing light of morning the red and white striping was beginning to appear, and the curious scrolls and wreaths of metal and carving which showed the loving pains which cunning craftsmen had expended upon it. Presently the carpenter and the mate came back together, the former with a hammer in his hand.
“It’s a bad business, this, sir,” said he, shaking his head, as he looked at the body of the mate. “And you think there’s someone hiding in the box?”
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Allardyce, picking up the screwdriver and setting his jaw like a man who needs to brace his courage. “I’ll drive the lock back if you will both stand by. If he rises let him have it on the head with your hammer, carpenter! Shoot at once, sir, if he raises his hand. Now!”
He had knelt down in front of the striped chest, and passed the blade of the tool under the lid. With a sharp snick the lock flew back. “Stand by!” yelled the mate, and with a heave he threw open the massive top of the box. As it swung up, we all three sprang back, I with my pistol levelled, and the carpenter with the hammer above his head. Then, as nothing happened, we each took a step forward and peeped in. The box was empty.
Not quite empty either, for in one corner was lying an old yellow candlestick, elaborately engraved, which appeared to be as old as the box itself. Its rich yellow tone and artistic shape suggested that it was an object of value. For the rest there was nothing more weighty or valuable than dust in the old striped treasure-chest.
“Well, I’m blessed!” cried Allardyce, staring blankly into it. “Where does the weight come in, then?”
“Look at the thickness of the sides and look at the lid. Why, it’s five inches through. And see that great metal spring across it.”
“That’s for holding the lid up,” said the mate. “You see, it won’t lean back. What’s that German printing on the inside?”
“It means that it was made by Johann Rothstein of Augsburg, in 1606.”
“And a solid bit of work, too. But it doesn’t throw much light on what has passed, does it, Captain Barclay? That candlestick looks like gold. We shall have something for our trouble after all.”
He leant forward to grasp it, and from that moment I have never doubted as to the reality of inspiration, for on the instant I caught him by the collar and pulled him straight again. It may have been some story of the Middle Ages which had come back to my mind, or it may have been that my eye had caught some red which was not that of rust upon the upper part of the lock, but to him and to me it will always seem an inspiration, so prompt and sudden was my action.
“There’s devilry here,” said I. “Give me the crooked stick from the corner.”
It was an ordinary walking-cane with a hooked top. I passed it over the candlestick and gave it a pull. With a flash a row of polished steel fangs shot out from below the upper lip, and the great striped chest snapped at us like a wild animal. Clang came the huge lid into its place, and the glasses on the swinging rack sang and tinkled with the shock. The mate sat down on the edge of the table, and shivered like a frightened horse.
“You’ve saved my life, Captain Barclay!” said he.
So this was the secret of the striped treasure-chest of old Don Ramirez di Leyra, and this was how he preserved his ill-gotten gains from the Terra Firma and the Province of Veraquas. Be the thief ever so cunning he could not tell that golden candlestick from the other articles of value, and the instant that he laid hand upon it the terrible spring was unloosed and the murderous steel spikes were driven into his brain, while the shock of the blow sent the victim backwards and enabled the chest to automatically close itself. How many, I wondered, had fallen victims to the ingenuity of the Mechanic of Augsburg. And as I thought of the possible history of that grim striped chest my resolution was very quickly taken.
“Carpenter, bring three men and carry this on deck.”
“Going to throw it overboard, sir?”
“Yes, Mr. Allardyce. I’m not superstitious as a rule, but there are some things which are more than a sailor can be called upon to stand.”
“No wonder that brig made heavy weather, Captain Barclay, with such a thing on board. The glass is dropping fast, sir, and we are only just in time.”
So we did not even wait for the three sailors, but we carried it out, the mate, the carpenter, and I, and we pushed it with our own hands over the bulwarks. There was a white spout of water, and it was gone. There it lies, the striped chest, a thousand fathoms deep, and if, as they say, the sea will some day be dry land, I grieve for the man who finds that old box and tries to penetrate into its secret.