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The Inside Story of the Peace Conference By Emile Joseph Dillon Characters: 22197

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

JUST so surely as had come about the division of the little company into its several parts, socially speaking-that necessary "drawing of the line" insisted upon in all things by Mr. Jordan Tant-so did it come about that the party he represented withdrew itself more and more from the rest of the islanders. It might have been thought that their common difficulties would have drawn them together; but the fact remains that the shabbier Mrs. Ewart-Crane and her daughter became the more urgent was it that their real position in the greater world should be firmly impressed upon those with whom they had been thrown in contact.

Much tramping about over sand and rocks, and the necessity for sleeping on a bed of dry leaves and brushwood, to say nothing of a night journey in an open boat, had brought Mrs. Ewart-Crane's one dress to a condition of which a London charwoman would have been ashamed; while Enid was in no better plight. But although Mrs. Ewart-Crane was well aware that Mrs. Stocker was in the same lamentable condition, she resolutely declined to make common ground of complaint with her on that score; in other words, Mrs. Ewart-Crane wore her shabbiness with an air.

The same condition of things ruled with the men. Mr. Jordan Tant had hitherto been a slave to nice detail concerning collars and ties, and neat shoes and socks; but those details, in his present case, were things to blush at. The neat suit he usually wore in the mornings, and in which he had taken that mad journey to the yacht, was creased and soiled and stained; his hat had been flung to the laughing waves by a wind more boisterous than discreet; and he had been compelled perforce to grow a beard, which he felt did not suit his type of face. True, there were improvements in the man, in the sense of an added colour in his cheeks, and more alert movements in his limbs; but such things he scorned.

Mr. Daniel Meggison, in a moment of forgetfulness, had gone to his improvised couch with his silk hat on his head, and thereafter had grown careless in regard to its appearance; it had become a mere dilapidated head covering, with no dignity about it at all. Contact with thorns and brambles had made shipwreck of the immaculate frock-coat; his linen was non-apparent. In fact, to put the matter shortly, the little company had suffered from the fact that they had at the beginning but one suit of clothing apiece, and no means of replenishing it.

The difficulty about food had been overcome by a sheer gift from Providence. There had come a night when they had sat about their fire, and when with discretion, and yet firmness, Gilbert Byfield had told them of the condition of the larder. The matter had to be broached somehow, because Aubrey Meggison had picked up his small portion of food from his tin plate disdainfully, and had muttered something about "stinginess."

"I think the time has come," said Gilbert solemnly, "when we should understand clearly-all of us-the exact position. We have been remarkably careful with the few things we were able to bring away-but we have found nothing on the island--"

"Beggin' your pardon, sir-except water," said Pringle, with deference.

"I had forgotten the water," replied Gilbert, with a smile. "Our case would indeed have been hopeless had we not been fortunate enough to find the spring. But our tinned provisions have gone, and we have no means of replacing them; and even with the utmost care we have had to go on short rations for the last day or two. To-morrow's breakfast is provided; after that we face starvation."

"Do you mean to suggest, my dear Gilbert, that we are to look at each other with the certain knowledge that we are to shrink day by day, with no hope of relief?" demanded Mrs. Ewart-Crane.

"In the name of the ladies under my charge, I protest," said Mr. Jordan Tant. "It was not by our wish that we were brought to this place at all; it will certainly not be by our wish that we starve here. I enter a solemn protest against it."

"I have been shuttle-cocked about from one place to another-despite my protests," said Daniel Meggison. "I make the common demand that each man has a right to make; I insist upon being fed. Look to it, someone, that the matter receives attention before to-morrow. My position in the world has hitherto been framed upon that common and ordinary basis; being in the world, I demand to be fed."

"Seems to me that the real point is-what is generally done in these cases?" demanded Aubrey. "There must be a rule about these matters-a law, or something of that sort. I've read the newspapers pretty consistently since I've moved about the world; what's the exact procedure? I should like to say that my father-(with whom, mind you, I'm not going to say that I generally agree)-my father has voiced my opinion to what I might call a T. To put it simply: what happens?"

"I should imagine, for my own part, that one member of our pleasant little party will be missing after to-morrow-and the rest will feed sumptuously," said Simon Quarle, with a perfectly serious face.

Mrs. Ewart-Crane rose, and stretched out a hand for her daughter. "Enid," she said, in accents of considerable dignity-"I desire that we withdraw. There are certain questions which cannot be discussed in this public manner, if one has any desire to retain one's natural feelings of delicacy. And I should like to add," she went on, waving Mr. Tant to his feet with an imperious movement of her hand-"I should really like to add that in the event of any casting of lots, or any other such barbarous procedure, Mr. Tant will be our protector, and will not hesitate to sell his life dearly. Mr. Tant-Enid-let us go, before I feel called upon to express myself more strongly."

Simon Quarle and Gilbert walked long upon the shore that night, talking earnestly. Gilbert was disposed to be hopeful; a ship might heave in sight at any moment-or all sorts of things might happen that then seemed improbable. Simon Quarle pointed out that no ship had yet been seen, and that nothing else was likely to happen; incidentally he mentioned the one course open to them.

"We must launch the boat to-morrow, and start off in the hope of finding some other land near at hand," he said. "If those who go in the boat don't come back, then the others must starve, or find a way out for themselves; in any case there's nothing else to be done. Let's get to sleep, and forget our troubles for one night at least."

After all, it was Pringle who was the direct agent of Providence. I would not have you think that in that respect Providence passed over better men; in all probability it was because Pringle had a habit of getting up early in the morning, and lighting that open-air fire, and generally preparing what food there was for the early meal. And in that way it came about that Pringle brought deliverance to the islanders in a quite miraculous fashion.

Gilbert Byfield had not slept during that anxious night; in a sense he felt that, by reason of the mad impulse that had started him on that wild journey from Newhaven, he was responsible for the lives of those concerned with him in the venture. Dawn was breaking, with the promise of a perfect day to follow, when he stepped over the legs of the sleeping Jordan Tant, and went down the hill to find Simon Quarle.

Simon was sleeping peacefully in his self-appointed quarters in the boat; he roused himself sleepily when Gilbert laid a hand on his shoulder. "Oh-you needn't remind me," he said, with a grim nod; "I've been dreaming that I was a starving loafer in the streets of London, and that all the workhouses and casual wards were shut. I believe we have breakfast-don't we?"

"And a meagre one at that," replied Gilbert, sitting on the edge of the boat. "And after that a council of war, and a decision as to what is to be done."

"You're not the only one that's awake early, my friend," said Simon Quarle, pointing in the direction of the north of the island. "Who's that coming in the distance?"

"It looks like Pringle," said Gilbert-"and he's carrying something."

They waited while the unconscious Pringle drew nearer. As a matter of fact he was staggering under a load poised upon his shoulders; as he came within hail of them it seemed that the load was a heavy square packing-case. Evidently he had not expected anyone to be awake at that hour; as he trudged through the sand he was humming a jaunty tune jerkily to himself as though to encourage himself in his efforts. Being hailed suddenly by the deep voice of Simon Quarle, he stopped, and stared, and then let the packing-case down plump into the sand. And it must be confessed that at that moment he wore a curiously guilty air.

"Why-what have you got there, Pringle?" demanded Gilbert, advancing towards him. "Where did you get that from?"

"This, sir," asked the innocent Pringle. "Oh-this, sir? Washed ashore, sir."

"Washed ashore!" exclaimed Simon Quarle, looking at the case curiously. "Do you know what's in it?"

"Not the least notion in the world, sir," said Pringle, sitting upon the case, and looking down at it between his legs. "Out for an early morning stroll, sir, there it was, knockin' about just on the shore; in fact while I was lookin' at it-stupid like, you'll understand, sir-the sea give it a shove, and pushed it up at my very feet. I shouldn't be surprised, sir, if it didn't hold food."

"Do you think it's come from the yacht?" asked Gilbert.

"I should think so, sir," said Pringle. "Now I come to think of it, sir, there was one or two cases on board the very identical of this. Food, sir, I should think-and perhaps other things. Washed ashore, sir-that's what this was."

"It doesn't seem to have been knocked about much," said Gilbert, walking round it curiously. "It's a frail sort of case to have been tossing about in the sea for so long a time. I hope the contents are not damaged."

"We'll hope not, sir," replied Pringle cheerfully, as he stooped to pick up the case. "Bit of luck I call this, sir," he added, as with the assistance of Simon Quarle he got it onto his shoulders. "Not that I'll promise anything about the contents, sir; it might be almost anything."

"Where exactly did it come ashore?" demanded Quarle.

"Just by the rocks, sir," said Pringle. "It was lucky, in a way, that I happened to be there, sir; what you might call a yard or two further on it would have missed the island altogether, and missed us. Great bit of luck, sir."

The case, on being wrenched open, was found to contain a considerable quantity of tinned food, together with some that was not tinned, and that was remarkably fresh. There were tins of biscuits; there was tea and sugar and other things, as wonderful in that place as they were unexpected. Pringle, for his part, was very modest about it all; he described again and again to the wondering people who presently seated themselves about the fire exactly how the considerate sea had tossed the case at his very feet, and how he had picked it up.

Mrs. Ewart-Crane, reli

eved from the fear that her life might be in danger, made some advances to Mrs. Stocker, and even consented to listen with gravity to an account by that lady of the difficulties of rearing chickens in the neighbourhood of Clapham; "there was something in the air," according to Mrs. Stocker.

In a sense it may be said that among some of them at least a better feeling of comradeship sprang up. The fear of actual starvation was gone; the weather was superb, and they were all in excellent bodily health. It grew to be a sort of great picnic on the island, and those who had been at first inclined to grumble were now in a minority, and began to feel that for their own sakes they had best take what the gods sent them with an approach to smiling faces. Perhaps for the change Bessie Meggison was in a sense directly responsible; because that new happiness that had come to her had painted even this small and uncomfortable world in rosy colours.

There grew to be a sort of competition among them as to who should discover the next bit of wreckage to be cast ashore. Mr. Meggison visited the neighbourhood of the rocks more than once, and peered frowningly out to sea; but he never discovered anything. Aubrey Meggison listlessly wandered round the shore-perhaps in the hope of finding something of actual use to himself; but he was as unsuccessful as his father. It came at last to this: that the only one of them all to do any real salvage work was Pringle. At intervals Pringle was able to bring to them the most astonishing things that had been washed ashore conveniently for his picking up.

Strangely, too, the things he found were always useful. It was no mere matter of broken woodwork, such as might be expected to come from the wrecked yacht; again and again he discovered in the most miraculous way articles for which a wish had actually been expressed by some member of the community. Food tumbled upon the shore almost in abundance; and always food that was wanted. The various articles that had been in use on the yacht must have been curiously packed; for tinned foods actually arrived more than once accompanied by articles of clothing that were distinctly useful to the shipwrecked party.

Thus it happened one day that some coarse strong flannel shirts were flung at the feet of Pringle in the early morning, and were distributed to the male members of the party soon afterwards. Gilbert examined one of them with a thoughtful frown, and then took Pringle aside.

"I can't understand this, Pringle," he said, looking at the garment.

"No, sir?"

"No. I don't see how these things could have been on board the yacht; who could possibly have bought them."

"You're forgettin' the crew, sir. Sailors ain't as delicate in their feelings as gentlemen, sir; take my word for it, I shouldn't be a bit surprised if they hadn't belonged somehow to the crew."

So the shirts were accepted, and worn with gratitude; even Pringle admitted how astonishing it was that they should have been flung on to the island just when they were most wanted. Emboldened by his success, he smilingly predicted that he shouldn't be a bit surprised if something else equally useful turned up within a day or two; and sure enough a considerable quantity of cheap strong print, with a pleasing design of pink rosebuds upon it, arrived one morning, and was brought in triumph to the ladies. On this occasion it seemed that the box in which the material had been contained had burst upon the shore, and the wood had been carried out to sea. The print was a little damp in one place; but Pringle seemed to have been amazingly clever in snatching it out of the reach of the waves.

The making of dresses for the ladies was left to a large extent to Bessie, with the assistance of Mrs. Stocker. Bessie-careful little soul!-had needles and cottons and a tiny pair of scissors and other necessary things in a little case in her pocket; and although Mrs. Ewart-Crane at first expressed herself strongly as to why print of a superior pattern had not been found for her daughter and herself, she ultimately accepted, even with some show of gratitude, the uniform provided for her. It was a curious sight at first to see them all arrayed alike; but that created some laughter, and was not in the end really resented.

The packages arrived in no particular order; it was always possible that when they sat down to their open-air breakfast Pringle would have a surprise for them-or, on the other hand, it was possible that he would respectfully shake his head, as a sign that the sea had not been kindly disposed. Now and then some of the things flung up seemed to require some explanation; but Pringle always evaded any direct reference to them, and murmured something about being grateful to Providence. It was only when the new timber arrived, and was smilingly announced by Pringle as he handed round the tea, that Gilbert Byfield and Simon Quarle stared at the man, open-mouthed and wondering.

"I can't quite understand it myself, sir," said Pringle, keeping his eyes fixed upon the cup he was holding. "Nice clean boards, sir-and all about the same length. Rather handy, I should think, sir, for building an extra shelter for the ladies."

In a solemn silence Gilbert and Quarle walked down to the shore, with Pringle a step or two behind. There lay a pile of boards stacked neatly out of the reach of the sea; Pringle scratched his chin thoughtfully as he looked at them.

"These haven't come from the yacht," said Gilbert. "There was no loose timber there."

"No, sir,-of course not, sir," said Pringle. "Some unfortunate timber ship, I should think, sir. P'r'aps I ought to say, sir, that it didn't come all at once-just a board or two at a time. I didn't think anything of the first one; I only mentioned it this morning because I thought it might come in useful, sir. Such a lot of things have washed on shore that I haven't noticed very much about them."

"It seems rather a pity that we haven't a hammer and nails," said Simon Quarle, after a pause.

"Oh-didn't I tell you, sir?" Pringle looked round innocently at his master. "There was a few tools came in the last package, sir-and some nails and things. I dare say some building work might be managed, sir."

"You certainly didn't mention it," said Gilbert, staring at him.

"Very careless of me, sir," said Pringle.

So a fresh hut was built, with trees for its main support; and into this Mrs. Ewart-Crane and her daughter were induced to go. Mrs. Ewart-Crane, indeed, seemed quite pleased with her new abode, and was almost on the point of giving herself airs again in regard to it. Simon Quarle also was induced at last to leave the boat, and to take up his quarters in the cave-like place vacated by the ladies; this he shared with Mr. Jordan Tant. The supplies that had so miraculously come to them had given them confidence, and they had practically ceased to think of the future, or of what it might hold for them, beyond that place to which they had been so strangely brought.

Nor did those supplies cease; from time to time other packages arrived-always to be discovered by the industrious Pringle; so that in time the wonder of the thing ceased, and it never occurred to any one of them to ask from whence the things came, or how long the yacht was to take in breaking up and in delivering itself of the many useful things it evidently contained. The weeks went by, and it was altogether a very happy and contented little band of people, albeit queerly dressed.

The inevitable discovery was made one morning quite early by Gilbert. The beauty of the morning had tempted him, and he had come out to taste the pure air, and to feel the warmth of the coming day. He found that Pringle, as usual, had been early astir; but he took no notice of that. Pringle was ever an early riser, and there was much to be done each day before the little company gathered round the fire for breakfast.

Gilbert strode away down the hill until he came to the eastern shore of the island; waited there a moment, as though undecided in which direction to turn. Then suddenly he became aware of a figure marching steadily towards the rocks at the north of the island; and, gazing more intently, discovered that figure to be Pringle, moving steadily and as though with a set purpose.

"What's the fellow up to now?" Gilbert asked himself, inwardly amused.

He decided to follow; and, keeping a safe distance between his servant and himself, presently saw that servant come to the great line of rocks which bounded the island to the north. But strangely enough Pringle did not stop there; in the mist of the morning he stepped as it seemed straight out into the sea, and disappeared.

Greatly amazed, Gilbert broke into a run, and did not stop until he had come to the very edge of the rocks where, as he had seen them before, they jutted into the sea. But now there was a clean, clear stretch of sand round the base of them, and it was along this stretch of sand that Pringle had gone. Without a moment's hesitation Gilbert Byfield ran round the high wall of rock-and so stepped at once into the heart of the mystery.

Pringle was hurrying ahead of him-not into a watery grave, but straight along a little spit of land that had been left dry by the receding tide. As in a dream, Byfield followed; and presently found himself climbing a path on to another land, and seeing before him as he went evidences of civilization, in the shape of cultivated fields, and decent stone walls and gates. And still Pringle went ahead, looking neither to right nor left nor backwards.

It was only when Gilbert had topped the rise, and had come to a little old-fashioned bridge, that he stopped and let Pringle go ahead, and looked about him. Below lay a prosperous-looking little village, with already early morning smoke rising from many chimneys; about him in all directions were cultivated fields. He seated himself on the parapet of the bridge, and watched the hurrying figure of Pringle dipping down into civilization; and then all in a moment he understood for the first time the fraud that had been practised upon him. To his credit be it said he sat upon the bridge, looking after Pringle (now a mere dot upon the landscape), and shouted with laughter.

He sat there for a long time, until presently the black dot appeared again out of the intricacies of the village, and began to climb the hill. When presently Pringle reappeared, he bore upon his shoulders yet another of those mysterious packages with which he had so thoughtfully provided the islanders. Toiling up the hill, singing cheerfully to himself, he stopped only when the long shadow of Gilbert fell across his path; paused for a moment to look at this surprising stranger watching him; and dropped his burden in the dust of the road.

"Morning, sir," said Pringle, a little nervously. And then, looking at the packing-case that lay between them, he added more nervously still, and yet with a dawning smile about his lips-"Washed ashore, sir!"

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