Billy Bones

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Strand Magazine (december 1922, p. 544)

Billy Bones is a short story written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Strand Magazine in december 1922.



Billy Bones

The Strand Magazine (december 1922, p. 544)
The Strand Magazine (december 1922, p. 545)
The Strand Magazine (december 1922, p. 546)
The Strand Magazine (december 1922, p. 547)
The Strand Magazine (december 1922, p. 548)
The Strand Magazine (december 1922, p. 549)

Daddy was a heavy sort of person as a rule, with his mind wandering away upon things that don't matter, and writing them down upon bits of paper. But when he was in the mood he could make up some very decent games, and perhaps some other daddies would like to know about them, even if the poor mumties have to do a bit of cleaning-up afterwards. Let us see how a game was worked. Cunning Daddy had prepared it all — you must take a little trouble if you want a thing to be worth doing — but he had said nothing to anyone about it.

It was Christmas Day and a clear, crisp afternoon. "I am so glad Christ has a tine day for His birthday!" said baby, whom we shall have to call Billie, for she would answer to no other name.

"Yes," said Dimples, "I hope He will have many happy returns."

"How proud God must be of Him!" remarked Laddie.

Daddy has allowed them all to find their own relations with the Creator, and their loving little brains have conceived some very human and happy ones. Perhaps they would have been even more unusual if the Lady had not wisely intervened. But as it is there is something wonderful in their trust. God, darling!' is the beginning of their prayers. Christ they look upon as a glorious elder brother who can do anything, and do it better than anyone else. The remorseless logic of their clean-cut minds produced dreadful dilemmas for Mumty, for she is less agile in hopping out of corners than Daddy, who is capable of cutting an argument short with a sofa cushion.

Mumty, darling, do you think there is cricket in the children's heaven ?"

"I am sure, dear, that there is everything which would make little boys and. girls happy."

Three serious child — faces grow grave over this answer and all that it involved.

"Well, then, said Laddie at last, in that case, of course there is cricket."

Mumty did not dispute it, so the case went by default. But the consequences must follow.

"Very well, then, when they have cricket, would Christ play ?"

Mumty wriggled violently, but thought that she saw a way to safety.

"Well, my darling, if it would make the children happier, Christ would do anything."

"That means He would play if He was wanted," said Laddie.

"He would play if they were one short," said Dimples.

"I think, dearies, you had better go out and play on the lawn," cried the harassed Lady.

I expect He would be jolly useful," said Laddie, with intense earnestness.

"Perhaps He can bowl googlies," said Dimples.

Daddy, who had been grinning at the Lady round the corner of his paper, thought it was time to intervene.

"Well, dear, it's better than fear, is it not?" said he; and then : "I say, what about a game of Billy Bones?"

There was a rapturous acquiescence and a general clapping of hands. In a few minutes the neighbours' boys had assembled : little Cousin John, who is eight, the same age as Billie, and Frank, his younger brother. John is engaged to Billie, and warned Frank that he must give up kissing her. "Yes. I will kiss her," said little Frank. "Then I hope you'll get a cold, and then you won't be allowed," said John. John and Billie had been out all the morning looking for a house But their romance is another story, so we will get back to the point that they and a dozen others had assembled.

Daddy sat on the edge of the table and looked down at all the earnest little fares. One wants to be earnest also if one is to play a good boys' game. It was a very serious council.

"Look here," said Daddy, wagging his pipe in an impressive manner. "No one must come into this who does not know what he is doing. You all understand, I hope, that it is a pretty dangerous business."

The older ones looked elated and the younger awestruck.

"There is still time," said Daddy, looking more and more portentous, "to get out of it. We may scrape through, but we take a risk."

They were all ready, though one little fellow seemed inclined to whimper, and was called a "funk" by his brother.

"Well, then," said Daddy, "you know, of course, what the business is. It's that horrible fellow, the one-legged pirate, Billy Bones," Shade of Stevenson, forgive the two-legged pirate who writes this!

"Whatever has he done ?" asked Cousin John.

"Ah! What hasn't he done ? The less said about it the better."

"Was it very awful?" asked Dimples.

"No, no, dear," said Mumty.

All the faces fell.

"So awful Mumty tries to hide it. Now, the point is that the fellow has been seen round here, and can easily be traced by the mark of his wooden leg. We'll either get him or he'll get us. If we can't find him, we'll find his treasure, anyhow. Are you ready?"

A general buzz.

"Have you all sticks or weapons ?"

Yes, they all had sticks. Daddy produced a revolver from his side-pocket, which gave an austere dignity to the whole proceedings.

"If we start we must see it through," said Daddy. "There is still time for anyone to back out."

"Is it a job for girls?" asked Dimples, with his eyes on Billie; and then gave a loud howl as his sister's stick came across his shins.

"No ragging. This is serious. Just one thing before we start. If, as we go, you come suddenly on a tall dark man with a squint and a long cloak, get on to him at once. Don't wait for him to draw, That's Jack Gilmore."

Here Daddy disgraced him self by breaking into laughter — a really inexcusable thing in a pirate hunt. It had suddenly occurred to him how funny it would be if they really did happen to meet some inoffensive gentleman who answered to the description, and if the whole swarm settled upon him.

"It's all right, my lads," said Daddy. "I am only laughing to think of Billy's face when he comes back for his treasure and finds that it is gone. Now, then, all line up on the doormat of the garden door. Are you all there ? Well, then, here is the first clue."

He drew a slip of paper from his pocket with an impressive skull and cross-bones upon it. Beneath was written :

"Ten to east and ten to west,
Find the murdered pedlar's vest."

"That's west," said Daddy, pointing straight out from the open door.

The gang drew together and consulted, while Daddy lit his pipe and awaited developments.

"Ten what ?" asked one.

"Well, it's always yards in the books," said Laddie.

"Paces," said Dimples.

"Well, then, ten paces to west and then ten to east."

"That brings us back here."

"It must surely be a mistake."

"Perhaps it is here," said a small quiet boy named Brodie.

They all looked suspiciously at the mat. Yes, there was a bulging there against the wall. In an instant they had it up, and there was the vest with a carving knife right through the middle of it, and half a bottle of red ink over the lining. The Lady was shocked by realistic details, but Daddy, of coarser fibre, was quite uncompromising in getting his atmosphere. They all stood hushed and awed in the presence of this gruesome relic.

"Perhaps there's a clue in it."

"Yes, yes, here it is."

A bit of paper projected from the pocket. It was torn out and eagerly opened. On it was the pirate symbol and the words:—

"Hurry! Hurry! Do not tarry!
Find the flagon in the quarry!

The paper had not fluttered to the earth before the whole pack was off on a hot scent. Daddy and two or three volunteer whippers — in came lumbering behind. There was only the one quarry, so the hounds streamed in and out of the furze bushes, shot across the common, and poured down into the hollow, where the high carved wall of Ashdown sandstone faced them, with alternate lines of stone and of rubble which seemed to show the rhythmic movement of the ages. There was a corner there with a huge prehistoric footmark stamped deep within it, three-toed and enormous. That is a long way from Billy Bones, but it was strange to Daddy, as he leaned upon his stick, to watch these little human bubbles, blown yesterday and bursting to-morrow, with the old, old stage as their background and the very footprint of a veteran in the piece still stamped upon it.

They nosed about and whimpered and grouped and broke, like a dozen young puppies. Then there was a cry, and Laddie's slim, active figure was seen tearing up a slope and balancing on a ledge. There, forty feet above the ground, was Daddy's copper shaving jug, gleaming coldly in the thin winter sunshine. Very absurd it looked stuck in a corner of the rock. It meant a climb and a long reach, but Laddie has no fear of heights, and a minute later the pot was on the ground with a ring of eager faces round it. The paper within it was plucked out and eagerly examined.

"Fourth green — eastern edge,
A bird is sitting in the hedge;
Search forward — search back,
There is wicked Billy's track."

The pack was in full cry once more, down the steep spoil-bank on the far side of the quarry, in and out of the gorse clumps, and parallel to the golf course, until they came to the fourth green, where they ran up and down the adjacent hedge. There was an absurd-looking bird, which usually mounted guard over an ash-tray in the study, sticking its red beak out of a thorn bush. No inscription was needed this time, and the pack simply scattered and hunted for tracks. One little boy came to Daddy with a teaser.

"Please, sir, when Billy Bones runs away and hides a treasure, why does he leave clues behind him to show where he has gone ?"

Daddy made a fine effort.

"I don't tell everyone," said he, "but between you and me, Billy's Negro wife has quarrelled with her husband and hates him. She leaves the traces behind in order to spite him."

More awkward questions might have come, but a clear call of triumph showed that Billie and John, who, as an affianced pair, ran in couples, had struck the trail. From now onwards the wicked negress had left little balls of paper to mark her husband's flight. Nose down and tail up the pack were on his heels — down a long slope, over a gate, along the edge of a field, and then—!

It was a truly fearsome place, and would have balked a good many grown-ups. There was a deeply-worn tangled valley upon the right with a stream at the bottom. A narrow gorge ran down to it, and it was this which cut across the path of the children. They halted at the edge and peered down into the depths, a good twenty-five-foot drop with a wall of slippery clay not very far from the perpendicular. Could it really be the trail? Yes, there was a ball of paper caught among the bramble bushes down at the bottom. One by one, seated on the ground, they slithered down into the depths. John came last with the crook of his stick in the belt which circled Billie's little waist. Then someone slipped, and in a moment what had been a perpendicular line of children had changed to a tumbled heap of humanity at the bottom of the descent. But they were up in a moment and flowed down among the thorn bushes and over the boulders till they had followed the side gorge down to the stream and were racing down the bush — grown valley Cowardly Daddy had slipped round an easier way, for lie is not built to be shot down small precipices — and, besides, he had laid the trail in the morning.

Billy Bones had run down the bed of the stream among all sorts of interlacing branches and thickets of undergrowth. Then, like the villain he was, he had gone right up the steep clay bank again, seventy feet high by now, but with a better slope and occasional tufts of grass, It was a hard clamber, and there was many a slip and many a rescue, but stained with mire and breathing hard the whole pack reached the top, and strained on the leash while Daddy shouted to them from below to hold hard until every straggler had come in. Then off again along the edge of fields with the steep valley always on the right. A grim place, that valley, with the name "Slaughter Glen" and a legend of foul work done among crouching fugitives in the wars of the Danes, That little stream had run blood once and Red Bridge spanned it lower down, so full of meaning are the old Shire names.

But the little rosy-faced boys and girls of good King George's reign knew and cared little for the dark old shadows down yonder in the valley. For half a mile they raced in and out among the hazels which border i he slope. Then suddenly the track dipped down, and it was slip and slide and squatter and scramble until they were down once more in the bed of the stream which runs brown and rich with the Sussex iron. Now the directions were up stream, and all the mumties would have thrown up their hands could they have seen them stumbling over greasy boulders, and plodding ankle-deep through pools as they traced Billy to his lair. There were perilous passages and moments of dread when they came to deep places and had to make their way round one by one, their toes in crevices of the rocks and their hands clinging to drooping branches, while Daddy shepherded them with a strong stick and a watchful eye. Graceful silver birches and tall slimy beech stems rose from the very tips of the stream, and their bare interlacing branches formed a continuous tunnel over-head, Keen young eyes darted in every direction for the treasure which at any moment might lie before them. Once a bottle was found in the stream.

"It's him!" cried Daddy. "It's his rum bottle! Were near him now. On, boys, on!"

But now they came on a curve of the valley and there before them was a perfect waterfall. The ledge of rock, green and slithery, reared itself up for ten or twelve feet, and the water covered it save for a streak on one side where a treacherous foothold could be found. This was the climax of the hunt. At the top was Billy Bones 's lair. "Silence here, or the fellow may, deal with us one by one!" With a fearful joy the children felt that all domestic laws had gone to the winds as the cold stream flowed down their sleeves and over their grasping hands. It was hard work, but there was not one who failed to reach the summit. There they had been ordered to halt until Daddy joined them. No one must speak above a whisper.

"It's just round the corner!" said Daddy, drawing his revolver. "Now, boys!" with a shout, "all together and down with the villain for ever!"

A few knew that it was a game. A few were in doubt. Quite half had taken every step of the way with all seriousness, thanks to the careful detail. It was in a real Victoria Cross spirit that they charged forward with a cheer and threw themselves into the rascal's den. It was a quiet rock-girt pool with a small cavern at the side. No sign of Billy, but a cry of delight went up all the same, for there was the treasure all right. A brass-bound box lay among the rocks, with an inscription in paper upon the lid and a huge wax seal.

From the Cocos Islands.
Value 240,000 Gold Dollars.
X Billy his mark.

"Billy Bones has gone," cried several treble voices, while the uplifted clubs were lowered.

"The better for him!" said Daddy, grimly, as he pocketed his revolver. "No, we won't open the treasure here. The diamonds might get loose. Wait till we are safe at home and then we'll see what we have got."

Keeping in a solid clump, so as to form a treasure guard, the hunters made for home. There was still the atmosphere of danger. It is part of the game to work all chance events into it, so that when the three shots of some pheasant-shooters rang out as they cleared the valley, Daddy yelled out that it was the pirate's alarm and that they were pursued. Many a backward glance was cast as they hurried over the moor.

It was an eager group which leaned over the box as Daddy cut the strings with a knife. "Of course, the pirates always put horrible things over their treasure. Don't be alarmed, but be ready for anything! Sometimes it was a bit of the slave who dug the hole, sometimes a poisoned dagger, sometimes merely a viper!" With an eldritch screech he threw open the lid and there was a considerable widening of the circle But they closed in again when nothing happened, and listened with shining eyes to Daddy's brazen account of the contents.

"These are only diamonds," said Daddy, shaking a small bag of pebbles. "I don't suppose you would get ten thousand pounds for the lot. But this is good — " It was an ugly lump of malachite from his geological case, "This is probably the greatest uncut emerald in the world."

"Oo!" said all the children, gazing with round eyes.

"Yes, they bid up to a hundred thousand in Pans but it was withdrawn. That's the Corona Corona emerald. Here are the two famous beryls from the Sultan of Travancore's turban. They are linked together with gold, for fear they should get separated." It was a very common sleeve link, but it passed all right. "All these things that look like copper medals are double doubloons artfully disguised. Here is a glass necklace of great value torn from some poor lady's throat. Here is a war medal which no doubt could tell a terrible secret. Here are silver and opals and rubies and small stuff of all sorts."

"And what will you do with it now ?"

"We shall get four policemen to take it to London, and land it in the Safe Depository, So now, boys, I must go and do some work!"

"So must all of us!" said the smiling Lady, as she surveyed the flushed, mud-stained, squelch-booted group in front of her.

So there you arc, daddies all — I make you a present of the Billy Bones game, It has its advantages. It can occupy anything from ten to one hundred of the most rowdy youngsters you can get together, It can be played within a hundred-yard garden or on a five-mile moor. It gives unlimited scope for ingenuity. It need not be a treasure alone. Billy Bones was a many-sided rascal. It may be a stolen will, or the blue eye of the Yellow God, or the gold imp that Raffles stole, or the head of the Shawnee maiden. But, like everything else that is worth doing at all, it needs concentration and doing well. Then you will find yourself a real Daddy and the true comrade of your kiddies.

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