Sullivan’s Island is small. It is three miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide. A creek — a narrow area of sea — lies between the island and the mainland. There was only one large building on Sullivan’s Island — Fort Moultrie. A group of soldiers lived in this large wooden building on the western side of the island. The soldiers in Fort Moultrie guarded the coast of South Carolina from our enemies.
Legrand had no family. His parents were dead and he had no brothers or sisters. He was not married and he had no children. He lived with a servant named Jupiter. Legrand and Jupiter lived in a small wooden house by the edge of the sea. They caught fish and birds for food. Charleston was not far, but they did not often go there.
William Legrand was an interesting man who had a good education. But he was also a strange man. Legrand enjoyed living in this quiet place because he did not like meeting people. Often, he did not speak for several days. Sometimes he became excited and talked for many hours. When I visited Sullivan’s Island, Legrand and I talked about many things. We talked about books that he had read. He talked about the animals, birds and insects near his home. He drew pictures of the creatures that he saw on the island.
One day in the month of October, I went to visit Legrand. But when I got to his home, no one was there. It was a cold day, so I went into Legrand’s little wooden house. Then I lit a fire and waited for him.
“It has strange patterns on its back,” he said.
“Can I see it?” I asked.
“No, I’m sorry,” replied Legrand. “You can’t see it tonight. I showed it to Lieutenant Gray this afternoon. He is interested in all kinds of insects. He has taken the bug to the fort. He has a book about insects. But I don’t think that he will find any information about this bug in his book.”
“What is unusual about the bug?” I asked.
“I’ll draw a picture of it,” said Legrand.
“Oh, I remember,” he said. He put his hand in another pocket of his coat and found a piece of paper. Then he drew a picture of the bug very carefully. The picture showed a beetle with a round body and six legs. On its back there were three strange marks.
“You draw well,” I said. “That is a scarab, I’m sure. Scarabs have round bodies that are covered in hard shells. Thousands of years ago, the people of Egypt believed that scarabs had magical powers.”
“Don’t listen to Jupiter,” said Legrand. “Maybe the bug is a scarab. And yes, it is a golden color. But it has these very unusual marks on its back — three black spots. There are two small spots above a larger spot. The spots are like two eyes and a mouth. It’s a pattern of a skull — the head of a dead man. A picture of a skull is sometimes called a death’s head. I have discovered a bug that no one has seen before!”
The paper was very old and thick. It was made of an animal’s skin. I saw the three spots on Legrand’s drawing of the bug. It certainly had a pattern of a skull — a death’s head. I also saw some writing in red ink. I had not seen the writing earlier.
“What do these strange letters mean?” I asked. I gave the paper back to Legrand.
I thought that he wanted to be alone. So, the next morning, I said goodbye to him and Jupiter. Then I left Sullivan’s Island and returned to Charleston. I thought no more about the picture of the bug, or the red writing.
“Is anything wrong?” I asked him.
“Mr Legrand is sick,” said Jupiter.
“Does he have a fever?”
“No, he’s sick in his mind,” Jupiter replied. “He walks about the island. He takes the boat across the creek to the mainland. He won’t eat and he doesn’t sleep. His face is pale — like a ghost. All day and all night he writes numbers and letters in a book. He only talks about the gold bug and a death’s head. The bug has made Mr Legrand mad. Mr Legrand has sent me here. He has written this note to you.”
I was not polite when you visited me. I’m sorry about that. But I must speak to you again. Please come to Sullivan’s Island. I have something very important to tell you. Poor Jupiter is worried about me, but I’m not sick. Come to my home immediately and I’ll tell you my news.
“Are you well?” I asked.
“I’m very well,” Legrand said quickly. His eyes were bright and shining. “I’m glad that you have come. Look at this.”
“That is the gold bug!” said Jupiter.
The golden insect was very heavy. Was it made of gold?
“I’ve studied the beetle,” said Legrand. “But I’ve also studied this paper.”
“On the day of your visit, I found the bug when I was walking with Jupiter,” said Legrand. “We were by the sea. The bug was lying on the ground. A few feet further along, there was a boat. The boat was very old and broken, and it was lying on the edge of the sea. In the bottom of the boat there was this piece of paper. I put the bug in the paper and put them both in my pocket. A few minutes later, we met the lieutenant from the fort. I gave him the bug because he wanted to study it. Then Jupiter and I went back to the house.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Please explain.”
“I believe that the gold bug has magic powers,” he said. Its showing us the way to something very important. The gold bug, the skull pattern on its back, and the red letters on the paper. These are all clues — important pieces of information. That is what I think. The clues will show us where to find something that is very valuable. Come with me and Jupiter.”
“Where are we going?” I asked. But Legrand did not answer. Maybe Jupiter was right. Maybe Legrand was mad.
I looked at the tools. “Are we going to dig a hole in the ground?” I asked. But Legrand did not reply. He started to push the boat down into the sea.
Legrand, Jupiter and I got into the boat. Jupiter pulled on the oars and the boat started to move away from the island. Many times, Legrand looked at a compass. Sometimes he asked Jupiter to row the boat further toward the north.
I became tired and I wanted to return home. What was the reason for this journey? I could not guess.
Trees surrounded the tall cliff. One tree was very tall and very, very old.
“Can you climb that tree?” Legrand asked Jupiter.
“I can climb any tree,” Jupiter answered.
“Very well, Jupiter. Take the gold bug and climb the tree,” said Legrand to his servant. “Climb the tree and tell me what you can see.”
Legrand gave the golden insect to Jupiter. There was a piece of string around the bug.
“Jupiter!” Legrand called out. “How many branches have you climbed?”
“I’m on the sixth branch,” Jupiter replied.
“Climb to the seventh branch on the east side of the tree. Then look along that branch of the tree,” Legrand said excitedly. “Can you see anything on the branch?”
“Good. Drop the bug into the left eye of the skull,” Legrand shouted to Jupiter.
“But the bug will fall down!” Jupiter replied.
“Yes, yes!” Legrand shouted. “I want the bug to fall to the ground.”
“Yes, sir,” Jupiter said. “I’m dropping the bug now.”
“You can come down now, Jupiter,” he said. “I’ve got the bug.”
Legrand put a wooden peg in the ground where the gold insect fell.
“Now we must measure fifty feet from the tree,” said Legrand.
“Dig here,” he said.
Jupiter took the pickax and started to dig. He soon hit something in the ground.
“Oh, sir,” he said. “More bones of a dead man.”
“Dig deeper, Jupiter,” he said.
I saw the blade of a knife. Then I saw three or four old coins. They looked like pieces of gold.
The sun was very low in the sky now. It was almost dark. I lit a lantern and held it above my head. The light shone down into the deep hole.
“My shovel has touched something,” he said. “It’s a box.” Then he removed more soil from the hole.
After a few minutes, I saw a wooden box with handles made of metal. It was very heavy and Legrand and Jupiter could not lift it. But Legrand pulled open the lid of the box and looked inside.
“We’ll take this treasure back to Sullivan’s Island,” he said. “We’ll take as many of the coins and jewels as we can carry. Then we’ll come back for more.”
We made two more journeys to the mainland. Each time, we took away another third of the treasure. As we returned to Sullivan’s Island for the third time, the sun was rising. By dawn, we were exhausted. But all the treasure was in Legrand’s house. Then the three of us, Legrand, Jupiter and I, slept for several hours.
“Legrand, how did you know about this treasure?” I asked. “And how did you know where to look for it?”
“The old paper gave me the clues,” Legrand said. “And you helped me to understand the clues.”
“But I did nothing,” I said.
“You’re wrong,” said Legrand. “You held the paper close to the fire. There’s secret writing on the paper. When the paper became hot, the writing became red.”
“Look,” he said. And he pointed at lines of letters, numbers and marks that were written in red ink.
“There are also two small pictures with the message,” Legrand said. “At the beginning of the message there’s a picture of a skull — a death’s head. Pirates used skulls — death’s heads to frighten people. Pirates put black flags with pictures of white skulls and bones on their ships.”
“Captain William Kidd sailed along this coast in the seventeenth century,” I said. “People believed that he buried some of his treasure somewhere in South Carolina. This is a message about his treasure!”
“E is the most common letter in the English language,” said Legrand. “E is used most frequently in the spelling of English words. The next letter that is used most frequently is A. After that, the most frequent letter is O, then I. The order of frequency is this: AOIDHNRSTUYCFGLMWBKPQXZJV. The number 8 appears forty-one times in this message. I decided that the number 8 must be the letter E. After many hours, I discovered the code for these letters. This is the code.”
Legrand took a paper from his desk and put it in front of me. I read these words:
USE A GOOD GLASS IN THE BISHOPS HOTEL ON THE DEVILS SEAT FORTYONE DEGREES AND THIRTEEN MINUTES NORTHEAST BY NORTH TO SEE BIG TREE SEVENTH BRANCH EAST SIDE DROP A LINE FROM THE LEFT EYE OF THE DEATHS HEAD THEN MEASURE A LINE ON THE GROUND FIFTY FEET OUT FROM THE TREE
“More than one hundred and forty years ago, a man named Bishop lived in this area,” said Legrand. “Mr Bishop had a hotel — an inn — on the top of a tall cliff. People went to the inn to drink.”
“On the cliff, near Bishop’s inn, there was a ledge in the rock,” Legrand said. “The ledge was called the Devil’s Seat. Some people believed that the pirate, Captain William Kidd, visited the inn. He sat on the ledge in the rock. He watched the ships sailing along the coast.”
“Did you find Bishop’s Hotel and the Devil’s Seat?” I asked quickly.
“Yes,” Legrand said. “I think that those bodies must be two pirates from Kidd’s ship. Kidd killed them when he buried his treasure near the tree. Now we must decide how to spend his money! We are all rich!”