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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 11954

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

It was in the dusk of a July evening of the year 1813 (July 27, to be precise) that on my way back from the mail-coach office, Falmouth, to Mr. Stimcoe's Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen, No. 7, Delamere Terrace, I first met Captain Coffin as he came, drunk and cursing, up the Market Strand, with a rabble of children at his heels. I have reason to remember the date and hour of this encounter, not only for its remarkable consequences, but because it befell on the very day and within an hour or two of my matriculation at Stimcoe's. That afternoon I had arrived at Falmouth by Royal Mail, in charge of Miss Plinlimmon, my father's housekeeper; and now but ten minutes ago I had seen off that excellent lady and waved farewell to her-not without a sinking of the heart-on her return journey to Minden Cottage, which was my home.

My name is Harry Brooks, and my age on this remembered evening was fourteen and something over. My father, Major James Brooks, late of the 4th (King's Own) Regiment, had married twice, and at the time of his retirement from active service was for the second time a widower. Blindness-contracted by exposure and long marches over the snows of Galicia-had put an end to a career by no means undistinguished. In his last fight, at Corunna, he had not only earned a mention in despatches from his brigadier-general, Lord William Bentinck, but by his alertness in handling his half-regiment at a critical moment, and refusing its right to an outflanking line of French, had been privileged to win almost the last word of praise uttered by his idolized commander. My father heard, and faced about, but his eyes were already failing him; they missed the friendly smile with which Sir John Moore turned, and cantered off along the brigade, to encourage the 50th and 42nd regiments, and to receive, a few minutes later, the fatal cannon-shot.

Every one has heard what miseries the returning transports endured in the bitter gale of January, 1809. The Londonderry, in which my father sailed, did indeed escape wreck, but at the cost of a week's beating about the mouth of the Channel. He was, by rights, an invalid, having taken a wound in the kneecap from a spent bullet, one of the last fired in the battle; but in the common peril he bore a hand with the best. For three days and two nights he never shifted his clothing, which the gale alternately soaked and froze. It was frozen stiff as a board when the Londonderry made the entrance of Plymouth Sound; and he was borne ashore in a rheumatic fever. From this, and from his wound, the doctors restored him at length, but meanwhile his eyesight had perished.

His misfortunes did not end here. My step-sister Isabel-a beautiful girl of seventeen, the only child of his first marriage-had met him at Plymouth, nursed him to convalescence, and brought him home to Minden Cottage, to the garden which henceforward he tilled, but saw only through memory. Since then she had married a young officer in the 52nd Regiment, a Lieutenant Archibald Plinlimmon; but, her husband having to depart at once for the Peninsula, she had remained with her father and tended him as before, until death took her-as it had taken her mother-in childbirth. The babe did not survive her; and, to complete the sad story, her husband fell a few weeks later before Badajoz, while assaulting the Picurina Gate with fifty axemen of the Light Division.

Beneath these blows of fate my father did indeed bow his head, yet bravely. From the day Isabel died his shoulders took a sensible stoop; but this was the sole evidence of the mortal wound he carried, unless you count that from the same day he put aside his "Aeneid," and taught me no more from it, but spent his hours for the most part in meditation, often with a Bible open on his knee-although his eyes could not read it. Sally, our cook, told me one day that when the foolish midwife came and laid the child in his arms, not telling him that it was dead, he felt it over and broke forth in a terrible cry- his first and last protest.

In me-the only child of his second marriage, as Isabel had been the only child of his first-he appeared to have lost, and of a sudden, all interest. While Isabel lived there had been reason for this, or excuse at least, for he had loved her mother passionately, whereas from mine he had separated within a day or two after marriage, having married her only because he was obliged-or conceived himself obliged-by honour. Into this story I shall not go. It was a sad one, and, strange to say, sadly creditable to both. I do not remember my mother. She died, having taken some pains to hide even my existence from her husband, who, nevertheless, conscientiously took up the burden. A man more strongly conscientious never lived; and his sudden neglect of me had nothing to do with caprice, but came-as I am now assured-of some lesion of memory under the shock of my sister's death. As an unregenerate youngster I thought little of it at the time, beyond rejoicing to be free of my daily lesson in Virgil.

I can see my father now, seated within the summer-house by the filbert-tree at the end of the orchard-his favourite haunt-or standing in the doorway and drawing himself painfully erect, a giant of a man, to inhale the scent of his flowers or listen to his bees, or the voice of the stream which bounded our small domain. I see him framed there, his head almost touching the lintel, his hands gripping the posts like a blind Samson's, all too strong for the flimsy trelliswork. He wore a brown holland suit in summer, in colder weather a fustian one of like colour, and at first glance you might mistake him for a Quaker. His snow-white hair was gathered close beside the temples, back from a face of ineffable simplicity and goodness-the face of a man at peace with God and all the world, yet marked with scars-scars of bygone passions, cross-hatched and almost effaced by deeper scars of calamity. As Miss Plinlimmon wro

te in her album-

"Few men so deep as Major Brooks

Have drained affliction's cup.

Alas! if one may trust his looks,

I fear he's breaking up!"

This Miss Plinlimmon, a maiden aunt of the young officer who had been slain at Badajoz, kept house for us after my sister's death. She was a lady of good Welsh family, who after many years of genteel poverty had come into a legacy of seven thousand pounds from an East Indian uncle; and my father-a simple liver, content with his half-pay-had much ado in his blindness to keep watch and war upon the luxuries she untiringly strove to smuggle upon him. For the rest, Miss Plinlimmon wore corkscrew curls, talked sentimentally, worshipped the manly form (in the abstract) with the manly virtues, and possessed (quite unknown to herself) the heart of a lion.

Upon this unsuspected courage, and upon the strength of her affection for me, she had drawn on the day when she stood up to my father-of whom, by the way, she was desperately afraid-and told him that his neglect of me was a sin and a shame and a scandal. "And a good education," she wound up feebly, "would render Harry so much more of a companion to you."

My father rubbed his head vaguely. "Yes, yes, you are right. I have been neglecting the boy. But pray end as honestly as you began, and do not pretend to be consulting my future when you are really pleading for his. To begin with, I don't want a companion; next, I should not immediately make a companion of Harry by sending him away to school; and, lastly, you know as well as I, that long before he finished his schooling I should be in my grave."

"Well, then, consider what a classical education would do for Harry! I feel sure that had I-pardon the supposition-been born a man, and made conversant with the best thoughts of the ancients-Socrates, for example-"

"What about him?" my father demanded.

"So wise, as I have always been given to understand, yet in his own age misunderstood, by his wife especially! And, to crown all, unless I err, drowned in a butt of hemlock!"

"Dear madam, pardon me; but how many of these accidents to Socrates are you ascribing to his classical education?"

"But it comes out in so many ways," Miss Plinlimmon persisted; "and it does make such a difference! There's a je ne sais quoi. You can tell it even in the way they handle a knife and fork!"

That evening, after supper, Miss Plinlimmon declined her customary game of cards with me, on the pretence that she felt tired, and sat for a long while fumbling with a newspaper, which I recognized for a week-old copy of the "Falmouth Packet." At length she rose abruptly, and, crossing over to the table where I sat playing dominoes (right hand against left), thrust the paper before me, and pointed with a trembling finger.

"There, Harry! What would you say to that?"

I brushed my dominoes aside, and read-

"The Reverend Philip Stimcoe, B.A., (Oxon.), of Copenhagen Academy, 7. Delamere Terrace, begs to inform the Nobility, Clergy, and Gentry of Falmouth and the neighbourhood that he has Vacancies for a limited number of Pupils of good Social Standing. Education classical, on the lines of the best Public Schools, combined with Home Comforts under the personal supervision of Mrs. Stimcoe (niece of the late Hon. Sir Alexander O'Brien, R.N., Admiral of the White, and K.C.B.). Backward and delicate boys a speciality. Separate beds. Commodious playground in a climate unrivalled for pulmonary ailments. Greenwich time kept."

I did not criticise the advertisement. It sufficed me to read my release in it; and in the same instant I knew how lonely the last few months had been, and felt myself an ingrate. I that had longed unspeakably, if but half consciously, for the world beyond Minden Cottage-a world in which I could play the man-welcomed my liberty by laying my head on my arms and breaking into unmanly sobs.

I will pass over a blissful week of preparation, including a journey by van to Torpoint and by ferry across to Plymouth, where Miss Plinlimmon bought me boots, shirts, collars, under-garments, a valise, a low-crowned beaver hat for Sunday wear, and for week-days a cap shaped like a concertina; where I was measured for two suits after a pattern marked "Boy's Clarence, Gentlemanly," and where I expended two-and-sixpence of my pocket-money on a piratical jack-knife and a book of patriotic songs-two articles indispensable, it seemed to me, to full-blooded manhood; and I will come to the day when the Royal Mail pulled up before Minden Cottage with a merry clash of bits and swingle-bars, and, the scarlet-coated guard having received my box from Sally the cook, and hoisted it aboard in a jiffy, Miss Plinlimmon and I climbed up to a seat behind the coachman. My father stood at the door, and shook hands with me at parting.

"Good luck, lad," said he; "and remember our motto: Nil nisi recte! Good luck have thou with thine honour. And, by the way, here's half a sovereign for you."

"Cl'k!" from the coachman, shortening up his enormous bunch of reins; ta-ra-ra! from the guard's horn close behind my ear; and we were off!

Oh, believe me, there never was such a ride! As we swept by the second mile stone I stole a look at Miss Plinlimmon. She sat in an ecstasy, with closed eyes. She was, as she put it, indulging in mental composition.

Verses composed while Riding by the Royal Mail.

"I've sailed at eve o'er Plymouth Sound

(For me it was a rare excursion)

Oblivious of the risk of being drown'd,

Or even of a more temporary immersion.

"I dream'd myself the Lady of the Lake,

Or an Oriental one (within limits) on the Bosphorus;

We left a trail of glory in our wake,

Which the intelligent boatman ascribed to phosphorus.

"Yet agreeable as I found it o'er the ocean

To glide within my bounding shallop,

I incline to think that for the poetry of motion

One may even more confidently recommend the Tantivy Gallop."

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