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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 8099

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Agreeable, too, as I found it to be whirled between the hedgerows behind five splendid horses; to catch the ostlers run out with the relays; to receive blue glimpses of the Channel to southward; to dive across dingles and past farm-gates under which the cocks and hens flattened themselves in their haste to give us room; to gaze back over the luggage and along the road, and assure myself that the rival coach (the Self-Defence) was not overtaking us-yet Falmouth, when we reached it, was best of all; Falmouth, with its narrow streets and crowd of sailors, postmen, 'longshoremen, porters with wheelbarrows, and passengers hurrying to and from the packets, its smells of pitch and oakum and canvas, its shops full of seamen's outfits and instruments and marine curiosities, its upper windows where parrots screamed in cages, its alleys and quay-doors giving peeps of the splendid harbour, thronged-to quote Miss Plinlimmon again-"with varieties of gallant craft, between which the trained nautical eye may perchance distinguish, but mine doesn't."

The residential part of Falmouth rises in neat terraces above the waterside, and of these Delamere Terrace was by no means the least respectable. The brass doorplate of No. 7-"Copenhagen Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen. Principal, the Rev. Philip Stimcoe, B.A. (Oxon.)"-shone immaculate; and its window-blinds did Mrs. Stimcoe credit, as Miss Plinlimmon remarked before ringing the bell.

Mrs. Stimcoe herself opened the door to us, in a full lace cap and a maroon-coloured gown of state. She was a gaunt, hard-eyed woman, tall as a grenadier, remarkable for a long upper lip decorated with two moles. She excused her condescension on the ground that the butler was out, taking the pupils for a walk; and conducted us to the parlour, where Mr. Stimcoe sat in an atmosphere which smelt faintly of sherry.

Mr. Stimcoe rose and greeted us with a shaky hand. He was a thin, spectacled man, with a pendulous nose and cheeks disfigured by a purplish cutaneous disorder (which his wife, later on, attributed to his having slept between damp sheets while the honoured guest of a nobleman, whose name I forget). He wore a seedy clerical suit.

While shaking hands he observed that I was taller than he had expected; and this, absurdly enough, is all I remember of the interview, except that the room had two empty bookcases, one on either side of the chimney-breast; that the fading of the wallpaper above the mantelpiece had left a patch recording where a clock had lately stood (I conjectured that it must be at Greenwich, undergoing repairs); that Mrs. Stimcoe produced a decanter of sherry-a wine which Miss Plinlimmon abominated-and poured her out a glassful, with the remark that it had been twice round the world; that Miss Plinlimmon supposed vaguely "the same happened to a lot of things in a seaport like Falmouth;" and that somehow this led us on to Mr. Stimcoe's delicate health, and this again to the subject of damp sheets, and this finally to Mrs. Stimcoe's suggesting that Miss Plinlimmon might perhaps like to have a look at my bedroom.

The bedroom assigned to me opened out of Mrs. Stimcoe's own. ("It will give him a sense of protection. A child feels the first few nights away from home.") Though small, it was neat, and, for a boy's wants, amply furnished; nay, it contained at least one article of supererogation, in the shape of a razor-case on the dressing-table. Mrs. Stimcoe swept this into her pocket with a turn of the hand, and explained frankly that her husband, like most scholars, was absent-minded. Here she passed two fingers slowly across her forehead. "Even in his walks, or while dressing, his brain wanders among the deathless compositions of Greece and Rome, turning them into English metres-all cakes especially"-she must have meant alcaics-"and that makes him leave things about."

I had fresh and even more remarkable evidence of Mr. Stimcoe's absent-mindedness two minutes later, when, the sheets having been duly inspected, we descended to the parl

our again; for, happening to reach the doorway some paces ahead of the two ladies, I surprised him in the act of drinking down Miss Plinlimmon's sherry.

The interview was scarcely resumed before a mortuary silence fell on the room, and I became aware that somehow my presence impeded the discussion of business.

"I think perhaps that Harry would like to run out upon the terrace and see the view from his new home," suggested Mrs. Stimcoe, with obvious tact.

I escaped, and went in search of the commodious playground, which I supposed to lie in the rear of the house; but, reaching a back yard, I suddenly found myself face to face with three small boys, one staggering with the weight of a pail, the two others bearing a full washtub between them; and with surprise saw them set down their burdens at a distance and come tip-toeing towards me in a single file, with theatrical gestures of secrecy.

"Hallo!" said I.

"Hist! Be dark as the grave!" answered the leader, in a stage-whisper. He was a freckly, narrow-chested child, and needed washing. "You're the new boy," he announced, as though he had tracked me down in that criminal secret.

"Yes," I owned. "Who are you?"

"We are the Blood-stained Brotherhood of the Pampas, now upon the trail!"

"Look here," said I, staring down at him, "that's nonsense!"

"Oh, very well," he answered promptly; "then we're the 'Backward Sons of Gentlemen'-that's down in the prospectus-and we're fetching water for Mother Stimcoe, because the turncock cut off the company's water this morning! See? But you won't blow the gaff on the old girl, will you?"

"Are you all there is, you three?" I asked, after considering them a moment.

"We're all the boarders. My name's Ted Bates-they call me Doggy Bates-and my father's a captain out in India; and these are Bob Pilkington and Scotty Maclean. You may call him Redhead, being too big to punch; and, talking of that, you'll have to fight Bully Stokes."

"Is he a day-boy?" I asked.

"He's cock of Rogerses up the hill, and he wants it badly. Stimcoes and Rogerses are hated rivals. If you can whack Bully Stokes for us-"

"But Mrs. Stimcoe told me that you were taking a walk with the butler," I interrupted.

Master Bates winked.

"Would you like to see him?"

He beckoned me to an open window, and we gazed through it upon a bare back kitchen, and upon an extremely corpulent man in an armchair, slumbering, with a yellow bandanna handkerchief over his head to protect it from the flies. Master Bates whipped out a pea-shooter, and blew a pea on to the exposed lobe of the sleeper's ear.

"D-n!" roared the corpulent one, leaping up in wrath. But we were in hiding behind the yard-wall before he could pull the bandanna from his face.

"He's the bailiff," explained Master Bates. "He's in possession. Oh, you'll get quite friendly with him in time. Down in the town they call him Mother Stimcoe's lodger, he comes so often. But, I say, don't go and blow the gaff on the old girl."

On our way to the coach-office that evening I felt-as the saying is-my heart in my mouth. Miss Plinlimmon spoke sympathetically of Mr. Stimcoe's state of health, and with delicacy of his absent-mindedness, "so natural in a scholar." I discovered long afterwards that Mr. Stimcoe, having retired to cash a note for her, had brought back a strong smell of brandy and eighteen-pence less than the strict amount of her change. I knew in my heart that my new schoolmaster and his wife were a pair of frauds, and yet I choked down the impulse to speak. Perhaps Master Bates's loyalty kept me on my mettle.

The dear soul and I bade one another farewell, she not without tears. The coach bore her away; and I walked back through the crowded streets with my spirits down in my boots, and my fists thrust deep into the pockets of my small-clothes.

In this dejected mood I reached the Market Strand just as Captain Coffin came up it from the Plume of Feathers public-house, cursing and striking out with his stick at a mob of small boys.

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