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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 9437

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

He emerged upon the street which crosses the head of Market Strand, and, dropping his arms, stood for a moment us if in doubt of his bearings. He was flagrantly drunk, but not aggressively. He reminded me of a purblind owl that, blundering Into daylight, is set upon and mobbed by a crowd of small birds.

The 'longshoremen and loafers grinned and winked at one another, but forbore to interfere. Plainly the spectacle was a familiar one.

The man was not altogether repulsive; pitiable, rather; a small, lean fellow, with a grey-white face drawn into wrinkles about the jaw, and eyes that wandered timidly. He wore a suit of good sea-cloth- soiled, indeed, but neither ragged nor threadbare-and a blue and yellow spotted neckerchief, the bow of which had worked around towards his right ear. His hat, perched a-cock over his left eye, had made acquaintance with the tavern sawdust. Next to his drunkenness, perhaps, the most remarkable thing about him was his stick-of ebony, very curiously carved in rings from knob to ferrule, where it ended in an iron spike; an ugly weapon, of which his tormentors stood in dread, and small blame to them.

While he stood hesitating, they swarmed close and began to bay him afresh.

"Captain Coffin, Captain Coffin!" "Who killed the Portugee?" "Who hid the treasure and got so drunk he couldn't find it?" "Where's your ship, Cap'n Danny?" These were some of the taunts flung; and as the urchins danced about him, yelling them, the passion blazed up again in his red-rimmed eyes.

Amongst the crowd capered Ted Bates. "Hallo, Brooks!" he shouted, and, catching at another boy's elbow, pointed towards me. Beyond noting that the other boy had a bullet-shaped head with ears that stood out from it at something like right angles, I had time to take very little stock of him; for just then, us Captain Coffin turned about to smite, a stone came flying and struck him smartly on the funny-bone. His hand opened with the pain of it, but the stick hung by a loop to his wrist, and, gripping it again, he charged among his tormentors, lashing out to right and left.

So savagely he charged that I looked for nothing short of murder; and just then, while I stood at gaze, a boy stepped up to me-the same that Ted Bates had plucked by the arm.

"Look here!" said he, frowning, with his legs a-straddle. "Doggy Bates tells me that you told him you could whack me with one hand behind you."

I replied that I had told Doggy Bates nothing of the sort.

"That's all right," said he. "Then you take it back?"

He had the air of one sure of his logic, but his under lip-not to mention his ears-protruded in a way that struck me as offensive, and I replied-

"That depends."

"My name's Stokes," said he, still in the same reasonable tone. "And you'll have to take coward's blow."

"Oh, indeed!" said I.

"It's the rule," said he, and gave it me with a light, back-handed smack across the bridge of the nose; whereupon I hit him on the point of the chin, and, unconsciously imitating Captain Coffin's method of charging a crowd, lowered my head and butted him violently in the stomach.

I make no doubt that my brain was tired and giddy with the day's experiences, but to this moment I cannot understand why we two suddenly found ourselves the focus of interest in a crowd which had wasted none on Captain Coffin.

But so it was. In less time than it takes to write, a ring surrounded us-a ring of men staring and offering bets. The lamp at the street-corner shone on their faces; and close under the light of it Master Stokes and I were hammering one another.

We were fighting by rule, too. Some one-I cannot say who-had taken up the affair, and was imposing the right ceremonial upon us. It may have been the cheerful, blue-jerseyed Irishman, to whose knee I returned at the end of each round to be freshened up around the face and neck with a dripping boat-sponge. He had an extraordinarily wide mouth, and it kept speaking encouragement and good advice to me. I feel sure he was a good fellow, but have never set eyes on him from that hour to this.

Bully Stokes and I must have fought a good many rounds, for towards the end we were both panting hard, and our hands hung on every blow. But I remember yet more vividly the strangeness of it all, and the uncanny sensation that the fight itself, the street-lamp, the crowd, and the dim houses around were unreal as a dream: that, and the unnatural hardness of my opponent's face, which seemed the one unmalleable part of him.

A dreadful thought possessed me that if he could only contrive to hit me with his face all would be over. My own was badly pounded; for we fought-or, at any rate, I fought-withou

t the smallest science; it was blow for blow, plain give-and-take, from the start. But what distressed me was the extreme tenderness of my knuckles; and what chiefly irritated me was the behaviour of Doggy Bates, dancing about and screaming, "Go it, Stimcoes! Stimcoes for ever!" Five times the onlookers flung him out by the scruff of his neck; and five times he worked himself back, and screamed it between their legs.

In the end this enthusiasm proved the undoing of all his delight. Towards the end of an intolerably long round, finding that my arms began to hang like lead, I had rushed in and closed; and the two of us went to ground together. Then I lay panting, and my opponent under me-the pair of us too weary for the moment to strike a blow; and then, as breath came back, I was aware of a sudden hush in the din. A hand took me by the shirt-collar, dragged me to my feet, and swung me round, and I stared, blinking, into the face of Mr. Stimcoe.

"Dishgrashful!" said Mr. Stimcoe. He was accompanied by a constable, to whom he appealed for confirmation, pointing to my face. "Left immy charge only this evening, Perf'ly dishgrashful!"

"Boys will be boys, sir," said the constable.

"M' good fellow "-Mr. Stimcoe comprehended the crowd with an unsteady wave of his hand-"that don't 'pply 'case of men. Ne tu pu'ri tempsherish annosh; tha's Juvenal."

"Then my advice is, sir-take the boy home and give him a wash."

"He can't," came a taunting voice from the crowd. "'Cos why? The company 've cut off his water."

Mr. Stimcoe gazed around in sorrow rather than in anger. He cleared his throat for a public speech; but was forestalled by the constable's dispersing the throng with a "Clear along, now, like good fellows!"

The wide-mouthed man helped me into my jacket, shook hands with me, and said I had no science, but the devil's own pluck-and-lights. Then he, too, faded away into the night; and I found myself alongside of Doggy Bates, marching up the street after Mr. Stimcoe, who declaimed, as he went, upon the vulgarity of street-fighting.

By-and-by it became apparent that in the soothing flow of his eloquence he had forgotten us; and Doggy Bates, who understood his preceptor's habits to a hair, checked me with a knowing squeeze of the arm, and began, of set purpose, to lag in his steps. Mr. Stimcoe strode on, still audibly denouncing and exhorting.

"It was all my fault!" Master Bates pulled up and studied my mauled face by the light of a street-lamp. "The beggar heard me shouting his own name, silly fool that I was!"

I begged him not to be distressed on my account.

"What's the use of half a fight?" he groaned again. "My word, though, won't Stimcoe catch it from the missus! She sent him out to get change for your aunt's notes-'fees payable in advance.' I know the game-to pay off the bailey; and he's been soaking in a public-house ever since. Hallo!"

We turned together at the sound of footsteps approaching after us up the street. They broke into a run, then appeared to falter; and, peering into the dark interval between us and the next lamp, I discerned Captain Coffin. He had come to a halt, and stood there mysteriously beckoning.

"You-I want you!" he called huskily. "Not the other boy! You!"

I obeyed, having a reputation to keep up in the eyes of Doggy Bates; but my courage was oozing as I walked towards the old man, and I came to a sudden stop about five yards from him.

"Closer!" he beckoned. "Good boy, don't be afraid. What's your name, good boy?"

"Harry Brooks, sir."

"Call me 'sir,' do you? Well, and you're right. I could ride in my coach-and-six if I chose; and some day you may see it. How would you like to ride in your coach-and-six, Harry Brooks?"

"I should like it finely, sir," said I, humouring him.

"Yes, yes, I'll wager you would. Well, now-come closer. Mum's the word, eh? I like you, Harry Brooks; and the boys in this town "-he broke off and cursed horribly-"they're not fit to carry slops to a bear, not one of 'em. But you're different. And, see here: any time you're in trouble, just pay a call on me. Understand? Mind you, I make no promises." Here, to my exceeding fright, he reached out a hand, and, clutching me by the arm, drew me close, so that his breath poured hot on my ear, and I sickened at its reek of brandy. "It's money, boy-money, I tell you!"

He dropped my arm, and, falling back a pace, looked nervously about him.

"Between you and me and the gatepost, eh?" he asked.

His hand went down and tapped his pocket slily, and with that he turned and shuffled away down the street. I stared after him into the foggy darkness, listening to the tap of his stick upon the cobbles.

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