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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 14208

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Events soon to be narrated made my sojourn in tutelage of Mr. Stimcoe a brief one, and I will pass it lightly over.

The school consisted of four boarders and six backward sons of gentlemen resident in the town, and assembled daily in a large outhouse furnished with desks of a peculiar pattern, known to us as "scobs." Mr. Stimcoe, who had received his education as a "querister" at Winchester (and afterwards as a "servitor" at Pembroke College, Oxford), habitually employed and taught us to employ the esoteric slang-or "notions," as he called it-of that great public school; so that in "preces," "morning lines," "book-chambers," and what-not we had the names if not the things, and a vague and quite illusory sense of high connection, on the strength of which, and of our freedom from what Mrs. Stimcoe called "the commercial taint," we made bold to despise the more prosperous Rogerses up the hill.

Upon commerce in the concrete-that is to say, upon the butchers, bakers, and other honest tradesmen of Falmouth-Mrs. Stimcoe waged a predatory war, and waged it without quarter. She had a genius for opening accounts, and something more than genius for keeping her creditors at bay. She never wheedled nor begged them for time; she never compromised nor parleyed, nor condescended to yield an inch to their claims for decent human treatment. She relied simply upon browbeating and the efficacy of the straight-spoken lie. A more dauntless, unblushing, majestic liar never stood up in petticoats.

She was a byword in Falmouth; yet, strange to say, her victims kept a sneaking fondness for her, a soft spot In their hearts; while as sporting onlookers we boys took something like a fearful pride in the Warrior, as we called her. It was not in her nature to encourage any such weakness, or to use it. She would not have thanked us for it. But we had this amount of excuse: that she fed us liberally when she could browbeat the butcher; and if at times we went short, she shared our privation. Also, there must have been some good in the woman, to stand so unflinchingly by Stimcoe. Stimcoe's books had gone into storage at the pawnbroker's; but in his bare "study," where he heard our construing of Caesar and Homer, stood a screen, and behind it an eighteen-gallon cask. A green baize tablecloth covered the cask from sight, and partially muffled the sound of its running tap when Stimcoe withdrew behind the screen, to consult (as he put it) his lexicon.

His one assistant, who figured in the prospectus as "Teacher of English, the Mathematics, and Navigation," was a retired packet-captain, Branscome by name, but known among us as Captain Gamey, by reason of an injured leg. He had taken the hurt-a splintered hip-bone-while fighting his ship against a French privateer off Guadeloupe, and it had retired him from the service of my lords the Postmaster-General upon a very small pension, and with a sword of honour subscribed for by the merchants of the City of London, whose mails he had gallantly saved. These resources being barely sufficient to maintain him, still less to permit his helping a widowed sister whom he had partly maintained during his days of service, he eked them out by school mastering; and a dreadful trade he must have found it. In person he was slight and wiry, of a clear, ruddy complexion, with grey hair, and a grave simplicity of manner. He wore a tightly buttoned, blue uniform coat, threadbare and frayed, but scrupulously brushed, noticeably clean linen, and white duck trousers in all weathers. He walked with the support of a malacca cane, dragging his wounded leg after him; and had a trick of talking to himself as he went.

I need scarcely say that we mimicked him; but in school he kept far better discipline than Stimcoe, for, with all his oddity, we knew him to be a brave man. Such mathematics as we needed he taught capably enough and very patiently. The "navigation," so far as we were concerned, was a mere flourish of the prospectus; and his qualifications as a teacher of English began and ended with an enthusiasm for Dr. Johnson's "Rasselas."

Such was Captain Branscome: and, such as he was, he kept the school running on days when Stimcoe was merely drunk and incapable. He ever treated Mrs. Stimcoe with the finest courtesy, and, alone among her creditors, was rewarded with that lady's respect.

I knew, to be sure-we all knew-that she must be in arrears with Captain Branscome's pay; but we were unprepared for the morning when, on the stroke of the church clock-our Greenwich time-he walked up to the door, resolutely handed Mrs. Stimcoe a letter, and as resolutely walked away again. Stimcoe had been maudlin drunk for a week and could not appear. His wife heroically stepped into the breach, and gave us (as a geography lesson) some account of her uncle the admiral and his career-"distinguished, but wandering," as she summarized it.

I remember little of this lesson save that it dispensed-wisely, no doubt-with the use of the terrestrial globe; that it included a description of the admiral's country seat in Roscommon, and an account of a ball given by him to celebrate Mrs. Stimcoe's arrival at a marriageable age, with a list of the notabilities assembled; and that it ended in her rapping Doggy Bates over the head with a ruler, for biting his nails. From that moment anarchy reigned.

It reigned for a week. I have wondered since how our six day-boys managed to refrain from carrying home a tale which must have brought their parents down upon us en masse. Great is schoolboy honour- great, and more than a trifle quaint. In any case, the parents must have been singularly unobservant or singularly slow to reason upon what they observed; for we sent their backward sons home to them each night in a mask of ink.

Saturday came, and brought the usual half-holiday. We boarders celebrated it by a raid upon the back yard of Rogerses-Bully Stokes being temporarily incapacitated by chicken-pox-and possessed ourselves, after a gallant fight, of Rogerses' football. Superior numbers drove us back to our own door, where-at the invocation of all the householders along Delamere Terrace-the constable intervened; but we retained the spoil.

At the shut of dusk, as we kicked the football in triumph about our own back yard, Mrs. Stimcoe sought me out with a letter to be conveyed to Captain Branscome. I took it and ran.

The lamplighter, going his rounds, met me at the corner of Killigrew Street and directed me to the alley in which the captain's lodgings lay. The alley was dark, but a little within the entrance my eyes caught the glimmer of a highly polished brass door-knocker, and upon this I rapped at a venture.

Captain Branscome opened to me. The house had no passage. Its front door opened directly upon a whitewashed room, with a round table in the centre, covered with charts. On the table, too, stood a lamp, the light of which dazzled me for a moment. On the walls hung the captain's sword of honour (above the mantelpiece), a couple of bookshelves, well stored, and a panel with a ship upon i

t-a brig in full sail-carved in high relief and painted. My eyes, however, were not for these, but for a man who sat at the table, poring over the charts, and lifted his head nervously to blink at me. It was Captain Coffin.

While I stared at him Captain Branscome took the letter from me. It contained some pieces of silver, as I knew from its weight and the feel of it-five shillings, as I judged, or perhaps seven-and-sixpence. As his hand weighed it I saw a sudden relief on his face, and realized how grey and pinched it had been when he opened the door to me.

He peised the envelope in his hand for a moment, then broke the seal very deliberately, took out the coins, and, as if weighing them in his palm, turned back to the table and laid Mrs. Stimcoe's letter close under the lamp while he searched for his gold-rimmed spectacles. (There was a tradition at Stimcoe's, by the way, that the London merchants, finding a small surplus of subscriptions in hand after purchasing the sword of honour, had presented him with these spectacles as a make-weight, and that he valued them no less.)

"Brooks," said he, laying down the letter and pushing the spectacles high on his forehead while he gazed at me, "I want to ask you a question in confidence. Had Mrs. Stimcoe any difficulty in finding this money?"

"Well, sir," said I, "I oughtn't perhaps to know it, but she pawned Stim-Mr. Stimcoe's Cicero this morning, the six volumes with a shield on the covers, that he got as a prize at Oxford."

"Good Lord!" said Captain Branscome, slowly. As if in absence of mind, he stepped to a side-cupboard and looked within. It was bare but for a plate and an apple. He took up the apple, and was about to offer it to me, but set it back slowly on the plate, and locked the cupboard again. "Good Lord!" he repeated quietly, and, linking his hands under his coat-tails, strode twice backwards and forwards across the room.

Captain Coffin looked up from his charts and stared at him, and I, too, stared, waiting in the semi-darkness beyond the lamp's circle.

"Good Lord!" said Captain Branscome for the third time. "And it's Saturday, too! You'll excuse me a moment."

With that he caught up the letter, and made a dart up the wooden staircase, which led straight from a corner of the room through a square hole in the ceiling to his upper chamber.

"Money again!" said Captain Coffin, turning his eyes upon me and blinking. "Nothing like money!"

He picked up a pair of compasses, spread them out on the paper of figures before him, and looked up again with a sly, silly smile.

"You won't guess what I'm doing?" he challenged.


"I'm studyin' navigation. Cap'n Branscome's larnin' it to me. Some people has luck an' some has heads; an' with a head on my shoulders same as I had at your age, I'd be Prime Minister an' Lord Mayor of Lunnon rolled into one, by crum!" He reached across for Captain Branscome's sextant, and held it between his shaking hands. "He can do it; hundreds o' men-thick-headed men in the ord'nary way-can do it; take a vessel out o' Falmouth here, as you might say, and hold her 'crost the Atlantic, as you might put it; whip her along for thirty days, we'll say; an' then, 'To-morrow, if the wind holds, an' about six in the mornin',' they'll say, 'there'll be an island with a two-three palm-trees on a hill an' a spit o' sand bearing nor'-by-west. Bring 'em in line,' they'll say, 'an' then you may fetch my shaving-water'-and all the while no more'n ordinary men, same as you and me. Whereby I allow it must come in time, though my head don't seem to get no grip on it."

Captain Coffin stared for a moment at a sheet of paper on which he had been scribbling figures, and passed it over to me, with a sigh.

"There! What d'you make of it?"

At a glance I saw that nothing could be made of it. The figures crossed one another, and ran askew; here and there they trailed off into mere illegibility. In the left-hand bottom corner I saw a 3 set under a 10, and beneath it the result-17-underlined, which, as a sum, left much to be desired, whether you took it in addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.

"And yet," he went on plaintively, "there's hundreds can do it-even ord'nary men."

He reached out a hand and gripped me by the elbow; and again his brandy-laden breath sickened me as he drew me close.

"S'pose, now, you was to do this for me? You could, you know. And there's money in it-lashin's o' money!"

He winked at me, glanced around the room, and with an indescribable air of slyness dived a hand into his breast-pocket.

"It's here," he nodded, drawing out a small parcel wrapped about in what at first glance appeared to me an oilskin bag, tied about the neck with a tarry string. "Here. And enough to set you an' me up for life." His fingers fumbled with the string for two or three seconds, but presently faltered. "You come to me to-morrow," he went on, with another mysterious wink, "and I'll show you something. Up the hill, past Market Strand, till you come to a signboard, 'G. Goodfellow. Funerals Furnished'-first turning to the right down the court, and knock three times."

Here he whipped the parcel back into his pocket, picked up his compasses, and made transparent pretence to be occupied in measuring distances as Captain Branscome came down the stairs from the garret.

Captain Branscome gave no sign of observing his confusion, but signalled to me to step outside with him into the alley, where he pressed an envelope into my hand. By the weight of it, I knew on the instant that he was returning Mrs. Stimcoe's money,

"And tell her," said he, "that I will come on Monday morning at nine o'clock as usual."

"Yes, sir."

I turned to go. I could not see his face in the gloom of the alley, but I had caught one glimpse of it by the lamplight within, and knew what had detained him upstairs. Honest man, he was starving, and had been praying up there to be delivered from temptation.

"Brooks," said he, as I turned, "they tell me your father was once a major in the Army. Is he, by chance, the same Major Brooks-Major James Brooks, of the King's Own-I had the honour to bring home in the Londonderry, after Corunna?"

"That must have been my father, sir."

"A good man and a brave one. I am glad to hear he is recovered."

I told him in a word or two of my father's health and of his blindness.

"And he lives not far from here?" I remembered afterwards that his voice shook upon the question.

I described Minden Cottage and its position on the road towards Plymouth. He cut me short hurriedly, and remarked, with a nervous laugh, that he must be getting back to his pupil. Whereat I, too, laughed.

"Do you think it wrong of me, boy?" he asked abruptly.

"Wrong, sir?"

"He insists upon coming; and he pays me. He will never learn anything. By the way, Brooks, I have been inhospitable. An apple, for instance?"

I declared untruthfully that I never ate apples; and perhaps the lie was pardonable, since by it I escaped eating Captain Branscome's Sunday dinner.

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