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   Chapter 5 THE WHALEBOAT.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13262

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


A barber's pole protruded beside the ope leading to Captain Coffin's lodgings. It was painted in spirals of scarlet and blue, and at the end of it a cage containing a grey parrot dangled over the footway.

"Drunk again!" screamed the parrot, as I hesitated before the entrance, for the directing-marks just here were so numerous as to be perplexing. To the right of the alley the barber had affixed his signboard, close above the base of his pole; to the left a flanking slopshop dangled a row of cast-off suits, while immediately overhead was nailed a board painted over with ornate flourishes and the legend-

"G. Goodfellow. Carpenter and House-Decorator, &c.

Repairs Neatly Executed. Instruction in the Violin.

Funerals at the Shortest Notice. Shipping Supplied."

"Drunk again!" repeated the parrot. "Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me! Oh, you nasty image! Kiss me, kiss me! Who killed the Portugee?"

"He don't mean you," explained the barber, reassuringly, emerging at that moment from his shop with a pannikin of water for the parrot's cage, which he lowered very deftly by means of a halliard reeved through a block at the end of the pole. "He means old Coffin. Nice bird, hey?"

He slipped a hand through the cage-door, and caressed him, scratching his head.

"If you please, sir," said I, "it's Captain Coffin I'm looking for."

"Drunk again!" screamed the bird. "Damn my giblets, drunk again!"

"He don't like Coffin, and that's a fact," said the barber.

"He don't appear to, sir," I agreed.

"You'll find the old fellow down the yard. That is, if you really want him." The barber eyed me doubtfully. "He's sober enough, just now; been swearin off liquor for a week. I dare say you know his temper's uncertain at such times."

I did not know it, but was too far committed to retreat.

"Well, you'll find him down the yard-green door to the right, with the brass knocker. He's out at the back, hammering at his ship, but he'll hear you fast enough: he's wonderful quick of hearing."

A man, even though he possessed a solid brass knocker, had need to be quick of hearing in that alley. Without, street-hawkers were bawling and carts rattling on the cobbled thoroughfare; from the entrance the parrot vociferated after me as I went down the passage beneath an open window whence an invisible violin repeated the opening phrase of "Come, cheer up, my lads!" plaintively and persistently; while from the far end, somewhere between it and the harbour side, an irregular hammering punctuated the music.

I knocked, and the hammering ceased. The rest of the din ceased not, nor abated. In about a minute the green door opened-a cautious inch or two at first, then wide enough to reveal Captain Coffin. He wore a dirty white jumper over his upper garments, and held a formidable mallet. I observed that either his face was unnaturally white or the rims of his eyes were unnaturally red, and that sawdust besprinkled his hair and collar. I recalled the tavern sawdust which had bepowdered his hat on the night of our first meeting, and jumped to a wrong conclusion.

"Eh? It's Brooks-the boy Brooks! Glad to see you, Brooks! Come inside."

"Thank you, sir," said I, feeling a strong impulse to bolt as he shook me by the hand, so hot was his and so dry, and so feverishly it gripped me.

"You're sure no one tracked ye here?" he asked, as he closed the door behind us.

"There was a barber, sir, at the head of the passage. I stopped to ask him the way."

"He's all right, or would be but for that cursed bird of his. How a man can keep such a bird-" Captain Coffin broke off. "I had a two-three nails in my mouth when you knocked. Nearly made me swallow 'em, you did. They was copper nails, too."

I suppose I must have stared at this, for he paused and peered at me, drawing me over to the window, through which-so thickly grimed it was-a very little light dribbled from the courtyard into the room. Yet the room itself was clean, almost spick and span, with a seaman-like tidiness in all its arrangements-a small room, crowded with foreign odds-and-ends, among which I remember a walking-stick even more singular than the one Captain Coffin carried on his walks abroad (it was white in colour, with lines of small grey indentations, and he afterwards told me it was a shark's backbone); a corner-cupboard, too, painted over with green-and-yellow tulips.

"Copper nails, I tell you. Nothing but the best'll do for your friend Coffin." He leaned back, still eyeing me, and tapped me twice on the chest. "You heard me say that? 'Your friend' was my words."

"Thank you, sir."

"But you made me jump, you did-me being that way given when off the liquor." He hesitated a moment, with a glance over his shoulder at the tulip-painted cupboard. "Brooks," he went on earnestly, "you and me being met on a matter of business, and the same needin' steadiness-head and hand, my boy, if ever business did-what d'ye say to a tot of rum apiece?"

Without waiting for my answer, he hobbled off to the cupboard, and had set two glasses on the table and brimmed them with neat spirit before I had finished protesting. The bottle-neck trembled on the rims of the glasses and struck out a sort of chime as he paused.

"You won't?" he asked, gulping down his own portion; and the liquor must have been potent, for it brought a sudden water to his eyes. "Well, so be it-if you've kept off it at your age. But at mine"- he drank off the second glassful and wiped his mouth-"I've had experiences, Brooks. When you've heard 'em, you wouldn't be surprised, not if it took a dozen to steady me."

He filled again, and came close to me, holding the glass, yet so tremulously that the rum spilled over his fingers.

"Ingots, lad-golden ingots! Bars and wedges of solid gold! Gems, too, and cath-e-deral plate, with crucifixions and priests' vestments stiff with pearls and rubies as if they was frozen. I've seen 'em lyin' tossed in a heap like mullet in a ground-net. Ay, and blazin' on the beach, with the gulls screamin' over 'em and flappin', and the sea all around. I seen it with these eyes, boy" He stood back and shivered. "And behind o' that, the Death! But it comes equal to all, the Death. Not if a man had learned every trick the devil can teach could he lay his course clear o' that. Could he, now?"

His words, his uncouth gestures, which were almost spasms, and the changes in his face-from cupidity to terror, and from terror again to a kind of wistful hope-fairly frightened me, and I stammered stupidly that death was the common lot, and there couldn't be a doubt of it; t

hat or something of the sort. But what I said does not matter. He was not listening, and before I had done he drained and set down the glass and gripped my arm again.

"I seen all that-ay, an' felt it!" He drew away and stretched out both hands, crooking his fingers like talons. "Ay, an' I seen him!"

"Him?" I echoed. "But you were talking of Death, sir."

"You may call him that. There's men lyin' around in the sand- Did ever you hear, boy, of a poison that kills a man and keeps him fresh as paint?"

"No, sir."

He nodded. "No, I reckon you never did. Fresh as paint it keeps 'em, and white as a figure-head. The first heap as ever I dug, believin' it to be the treasure-my reckoning was out by a foot or two-I came on one o' them. Three foot beneath the sand I came on him, an' the gulls sheevoing all the while over my head. They knew. And the sea and the dreadful loneliness around us all the while. There was three of us, Brooks-I mention no names, you understand-three of us, and him. Three to one. Yet he got the better of us all-as he got the better of the first lot, and they must ha' been a dozen. Four of them we uncovered afore we struck the edge of the treasure-uncovered 'em and covered 'em up again pretty quick, I can tell you. Fresh as paint they were, in a manner o' speaking, just as though they'd died yesterday; whereas by Bill's account they must ha' lain there for more'n a year. And the faces on 'em white and shinin'-"

Here Captain Coffin shivered, and, glancing about him, poured out another go of rum.

"You wouldn't blame me for wantin' it, Brooks-not if you'd seen 'em. That was on the Keys, as they're called-half a dozen banks to no'thard of the island, and maybe from half a mile to three-quarters off the shore, which shoals thereabout-sand, all the lot of 'em, and nothin' but sand; sand and sea-birds, and-what I told you. But the bulk lies in the island itself, in two caches; and where the bigger cache lies he don't know, and nobody knows but only Dan Coffin."

Captain Coffin winked, touched his breast, and wagged his forefinger at me impressively.

"That makes twice," he went on. "Twice that devil has got the better of every one. But the third time's lucky, they say. He may be dead afore this; he'll be getting an oldish man, anyway, and life on that cursed island can't be good for his health. We won't go in a crowd this time, neither; not a dozen, nor yet four of us, but only you an' me, Brooks. It's the safer way-the only safe way-an' there'll be the fatter sharin's. Now you know-hey?-why Branscome's givin' me lessons in navigation."

He chuckled, and was moving off mysteriously to a back doorway behind the dresser, but halted and came back to the table beside which I stood, making no motion to follow him.

"Look ye here, Brooks," said be. "If there's anything you don't get the hang of-anything that takes ye aback, so to speak, in what I'm tellin' you-you just hitch on an' trust to old Dan Coffin; to old Dan, as'll do for you more than ever your godfathers an' godmothers did at your baptism. You'll pick up a full breeze as you go on. Man, the treasure's there! Man, I've handled it, or enough of it to keep you in a coach-an'-six, with nothing to do but loll on cushions for the rest o' your days, an' pick your teeth at the crowd. And look ye here." He waved a hand around the room. "I'm old Danny Coffin, ain't I? poor old drunken Danny Coffin, eh? Yet cast an eye about ye. Nice fittin's, ben't they? Hitch down my coat off the peg there; feel the cloth of it; take it between finger and thumb. Ay, I don't live upon air, nor keep house an' fixtures upon nothin' at all. There-if you want more proof!" He dived a hand into his trouser-pocket, and held out a golden coin under my nose. "There! that very dollar came from the island, and I'm offerin' you the fellows to it by the thousand. Why? says you. Because, says I, you're a good lad, and I've took a fancy to see you in Parlyment. That's why. An' it's no return I'm askin' you, but just to believe!"

He made for the back door again, and opened it, letting in the sunlight; but the sunlight fell in two slanting rays, one on either side of a dark object which all but filled the entrance, blocking out my view of the back court beyond. It was the stern of a tall boat.

The boat, in fact, filled the small back court, leaving an alley-way scarcely more than two feet wide along either party-wall. She rested on the stocks, about three-parts finished, in shape very like a whaleboat, and in measurement-so Captain Coffin informed me, with a proprietary wave of the hand-some twenty-nix feet over all, with a beam of nine feet six inches amidships. And even to a boy's eye she showed herself a pretty model, though (as I say) unfinished, with a foot and more of her ribs standing up bare and awaiting the top strakes.

"Designed her myself, Brooks. Eh, but your friend Dan'l Coffin has an eye for the shape of a boat, though no hand at pencilling, nor what you might call the cabinet-making part of the job. There's a young carpenter lives up the court here-a cleverish fellow. I got him to help me over the niceties, you understand; but on my lines, lad. Climb up and cast your eye over the well I've put in her. That's for the treasure; and there'll be side-lockers round the stern-sheets, and a locker forward big enough to hold a man. The fellow don't guess their meanin', an' I don't let him guess. He thinks they're for air-compartments, to keep her buoyant; says she'll need more ballast than I've allowed her, and wants to know what sense there is in buildin' a boat so floatey. We'll ballast her, Brooks; all in good time. We'll ship her aboard the Kingston packet, bein' of a size that she'll carry comfortable as deck-cargo; and soon as we get to Kingstown we'll-"

"Avast there, cap'n!" interrupted a cheerful voice; and I glanced up, to see a sandy-haired youth with an extremely good-natured face nodding at us across the coping of the party-wall. "Avast there! Busy with visitors, eh? No? Well, I've been thinkin' it over, and I'll take sixpence an hour."

"I don't give a ha'penny over fippence," answered Captain Coffin, patently taken aback by the interruption.

"Fivepence, then, as a pro-temporary accommodation," said the youth, and, throwing a leg over the wall, heaved himself over and into the back yard. "But it's taking advantage of me; and you know that if I weren't in love and in a hurry it wouldn't happen."

"You can take fippence, or go to the devil!" said Captain Coffin. "By the way, Brooks, this is my assistant, Mr. George Goodfellow."

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