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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 9556

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

"Good day," said Mr. George Goodfellow, nodding affably. "I hope I see you well."

"Pretty well, thank you, sir," I answered.

"And where might you come from, makin' so bold?"

I told him that I was a boarder at Mr. Stimcoe's.

"Then," said Mr. Goodfellow, taking off his coat and extracting a pencil and a two-foot rule from a pocket at the back of his small-clothes, "I'm sorry for you. What a female!" He chose out a long and flexible plank from a stack laid lengthwise in the alley-way along the base of the wall, lifted it, set it on three trestles, and began to measure and mark it off. "She's calculated to destroy one's belief in human nature, that's what she is! Fairly knocks the gilt off. Sometimes I can't hardly realize that she and Martha belong to the same sex. Martha is my young woman."

"Yes, sir?"

"Yes. At present she's living in Plymouth, assistant in a ham-and-beef shop, as you turn down to the Barbican. That's her conscientiousness, instead of sitting at home and living on her parents. Don't tell me that women-by which I mean some women-ain't the equals of men.

"Because," continued Mr. Goodfellow, after a pause, "I know better. Ever been to Plymouth?"

"Yes, sir."

"Live there?"

"No, sir."

He seemed to be disappointed.

"You go past the bottom of Treville Street, and there the shop is, slap in front of you. You can't miss it, because it has a plaster-of-Paris cow in the window, and the proprietor's called Mudge. I go to Plymouth every week on purpose to see her."

"By coach, sir?" I asked, suddenly interested, and eager to compare notes with him on the Royal Mail and its rivals, the Self-Defence and Highflyer.

"Coach? Not a bit of it. Shank's mare, my boy, every step of the way; and Martha's worth it. That's the best of bein' in love; it makes you want to do things. By the way," he asked "you ain't thinkin' to learn the violin, by any chance?"

"No, sir."

"No," he said reflectively. "You wouldn't-not at Stimcoe's. Not, mind you, that I believe in coddling. Nobody ever coddled Nelson, and yet what happened?" He shut one eye, put his pencil to it for an imaginary telescope, and took a nautical survey of the back premises.

"That rain-shute's out of order," he said, addressing Captain Coffin. "Give me a shilling to put it right for you, and you'll save yourself a lot of trouble."

"That's the landlord's affair," answered Captain Coffin, "and I'm not paying you fippence an' hour to talk.

"But, sir," I put in, "if you walk to Plymouth you must pass the house where I live-a low-roofed house about three miles this side of St. Germans village, with a thatch on it, and windows opening right on the road, and 'Minden Cottage' painted over the door."

"Know it? Bless my soul, to be sure I know it! Why, the last time but one I passed that way, taking note that one of the window-hinges was out of gear, I knocked and asked leave to repair it. A lady with side-curls opened the door, and after the job was done took me into the parlour an' gave me a jugful of cider over and above the sixpence charged. I believe she'd have made it a shillin', too, only when I told her she lived in a very pretty house, and asked if she owned it or rented it, she turned very stiff in her manner. Touchy as tinder she was; and if that comes of being a lady, I'm glad my Martha's more sociable."

"That was Plinny-Miss Plinlimmon, I mean. You didn't catch sight of my father-Major Brooks?"

"No, I didn't. But I stopped to pass the time o' day with the landlord of the Seven Stars Inn, a mile along the road, and there I heard about 'en. So you're Major Brooks's son? Well, then, by all accounts you've got a thunderin' good father. Old English gentleman, straight is a ramrod-pays his way, fears God and honours the King- such was the landlord's words; and he told me the cottage, as you call it, was rented at twenty-five pounds a year, with a walled garden an' a paddock thrown in, which I call dirt cheap."

"I don't see that it's any business of yours what my father pays for his house!" said I, my flush of pleasure changing to one of annoyance.

I glanced round for Captain Coffin's support, but he had walked indoors, no doubt in despair of Mr. Goodfellow's loquacity.

"No?" queried Mr. Goodfellow. "No, I dare say not; but you just wait till you fall in love. It's a most curious feelin'. First of all it makes you want to pull off your coat and turn a hand to anything, from breakin' stones to playing the fiddle-it don't matter what, so long as you sweat an' feel you're earnin' money. Why, just take a look at my business card!" He stepped to his coat, pulled one from his pocket, and glanced over it proudly: 'George Goodfellow, Carpenter and Decorater-Cabinet Making in all it

s Branches-Repairs neatly executed-Funerals and Shipping supplied-Practical Valuer, and for Probate-Fire Office claims prepared and adjusted-Good Berths booked on all the Packets, and guaranteed by personal inspection-Boats built and designed-Instruction in the Violin-Old instruments cleaned and repaired, or taken in exchange-Rowboat for hire.' "There, put it in your pocket and take it away with you. I've plenty more in my desk."

"That's what it feels like, bein' in love," continued Mr. Goodfellow. "And, next thing, it makes you take a termenjus interest in houses- houses an' furnicher an' the price o' things-right down to butter, as you might say. I never see a house, now-leastways, a house that takes my fancy-but I want to be measuring it an' planning out the furnicher, an' the rent, an' where to stow the firewood, an' sitting down cosy in it along with Martha-in the mind's eyes, as you may say-one on each side o' the fire, an' making two ends meet. I pity any man that ends a bachelor." He glanced towards the house. "By the way, how do you get along with Coffin?"

"He-he seems very kind."

"Tis'n his way with boys as a rule." Mr. Goodfellow tapped his forehand with the end of his two-foot rule. "Upper story," he announced.

"You think so?"

"Sure of it. Cracked as a bell. Not," said Mr. Goodfellow, picking up a saw and making ready to cut the plank lengthwise to his measurements-"not that there's any harm in the man, until he gets foul of the drink. The tale is he gets his money out o' Government- a sort of pension. Was mixed up in the Spithead Mutiny, by one account, an' turned informer; but there's another tale he earned it by some hanky-panky over in Lisbon, when the Royal Family there packed up traps from the Brazils; and that's the story I favour, for (between you and me) I've seen Portugal money in his possession."

So, indeed, had I. But Captain Coffin himself cut short the talk at this point by appearing and announcing from the back doorstep that he had a treat for me if I would come inside.

The treat consisted in a dish of tea-a luxury in those times, rarely afforded even at Minden Cottage-and a pot of guava-jelly, with Cornish cream and a loaf of white, wheaten bread. Such bread, I need scarcely say, with wheat at 140 shillings a quarter, or thereabouts, never graced the table of Copenhagen Academy. But the dulcet, peculiar taste of guava-jelly is what I associate in memory with that delectable meal; and to this day I cannot taste the flavour of guava but I find myself back in Captain Coffin's sitting-room, cutting a third slice from the wheaten loaf, with the corals and shells of mother-of-pearl winking at me from among the china on the dresser, and Captain Coffin seated opposite, with the silver rings in his ears, and his eyes very white in the dusk and distinct within their inflamed rims.

"Nothing like tea," he was saying-"nothing like tea to pull a man round from the drink and cock him back like a trigger."

His right hand was at his breast as he spoke. It came out swiftly, as upon a sudden impulse. His left hand closed upon it and partly covered it for a moment; then the two hands spread apart and disclosed an oilskin case.

"Brooks!" he whispered hoarsely. "Brooks, look at this!"

His fingers plucked at the oilskin wrapper, uncovered it, unfolded an inner parcel of parchment, and, trembling, spread it out on the table.

I leaned closer, and I saw a chart of the Island of Mortallone in the Bay of Honduras dated MDCCLXXVII. From the scale on the chart, the island was some eight to ten miles long in the north-south direction, and perhaps eight miles broad at the widest point. At the north end of the island, around a promontory called Gable Point, there were five small islands called The Keys. To the south was a wide inlet with a ship seemingly in the act of sailing towards it. The eastward edge of this inlet was labelled Cape Fea and just around from this, in an easterly direction wa a small cove called Try-Again Inlet. In the sea to the west of the island was drawn a mythical sea-monster.

Twice, while I leaned across and stared at it, Captain Coffin's fingers all but closed over the parchment to hide it from me. The afternoon light was falling dim, and I stood up to walk around the edge of the table for a better look. As I pushed back my chair he clutched his treasure away, and hid it away again in the breast of his jumper, at the same moment falling back and passing a hand over his damp forehead.

"No, no, Brooks! You mustn't think-Only you took me sudden. But my promise I've passed, and my promise I'll stand by. Come to-morrow, lad."

Outside in the back yard I could hear Mr. Goodfellow, the slave of love, sawing for dear life and Martha.

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