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   Chapter 7 ENTER THE RETURNED PRISONER.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 12369

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Strange to say, although I paid six or eight visits after this to Captain Coffin, and by invitation, and watched his whaleboat building, and ate more of his delectable guava-jelly, I saw nothing more of the chart for several months.

On each occasion he treated me kindly, and made no secret of his having chosen me for his favourite and particular friend; but somehow, without any words, he contrived to set up an understanding that further talk about the chart and the treasure must wait until the boat should be ready for launching. In truth, I believe, a kind of superstitious terror restricted him. He trusted me, yet was afraid of overt signs of trust. You may put it that during this while he was testing, watching me. I can only answer that I had no suspicion of being watched, and that in discussing the boat's fittings with me-her tanks, wells, and general storage capacity-he took it for granted that I followed and understood her purpose. If indeed he was testing me, in my innocence I took the best way to reassure him; for I honestly looked upon the whole business as moonshine, and made no doubt that he was cracked as a fiddle.

Christmas came, and the holidays with it. As Miss Plinlimmon sang-

"Welcome, Christmas! Welcome, Yule!

It brings the schoolboy home from school.

[N.B.-Vulgarly pronounced 'schule' in the West of England.]

Puddings and mistletoe and holly,

With other contrivances for banishing melancholy:

Boar's head, for instance-of which I have never partaken,

But the name has associations denied to ordinary bacon."

Dear soul, she had been waiting at the door-so Sally, the cook, informed me-for about an hour, listening for the coach, and greeted me with a tremulous joy between laughter and tears. Before leading me to my father, however, she warned me that I should find him changed; and changed he was, less perhaps in appearance than in the perceptible withdrawal of his mind from all earthly concerns. He seldom spoke, but sat all day immobile, with the lids of his blind eyes half lowered, so that it was hard to tell whether he brooded or merely dozed. On Christmas Day he excused himself from walking to church with us, and upon top of his excuse looked up with a sudden happy smile-as though his eyes really saw us-and quoted Waller's famous lines:

"The soul's dark cottage, battered and decay'd,

Lets in new light through chinks that time hath made. . . ."

To me it seemed rather that, as its home broke up, the soul withdrew little by little, and contracted itself like the pupil of an eye, to shrink to a pinpoint and vanish in the full admitted ray.

This our last Christmas at Minden Cottage was a quiet yet a singularly happy one. It was good to be at home, yet the end of the holidays and the return to Stimcoe's cast no anticipatory gloom on my spirits. To tell the truth, I had a sneaking affection for Stimcoe's; and to Miss Plinlimmon's cross-examination upon its internal economies I opposed a careless manly assurance as hardly fraudulent as Mr. Stimcoe's brazen doorplate or his lady's front-window curtains. The careful mending of my linen, too-for Mrs. Stimcoe with all her faults was a needlewoman-helped to disarm suspicion. When we talked of my studies I sang the praises of Captain Branscome, and told of his past heroism and his sword of honour.

"Branscome? Branscome, of the Londonderry?" said my father. "Ay, to be sure, I remember Branscome-a Godfearing fellow and a good seaman. You may take him back my compliments, Harry-my compliments and remembrances-and say that if Heaven permitted us to meet again in this world, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to crack a bottle with him."

I duly reported this to Captain Branscome, and was taken aback by his reception of it. He began in a sudden flurry to ask a dozen questions concerning my father.

"He keeps good health, I trust? It would be an honour to call and chat with the Major. At what hour would he be most accessible to visitors?"

I stared, for in truth he seemed ready to take me at my word and start off at once, and at my patent surprise he grew yet more nervous and confused.

"I have kept a regard for your father, Brooks-a veneration, I might almost call it. Sailors and soldiers, if I may say it, are not apt to think too well of one another; but the Major from the first fulfilled my conception of all a soldier should be-a gentleman fearless and modest, a true Christian hero. Minden Cottage, you say? And fronting the road a little this side of St. Germans? Tell me, pray-and excuse the impertinence-what household does he keep?"

It is hard to write down Captain Branscome's questions on paper, and divest them, as his gentle face and hesitating kindly manner divested them, of all offensiveness. I did not resent them at the time or consider then impertinent. But they were certainly close and minute, and I had reason before long to recall every detail of his catechism.

Captain Coffin, on the other hand, welcomed me back to Falmouth with a carelessness which disappointed if it did not nettle me. He fetched out the tea and guava-jelly, to be sure, but appeared to take no interest in my doings during the holidays, and was uncommunicative on his own. This seemed the stranger because he had important news to tell me. During my absence he and Mr. Goodfellow between them had finished the whaleboat.

The truth was-though I did not at once perceive it-that upon its completion the old man had begun to drink hard. Drink invariably made him morose, suspicious. His real goodwill to me had not changed, as I was to learn. He had paid a visit to Captain Branscome, and give him special instructions to teach me the art of navigation, the intricacies of which eluded his own fuddled brain. But for the present he could only talk of trivialities, and especially of the barber's parrot, for which he had conceived a ferocious hate.

"I'll wring his neck, I will!" he kept repeating. "I'll wring his neck one o' these days, blast me if I don't!"

I took my leave that evening in no wise eager to repeat the visit; and, in fact, I repeated it but twice-and each time to find him

in the same sullen humour-between then and May 11, the day when the Wellingboro' transport cast anchor in Falmouth roads with two hundred and fifty returned prisoners of war.

She had sailed from Bordeaux on April 20, in company with five other transports bound for Plymouth, and her putting into Falmouth to repair her steering-gear came as a surprise to the town, which at once hung out all its bunting and prepared to welcome her poor passengers home to England with open arm. A sorry crew they looked, ragged, wild eyed, and emaciated, as the boats brought them ashore at the Market Stairs to the strains of the Falmouth Artillery Band. The homes of the most of them lay far away, but England was England; and a many wept and the crowd wept with them at sight of their tatters, for I doubt if they mustered a complete suit of good English cloth between them.

Stimcoe, I need scarcely say, had given us a whole holiday; and Stimcoe's and Rogerses met in amity for once, and cheered in the throng that carried the home-comers shoulder high to the Town Hall, where the Mayor had arrayed a public banquet. There were speeches at the banquet, and alcoholic liquors, both affecting in operation upon his Worship's guests. Poor fellows, they came to it after long abstinence, with stomachs sadly out of training; and the streets of Falmouth that evening were a panoramic commentary upon the danger of undiscriminating kindness.

Now at about five o'clock I happened to be standing at the edge of the Market Stairs, watching the efforts of a boat's crew to take a dozen of these inebriates on board for the transport, when I heard my name called, and turned to see Mr. George Goodfellow beckoning to me from the doorway of the Plume of Feathers public-house.

"It's Coffin," he explained. "The old fool's sitting in the taproom as drunk as an owl, and I was reckonin' that you an' me between us might get him home quiet before the house fills up an' mischief begins; for by the looks of it there'll be Newgate-let-loose in Falmouth streets to-night."

I answered that this was very thoughtful of him; and so it was, and, moreover, providential that he had dropped in at the Plume of Feathers for two-pennyworth of cider to celebrate the day.

We found Captain Coffin seated in a corner of the taproom settle, puffing at an empty pipe and staring at vacancy. "Drunk as an owl" described his condition to a nicety; for at a certain stage in his drinking all the world became mirk midnight to him, and he would grope his way home through the traffic at high noon in profound, pathetic belief that darkness and slumber wrapped the streets; on which occasions the dialogue between him and the barber's parrot might be counted on to touch high comedy. I knew this, and knew also that in the next stage he would recover his eyesight, and at the same time turn dangerously quarrelsome. If Mr. Goodfellow and I could start him home quietly, he would have reason to thank us to-morrow.

We were bending over him to persuade him-at first, with small success, for he continued to stare and mutter as our voices coaxed without penetrating his muddled intelligence-when a party of 'longshoremen staggered into the taproom, escorting one of the returned prisoners, a thin, sandy-haired, foxy-looking man, with narrow eyes and a neck remarkable for its attenuation and the number and depth of its wrinkles. This neck showed above the greasy collar of a red infantry coat, from which the badges and buttons had long since vanished; and for the rest the fellow wore a pair of dirty white drill trousers of French cut, French shoes, and a round japanned hat; but, so far as a glance could discover, neither shirt nor underclothing. When the 'longshoremen called for drink he laughed with a kind of happy shiver, as though rubbing his body round the inside of his clothes, cast a quick glance at us in our dim corner, and declared for rum, adding that the Mayor of Falmouth was a well-meaning old swab, but his liquor wouldn't warm the vitals of a baby in clouts.

As he announced this I fancied that our persuasions began to have effect on Captain Coffin, for his eyes blinked as in a strong light, and he seemed to pull himself together with a shudder; but a moment later he relapsed again and sat staring.

"Hallo!" said one of the 'longshoremen. "Who's that you're a-coaxin' of, you two? Old Coffin, eh? Well, take the old shammick home, an' thank 'ee. We're tired of 'en here."

As I looked up to answer I saw the returned prisoner give a start, turn slowly about, and peer at us. He seemed to be badly scared, too, for an instant; for I heard a sudden, sharp click in his throat-

"E-e-eh? Coffin, is it? Danny Coffin? Oh, good Lord!"

He came towards our corner, still peering, and, as he peered, crouching to that he spread his palms on his knees.

"Coffin? Danny Coffin?" he repeated, in a voice that, as it lost its wondering quaver, grew tense and wicked and wheedling.

Captain Coffin's face twitched, and it seemed to me that his eyes, though rigid, expanded a little. But they stared into the stranger's face without seeing him.

The fellow crouched a bit lower, and still lower, as he drew close and thrust his face gradually within a yard of the old man's.

"Shipmate Danny-messmate Danny-tip us a stave! The old stave, Danny!-

"'And alongst the Keys o' Mortallone!'"

As his voice lifted to it in a hoarse melancholy minor (times and again since that moment the tune has put me in mind of sea-birds crying over a waste shore), I saw the shiver run across Captain Coffin's face and neck, and with that his sight came back to him, and he bounced upright from the settle, with a horrible scream, his hands fencing, clawing at air.

The prisoner dropped back with a laugh. Mr. Goodfellow, at a choking sound, put out a hand to loosen Captain Coffin's neckcloth; but the old man beat him off.

"Not you! Not you! Harry!"

He gripped me by the arm, and, ducking his head, fairly charged me past the 'longshoremen and out through the doorway into the street. As we gained it I heard the stranger in the taproom behind me break into a high, cackling laugh.

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