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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13236

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

All the drunkenness had gone out of Captain Danny. Gripping my arm, he steered me rapidly through the knots of loafers, up Market Strand into the crowded Fore Street, across it and up the hill towards open country, taking the ascent with long strides which forced me now and again into a run. Twice or thrice I glanced up at his face, for I was scared, and badly scared. His mouth worked, and I observed small beads of sweat on his shaven upper lip; but he kept his eyes fastened straight ahead, and paid no heed to me.

At the head of the street the town melted off into a suburb of scattered houses, modest domiciles of twenty-five pounds or thirty pounds rentals, detached, each with its garden and narrow garden-door, for Falmouth in those days boasted few carriage-folk. He paused once hereabouts, in the roadway between two walls, and stood listening, while his right hand trembled on his stick; but presently gripped my arm again and hurried me forward, nor halted until we reached the summit, and the open country lay before us, with the Channel and its long horizon on our left. Here, in a cornfield on the very knap of the hill, and some two hundred yards back from the road, stood the shell of an old windmill, overlooking the sea- deserted, ruinous, without sails, a building many hundreds of years older than the oldest house in Falmouth, serving now but as a landmark for fishermen, and on Sundays a rendezvous for courting couples. At the stile leading into the cornfield, Captain Coffin released me, climbed over, hurried up the footpath to the windmill, and, having satisfied himself that the building was empty, motioned me to seat myself on the side where its long shadow pointed down across a bank of nettles, and beyond the edge of the green young barley sheeting the slope towards the harbour.

"Brooks," he began-but his voice rattled like a dried pea in a pod, and he had to moisten his under-lip with his tongue before he could proceed-"Brooks, are you in any way a superstitious kind o' boy?"

"That depends, sir," said I, diplomatically.

"After all these years, too," he groaned, "an' agen' all likelihood o' natur'. But you saw him-hey? You heard what he said, an' that cussed song, too? Sang it, he did; slapped it out at the top of his voice in a public tavern. I tell you, Brooks-knowin' what he knows-a man must have all hell runnin' cold in him to sing them words aloud an' not care who heard."

"Why, he sang but a line of it," said I, "and that harmless enough, though dismal."

"Is that so, lad-is that so?" Captain Danny put out a hand like a bird's claw and hooked me by the cuff. "Wasn' there nothing in it about Execution Dock; nothing about ripe medlars-'medlars a-rottin' on the tree'? No?"-for I shook my head. "Well, then, I could be sworn I heard him singin' them words for minutes, an' me sittin' all the while wi' the horrors on me afore I dared look in his damned face. An' you tell me he piped but a line of it?" His eyes searched mine anxiously. "Brooks," he went on, in a voice almost coaxing, "I'd give five hundred pound at this moment if you could look me in the face an' tell me the whole scare was nothing but fancy-that he wasn't there!"

His grasp relaxed as I shook my head again. Despair grew in his eyes, and he pulled back his hand.

"I'll put it to you another way," said he, after seeming to reflect for a while. "Suppose there was a couple o' men mixed up in an ugly job-by which I don't mean to say there was any real harm in the business; leastways not to start with; but, as it went on, these two men were forced to do something that brought them within reach o' the law. We'll put it that, when the thing was done, the one o' this pair felt it heavy upon his mind, but t'other didn' care no more than a brass button; an' the one that took it serious-as you might say- lost sight o' the other for years, an' meantime picked up with a little religion, an' made oath with hisself that all the profits o' the job (for there were profits) should come into innocent hands- You catch on to this?"

I nodded.

"Well, then"-he leant forward, his palm resting amid a bed of nettles. He did not appear to feel their sting, although, while he spoke, I saw the bark of his hand whiten slowly with blisters- "well, then, you can't go for to argue with me that the A'mighty would go for to strike the chap that repented by means o' the chap that didn'. Tisn' reasonable nor religious to think such a thing-is it now?"

"He might punish the one first," said I, judicially, "and keep the other-the wicked man-for a worse punishment in the end. A great deal," I added, "might depend on what sort of crime they'd committed. If 'twas a murder, now-"

"Murder?" He caught me up sharply, and his eyes turned from watching me, to throw a quick glance back along the footpath, then fastened themselves on the horizon. "Who's a-talkin' of any such thing?"

"I was putting a case, sir-putting it as bad as possible. 'Murder will out,' they say; but with smaller crimes it may be different."

"Murder?" He sprang up and began to pace to and fro. "How came that in your head, eh?" He threw me a furtive sidelong look, and halted before me mopping his forehead. "I'll tell you what, though: Murder there'll be if you don't help me give that devil the slip."

"But, sir, he never offered to follow you."

"Because he reckoned I couldn' run-or wouldn', as I've never run from him yet. But with you in the secret I must give him leg-bail, no matter what it costs me. And, see here, Brooks: you're clever for your age, an' I want your advice. In the first place, I daren't go home; that's where he'll be watchin' for me sooner or later. Next, our plans ain't laid for startin' straight off-here as we be-an' givin' him the go-by. Third an' last, I daren't go carryin' the secret about with me; he might happen on me any moment, an' I'm not in trainin'. The drink's done for me, boy, whereas he've been farin' hard an' livin' clean." Captain Coffin, with his hands deep in his pockets, stared down at the transport at anchor below, and bent his brows. "I can't turn it over to you, neither," he mused. "That might ha' done well enough if he hadn' seen you in my company; but now we can't trust to it."

He took another dozen paces forth and back, and halted before me again.

"Brooks," he said, "how about your father?"

"The very man, sir," I answered; "that is, if you would trust him."

"Cap'n Branscome tells me he's one in a thousand. I thought first o' Branscome, but there's folks as know about my goin' to him for navigation lessons;

an' if Glass got hold o' that, 'twould be a hot scent."

"Glass?" I echoed.

"That's his d-d name, lad-Aaron Glass; though he've passed under others, and plenty of 'em, in his time. Well, now, if I can slip out o' Falmouth unbeknowns to him, an' win to your father-on the Plymouth road, I've heard you say and a little this side of St. Germans-"

"You might walk over to Penryn and pick up the night coach."

Captain Coffin shook his head as he turned out his pockets.

"One shilling, lad, an' two ha'pennies. It won't carry me. An' I daren' go home to refit; an' I daren' send you."

"I could take a message to Captain Branscome," I suggested; "an' he might fetch you the money, if you tell him where to look for it."

"That's an idea," decided Captain Coffin, after a moment's thought. He unbuttoned his waistcoat, dived a hand within the breast of his shirt, and pulled forth a key looped through with a tarry string. This string he severed with his pocket-knife. "Run you down to the cap'n's lodgings," said he, handing me the key, "an' tell him to go straight an' unlock the cupboard in the cornder-the one wi' the toolips painted over the door. You know it? Well, say that on the second shelf he'll find a small bagful o' money-he needn't stay to count it-an' 'pon the same shelf, right back in the cornder, a roll o' papers. Tell him to keep the papers till he hears from me, but the bag he's to give to you, an' you're to bring it along quick- with the key. Mind, you're not to go with him on any account; an' if you should run against this Glass on your way, give him a wide berth-go straight home to Stimcoe's-do anything but lay him on to my trail by comin' back to tell me. Understand? There, now, hark to the town clock chimin' below there! Six o'clock it is-four bells. If you're not back agen by seven I shall know what's happened an' take steps accordin'. An' you'll know that I'm on my way to your father by another tack. 'What tack?' says you. 'Never you mind,' says I. If the worst comes to the worst, old Dan Coffin has a shot left in his locker."

I took the key and ran. The alley where Captain Branscome lodged lay a gunshot on this side of the Market Strand; and while I ran I kept- as the saying is-my eyes skinned for a sight of the enemy. The coast, however, was clear.

But at Captain Branscome's door a wholly unexpected disappointment awaited me. It was locked, and I had not hammered on its shining brass knocker before a neighbouring housewife put forth her head from a window in the gathering dusk, and informed me that the captain was not at home. He had gone out early in the afternoon, and left his doorkey with her, saying that he was off on a visit, and would not return before to-morrow afternoon at earliest. For a moment I was tempted to disobey Captain Danny's injunctions, and fetch the money myself, or at least make a bold attempt for it; but, recollecting how earnestly he had charged me, and how cheerfully at the last he had assured me that he had still a shot in his locker, I turned and mounted the hill again, albeit dejectedly.

The moon was rising as I climbed over the stile into the footpath, and, recognizing my footstep, the old man came forward to meet me, out of the shadow on the western side of the windmill, to which he had shifted his watch.

My ill-success, depressing enough to me, he took very cheerfully.

"I was afraid," said he, "you might be foolin' off for the money on your own account. Gone on a visit, has he? Well, you can hand him the key to-morrow, with my message. An' now I'll tell you my next notion. The St. Mawes packet"-this was the facetious name given to a small cutter which plied in those days between Falmouth and the small village of St. Mawes across the harbour-"the St. Mawes packet is due to start at seven-thirty. I won't risk boardin' her at Market Strand, but pick up a boat at Arwennack, an' row out to hail her as she's crossin'. She'll pick me up easy, wi' this wind; but if she don't, I'll get the waterman to pull me right across. Bogue, the landlord of The Lugger over there, knows me well enough to lend me ten shillin', an' wi' that I can follow the road through Tregony to St. Austell, an' hire a lift maybe."

I could not but applaud the plan. The route he proposed cut off a corner, led straight to Minden Cottage, and was at the same time the one on which he was least likely to be tracked. We descended the hill together, keeping to the dark side of the road. At the foot of the hill we parted, with the understanding that I was to run straight home to Stimcoe's, and explain my absence at locking-up-or, as Mr. Stimcoe preferred to term it, "names-calling"-as best I might.

Thereupon I did an incredibly foolish thing, which, as it proved, defeated all our plans and gave rise to unnumbered woes. I was already late for names-calling; but for this I cared little. Stimcoe had not the courage to flog me; the day had been a holiday, and of a sort to excuse indiscipline; and, anyway, one might as well suffer for a sheep as for a lamb. The St. Mawes packet would be lying alongside the Market Strand. The moon was up-a round, full moon-and directly over St. Mawes, so that her rays fell, as near as might be, in the line of the cutter's course, which, with a steady breeze down the harbour, would be a straight one. From the edge of Market Strand I might be able to spy Captain Coffin's boat as he boarded. Let me, without extenuating, be brief over my act of folly. Instead of making at once for Stimcoe's, I bent my steps towards Market Strand. The St. Mawes packet lay there, and I stood on the edge of the quay, watching her preparations for casting off-the skipper clearing the gangway and politely helping aboard, between the warning notes of his whistle, belated marketers who came running with their bundles.

While I stood there, a man sauntered out and stood for a moment on the threshold of the Plume of Feathers. It was the man Aaron Glass, and, recognizing him, I (that had been standing directly under the light of the quay-lamp) drew back from the edge into the darkness. I had done better, perhaps, to stand where I was. How long he had been observing me-if, indeed, he had observed me-I could not tell. But, as I drew back, he advanced and strolled nonchalantly past me, at five yards distance, down to the quay-steps.

"All aboard for St. Mawes!" called the skipper, drawing in his plank.

"All but one, captain!" answered Glass, and, disdaining it, without removing his hands from his pockets, put a foot upon the bulwark and sprang lightly on to her deck.

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