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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 9166

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

I leave you to guess what were my feelings as foot by foot the packet's quarter fell away wider of the quay. If, as the skipper thrust off, I had found presence of mind to jump for her, who knows what mischief might have been prevented? I could at least-whatever the consequences-have called a warning to Captain Coffin to give his enemy a wide-berth. But I was unnerved; the impulse came too late; and as the foresail filled and she picked up steerage way, I stood helpless under the lamp at the quay-head-stood and stared after her, alone with the sense of my incredible folly.

Somewhere out yonder Captain Coffin was waiting in his shore-boat. I listened, minute after minute, on the chance of hearing his hail. A heavy bank of cloud had overcast the moon, and the packet melted from sight in a blur of darkness. Worst of all-worse even than the sting of self-reproach-was the prospect of returning to Stimcoe's and wearing through the night, while out there in the darkness the two men would meet, and all that followed their meeting must happen unseen by me.

This ordeal appeared so dreadful to me in prospect that I began to cast about among all manner of impracticable plans for escaping it. Of these the most promising-although I had no money-was to give the Stimcoes leg-bail and run home; the most alluring, too, since it offered to deaden the torment of uncertainty by keeping me employed, mind and body. I must follow the coach-road. In imagination I measured back the distance. If George Goodfellow walked to Plymouth and back once a week, why might not I succeed in walking to Minden Cottage? Home was home. I should get counsel and comfort there; counsel from my father and comfort most assuredly from Plinny. I needed both, and in Falmouth just now there was none of either. Even Captain Branscome, who might have helped me-

At this point a sudden thought fetched me up with a jerk. The enemy, by pursuing after Captain Danny, had at least left me a clear coast. I was safe for a while against his spying, and consequently the embargo was off. I had no need to wait for morning. I could go myself to the old man's lodgings, unlock the corner cupboard, and bring away the roll of papers.

I dived my hand into my breech-pocket for the forgotten key. It was small, and of a curious, intricate pattern. Almost before my fingers closed upon it my mind was made up. Stimcoe's-that is, if I decided to return to Stimcoe's-might wait. I might yet decide to break ship-as Captain Danny would have put it-and make a push for home; but that decision, too, must wait. Meanwhile, here was an urgent errand, and a clear coast for it; here was occupation and inexpressible relief. It's an ill wind that blows nobody some good.

I set off at a run. On my way I met and passed half a dozen gangs of hilarious ex-prisoners and equally hilarious townsmen escorting them to the waterside, where the coxswains of the transport's boats were by this time blowing impatient calls on their whistles. But the upper end of the street was well-nigh deserted. A dingy oil lantern overhung the pavement a few yards from the ope, and above the ope the barber's parrot hung silent, with a shawl flung over its cage. I dived into the dark passage, and, stumbling my way to Captain Danny's door, found that it gave easily to my hand.

For a moment I paused on the threshold, striving to remember where he kept his tinder-box and matches. But the room was small. I knew the geography of it, and could easily-I told myself-grope my way to the corner, find the cupboard, and, feeling for the keyhole, insert the key. I was about to essay this when the thought occurred to me that, as Captain Danny had left the door on the latch, so very likely with equal foresight he had placed his tinder-box handy-on the table, it might be. I put out my hand in the direction where, as I recollected, the table stood. It reached into empty darkness. I took another step and groped for the table with both hands. Still darkness, nothing but darkness! I took yet another step and struck my foot against a hard object on the floor; and, as I bent to examine this, something sharp and exceeding painful thrust itself into my groin-a table-leg, upturned.

Recovering myself, I passed a hand over it. Yes, undoubtedly it was a table-leg and the table lay topsy-turvy. But how came it so? Who had upset it, and why? I took another step, sideways, and my boot struck against something light, and, by its sound, hollow and metallic. Stooping very cautiously-for by this time I had taken alarm and was holding

my breath-I passed a hand lightly over the floor. My fingers encountered the object I had kicked aside. It was a tinder-box. I clutched it softly, and as softly drew myself upright again. Could I dare to strike a light? The overturned table: What could be the meaning of it? It could not have been overturned by Captain Coffin? By whom then? Some one must have visited the lodgings in his absence.

Some one, for aught I knew, was in the room at this moment!- Some one, back there against the wall, waiting only for me to strike a light! I declare that at the thought I came near to screaming aloud, casting the tinder-box from me and rushing out blindly into the court.

I dare say that I stood for a couple of minutes, motionless, listening not with my ears only but with every hair of my head. Nevertheless, my wits must have been working somehow; for my first action, when I plucked up nerve enough for it, was an entirely sensible one. I set the tinder-box on the floor between my heels, felt for the table, and righted it; then, picking up the box again, set it on the table and twisted off the lid. I found flint and steel at once, dipped my fingers into the box to make sure of the tinder and the brimstone matches, and so, after another pause to listen, essayed to strike out the spark.

This, for a pair of trembling hands, proved no easy business, and at first promised to be a hopeless one. But the worst moment arrived when, the spark struck, I stooped to blow it upon the tinder, the glow of which must light up my own face while it revealed to me nothing of the surrounding darkness. Still, it had to be done; and, keeping a tight hold on what little remained of my courage, I thrust in the match and ignited it.

While the brimstone caught fire and bubbled I drew myself erect to face the worst. But for what met my eyes as the flame caught hold of the stick, even the overturned table had not prepared me.

The furniture of the room lay pell-mell, as though a cyclone had swept through it. The very pictures hung askew. Of the drawers in the dresser some had been pulled out bodily, others stood half open, and all had been ransacked; while the fragments of china strewn along the shelves or scattered across the floor could only be accounted for by some blind ferocity of destruction-a madman, for instance, let loose upon it, and striking at random with a stick. As the match burned low in my fingers I looked around hastily for a candle, scanning the dresser, the mantel-shelf, the hugger-mugger of linen, crockery, wall-ornaments, lying in a trail along the floor. But no candle could I discover; so I lit a second match from the first and turned towards the sacred cupboard in the corner.

The cupboard was gone!

I held the match aloft, and stared at the angle of the wall; stared stupidly, at first unable to believe. Yes, the cupboard was gone! Nothing remained but the mahogany bracket which had supported it. I gazed around, the match burning lower and lower in my hand till it scorched my fingers. The pain of it awakened me, and, dropping the charred end, I stumbled out into the passage, almost falling on the way as my feet entangled themselves in Captain Coffin's best table-cloth.

A moment later I was rapping at Mr. George Goodfellow's door. I knew that he sometimes sat up late to practice his violin-playing; and in my confusion of terror I heeded neither that the house was silent nor that the window over his doorway showed a blank and unlit face to the night. I knocked and knocked again, pausing to call his name urgently, at first in hoarse whispers, by-and-by desperately, lifting my voice as loudly as I dared.

At length a voice answered; but it came from the end of the passage next, the street, and it was not Mr. Goodfellow's.

"D-n my giblets!" it said, in a kind of muffled scream. "Drunk again! Oh, you nasty image!"

It was the barber's accursed parrot. I could hear it tearing with its beak at the bars of its cage, as if struggling to pull off the cloth which covered it.

A window creaked on its hinges, some way up the court.

"Hallo! Who's there?" demanded a gruff voice.

I took to my heels, and made a dash up the passage for the street. The cage, as I passed under it, swayed violently with the parrot's struggles for free speech.

"Drunk again!" it yelled. "Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me-here's a pretty time o' night to disturb a lady!"

No longer had I any thought of braving the night and the perils of the road, but pressed my elbows tight against my ribs and raced straight for Stimcoe's.

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