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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 11117

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Mrs. Stimcoe, having begged Captain Branscome to take watch for a while over the invalid, and having helped me to pack a few clothes in a handbag, herself accompanied me to the coach-office, where we found the Royal Mail on the point of starting. The outside passengers, four in number, had already taken their seats-two on the box beside the coachman, and two on the seat immediately behind; and by the light of the lamp overhanging the entry I perceived that their heads were together in close conversation, in which the coachman himself from time to time took a share, slewing round to listen or interject a word and anon breaking off to direct the stowage of a parcel or call an order to the stable-boys. Mrs. Stimcoe had stepped into the office to book my place, and while I waited for her, watching the preparations for departure, my curiosity led me forward to take a look at the horses. There, under the lamp, the coachman caught sight of me.

"Whe-ew!" I heard him whistle. "Here's the boy himself! Going along wi' us, sonny?" he asked, looking down on me and speaking down in a voice which seemed to me unnaturally gentle-for I remembered him as a gruff fellow and irascible. The outside passengers at once broke off their talk to lean over and take stock of me; and this again struck me as queer.

"Jim!" called the coachman (Jim was the guard). "Jim!"

"Ay, ay!" answered Jim, from the back of the roof, where he was arranging the mail-bags.

"Here's an outside extry." He lowered his voice, so that I caught only these words: "The youngster . . . Minden Cottage . . . I reckoned they'd be sending-"


Jim the guard bent over for a look at me, and scrambled down by the steps of his dickey, just as Mrs. Stimcoe emerged from the office. She was pale and agitated, and stood for a moment gazing about her distractedly, when Jim blundered against her, whereat she put out a hand and spoke to him. I saw Jim fall back a step and touch his hat. He was listening, with a very serious face. I could not hear what she said.

"Cert'nly, ma'm'," he answered. "Cert'nly, under the circumstances, you may depend on me."

He mounted the coach again, and, climbing forward whispered in the back of the coachman's ear. The passengers bent their heads to listen. They nodded; the coachman nodded too, and stretched down a hand.

"Can you climb, sonny, or shall we fetch the steps for you? There, I reckoned you was more of a man than to need 'em!"

Mrs. Stimcoe detained me for a moment to fold me in a masculine hug. But her bosom might have been encased in an iron corselet for all the tenderness it conveyed. "God bless you, Harry Brooks, and try to be a man!" Her embrace relaxed, and with a dry-sounding sob she let me go as I caught the coachman's hand and was swung up to my seat; and with that we were off and up the cobble-paved street at a rattle.

I do not know the names of my fellow-passengers. Now and then one would bend forward and whisper to his neighbour, who answered with a grunt or a motion of his head; but for the most part, and for mile after mile, we all sat silent, listening only to the horses' gallop, the chime of the swingle-bars, the hum of the night wind in our ears. The motion and the strong breeze together lulled me little by little into a doze. My neighbour on the right wore around his shoulders a woollen shawl, against which after a while I found my cheek resting, and begged his pardon. He entreated me not to mention it, but to make myself comfortable; and thereupon I must have fallen fast asleep. I awoke as the coach came to a standstill. Were we pulling up to change teams? No; we were on the dark high-road, between hedges. Straight ahead of us blazed two carriage-lamps; and a man's voice was hailing. I recognized the voice at once. It belonged to a Mr. Jack Rogers, a rory-tory young squire and justice of the peace of our neighbourhood, and the lamps must be those of his famous light tilbury.

"Hallo!" he was shouting. "Royal Mail, ahoy!"

"Royal Mail it is!" shouted back the coachman and Jim the guard together.

"Got the boy Brooks aboard?"

"Ay, ay Mr. Rogers! D'ye want him?"

"No; you'll take him along quicker. My mare's fagged, and I drove along in case the letter missed fire." He came forward at a foot's pace, and pulled up under the light of our lamps. "Hallo! is that you, Harry Brooks?" He peered up at me out of the night.

"Yes, sir," I answered, my teeth chattering between apprehension and the chill of the night. I longed desperately to ask what had happened at home, but the words would not come.

"Right you are, my lad; and the first thing when you get home, tell Miss Plinlimmon from me to fill you up with vittles and a glass of hot brandy-and-water. Give her that message, with Jack Rogers's compliments, and tell her that I'm on the road making inquiries, and may get so far as Truro. By the way"-he turned to Jim the guard- "you haven't met anything that looked suspicious, eh?"

"Nothing on the road at all," answered Jim.

"Well, so-long! Mustn't delay his Majesty's mails or waste time of my own. Good night, Harry Brooks, and remember to give my message! Good night, gentlemen all!"

He flicked at his mare. Our coachman gathered up his reins, and away we went once more at a gallop towards the dawn. The dawn lay cold about Minden Cottage as we came in sight of it; and at first, noting that all the blinds were drawn, I thought the household must be asleep. Then I remembered, and shivered as I rose from my seat, cramped and

stiff from the long journey, and so numb that Jim the guard had to lift me down to the porch. Miss Plinlimmon, red-eyed and tremulous, opened the door to me, embraced me, and led me to the little parlour.

"Is-is my father dead?" I asked, staring vacantly around the room, and upon the table where she had set out a breakfast. She bent over the urn for a moment, and then, coming to me, took my hand and drew me to the sofa.

"You must be brave, Harry."

"But what has happened? And how did it happen? Was-was it sudden? Please tell me, Plinny!"

She stroked my hand and shivered slightly, turning her face away towards the window.

"We found him in the summer-house, dear. He was lying face downward, across the step of the doorway, and at first we supposed he had fallen forward in a fit. Ann made the discovery, and came running to me in the kitchen, when she had only time to cry out the news before she was overtaken with hysterics. I left her to them," went on Miss Plinlimmon, simply, "and ran out to the summer-house, when by-and-by, having pulled herself together, she followed me. By this time it had fallen dusk-nay, it was almost dark, which accounts for one not seeing at once what dreadful thing had happened. Your poor father, Harry-as you know-used often to sit in the summer-house until quite a late hour, but he had never before dallied quite so late, and in the end I had sent Ann out to remind him that supper was waiting. Well, as you may suppose, he was heavy to lift; and we two women being alone in the house, I told Ann to run up to the vicarage or to Miss Belcher's, and get word sent for a doctor, and also to bring a couple of men, if possible, to carry him into the house. I had scarcely bidden her to do this when she cried out, screaming, that her hand was damp, and with blood. 'You silly woman!' said I, though trembling myself from head to foot. But when we fetched a candle, we saw blood running down the step, and your father-my poor Harry!- lying in a pool of it-a veritable pool of it. Ah, Harry, Harry!" exclaimed Miss Plinlimmon, relapsing into that literary manner which was second nature with her, "such a moment occurring in the pages of fiction, may stimulate a sympathetic thrill not entirely disagreeable to the reader, but in real life I wouldn't go through it again if you offered me a fortune."

"Plinny," I cried-"Plinny, what is this you are telling me about blood?"

"Your poor father, Harry-But be sure their sins will find them out! Mr. Rogers is setting the runners on track-he is most kind. Already he has had two hundred handbills printed. We are offering a hundred pounds reward-more if necessary-and the whole country is up-"

"Plinny dear"-I tried to steady my voice as I stood and faced her- "are you trying to tell me that-that my father has been murdered?"

She bowed her head and cast her apron over it, sobbing.

"Excuse me, Harry-but in such moments!-And they have found the cashbox. It had been battered open, presumably by a stone, and flung into the brook a hundred yards below Miss Belcher's lodge-gate."

"The cashbox?" My brain whirled.

"The key was in your father's pocket. He had fetched the box from his room, it appears, about two hours before, and carried it out to the summer-house. I cannot tell you with what purpose he carried it out there, but it was quite contrary to his routine."

She poured out a cup of tea, and passed it to me with shaking hands. She pressed me to eat, and all the time she kept talking, sometimes lucidly, sometimes quite incoherently; and I listened in a kind of dream. My father had been well-nigh a stranger to me, and I divined that I should never sorrow for his loss as those sorrow who have genuinely loved. But his death, and the manner of it, shocked me dreadfully, and from the shock my brain kept harking away to Captain Coffin and his pursuer. Could they have reached Minden Cottage? And, if so, had their visit any connection with this crime? Captain Danny had started for Minden Cottage. . . . Had he arrived? And, if so-

I heard Miss Plinlimmon asking: "Would you care to see him-that is, dear, if you feel strong enough? His expression is wonderfully tranquil."

She led me upstairs and opened the door for me. A sheet covered my father from feet to chin, and above it his head lay back on the pillow, his features, clear-cut and aquiline, keeping that massive repose which, though it might seem to be deeper now in the shade of the darkened room, had always cowed me while he lived. It seemed to me that my father's death, though I ought to feel it more keenly, made strangely little difference to him.

"You will need sleep," said Plinny, who had been waiting for me on the landing.

I told her that she might get my bed ready, but I would first take a turn in the garden. I tiptoed downstairs. The floor of the summer-house had been washed. The vane on its conical roof sparkled in the sunlight. I stood before it, attempting to picture the tragedy of which, here in the clear morning, it told nothing to help me. My thoughts were still running on Captain Coffin and the French prisoner. Plinny-for I had questioned her cautiously-plainly knew nothing of any such man. They might, however, have entered by the side-gate. I stepped back under the apple-tree by the flagstaff, measuring with my eye the distance between this side-gate and the summer-house. As I did so, my foot struck against something in the tall grass under the tree, and I stooped and picked it up-a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses!

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