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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 16941

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

My father, in erecting a flagstaff before his summer-house, had chosen to plant it on a granite millstone, or rather, had sunk its base through the stone's central hole, which Miss Plinlimmon regularly filled with salt to keep the wood from rotting. Upon this mossed and weather-worn bench I sat myself down to examine my find.

Yet it needed no examination to tell me that the eyeglasses were Captain Branscome's. I recognized the delicate cable pattern of their gold rims, glinting in the sunlight. I recognized the ring and the frayed scrap of black ribbon attached to it. I remembered the guinea with which Captain Branscome had paid my fare on the coach. I remembered Miss Plinlimmon's account of the stolen cashbox.

The more my suspicions grew, the more they were incredible. That Captain Branscome, of all men in the world, should be guilty of such a crime! And yet, with this damning evidence in my hand, I could not but recall a dozen trifles-mere straws, to be sure-all pointing towards him. He had been here in my father's garden: that I might take as proven. With what object? And if that object were an innocent one, why had he not told me of his intention to visit Minden Cottage? I remembered how straitly he had cross-examined me, a while ago, on the topography of the cottage, on my father's household and his habits. Again, if his visit had been an innocent one, why, last evening, had he said nothing of it? Why, when I questioned him about his holiday, had he answered me so confusedly? Yet again, I recalled his demeanour when Mrs. Stimcoe handed me the letter, and the impression it gave me-so puzzling at the moment-that he had foreknowledge of the news. If this incredible thing were true-if Captain Branscome were the criminal-the puzzle ceased to be a puzzle; the guinea and the broken cashbox were only too fatally accounted for.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the guinea, in spite even of the eyeglass there in my hand, I could not bring myself to believe. What? Captain Branscome, the simple-minded, the heroic? Captain Branscome, of the threadbare coat and the sword of honour? Poor he was, no doubt-bitterly poor-poor almost to starvation at times. To what might not a man be driven by poverty in this degree? And here was evidence for judge and jury.

I glanced around me, and, folding the eyeglasses together in a fumbling haste, slipped them into my breeches-pocket. From my seat beneath the flagstaff I looked straight into the doorway of the summer-house; but a creeper obscured its rustic window, dimming the light within; and a terror seized me that some one was concealed there, watching me-a terror not unlike that which had held me in Captain Coffin's lodgings.

While I stood there, summoning up courage to invade the summer-house and make sure, my brain harked back to Captain Coffin and the man Aaron Glass. Captain Coffin had taken leave of me in a fever to reach Minden Cottage. That was close on sixty hours ago-three nights and two days. Why, in that ample time, had he not arrived, and what had become of him? Plinny had seen no such man.

I fetched a tight grip on my courage, walked across to the doorway, and peered into the summer-house. It was empty, and I stepped inside-superstitiously avoiding, as I did so, to tread on the spot where my father's body had lain.

Ann the cook-so Plinny told me-had found his chair overset behind him, but no other sign of a struggle. He had been stabbed in front, high on the left breast and a little below the collar-bone, and must have toppled forward at once across the step, and died where he fell. The chair had been righted and set in place, perhaps by Ann when she washed down the step. A well-defined line across the floor showed where the cleaning had begun, and behind it the scanty furniture of the place had not been disturbed. At the back, in one corner stood an old drum, with dust and droppings of leaf-mould in the wrinkles of its sagged parchment, and dust upon the drumsticks thrust within its frayed strapping; in the corner opposite an old military chest which held the bunting for the flagstaff-a Union flag, a couple of ensigns, and half a dozen odd square-signals and pennants. I stooped over this, and as I did so I observed that there were finger-marks on the dust at the edge of the lid; but, lifting it, found the flags inside neatly rolled and stowed in order. On the table lay my father's Bible and his pocket Virgil, the latter open and laid face downwards. I picked it up, and the next moment came near to dropping it again with a shiver, for a dry smear of blood crossed the two pages.

Here, not to complicate mysteries, let me tell at once what Ann told me later-that she had found the book lying in the blood-dabbled grass before the step, when it must have fallen from my father's hand, and had replaced it upon the table. But for the moment, surmising another clue, I stared at the page-a page of the seventh "Aeneid"-and at the stain which, as if to underline them, started beneath the words-

"Hic domus, haec patria est. Genitor mihi talia namque

(Nunc repeto) Anchises fatorum arcana reliquit."

I set down the book as I had found it, stepped forth again into the sunshine. The scouring of the step had left a moist puddle below it, where the ground, no doubt, had been dry and hard on the evening of the murder. At the edge of this puddle the turf twinkled with clean dew-close, well-trimmed turf sloping gently to the stream which formed the real boundary of the garden; but Miss Belcher, the neighbouring land-owner, a person of great wealth and the most eccentric good-nature, had allowed my father to build a wall on the far side, for privacy, and had granted him an entrance through it to her park-a narrow wooden door to which a miniature bridge gave access across the stream.

There were thus three ways of approaching the summer-house; (1) by the path which wound through the garden from the house, (2) across the turf from the side-gate, which opened out of a lane, or woodcutters' road, running at right angles from the turnpike and alongside the garden fence towards the park; and (3) from the park itself, across the little bridge. From the bridge a straight line to the summer-house would lie behind the angle of sight of any one seated within; so that a visitor, stepping with caution, might present himself at the doorway without any warning.

You may say that, my father being blind, it need not have entered into my calculations whether his assailant had approached in full view of the doorway or from the rear. But the assailant-let us suppose for a moment-was some one ignorant of my father's blindness. This granted, as it was at least possible, he would be likeliest to steal upon the summer-house from the rear. I cannot say more than that, standing there by the doorway, I felt the approach from the streamside to be most dangerous, and therefore the likeliest.

In a few minutes, as I well knew, Plinny would be coming in search of me, to persuade me back to the house to breakfast and bed. I stepped down to the streamside, where the beehives stood in a row on the brink, paused for a moment to listen to the hum within them, and note that the bees were making ready to swarm, crossed the bridge, and tried the rusty hasp of the door. It yielded stiffly; but as I pulled the door inwards it brushed aside a mass of spider's web, white and matted, that could not be less than a month old. Also it brushed a clump of ivy overgrowing the lintel, and shook down about half an ounce of powdery dust into my hair and eyes. I scarcely troubled to look through. Clearly, the door had not been opened for many weeks-possibly not since my last holidays.

I recrossed the bridge and inspected the side-gate. This opened, as I have said, upon a lane never used but by the woodmen on Miss Belcher's estate, and by them very seldom. It entered the park by a stone bridge across the stream and by a ruinous gate, the gaps of which had been patched with furze faggots. The roadway itself was carpeted with last year's leaves from a coppice across the lane- leaves which the winter's rains had beaten into a black compost; and almost facing the side-gate was a stile whence a tangled footpath led into the coppice.

I had stepped out into the lane, and was staring over the stile into the green gloom of the coppice, when I heard Plinny's voice calling to me from the house, and I had half turned

to hail in answer when my eyes fell on the upper bar of the stile.

Across the edge of it ran a dark brown smear-a smear which I recognized for dried blood.

"Harry! Harry dear!"

"Plinny!" I raced back through the garden, and almost fell into her arms as she came along the path between the currant-bushes in search of me. "Plinny-oh, Plinny!" I gasped.

"My dear child, what has happened?"

Before I could answer there came wafted to our ears from eastward a sound of distant shouting, and almost simultaneously, from the high-road near at hand, the trit-trot of hoofs approaching at great speed from westward, and the "Who-oop!" of a man's voice, lusty on the morning air.

"That will be Mr. Jack Rogers," said Plinny. "He brings us news, for certain! Yes; he is reining up."

We ran through the house together, and reached the front door in time to witness a most extraordinary scene.

Mr. Jack Rogers's tilbury had run past the house and come to a halt a short gunshot beyond, where it stood driverless-for Mr. Jack Rogers had dismounted, and was gesticulating with both arms to stop a man racing down the road to meet him. A moment later, as this runner came on, a second hove in sight over the rise of the road behind him-a short figure, so stout and round that in the distance it resembled not so much a man as a ball rolling in pursuit.

"Hi! Stop, you there!" shouted Mr. Rogers; but the first runner might have been deaf, for all the attention he paid.

"Good Lord!" said I, catching my breath; "it's Mr. George Goodfellow!"

"In the King's name!" Mr. Rogers shouted, making a dash to intercept him. And a moment later the two had collided, and were rolling in the dust together.

I ran towards them, with Plinny-brave soul!-at my heels, and arrived to find Mr. Rogers, hatless and exceedingly dishevelled, kneeling with both hands around the neck of his prostrate antagonist, and holding his face down in the dust.

"You'd best stand up and come along quietly," Mr. Rogers adjured him.

"Gug-gug-how the devil c-can I stand up if you won't lul-lul-let me?" protested Mr. Goodfellow, reasonably enough.

"Very well, then." Mr. Rogers relaxed his grip. "Stand up! But you're my prisoner, so let's have no more nonsense!"

"I'd like to know what's taken ye to pitch into a man like this?" demanded Mr. Goodfellow in a tone of great umbrage, as he shook the dust out of his coat and hair. "A fellow I never seen before, not to my knowledge! Why-hallo!" said he, looking up and catching sight of me.

"Hallo!" said I.

"Hallo!" said Mr. Rogers, in his turn. "Do you two know each other?"

"Why, of course we do!" said Mr. Goodfellow.

"I don't know where 'of course' comes in." Mr. Rogers eyed him with stern suspicion. "Why were you running away from the constable?"

Mr. Goodfellow glanced towards the stout, round man, who by this time had drawn near, mopping, as he came, a face as red as the red waistcoat he wore.

"Him a constable? Why, I took him for a loonatic! They put the loonatics into them coloured weskits, don't they?"

"Nothing of the sort. You're thinking of the warders," Mr. Rogers answered.

"Oh? Then I made a mistake," said Mr. Goodfellow, cheerfully.

"Look here, my friend, if you're thinking to play this off as a joke you'll find it no joking matter. Madam"-he turned to Miss Plinlimmon-"is this the man who called at the cottage two days ago."

"Yes," answered Plinny; "and once before, as I remember."

"And on each occasion did you observe something strange in his manner?"

"Very strange indeed. He kept asking questions about the house and garden, and the position of the rooms and about poor Major Brooks, and what rent he paid, and if he was well-to-do. And he took out a measure from his pocket and began to calculate-"

"Quite so." Mr. Rogers turned next to the constable. "Hosken," he asked, "you have been making inquiries about this man?"

"I have, sir; all along the road, so far as Torpoint Ferry."

"And you learnt enough to justify you in arresting him?"

"Ample, y'r worship. There wasn't a public-house along the road but thought his behaviour highly peculiar. He's a well-known character, an' the questions he asks you would be surprised. He plies between Falmouth and Plymouth, sir, once a week regular. So, actin' on information that he might be expected along early this morning, I concealed myself in the hedge, sir, the best part of two miles back-"

"You didn't," interrupted Mr. Goodfellow. "I saw your red stomach between the bushes thirty yards before ever I came to it, and wondered what mischief you was up to. I'm wondering still."

"At any rate, you are detained, sir, upon suspicion," said Mr. Rogers sharply, "and will come with us to the cottage and submit to be searched."

"Brooks," asked Mr. Goodfellow feebly, "what's wrong with 'em? And what are you doing here?"

"Mr. Rogers," I broke in, "I know this man. His name is Goodfellow; he lives at Falmouth; and you are wrong, quite wrong, in suspecting him. But what is more, Mr. Rogers, you are wasting time. There's blood on the stile down the lane. Whoever broke into the garden must have escaped that way-by the path through the plantation-"

"Eh?" Mr. Rogers jumped at me and caught me by the arm. "Why the devil-you'll excuse me, Miss Plinlimmon-but why on earth, child, if you have news, couldn't you have told it at once? Blood on the stile, you say? What stile?"

"The stile down the lane, sir," I answered, pointing. "And I couldn't tell you before because you didn't give me time."

"Show us the way, quick! And you, Hosken, catch hold of the mare and lead her round to Miss Belcher's stables. Or, stay-she's dead beat. You can help me slip her out of the shafts and tether her by the gate yonder. That's right, man; but don't tie her up too tight. Give her room to bite a bit of grass, and she'll wait here quiet as a lamb."

"What about the prisoner, sir?" asked the stolid Hosken.

"D-n the prisoner!" answered Mr. Rogers, testily, in the act of unharnessing. "Slip the handcuffs on him. And you, Miss Plinlimmon, will return to the cottage, if you please."

"I'd like to come, too, if I may," put in Mr. Goodfellow.

"Eh?" Mr. Rogers, in the act of rolling up one of the traces, stared at him with frank admiration. "Well, you're a sportsman, anyhow. Catch hold of his arm, Hosken, and run him along with us. Yes, sir, though I say it as a justice of the peace, be d-d to you, but I like your spirit. And with the gallows staring you in the face, too!"

"Gallows? What gallows?" panted Mr. Goodfellow in my ear a few moments later, as we tore in a body down the lane. "Hush!" I panted in answer. "It's all a mistake."

"It ought to be." We drew up by the stile, where I pointed to the smear of blood, and Mr. Rogers, calling to Hosken to follow him, dashed into the coppice and down the path into the rank undergrowth. I, too, was lifting a leg to throw it over the bar, when Mr. Goodfellow plucked me by the arm. "Terribly hasty friends you keep in these parts, Brooks," he said plaintively. "What's it all about?"

"Why, murder!" said I. "Haven't you heard, man?"

"Not a syllable! Good Lord, you don't mean-" He passed a shaky hand over his forehead as a cry rang back to us through the coppice.

"Here, Hosken, this way! Oh, by the Almighty, be quick, man!"

I vaulted over the stile, Mr. Goodfellow close after me. For two hundred yards and more-three hundred, maybe-we blundered and crashed through the low-growing hazels, and came suddenly to a horrified stand.

A little to the left of the path, between it and the stream, Mr. Rogers and the constable knelt together over the body of a man half hidden in a tangle of brambles.

The corpse's feet pointed towards the path, and I recognized the shoes, as also the sea-cloth trousers, before Mr. Rogers-cursing in his hurry rather than at the pain of his lacerated hands-tore the brambles aside and revealed its face-the face of Captain Coffin, blue-cold in death and staring up from its pillow of rotted leaves.

I felt myself reeling. But it was Mr. Goodfellow who reeled against me, and would have fallen if Hosken the constable had not sprung upon one knee and caught him.

"If you ask my opinion," I heard Hosken saying as he raised himself and held Mr. Goodfellow upright, steadying him, "'tis a case o' guilty conscience, an' I never in my experience saw a clearer."

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