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   Chapter 14 HOW I BROKE OUT THE BED ENSIGN.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 14169

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


We were seated in council in the little parlour of Minden Cottage- Miss Belcher, Miss Plinlimmon, Mr. Jack Rogers, Mr. Goodfellow, and I. Mr. Goodfellow had been included at Miss Belcher's particular request. Constable Hosken had been despatched to search the plantation thoroughly and to report. Two other constables had arrived, and were coping, in front and rear of the cottage, with a steady if straggling incursion of visitors from the near villages and hamlets of St. Germans, Hessenford, Bake, and Catchfrench, drawn by reports of a second murder to come and stand and gaze at the premises. The report among them (as I learned afterwards) ran that a second body-alleged by some to be mine, by others to be Ann the cook's-had been discovered lying in its own blood in the attic; but the marvel was how the report could have spread at all, since Miss Belcher had sworn the two woodmen to secrecy. Whoever spread it could have known very little, for the sightseers wasted all their curiosity on the house and concerned themselves not at all with the plantation.

From the plantation Miss Belcher had led me straight to the house, and there in the darkened parlour I had told my story, corroborated here and there by Mr. Goodfellow. In the intervals of my narrative Miss Belcher insisted on my swallowing great spoonfuls of hot bread-and-milk, against which-faint though I was and famished-my gorge rose. Also the ordeal of gulping it under four pairs of eyes was not a light one. But Miss Belcher insisted, and Miss Belcher stood no nonsense.

I told them of my acquaintance with Captain Coffin; how he had invited me to his lodgings and promised me wealth; of his studying navigation, of his reference to the island and the treasure hidden on it, and of the one occasion when he vouchsafed me a glimpse of the chart; of the French prisoner, Aaron Glass, and how we escaped from him, and of the plan we arranged together at the old windmill; how Captain Danny had taken boat to board the St. Mawes packet; how the man Glass had followed; how I had visited the lodgings, and of the confusion I found there. I described the ex-prisoner's appearance and clothing in detail, and here I had Mr. Goodfellow to confirm me under cross-examination.

"An' the cap'n," said he, "was afraid of him. I give you my word, ladies and gentlemen, I never saw a man worse scared in my life. Put up his hands, he did, an' fairly screeched, an' bolted out o' the door with his arm linked in the lad's."

Three or four times in the course of my narrative I happened to thrust my hands into my breeches-pocket, and was reminded of the gold eyeglass concealed there. I had managed very artfully to keep Captain Branscome entirely out of the story, but twice under examination I was forced to mention him-and each time, curiously enough, in answer to a question of Miss Belcher's.

"You are sure this Captain Coffin showed the chart to no one but yourself?" she asked.

"I am pretty sure, ma'am."

"There was always a tale about Falmouth that Cap'n Danny had struck a buried treasure," said Mr. Goodfellow. "'Twas a joke in the publics, and with the street boys; but I never heard tell till now that any one took it serious."

"He was learning navigation," mused Miss Belcher. "What was the name of his teacher?"

"A Captain Branscome, ma'am. He's a teacher at Stimcoe's."

"Lives in the house, does he?"

"No, ma'am."

"A Captain Branscome, you say?"

"Yes, ma'am. He's a retired packet captain, and lame of one leg. Every one in Falmouth knows Captain Branscome."

"H'm! Wouldn't this Captain Branscome wonder a little that a man of your friend's age, and (we'll say) a bit wrong in his head, should want to learn navigation?"

"He might, ma'am."

"He certainly would," snapped Miss Belcher. "And wouldn't this Captain Branscome know it was perfectly useless to teach such a man?"

"I dare say he would, ma'am," I answered, guiltily recalling Captain Branscome's own words to me on this subject.

"Then why did he take the man's money, eh? Well, go on with your story."

I breathed more easily for a while, but by-and-by, when I came to tell of the discussion by the old windmill, I felt her eyes upon me again.

"Wait a moment. Captain Coffin gave you a key, and this key was to open the corner cupboard in his lodgings. Wasn't it rather foolish of him to send you, seeing that this Aaron Glass had seen you in his company, and would recognize you if he were watching the premises, which was just what you both feared?"

"He didn't count on me to go," I admitted; "at least, not first along."

"On whom, then?"

"On Captain Branscome, ma'am."

"Oh! Did he send you with that message to Captain Branscome?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Then why didn't you tell us so? Well, when you took the message, what did Captain Branscome say? And why didn't he go?"

"He was not at home, ma'am. Mr. Stimcoe had given us a holiday in honour of the prisoners."

"I see. So Captain Branscome was off on an outing? When did he return?"

"I didn't see him that evening, ma'am."

"That's not an answer to my question. I asked, When did he return?"

"Not until yesterday afternoon."

I had to think before giving this answer, so long a stretch of time seemed to lie between me and yesterday afternoon.

"Where had he been spending his holiday meanwhile?"

"He didn't tell me, ma'am."

"At all events, he didn't turn up for school next day, nor the next again, until the afternoon. Queer sort of academy, Stimcoe's. Did Mr. Stimcoe make any remark on his under-teacher's absence?"

"No, ma'am."

"The school went on just as usual?"

"No-o, ma'am "-I hesitated-"not quite just as usual. Mr. Stimcoe was unwell."

"Drunk?"

"My dear Miss Belcher!" put in the scandalized Plinny. "A scholar, and such a gentleman!"

"Fiddlestick-end!" snapped the unconscionable lady, not removing her eyes from mine. "Was this man Stimcoe drunk, eh? No; I beg your pardon," she corrected herself. "I oughtn't to be asking a boy to tell tales out of school. 'Thou shalt not say anything to get another fellow into trouble'-that's the first and last commandment-eh, Harry Brooks? But, my good soul"-she turned on Plinny-"if 'drunk and incapable' isn't written over the whole of that seminary, you may call me a Dutchwoman!"

"There's a point or so clear enough," she announced, after a pause, when I had finished my story.

"We must placard the whole country with a description of that prisoner chap Glass," said Mr. Jack Rogers; "and I'd best be off to Falmouth and get the bills printed at once."

"Indeed?" said Miss Belcher, dryly. "And pray how are you proposing to describe him?"

"Why, as for that, I should have thought Harry's description here, backed up by Mr. Goodfellow's, was enough to lay a trail upon any man. My dear Lydia, a fellow roaming the country in a red coat, drill trousers, and a japanned hat!"

"It would obviously excite remark: so obviously that the likelihood might even occur to the man himself."

Mr. Rogers looked crestfallen f

or a moment.

"You suggest that by this time he has changed his rig?"

"I suggest, rather, that he started by changing it, say, as far back as St. Mawes. Some one must ride to St. Mawes at once and make inquiries." Miss Belcher drummed her fingers on the table. "But the man," she said thoughtfully, "will have reached Plymouth long before this."

"You don't think it possible he went back the same way he came?"

"In a world, Jack, where you find yourself a magistrate, all things are possible. But I don't think it at all likely."

"It's a rum story altogether," mused Mr. Rogers. "A couple of murders in this part of the world, and mixed up with an island full of treasure! Why, damme, 'tis almost like Shakespeare!"

"For my part," observed Miss Plinlimmon, with great simplicity, "though sometimes accused of leaning unduly toward the romantic, I should be inclined to set down this story of Captain Coffin's to hallucination, or even to stigmatize it as what I believe is called in nautical parlance 'a yarn.'"

"And small blame to you, my dear!" agreed Miss Belcher; "only, you see, when folks go about killing one another, the hallucination begins to look disastrously as if there were something in it."

"Yet I still fail to see," urged Plinny, "why our dear Major should have fallen a victim."

"It's plain as a pikestaff, if you'll excuse me," Mr. Rogers answered her. "This Coffin carried the chart on him, meaning to deliver it into the Major's keeping. He came here, entered the garden by the side-gate, found the Major in the summer-house, told his story, handed over the chart, and was making his way back to the high-road through the plantation, when he came full on this man Aaron Glass, who had tracked him all the way from St. Mawes. Glass fell on him, murdered him, rifled his pockets, and, finding nothing-but having some hint, perhaps-pursued his way to the garden here. There in the summer-house he found the Major, who meanwhile had fetched his cashbox from the house and locked the chart up in it. What followed, any one can guess."

"Not a bad theory, Jack!" murmured Miss Belcher, still drumming softly on the table. "Indeed, 'tis the only explanation, but for one or two things against it."

"For instance?"

"For instance, I don't see why the Major should want to go to the house and bring back his cashbox to the garden. Surely the simple thing was to take the paper, or whatever it was, straight to the house, lock it up, and leave the cashbox in its usual place? I don't see, either, what that box was doing, later on, in the brook below my lodge-gate; for, by every chance that I can reckon, the murderer- supposing him to be this man Glass-would have pushed on in haste for Plymouth, whereas my lodge-gate lies half a mile in the opposite direction."

"Are those all your objections?" asked Mr. Rogers. "Because, if so, I must say they don't amount to much."

"They don't amount to much," Miss Belcher agreed, "but they don't, on the other hand, quite cover all my doubts. However, there's less doubt, luckily, about the next step to be taken. You send Hosken or some one to Torpoint Ferry to inquire what strangers have crossed for Plymouth during these forty-eight hours. You meanwhile borrow my roan filly-your own mare is dead-beat-clap her in the tilbury, and off you go to St. Mawes, and find out how this man Glass got hold of a change of clothes. Take Mr. Goodfellow with you, and while you are playing detective at St. Mawes, he can cross over to Falmouth and fetch along the corner cupboard. Harry has the key, and we'll open it here and read what the captain has to say in this famous roll of paper. It won't do more than tantalize us, I very much fear, seeing that the chart has disappeared, and likely enough for ever."

But it had not.

It so happened that while I stood by my father's bedside that morning I had noticed a flag, rolled in a bundle and laid upon the chest of drawers beside his dressing-table. I concluded at once that Plinny had fetched it from the summer-house to spread over his coffin.

Women know nothing about flags. This one was a red ensign, in those days a purely naval flag, carried (since Trafalgar) by the highest rank of admirals. Ashore, any one could hoist it, but the flag to cover a soldier's body was the flag of Union.

This had crossed my mind when I caught sight of the red ensign on the chest of drawers; and again in the summer-house, as I lifted the lid of the flag-locker and noted the finger-marks in the dust upon it, I guessed that Plinny had visited it with pious purpose, and, woman-like, chosen the first flag handy. I had meant to repair her mistake, and again had forgotten my intention.

Mr. Jack Rogers had driven off for St. Mawes, with Mr. Goodfellow in the tilbury beside him. Constable Hosken was on his way to Torpoint. Miss Belcher had withdrawn to her great house, after insisting that I must be fed once more and packed straight off to bed; and fed I duly was, and tucked between sheets, to sleep, exhausted, very nearly the round of the clock.

Footsteps awoke me-footsteps on the landing outside my bedroom. I sat up, guessing at once that they were the footsteps of the carpenter and his men, arrived in the dawn with the shell of my father's coffin. Almost at once I remembered the red ensign, and, waiting until the footsteps withdrew, stole across, half dressed, to my father's room to change it. The faint rays of dawn drifted in through the closed blinds. The coffin-shell lay the length of the bed, and in it his body. The carpenter's men had left it uncovered. In the dim light, no doubt, they had overlooked the flag, which I felt for and found. Tucking it under my arm, I closed the door and tiptoed downstairs, let myself out at the back, and stole out to the summer-house.

There was light enough within to help me in selecting the Union flag from the half-dozen within the locker. I was about to stow the red ensign in its place when I bethought me that, day being so near, I might as well bend a flag upon the flagstaff halliards and half-mast it.

So, with the Union flag under one arm, I carried out the red ensign, bent it carefully, still in a roll, and hoisted it to the truck. In half-masting a flag, you first hoist it in a bundle to the masthead, break it out there, and thence lower it to the position at which you make fast.

I felt the flag's toggle jam chock-a-block against the truck of the staff, and gave a tug, shaking out the flag to the still morning breeze. A second later something thudded on the turf close at my feet.

I stared at it; but the halliards were in my hand, and before picking it up I must wait and make them fast on the cleat. Still I stared at it, there where it lay on the dim turf.

And still I stared at it. Either I was dreaming yet, or this-this thing that had fallen from heaven-was the oilskin bag that had wrapped Captain Coffin's chart.

I stooped to pick it up. At that instant the side-gate rattled, and with a start I faced, in the half light-Captain Branscome.

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