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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 10390

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

While the others drew their chairs closer, and while I spread flat the parchment-which was crinkled (by the action of salt water, maybe)-I had time to assure myself that this was the selfsame chart of which Captain Coffin had once vouchsafed me a glimpse. I remembered the shape of the island, the point marked "Cape Alderman," the strange, whiskered heraldical monster depicted in the act of rising from the waves off the north-western coast, the equally impossible ship, decorated with a sprit-top-mast and a flag upon it, and charging up under full sail for the southern entry, the name of which ("Gow's Gulf") I must have missed to read in the short perusal Captain Coffin had allowed me. At any rate, I could not recall it. But I recalled the three crosses which showed (so he had told me) where the treasure lay. They were marked in red ink, and I explained their meaning to Miss Belcher, who had pounced upon them at once.

"Fiddlestick-end!" said that lady, falling back on her favourite ejaculation. "Great clumsy crosses of that size! How in the world could any one find a treasure by such marks, unless it happened to be two miles long?"

She pointed to the scale at the head of the chart, which, to be sure, gave six miles to the inch. By the same measurement the crosses covered, each way, from half a mile to three-quarters. Moreover, each had patently been dashed in with two hurried strokes of the pen and without any pretence of accuracy. The first cross covered a "key" or sand-bank off the northern shore of the island; the second sprawled athwart what appeared to be the second height in a range of hills running southward from Cape Alderman, and down along the entire eastern coast at a mean distance of a mile, or a little over, from the sea; while the third was planted full across a grove of trees at the head of the great inlet-Gow's Gulf-to the south, and, moreover, spanned the chief river of the island, which, running almost due south from the back of the hills or mountains (their size was not indicated) below Cape Alderman, discharged itself into the apex of the gulf.

"Without bearings of some sort," said Miss Belcher, "these marks are merely ridiculous."

"You may well say so, ma'am," Captain Branscome answered, but inattentively. "Mortallone-Mortallone," he went on, muttering the word over as if to himself. "It is curious, all the same."

"What is curious?" demanded Miss Belcher.

"Why, ma'am, I have never myself visited the Gulf of Honduras, but among seamen there are always a hundred stories floating about. In a manner of speaking, there is no such shop for gossip as the sea. In every port you meet 'em, in taverns where sailors drink and brag- the liquor being in them-and one man talks and the rest listen, not troubling themselves to believe. It is good to find one's self ashore, you understand? And a good, strong-flavoured yarn makes the landlord and all the shore-keeping folk open their eyes-"

"Bless the man!" Miss Belcher rapped her knuckles on the table. "This is not a 'longshore tavern."

"No, ma'am."

"Then why not come to the point?"

"The point, ma'am-well, the point is that every one-that is to say, every seaman-has heard tell of treasure knocking about, as you might put it, somewhere in the Gulf of Honduras."

"What sort of treasure?"

"Why, as to that, ma'am, it varies with the story. Sometimes 'tis bar silver from the isthmus, and sometimes 'tis gold plate and bullion that belonged to the old Kings of Mexico; but by the tale I've heard offtenest, 'tis church treasure that was run away with by a shipful of logwoodmen in Campeachy Bay. But there again you no sooner fix it as church treasure, and ask where it came from, than you have to choose between half a dozen different accounts. Some say from the Spanish islands-Havana for choice; others from the Main, and I've heard places mentioned as far apart us Vera Cruz and Caracas. The dates, too-if you can call them dates at all-vary just as surprisingly."

"The date on this chart is 1776," said Miss Belcher, who had been peering at it while the Captain spoke.

"Then, supposing there's something in poor Coffin's secret, that gives you the year to start from. We'll suppose this is the very chart used by the man who hid the treasure. Then it follows the treasure wasn't hidden before 1776, and that rules out all the yarns about Hornigold, Teach, Bat Roberts, and suchlike pirates, the last of whom must have been hanged a good fifty years before: though here's evidence"-Captain Branscome laid a forefinger on the chart- "that these gentry had dealings with the island in their day. 'Gow's Gulf,' 'Cape Fea'-Gow was a pirate and a hard nut at that; and Fea, if I remember, his lieutenant or something of the sort; but they had gone their ways before ever this was printed, and consequently before ever these crosses came to be written on it. You follow me, ma'am?"

Miss Belcher gave a contemptuous sniff which, I doubt not, would have prefaced the remark that an unweaned child would arrive unaided at the same conclusions; but here I interposed.

"Captain Coffin," said I, "told me that a part of the treasure was church plate

, and that he had seen it. He showed me a coin, too, and said it came from the island."

"Hey, lad? What sort of coin?"

But to this I could give no answer, except that it was a piece of gold, and in size perhaps a trifle smaller than a guinea.

"That's a pity, lad. The coin might have helped us. You're sure now that you can't remember? It hadn't a couple of pillars engraved on it, for instance?"

I shook my head. I had taken no particular heed of the stamp on the coin.

Captain Branscome sighed his disappointment.

"The church plate don't help us at all," he said, "or very little. Why, I've heard this Honduras treasure dated so far back as Morgan's time, when he sacked Panama. The tale went that the priests at Panama or Chagres, or one of those places, on fright of Morgan's coming, clapped all their treasure aboard ship under a guard of militia-soldiers of some sort, anyway-and that the seamen cut the soldiers' throats, slipped cable, and away-to-go. But Morgan! He must have died before Queen Anne was born-well, not so far back as that maybe, but then or thenabouts. I tell you, ma'am, this story hangs around every port and every room where seamen gather and drink and take their ways again. 'Tis for all the world like the smell of tobacco-smoke, that tells you some one has come and gone, but leaves you nothing to get hold of. Hallo!-"

As the exclamation escaped him, Captain Branscome, who had casually picked up a corner of the parchment between finger and thumb, with a nervous jerk drew the whole chart from under my outspread palms and turned it over face-downwards.

"Eh? But see here!"

He fumbled with his glasses, while Miss Belcher and I, snatching at the chart, almost knocked our heads together as we bent over a corner of it-the left-hand upper corner-and a dozen lines of writing scrawled there in faded ink. They ran thus-

1. Landed by cuttar when wee saw a sail. Lesser Kay N. of

Gable. Get open water between two kays S.W. and W. by S.,

and N. inner point of Gable (where is green patch, good

watering) in line with white rock (birds), neer as posble.

S. a point E. 3 feet bare, being hurried.

2. Bayse of cliff second hill S.S.W. from Cape Alderman.

Here is bank over 2 waterfals. Neer lower fall, 12 paces

back from egge, getting island open N.E. beyond rock W. of

inlet, and first tree Misery Swamp over Crabtree, W.S.W Bush

above rock to rt of fall. Shaddow 1/4 to 4, June 21st, when

we left digging.

3. R. bank river, 1 and 1/2 mile up from Gow crikke. Centre

tree in clump 5 branch bearing N. and by E. 1/2 point, two

forks. R. fork 4ft. red cave under hill 457yds. foot of tree

N.N.W. N.B.-The stones here, under rock 4 spans L side.

That was all, except two short entries. The first scribbled aslant under No. 1, and in Captain Coffin's own handwriting-so Captain Branscome, who knew it, assured us.

N.B.-Took out 5 cases Ap. 5, 1806, besides the boddies.

Avging 3/4 cwt. 1 case jewels. We left the clothes, wh.

were many.

The second entry appeared to have been penned by the same hand as the original, but more neatly and some while later. The ink, at any rate, was blacker and fresher. It ran:

S.W. ann. aetat. 37. R.I.P.

The handwriting, though rugged-and the indifferent ink may have been to blame for this-was well formed, and, but for the spelling, might have belonged to an educated man.

The reader, if he choose, may follow our example and discuss the above directions for half an hour-I will warrant with as little result. Miss Belcher ended by harking back to the summer-house and to the latest crime-if we might guess, the latest of many-for which this document had been responsible.

"What puzzles me is this: Since the Major had pockets in his coat, why should he have hidden the parcel as he did? So small a parcel, too!"

"Captain Coffin," I suggested, "may have known that he was being followed."


"And in handing it over he may have warned my father that there was danger."

"I believe the boy is right," said Captain Branscome. "Now I recall the Major's face at the moment when I rattled the latch, I feel sure he was on his guard. Yes-yes, he had been warned against carrying this on his person-he was wrapping it away for the time-"

"Why, what ails the man?" demanded Miss Belcher, as Captain Branscome stopped short with a groan.

"I was thinking, ma'am, that but for my visit he might never have relaxed his guard-that it was I who helped the murderer to take him at unawares. Nay-worse, ma'am, worse-his last thought may have been that I was the traitor-that the blow he took was from the hand he had filled with gold-that I had returned to kill him in his blindness!"

Captain Branscome bowed his head upon his hands. I saw Plinny-who all this while had sat silent, content to listen-rise, her face twitching, and put out a hand to touch the captain's shoulder. I saw her hand hesitate as her sense of decorum overtook her pity and seemed to reason with it. And with that I heard the noise of wheels on the road.

"Hallo!"-Miss Belcher pricked up her ears. "Here's that nuisance Jack Rogers turning up again!"

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