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   Chapter 18 THE CONTENTS OF THE CORNER CUPBOARD.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 14107

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Mr. Jack Rogers, as he pulled up by the porch and directed me to stand by the young mare's head, wore a look of extreme self-satisfaction. Beside him, also beaming, sat Mr. Goodfellow, with the corner cupboard nursed between his knees.

"Capital news, lad!" announced Mr. Rogers, climbing down from the tilbury. "The filly's pretty near dead-beat, though-must see to her and cool her down before telling it. Now, then, Mr. Goodfellow, if you'll hand out the cupboard. By the way, sonny, I hope Miss Plinlimmon can give us breakfast. I'm as hungry as a hunter, for my part, and deserve it, too, after a good night's work. With my fol-de-rol, diddledy-" He started to hum, but checked himself shamefacedly. "There I go again, and I beg your pardon! 'Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to behave myself in a house of mourning."

Mr. Goodfellow by this time had clambered down, and was embracing the corner cupboard as though he had parted from it for an age, instead of for fifty seconds at the farthest.

"Carry it indoors, but don't open it till I'm ready," commanded Mr. Rogers, stooping under the filly to loosen her belly-band. "I'm a magistrate, remember, and these things must be done in order. You come along with me, Harry; that is, if you have the key in your pocket."

"I have, sir."

"Right! Then come along with me, and you'll be out of harm's way."

So, while Mr. Goodfellow carried the cupboard into the house, Mr. Rogers and I attended to the filly.

This took, maybe, twenty minutes; but Mr. Rogers was a sportsman, and thought of his horse before himself. Not till all was done, and well done, did he announce again that he was devilish peckish; nor did I take the measure of his meaning until, returning to the breakfast-room where Mr. Goodfellow sat before a plate of bread and cream, he helped himself to a mass of veal pie fit for a giant, and before attacking it drained a tankard of cider at a single pull, while he nodded over the rim to Captain Branscome, to whom Plinny introduced him.

"Jack," said Miss Belcher, with a jerk of her thumb towards the Captain, "I'll lay you two to one in guineas, that our news is more important than yours!"

"I take you," said Mr. Rogers.

"It will save time if we tell it while you're eating, and will save you the trouble of talking with your mouth full."

Once or twice, while she abridged Captain Branscome's narrative, Mr. Rogers set down knife and fork, and stared at her with round eyes, his jaws slowly chewing.

"And I reckon," concluded Miss Belcher, "that you won't dispute your owing me a guinea."

"Wait a bit!" Mr. Rogers pushed his empty plate away, selected a clean one, and helped himself to six slices of ham. "To begin with, I've found scent and laid on the hounds."

"Where?"

"At St. Mawes. Captain Coffin, the murdered man, landed there from the ferry on the night of the 11th, at a few minutes before nine, and walked straight to the Lugger Inn, above the quay. There he borrowed fifteen shillings off the landlord, who knew him well; ordered two glasses of hot gin-and-water, drank them, paid down sixpence, and took the road that leads east through Gerrans village. His tale was that he had a relative to visit at Plymouth Dock, and meant to push on that night so far as Probus, and there sleep and wait for Russell's waggon."

"But his road," I objected, "wouldn't lie through Gerrans village, unless he went by the short cut through the field beyond St. Mawes, and took the ferry at Percuil."

"Right, lad; and that is precisely what he did; for-to push ahead a bit-we overran his track on the main road, and, learning of that same short cut, drove back along the other side of the creek to Percuil, and had a talk with the ferryman. The ferryman told us that at ten o'clock, or thereabouts, he was going to bed having closed the ferry, when a voice on the other shore began bawling 'Over!' He slipped on his boots again, rowed across, and took over a man who was certainly Captain Coffin."

"He was alone?" I asked.

"He came across the ferry alone," said Mr. Rogers, "and I dare say he had no idea of being followed. But back at St. Mawes, while he was drinking gin-and-water in the taproom, another man came to the door of the Lugger. This man sent for the landlord-Bogue by name-and asked to be shown into a private room. He was dressed in odds-and-ends of garments, including a soiled regimental coat and dirty linen trousers."

"The French prisoner!" said I.

"That's the man. He told Bogue, fair and straight, he was an ex-prisoner, and off the Wellinboro' transport, arrived that day in harbour. He had money in his pocket-in Bogue's presence he pulled out a fistful of gold-and he pitched a tale that he was bound for his home, a little this side of Saltash, but couldn't face the road in the clothes he wore. You'll admit that this was reasonable when you've seen 'em, for I brought the suit along in the tail of the tilbury. For a pound, Bogue fitted him up with an old suit of his own-coat and waistcoat of blue sea-cloth, not much the worse for wear, duck trousers, a tarpaulin hat, and a flannel shirt marked J. B. (Bogue's Christian name is Jeremiah). The fellow had no shirt when he presented himself-nothing between the bare buff and the uniform coat that he wore buttoned across his chest. And here our luck comes in. He was shy of stripping in Bogue's presence, and, on pretence of feeling chilly, sent him out of the room for a glass of hot grog. As it happened, Bogue met the waiting-maid in the passage, coming out of the bar with a tray and half a dozen hot grogs that had been ordered by customers in the tap-room. He picked up one, and, sending the maid back to fetch another to fill up her order, returned at once to the private room. My gentleman there was standing with his back to the door, stripped to the waist, with the shirt in his hand, ready to slip it on. He wasn't expecting Bogue so soon, and he turned about with a jump, but not before Bogue had sight of his back and a great picture tattooed across it-Adam and Eve, with the tree between 'em, and the serpent coiled around it complete."

"The man Bogue must have quick sight," commented Miss Belcher.

"So I told him, but his answer was that it didn't need more than a glance, because this picture is a favourite with seamen. Bogue has been a seaman himself."

"That is so," Captain Branscome corroborated. "The man must have been a seaman, and at one time or another in the Navy. There's a superstition about that particular picture: tattooed across the back and loins it's supposed to protect them, in a moderate degree, against flogging."

"Well," said Miss Belcher, "his belonging to the Navy seems likely enough. It accounts, in one way, for his finding himself in a French war-prison. Go on, Jack."

"The man (said Bogue) faced about with a start, catching his hands- with the shirt in 'em-towards his chest, and half covering it, but not so as to hide from Bogue that his chest, too, was marked. Bogue hadn

't time to make out the design, but his recollection is there were several small ones-ships, foul-anchors, and the like- besides a large one that seemed to be some sort of a map."

"You haven't done so badly, Jack," Miss Belcher allowed. "If the man hasn't given us the slip at Plymouth you have struck a first-class scent. Only I doubt 'tis a cold one. You sent word at once?"

"By express rider, and with orders to leave a description of the man at all the ferries. But there's more to come. The man, that had seemed at first in a desperate hurry, was no sooner in Bogue's clothes than he took a seat, made Bogue fetch another glass of grog and drink it with him, and asked him a score of questions about the best road eastward. It struck Bogue that, for a man whose home was Saltash, he knew very little about his native county. All this while he appeared to have forgotten his hurry, and Bogue was thinking to make him an excuse to go off and attend to other customers, when of a sudden he ups and shakes hands, says good night, and marches out of the house. Bogue told me all this in the very room where it happened. It opens out on the passage leading from the taproom to the front door. I asked Bogue if he could remember at what time Coffin left the house, and by what door; also, if the prisoner-fellow heard him leave; but at first he couldn't tell me anything for certain except that Coffin went out by the front door-he remembered hearing him go tapping down the passage. The old man, it seems, had a curious way of tapping with his stick."

Here Mr. Rogers looked at me, and I nodded.

"Where was the landlord when he heard this?" asked Miss Belcher.

"That, my dear Lydia, was naturally the next question I put to him. 'Why, in this very room,' said he, 'now I come to think of it.' 'Well, then,' said I, 'how long did you stay in this room after the prisoner (as we'll call him) had taken his leave?' 'Not a minute,' said he; 'no, nor half a minute. Indeed, I believe we walked out into the passage together, and then parted, he going out to the door, and I up the passage to the taproom.' 'Was Coffin in the taproom when you reached it?' I asked. 'No,' says Bogue; 'to be sure he wasn't.' 'Why, then, you thickhead,' says I, 'he must have left while you were talking with the prisoner; and since you heard him go, the odds are the prisoner heard him, too.' That's the way to get at evidence, Lydia."

"My dear Jack," said Miss Belcher, "you're an Argus!"

"Well, I flatter myself it was pretty neat," resumed Mr. Rogers, speaking with his mouth full; "but, as it happens, we don't need it. For when, as I've told you, we drove around to the ferry at Percuil, and the ferryman described Coffin and how he'd put him across, the first question I asked was 'Did you put any one else across that night?' He said, 'Yes; and not twenty minutes later.' 'Man or woman?' I asked. 'Man,' said he, 'and a d-d drunk one'-saving your presence, ladies. I pricked up my ears. 'Drunk?' I asked. How drunk?' 'Drunk enough to near-upon drown himself,' said the ferryman. 'It was this way, sir: I'd scarcely finished mooring the boat again, and was turning to go indoors, when I heard a splash, t'other side of the creek, where; the path comes down under the loom of the trees, and, next moment, a voice as if some person was drowning and guggling for help. So I fit and unmoored again, and pushed across for dear life, just in time to see a man scrambling ashore. He was as drunk as a fly, sir, even after his wetting. Said he was a retired seaman living at Penzance, had come round to Falmouth on a lime-barge bound for the Truro river, and must get along to St. Austell in time to attend his sister's wedding there next morning. Told me his sister's name, but I forget it. Said he'd fallen in with some brave fellows at Falmouth just returned from the French war-prisons, and had taken a glass or two. Gave me half a crown when I brought him over and landed him,' said the ferryman, 'and too far gone in liquor to understand the mistake if I'd explained it to him, which I didn't.' He was dressed in what appeared to be a dark cloth jacket, duck trousers of sea-going cut, and a tarpaulin hat. 'There was just moon enough,' said the ferry-man, 'to let a man take notice of his trousers, they being white; and maybe I took particular notice of his legs, because they were dripping wet. As for his face, by the glimpse I had of it he was a middle-aged man that had seen trouble.' I asked if he would know the man again. He said, 'Yes,' he was pretty sure he would. So there, Lydia, you have the villain dogging Coffin, tracking him to Percuil, and shamming drunk to get carried over the ferry in pursuit. On Bogue's testimony he was as sober as a judge at St. Mawes, and drank but one glass of grog there, and from St. Mawes to Percuil is but a step, mainly by footpath over the fields, with no public-house on the way."

"H'm," said Miss Belcher; "and yet he couldn't have been following the man to murder him, or he must have taken more care to cover up his traces. All his concern seems to have been to follow Coffin without being seen by him. Is that all?"

"My dear Lydia, consider the amount of time I've had! Almost before I'd finished with Bogue, and certainly before the filly was well rested, Mr. Goodfellow here had crossed to Falmouth and was back again, bringing the cupboard-"

"Yes, Jack; you have done very well-surprisingly well. But I'll not hand over my guinea until we've examined the cupboard. Here, Mr. Goodfellow"-she cleared a space amid the breakfast things-"be so good as to lift it on to the table. Harry, where's the key?"

I produced it.

"A nice bit of work-and Dutch, by the look of it," she commented, pausing to admire the inlaid pattern as she inserted the key. She turned it, and the door fell back, askew on its broken hinges.

Mr. Goodfellow had carried the cupboard with infinite care, but the contents, I need not say, had mixed themselves up in wild disorder, though nothing was broken-not even the pot of guava-jelly. They included a superannuated watch in a loose silver case, a medal (in bronze) struck to commemorate Lord Howe's famous victory of the First of June, two pieces-of-eight and a spade guinea (much clipped); a small china mug painted with libellous portraits of King George III. and his consort; a printed pamphlet on Admiral Byng; two strings of shells; a mourning-ring with a lock of hair set between two pearls under glass; another ring with a tiny picture of a fountain and urn, and a weeping willow; a paper containing a baby's caul and a sampler worked with the A.B.C. and the Lord's Prayer and signed "A.C., 1785;" a gourd, a few glass beads, and a Chinese opium-pipe; and lastly, a thick paper roll bound in yellow-stained parchment. The roll was tied about with string, and the string was sealed, in coarse wax without imprint.

Miss Belcher dived a hand into a fold of her skirt, and drew forth a most unladylike clasp-knife.

"Now for it!" said Miss Belcher.

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