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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 20895

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

As she severed the string the roll fell open and disclosed itself as a book of small quarto shape, bound in limp parchment, with strings to tie the covers together. Its pages, measuring 9 and 3/4 by 8 in., were 64, and numbered throughout; but a bare third of them were written on, and these in an unformed hand which yet was eloquent of much. A paragraph would start with every letter drawn as carefully as in a child's copy-book; would gradually straggle and let its words fall about, as though fainting by the way; and so would tail into incoherence, to be picked up-next day, no doubt-by a new effort, which, after marching for half a dozen lines, in its turn collapsed. There were lacunae, too, when the shaking hand had achieved but a few weak zigzags before it desisted. The two last pages were scribbled over with sums-or, to speak more correctly, with combinations of figures resembling sums. Here is a single example-

Ode to W. Bate

To bacca 9 and 1/2d

Haircutt 1s

Bliddin[1] ...... 18d.

To more bacca Oct. 10th do.

Ditto and shave ditto ditto


Mem. do. to him 2s. 6d.

The fly-leaf started bravely with "D. Coffin, His Book." After this the captain had fallen to practising his signature by way of start. "D. Coffin," "Danl. Coffin," "Danyel Coffin," over and over, and once "D. Coffin, Esq.," followed by "Steal not this Book for fear of shame."

Danl. Coffin is my name

England is my nation

Falmth ditto ditto dwelling-place

And hopes to see Salvation.

After these exercises came a blank page, and then, halfway down the next, abruptly, without title, began the manuscript which I will call Captain Coffin's statement.

"Pass it to Lydia," said Mr. Rogers. "She reads like a parson."

"Better than most, I hope," said Miss Belcher, taking the book; and this-I omit the faults of spelling-is what she read aloud-

Mem. Began this August 15th, 1812. Mem. Am going to tell about the treasure, and what happened. But it will be no use without the map. If any one tries to bring up trouble, this is the truth and nothing else. Amen. So be it. Signed, D. Coffin.

My father followed the sea, and bred me to it. He came from Devonshire, near Exmouth. N.B.-He used to say the Coffins were a great family in Devonshire, and as old as any; but it never did him no good. He was an only son, and so was I, but I had an older sister, now dead. She grew up and married a poultryman in Quay Street, Bristol. I remember the wedding. Died in childbed a year later, me being at that time on my first voyage.

We lived at Bristol, at the foot of Christmas Stairs, left-hand side going up, two doors from the bottom. My mother from Stonehouse, Gloster, where they make cloth, specially red cloth for soldiers' coats. Her maiden name Daniels. She was a religious woman, and taught me the Bible. My father was lost at sea, being knocked overboard by the boom in half a gale, two miles S.W. of Lundy. I was sixteen at the time, and apprentice as cabin-boy on board the same ship, the Caroline, bound from Hayle to Cardiff with copper ore. I went home and broke the news to my mother, and she told me then what I didn't know before, that she was very poorly provided for. I will say this, that I made her a good son; and likewise, that I never had no luck till I struck the Treasure.

I was born in the year 1750. My father's death happened 1766. From that time till my twenty-seventh year, I supported my mother. She died of a seizure in 1777, and is buried by St. Mary's Redclyf- we having moved across the water to that parish. Married next year, Elizabeth Porter, in service with Soames Rennalls, Esquire, Alderman of the City. She had been brought up an orphan by the Colston Charity; a good pious woman, and bore me one child, a daughter, christened Ann-a dear little one. She lived and throve up to the year 1787, me all the time coming and going on voyages, mostly coasting, too numerous to mention. Then the small-pox carried her off with my affectionate wife, the both in one week. At which I cursed all things, and for several years ran riot, not caring what I said or did.

Was employed, from 1790 on, in the slave trade, by W. S., merchant of Bristol. Must have made as many as a dozen passages before leaving him and shipping on the Mary Pynsent, Pink, Bristol-owned by a new company of adventurers. She was an old boat, and known to me, but not the whole story of her. I signed as mate. We were bound for the W. Coast, about 50 leagues E. of Cape Corse Castle, with gunpowder and old firearms for the natives, that were most always at war with one another. Ran coastwise and touched at three or four places on the way, and at each of them peddled powder and muskets, the muskets being most profitable, by reason the blacks have no notion of repairing a gun. So we, carrying a gunsmith on board, bought up at one place the guns that wanted repairs, and sold them at the next for new pieces. In this way we came to our destination, which was the mouth of a river full of slime and mosquitoes, and called the Popo River. There a whole tribe of niggers put out to receive us.

They knew the Mary Pynsent, and worse luck. Her last trip, when owned by Mr. W. S., aforesaid, she had sold them 1500 kegs of sifted sea-coal dust, passing it off for gunpowder, and had made off with 7000 pounds worth of gold dust, besides ivory, white and black, before they discovered the trick. We being without knowledge of what had happened, and having real gunpowder to sell, let the niggers swarm on board, and welcome. Whereupon, in revenge for past usage, they attacked us on the spot and clubbed all the crew but me, that was getting out the boat under the seaward quarter and baling her, but dived as soon as the murder began, and swam to the shore. The shore was mudbanks and reeds and mangroves, and all sweating with heat and mosquitoes. I spent that day in hiding. Towards sunset the savages rafted a good third of the cargo ashore, and, having stacked the kegs and built a fire about them, started to dance, making a silly mock of the powder, till it blew up. Which it did, and must have killed hundreds.

I heard the noise of it at about two miles' distance, having crept out of my hiding when I saw them busy, and started to tramp it along shore to Cape Corse Castle. I had no food, and must have died but that next morning I fell in with a tribe that seemed pleased to see me; which was lucky, me having no strength left to run. They took me to their kraal, a mile inland, and to a hut where was a man lying in a fever. He was a man covered with dirt and vermin, but at first sight of his face I knew him to be a white man and English. Ever since my first voyage to these parts I carried a small box in my pocket, filled with bark of Peru, which is the best cure for coast fever. I took out some of this bark and managed to make myself understood that I wanted a fire lit and some water fetched; boiled up the bark and made him drink it. After that I nursed him for three days before he died.

The second day he sits up and says in English: "Who are you?" So I told him. Then he says: "Why are you doing this for me? You wouldn't do it if you knew who I am." "I'd do it," I said, "if you were the devil." "I am next door to him," he says. "I am Melhuish, of the Poison Island Treasure." "I never heard of it," said I. "There's others call it the Priests' Treasure," says he; "and if you have never heard of it, you cannot have sailed anywhere near the Bay of Honduras." "Never in my life," I said. "My business has lain along the coast for years. But what of it?" "What of it?" he says, sitting up, his eyes all shining with the fever, "why, nothing, except that I am one of the richest men in the world." I set this down to raving. "You don't believe me?" he asks after some time. "Why," I answers him, "this is a funny sort of place for a nabob, and that you must allow; not to mention," I adds, "that from here to Honduras is a long step." "You fool!" said he, "that is the very reason of it. I don't believe in a hell on the t'other shore of this life, whatever your views may be. You go to sleep and have done with it-that's my belief. But I believe in hell upon earth, because I have lived in it. And I believe in a devil upon earth, because I lived months in his company; but he can't be as clever as the priests make out, because I came here to hide from him, and hidden I have."

With that he fell into cursing and raving, but after a time he grew quiet again, and said he: "Daniel Coffin, if that is your name, there's hundreds of thousands of men walking this world would envy you at this moment. And why? Because I can make you richer than any Lord Mayor in his coach; and, what's more, I will."

He said no more that evening, but next day woke up in his wits, and asked me to slip a hand under his pillow and take out what I found there. Which I took out a piece of parchment. He said: "Coffin, I am going to be as good as my word. That there which you hold in your hand is a map of the Island of Mortallone, where the treasure lies. I will tell you how I come by it.

"My home," he said, "was St. Mary's, in Newfoundland, which is but a small harbour and a few wood houses gathered about a factory. The factory belonged to a firm at Carbonear, and employed, one way and another, all the people in the place, in number less than two hundred. The women worked at the fish-curing, along with the children and some old men, but the able-bodied men belonged mostly to the Labrador fleet, or manned a two-three small vessels that made regular voyages to the Island of St. Jago to fetch home salt for the pickling. My mother, besides working at the factory, kept a boarding-house for seamen. In this she was helped by my only sister, a middle-aged woman and single. My mother was a widow. She kept her house very respectable, but the business was slight, the town being empty of men most of the year.

"In the autumn of 'ninety-eight, arriving home with salt as usual from St. Jago, I found a stranger lodging in the house. He had come over from Carbonear with a party of clerks, and had taken a fancy to the place-or so he said; besides which, it had been recommended to him for his health, which was delicate. He was a common-spoken man, aged between fifty and sixty, and looked like a skipper that had hauled ashore; but he never talked about the sea in my hearing,

and he never mixed with the few seamen who came to the house. He rented a separate room and kept to it. His habits were simple enough, and his manner very quiet and friendly, though he spoke as little as he could help, unless to my sister. My mother liked him because he paid his way and seemed content with whatever food was put before him. The only thing he complained about was the cold.

"I had been at home for three weeks and a little more when one evening, as I was passing downstairs from my bedroom in the attic, this Mr. Shand-that was the name he gave us-called me into his room and showed me a small bird he had picked up dead on the beach. He did not know its name, and I was too ignorant to tell him. He stood there looking at it under the lamp when my sister came upstairs with a note and word that the messenger was waiting outside for an answer. Mr. Shand took the note and read it under the lamp. Then he turned to the fire, and stood with his back to us for a moment. I saw him drop the note into the fire. He faced round to us again and said he to my sister: 'Mary, my dear, here is something I want you to keep for me. Do not look at it to-night; and when you do, show it to no one but your brother here.' With that he gave her the very packet you have in your hand, shook hands with us both, and went downstairs. We never saw him again. The weather was thick, with some snow falling, and the snow increased towards midnight. We waited up till we were tired, but he did not return that night or the next day. Three days later his body was found in a drift of snow, halfway down a cliff to the west of the town. The right leg and arm were broken and two ribs on the same side."

I asked: "Who was the man that brought the message?" Melhuish said: "My sister could not tell, except that he was a stranger. She supposed he belonged to one of two ships that had arrived in harbour the day before. She saw nothing of his face to remember; his jacket-collar being turned up against the snow, and the flaps of his fur cap pulled down over his ears."

I asked: "Did the man's chest tell nothing when you came to examine it?" Melhuish said: "Nothing at all. It was full of new clothes, and very good clothes; but they had no mark upon them, and, besides the clothes, there was not so much as a scrap of paper."

He went on: "About two weeks later there called a clerk from the factory to claim the chest, the firm having acted as Mr. Shand's agents. He was a foreign-looking man, and older than most of the clerks employed by Davis and Atchison-which was the firm's name. He gave his own name as Martin. He had been sent over from Carbonear about ten days before to teach the factory a new way of treating seal-pelts by means of chemicals. We learnt afterwards that he earned good wages. He had brought two hands from the factory to carry the chest, which we gave up to him as soon as he presented a letter from Mr. Hughes, the firm's chief agent. He said: 'Is this all you have?' And we said, 'Yes.' We Kept quiet about the map, which we had examined, but could not make head nor tail of it. He went away with the chest, and we heard no more of the matter. The winter closing in, I took service in the factory. I used to run against this Martin almost every day, but being my superior he never got beyond nodding to me.

"So it went on, that winter. The next spring I sailed with the salting fleet as usual. I was mate by this time, and had learned to navigate. I came back, to find Martin seated in the parlour and talking, and my mother told me he had asked my sister to marry him. They had met at the factory and fixed it up between them. He appeared to be very fond of my sister, who was usually reckoned a plain-featured woman, and there couldn't be a doubt she was fond of him. Later on, I heard that she had told him all about the chart, but had not shown it to him, being afraid to do so without my leave.

"He opened the subject himself about a week later, during which I had become very thick with him. He said that, in his belief, there was money in it, and I was a fool not to take it up. I answered, What could I do? He said there was ways and means that a lad of spirit ought to be able to discover. With that he talked no more of it that day, but it cropped up again, and by little and little he so worked me up that I took to dreaming of the cursed thing.

"This went on for another fortnight, during which time he told me a deal about himself, very frank-as that he was the son of an English sea-captain and a Spanish woman, and was born in Havana; that he had been educated by the Jesuits, who had meant to make a priest of him; that, not being able to abide the Spaniards, he had chased over to Port Royal and studied chemistry in the college there. It was there, he said, he had discovered a preparation for curing the hides of animals so that the hair never dropped off, but remained as firm and fresh as life. He told me that for this secret Davis and Atchison paid him better than any of their clerks.

"At the end of a fortnight he sailed for Carbonear. He returned as I was making ready for the summer trip, and laid a scheme before me that took my breath away. He had spoken to Mr. Atchison, the junior partner, and engaged a schooner, the Willing Mind; likewise a crew. I was to command her, being the only one of the lot that understood navigation. For the crew he had picked up a mixed lot at Carbonear and St. John's-good seamen, but mostly unknown to one another. They were the less likely, he said, to smell out our purpose until we reached the island, and for the rest I might trust to him. He had laid our plans before Mr. Atchison, who approved. If I listened to him without arguing, he would make my fortune and my sister's as well.

"I had never met a man of his quality before. I was a young fool, yet not altogether such a fool but I had persuaded my sister to hand the map over to me, and wore it always about me. She told me that she had shown it twice to Martin, but never for more than two minutes at a time, and had never let it go out of her hands. I wonder now that he didn't murder her for it; and the only reason must be that he reckoned to use me for navigating the ship, and then to get rid of me.

"A fool I was even to the extent of letting him talk me over when I found he had engaged twelve hands for the cruise. There was no reason on earth for this number except that these were the gang after the treasure, and that he was playing with the lot of them, same as with me.

"The upshot was that we said goodbye to my mother and sister, and crossed over to Carbonear, where I made acquaintance with my crew. The number of them raised no suspicion in the port, because it was taken for granted the Willing Mind, an old salt ship, was bound for St. Jago, where ten or a dozen hands are nothing unusual to work the salt; and this was the argument he had used to make me carry so many. Our pretence was we were all bound for St. Jago, and the crew seemed to take this for understood. I didn't like their looks. Martin said they were an ignorant lot, and chosen for that reason. All I had to do was to run south, and he undertook to give them the slip at the first point we touched.

"He had a wonderful command over them, considering that he was but one plotter in a dozen; and for reasons of his own he kept them off me and the map. On our way he proposed to me that I should teach him a little navigation; helped me take the reckonings; and picked it up as easy as a child learns its letters. But his keeping watch over me and the map was what broke up the crew's patience. I was holding the schooner straight down for the Gulf of Honduras, and, by my reckoning, within a few hours of making a landfall, wondering all the while that they took the courses I laid without grumbling-though by this time our course was past all explaining-when the quarrel broke out.

"I was standing by the wheel with a seaman, Dick Hayling by name, a civil fellow, and more to my liking than the most of them, when we heard a racket in the forecastle, and by-and-by Martin-he was too fond, to my taste of going down into the forecastle and making free with the men-comes up the hatchway, very serious, with half a dozen behind him.

"'Melhuish,' says he, 'there's trouble below. The men will have it that we are steering for treasure. I tell them that, if you are, they are bound to know as soon as we sight it, and neither you nor I-being two to twelve-can prevent their having the game in their own hands. I have told them, over and above this,' he went on, pitching his voice loud-but having his back towards them he winked at me-'that by your reckoning we shall sight land in a few hours at the farthest, and are willing to serve out a double tot of rum; that, as soon as ever land is sighted, you will call all hands aft and tell them our intention, as man to man; and that then, if they have a mind, they can elect whatever new captain they choose.'

"The impudence of this took me fair between wind and water. I saw, of course, that I was trapped, and naturally my first thought was to suspect the man speaking to me. I looked at him, and he winked again, not seeming one bit abashed.

"'You may tell them,' said I, with my eyes on his face, 'that as soon as we sight land I shall have a statement to make to them.' I wondered what it would be; but I said it to gain time. 'As for the rum,' I went on, 'they can drink their fill. If we sight land, I will steer the ship in.'

"'Better go and draw the liquor yourself,' said he, and, picking up a ship's bucket, came aft to me. 'The second barrel in the afterhold,' he whispered. 'And don't drink any yourself.'

"I nodded, as careless as I could. It seemed a rash thing to go down to the afterhold, where any one might batten me down. But, there being no help for it, I took the bucket and went. I filled it well up to the brim from the second cask, returned to deck, and handed it to the man who stood behind Martin. They took it, pretty respectfully, and went below, Martin still standing amidships, where he had stood from the first.

"'And now,' said I, turning back to him, 'perhaps you will explain.'

"'Keep your eye on the helmsman,' was his answer, 'and pistol him if he gives trouble.'

"He walked forward and stood leaning over the forehatch, seeming to listen." . . .

[1] Qy. "Bleeding."

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