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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 16877

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Up to this Melhuish had been making good weather of his tale, though forced to break off once or twice by reason of his weakness. But here he came to a dead stop, which at first I set down to the same. But by-and-by I looks up. He was making a curious noise in his throat, and fencing with both hands to push something away from him.

"I never done it!" he broke out. "Take them away! I never done it! Oh, my God! never-never-never!"

With that he ran off into a string of prayers and cursings, all mixed up together, the fever shaking him like a sail caught head-to-wind, and at every shake he screeched louder.

"I won't, I won't!" he kept saying. "Hayling, take that devil off and cover them up. The boat, Hayling! Fetch the boat and cover them up!" Then, a little after: "Who says the anchor's fouled? How can I tell for the noise? Tell them, less noise below. I never done it, tell them! And take his grinning face out of the way, or you'll never get it clear! 'Tisn't Christian burial-look at their fins! D-n them, Hayling, look at their fins! Three feet of sand, or they'll never stay covered. Who says as I poisoned them? Hayling knows. Where is Hayling?"

I am writing down all I can remember; but there was more-a heap of it-that I did not catch, being kept busy holding him down till the strength went out of him and he lay quiet; which he did in time, the shivers running down through him between my hands, and his voice muttering on without a stop.

For an hour I sat, hoping he would fall asleep; for his voice weakened little by little, and by-and-by he just lay and stared up at the roof, with only his lips moving. After that I must have dropped off in a doze; for I came to myself with a start, thinking that I heard him speak to me. It was the rattle in his throat. He lay just the same, with his eyes staring, but, putting out a hand to him, I knew at once that the man was dead as a nail.

I had now to think of myself, for I knew that the niggers in the kraal had not spared me out of kindness, but only that I might attend to the white man, who was their friend. They were even ignorant enough to believe that I had killed him. I worked out my plan: (1) I must run for it; (2) the village was asleep, and the sooner I ran the better; (3) they had met me heading for Cape Corse Castle, and would hunt me in that direction-therefore I had best go straight back on my steps; (4) they were less likely to chase me that way because it led into the Popo country, and Melhuish had told me that these men were Alampas, and afraid of the Popo tribes. True, if I headed back, there was the river between me and Whydah, the nearest station to eastward; but to get across it I must trust to luck.

I crept out of the hut. The night was black as my hat, almost, and no guard set. At the edge of the kraal I made a dash for it, and kept running for three miles. After that I ran sometimes, and sometimes walked. The sun was up and the day growing hot when I came to the shore by the river; and there in the offing lay the Mary Pynsent at anchor, just as if nothing had happened, and the boat made fast alongside as I had left her. If I could swim out and get into the boat, my job was done. I had not thought upon sharks while swimming ashore, but now I thought of them, and it gave me the creeps. I dare say I sat on the shore for an hour, staring at the boat before I made up my mind to risk it. There was a plenty of sharks, too. When I reached the boat and climbed aboard of her, I took a look around and saw their fins playing about in the shallows, being drawn off there by the dead bodies the gunpowder had blown into the water.

The boat had a mast and spritsail. I reckoned that I would wait until sunset, then hoist sail and hold on past the river and along shore towards Whydah. I counted on a breeze coming off shore towards evening, which it did, and blew all night, so stiff that at two miles' distance, which I kept by guess, I could smell the stink of swamps. I ought to say here that, before starting, I had climbed aboard the Mary Pynsent and provisioned the boat. The niggers had left a few stores, but the mess on board made me sick.

The breeze held all night, and towards daybreak freshened so that I reckoned myself safe against any canoe overtaking me if any should put out from shore; for my boat, with the wind on her quarter, was making from six to seven knots. She measured seventeen feet.

The breeze dried up as the day grew hotter, and in the end I downed sail and rowed the last few miles. I know Whydah pretty well, having had dealings there. It is a fine place, with orange-trees growing wild and great green meadows, and rivers chock full of fish, and the whole of it full of fever as an egg is of meat. The factory there was kept by an old man, an Englishman, who pretended to be Dutch and called himself Klootz, but was known to all as Bristol Pete. The building stood on a rise at the back of the swamps. It had a verandah in front, with a tier of guns which he loaded and fired off on King George's birthday, and in the rear a hell of a barracks, where he kept the slaves, ready for dealing. He was turned sixty and grown careless in his talk, and he lived there with nine wives and ten strapping daughters. Sons did not thrive with him, somehow. In the matter of men he was short-handed, his habit being to entice seamen off the ships trading there to take service with him on the promise of marrying them up to his daughters. It looked like a good speculation, for the old man had money. But every one of the women was a widow, and the most of them widowed two deep. The climate never agreed with the poor fellows, and just now he had over four hundred slaves in barracks, and only one son-in-law, an Englishman, to look after them.

The old man made me welcome. A father couldn't have shown himself kinder, and when I told him about the Mary Pynsent he could scarce contain himself.

"If there's one thing more than another I enjoy at my age," said he, "'tis a salvage job."

And he actually left the agent-A. G.-in charge of the slaves for three days, while he and I and three of the women took boat and went after the vessel. We found her still at her moorings, and brought her round to Whydah, he and me working her with the youngest of the three (Sarah by name), while the two others cleaned ship. I cannot say why exactly, but this woman appeared superior to her sisters, besides being the best looking. The old man-he had an eye lifting for everything-took notice of this almost before I knew it myself, and put it to me that I couldn't do better than to marry her. The woman, being asked, was willing. She had lost two husbands already, she told me, but the third time was luck. Her father read the service over us, out of a Testament he always carried in his pocket. As for me, since my poor wife's death I had thoroughly given myself over to the devil, and did not care. Old Klootz was first-rate company, too; though living in that forsaken place he seemed to be a dictionary about every ship that had sailed the seas for forty years past, and to know every scandal about her. He listened, too, though he seemed to be talking in his full-hearted way all the time. And the end was that I told him about Melhuish, and showed him the map.

He had heard about Melhuish, as about everything else; but the map did truly-I think-surprise him. We studied it together, and he wound up by saying-

"There's a clever fellow somewhere at the bottom of this, and I should like to make his acquaintance."

Said I: "Then you believe there is such a treasure hidden?"

"Lord love you," said he, "I know all about that! It happened in the year '86 at Puerto Bello. A Spaniard, Bartholomew Diaz, that had been flogged for some trouble in the mines, stirred up a revolt among the niggers and half-breeds, and came marching down upon the coast at the head of fourteen thousand or fifteen thousand men, sacking the convents and looting the mines on his way. He gave himself out to be some sort of religious prophet, and this brought the blacks like flies round a honey-pot. The news of it caught Puerto Bello at a moment when there was not a single Royal ship in the harbour. The Governor lost his head and the priests likewise. Getting word that Diaz was marching straight on the place, and not five leagues distant, they fell to emptying the banks in a panic, st

ripping the churches, and fetching up treasure from the vaults of the religious houses. There happened to be a schooner lying in the harbour-the Rosaway, built at Marblehead-lately taken by the Spaniards off Campeachy, with her crew, that were under lock and key ashore, waiting trial for cutting logwood without licence. The priests commandeered this Vessel and piled her up with gold, the Governor sending down a guard of soldiers to protect it; but in the middle of the night, on an alarm that Diaz had come within a mile of the gates, the dunderhead drew off half of this guard to strengthen the garrison. On their way back to the citadel these soldiers were met and passed in the dark by the Rosaway's crew, that had managed to break prison, and in the confusion had somehow picked up the password. Sparke was the name of Rosaway's skipper, a Marblehead man; the mate, Griffiths, came from somewhere in Wales; the rest, five in number, being likewise mixed English and Americans. They picked up a shore-boat down by the harbour, rowed off to the ship, got on board by means of the password, and within twenty minutes had knocked all the Spaniards on the head, themselves losing only one man. Thereupon, of course, they slipped cable and stood out to sea. Next morning the Rosaway hadn't been three hours out of sight before two Spanish gun-ships came sailing in from Cartagena, having been sent over in a hurry to protect the place; and one of them started in chase. The Rosaway, being speedy, got away for the time, and it was not till three weeks later that the Spaniards ran down on her, snug and tight at anchor in a creek of this same island of Mortallone. She was empty as a drum, and her crew ashore in a pretty state of fever and mutiny. The Spaniards landed and took the lot, all but the mate Griffiths, that was supposed to have been knifed by Sparke, but two of the prisoners declared that he was alive and hiding. They hanged four, saving only Sparke, keeping him to show where the treasure was hidden. He led them halfway across the island, lured them into a swamp, and made a bolt to escape, and the tale is he was getting clear off when one of the Spanish seamen let fly with his musket into the bushes and bowled him over like a rabbit. It was a chance shot, and of course it put an end to all hope of finding the treasure. They ransacked the island for a week or more, but found never a dollar; and before giving it up some inclined to believe what one of the prisoners had said, that the treasure had never been buried in Mortallone at all, but in the island of Roatan, some leagues to the eastward. But, if you ask my opinion, the stranger that took lodgings with Melhuish was the mate Griffiths, and no other. There has always been rumours that he got away with the secret. Know about it?" said old Klootz. "Why, there was even a song made up about it-

"'O, we threw the bodies over, and forth we did stand

Till the tenth day we sighted what seemed a pleasant land,

And alongst the Kays of Mortallone!'"

From the first the old man had no doubt but we had struck the secret. All the way home he was scheming, and the very night we reached Whydah again he came out with a plan.

"Have you ever read your Bible?" said he.

"A little," I said, "between whiles; but latterly not much."

"The more shame to you," said he, "for it is a good book. But you ought to have heard of Noah, if you ever read the Book at all, for he comes almost at the beginning. Well, I've a notion almost as good as Noah's and not so very different. We will take the Mary Pynsent and put all the family on board, for we must take A. G. (naming the Englishman, his other son-in-law), and I don't like to leave the women alone, here in this wicked place. We will pack her up with slaves and sail her across to Barbadoes. 'Tis an undertaking for a man of my years, but a man is not old until he feels old; and I have been wanting for a long time to see if trade in the Barbadoes is so bad as the skippers pretend, cutting down my profits. At Barbadoes we can hire a pinnace. Daniel Coffin, you and me will go into this business in partnership," says he.

The old fellow, once set going, had the pluck of a boy. The very next night he called in A. G., and took him into the secret, in his bluff way overriding me, that was for keeping it close between us two. That the map was mine did not trouble him. He agreed that I should be guardian of it, but took charge of all the outfit, ordering me about sometimes like a dog, though, properly speaking, the vessel herself belonged to me-or, at any rate, more to me than to him. As for A. G., he didn't count. We filled up and weighed anchor on August 12, having on board 420 blacks-290 men and 130 women-all chained, and all held under by us twenty-two whites, of the which nineteen were women. The weather turned sulky almost from the start, and after ten days of drifting, with here and there a fluke of wind, we found ourselves off the Gaboon river. From this we crept our way to the Island of St. Thomas, three days; watered there, and fetched down to the south-east trades. The niggers were dying fast, and between the south-east and north-east trades, six weeks from our starting, we lost between one and two score every day. I will say that all the women worked like horses. We reached Barbadoes short of our complement by 134 negroes and one of Klootz's wives. This last did not trouble him much.

He kept mighty cheerful all the way, although the speculation up to now had turned out far from cheerful; and all the way he kept singing scraps about the Kays of Mortallone in a way to turn even a healthy man sick. I had patched up a kind of friendship with A.G., and we allowed that, for all his heartiness, the old man was enough to madden a saint. The slaves we landed fetched about nineteen pounds on an average. They cost at starting from two pounds to three pounds; but the ones that had died at sea knocked a hole in the profits.

At Barbadoes Klootz left the womenfolk in a kind of boarding-house, and hired a pinnace, twenty tons, to take us across to the main, pretending he wanted to inquire into the market there. Klootz and I made the whole crew, with A. G., who could not navigate. January 17, late in the afternoon, we ran down upon Mortallone Island and anchored off the Kays, north of Gable Point. Next morning we out with the boat and landed. Time, about three-quarters of an hour short of low water.

The Kays are nothing but sand. At low water, and for an hour before and after, you can cross to Gable point dry-shod. We spent that day getting bearings; dug a little, but nothing to reward us. Next day we got to work early. Had been digging for two hours, when we turned up the first body. It turned A. G. poorly in the stomach, and he sat down to watch us. Half an hour later we struck the first of the chests. It did not hold more than five shillings' worth, and we saw that somebody had been there before us.

The third day we turned up three more bodies, besides two chests, empty as before, and a full one. We stove it in, emptied the stuff into the boat, and made our way back to the ship.

The fourth day we had scarcely started to dig before Klootz struck on a second chest that sounded like another full one-

Here Miss Belcher turned a page, glanced overleaf, and came to a full stop.

"For pity's sake, Lydia-" protested Mr. Rogers, who sat leaning forward, his elbows on the table.

"There's no more," Miss Belcher announced.

"No more?"

"Not a word." She fumbled quickly through the remaining blank leaves. "Not a word more," she repeated.

"Death cut short his hand," said Captain Branscome, his voice breaking in upon a long silence.

"Cut short his fiddlestick-end!" snapped Miss Belcher. "The man funked it at the last moment-started out promising to tell the whole truth, but refused the fence. Look back at the story, and you can see him losing heart. Just note that when he comes to A. G.-that's the man Aaron Glass, I suppose-he dares not write down the man's name. There has been foul work, and he's afraid of it. That's as plain as the nose on my face."

"But what's to be done?" asked Mr. Rogers, picking up the manuscript and turning its pages irritably.

"Dear me," said a voice, "there is surely but one thing to be done! We must go and search for ourselves."

We all turned and stared at Plinny.

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