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   Chapter 21 IN WHICH PLINNY SURPRISES EVERYONE.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13127

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Everybody stared; and this had the effect of making the dear good creature blush to the eyes.

"I beg your pardon, ma'am?" said Mr. Jack Rogers.

"It-it was not for me to say so, perhaps." Her voice quavered a little, and now a pair of bright tears trembled on her lashes; but she kept up her chin bravely and seemed to take courage as she went on. "I am aware, sir, that in all matters of hazard and enterprise it is for the gentlemen to take the lead. If I appear forward-if I speak too impulsively-my affection for Harry must be my excuse."

Mr. Rogers stared at Captain Branscome, and from Captain Branscome to Mr. Goodfellow, but their faces did not help him.

"That's all very well, ma'am, but an expedition to the other end of the world-if that's what you suggest?-at a moment's notice-on what, as like or not, may turn out to be a wild-goose chase-Lord bless my soul!" wound up Mr. Rogers incoherently, falling back in his chair.

"I was not proposing to start at a moment's notice," replied Plinny, with extreme simplicity. "There will, of course, be many details to arrange; and I do not forget that we are in the house of mourning. The poor dear Major claims our first thoughts, naturally. Yes, yes; there must be a hundred and one details to be discussed hereafter-at a fitting time; and it may be many weeks before we find ourselves actually launched-if I may use the expression-upon the bosom of the deep."

"We?" gasped Mr. Rogers, and again gazed around; but we others had no attention to spare for him. "We? Who are 'we'?"

"Why, all of us, sir, if I might dare to propose it; or at least as many as possible of us whom the hand of Providence has so mysteriously brought together. I will confess that while you were talking just now, discussing this secret which properly speaking belongs to Harry alone, I doubted the prudence of it-"

"And, by Jingo, you were right!" put in Miss Belcher.

"With your leave, ma'am," Plinny went on, "I have come to think otherwise. To begin with, but for Captain Branscome the map would never have found its way to the Major's room, where Harry discovered it; but might-nay, probably would-have been stolen by the wicked man who committed this crime to get possession of it. Again, but for Mr. Goodfellow this written narrative would undoubtedly have been lost to us, and the map, if not meaningless, might have seemed a clue not worth the risk of following. In short, ma'am"-Plinny turned again to Miss Belcher-"I saw that each of us at this table had been wonderfully brought here by the hand of Providence. And from this I went on to see, and with wonder and thankfulness, that here was a secret, sought after by many evildoers, which had yet come into the keeping of six persons, all of them honest, and wishful only to do good. Consider, ma'am, how unlikely this was, after the many bold, bad hands that have reached out for it. And will you tell me that here is accident only, and not the finger of Providence itself? At first, indeed, we suspected Captain Branscome and Mr. Goodfellow: they were strangers to us, and, as if that we might be tested, they came to us under suspicion." Here Mr. Goodfellow put up a hand and dubiously felt his nose, which was yet swollen somewhat from his first encounter with Mr. Rogers. "But they have proved their innocence; Harry gives me his word for them; and I do not think," said Plinny, "that you, ma'am, can have heard Captain Branscome's story without honouring him."

Miss Belcher, thus appealed to, answered only with a grunt, at the same time shooting from under her shaggy eyebrows an amused glance at the Captain, who stared at the table-cloth to hide his confusion, which, however, was betrayed by a pair of very red ears.

"All this," pursued Plinny, "I saw by degrees, and that it was marvellous; but next came something more marvellous still, for I saw that if one had gone forth to choose six persons to carry out this business, he could not have chosen six better fitted for it."

From the effect of this astounding proposition Miss Lydia Belcher was the first to recover herself.

"Thank you, my dear," she murmured; "on behalf of myself and the company, as they say. It is true that in all these years I have overlooked my qualifications for a buccaneering job; but I'll think them out as you proceed."

"Oh!" exclaimed Plinny, "I wasn't counting on you, ma'am, to accompany this expedition; nor on Mr. Rogers. You are great folks as compared with us, and have public duties-a stake in the country- great wealth to administer. Yet I was thinking that, while we are abroad, there may happen to be business at home requiring attention, and that we may perhaps rely on you-who have shown so much interest in this sad affair."

"Meaning that we have been dipping our fingers pretty deep into this pie. Well, and so we have; and thank you again, my dear, for putting it so delicately."

"But I meant nothing of the sort-indeed I didn't!" protested Plinny.

"Tut, tut! Of course you didn't, but it's the truth nevertheless. Well, then, it appears that Jack Rogers and I are to be the spotsmen[1] for this little expedition, and that you and Captain Branscome, and Mr. Goodfellow, and-yes, and Harry, too, I suppose- are to be the Red Rovers and scour the Spanish Main. All right; only you don't look it, exactly."

"But is not that half the battle?" urged the indomitable Plinny. "They'll be so much the less likely to suspect us."

"They-whoever they may be-will certainly be so far deluded."

"And really-if you will consider it, ma'am-what I am proposing is not ridiculous at all. For what is chiefly wanted for such an adventure? In the first place, a ship-and thank God I have means to hire one, in the second place, a trustworthy navigator-and here, by the most unexpected good fortune, we have Captain Branscome; in the third place, a carpenter, to provide us with shelter on the island and be at hand in case of accident to the vessel-and here is Mr. Goodfellow; while as for Harry-" Plinny hesitated, for the moment at a loss; then her face brightened suddenly. "Harry can climb a tree, and the instructions on the back of the map point to this as necessary. Harry will be invaluable!"

I could have wrung her hand; but Plinny, having finished her justification of the ways of Providence, had taken off her spectacles and was breathing on them and polishing them with a small silk handkerchief which she ever kept handy for that purpose.

"Captain Branscome," said Miss Belcher, sharply, "will you be so

good as to give us your opinion?"

Captain Branscome lifted his head. "My mind, if you'll excuse me, ma'am, works a bit slowly, and always did. But there's no denying that Miss Plinlimmon has given the sense of it."

"Hey?"

"To be sure," said the Captain, tracing with his finger an imaginary pattern on the table-cloth, "her courage carries her too far-as in this talk about hiring a ship. A ship needs a crew; a crew that could be trusted on a treasure-hunt is perhaps the most difficult to find in the whole world; and when you've found one to rely upon, your troubles are only just beginning. The main trouble is with the ship, and that's what no landsman can ever understand. A ship's the most public thing under heaven. You think of her, maybe, as something that puts out over the horizon and is lost to sight for months. But that helps nothing. She must clear from a port, and to a port sooner or later she must return; and in both ports a hundred curious people at least must know all about her business.

"I don't say that a ship, once out of sight, cannot be made away with-though even that, with a crew to tell tales, has beaten some of the cleverest heads; but to take out a ship and fill her up with treasure, and bring her home and unload her without any one's knowing-that's a feat that (if you'll excuse me) I've heard a hundred liars discuss at one time and another; and one has said it can be done in this way, and another in that, but never a one in my hearing has found a way that would deceive a child."

"Yet you said, a moment since, that Miss Plinlimmon had given the sense of it?"

"I did, ma'am. I am saying that to fetch this treasure will be difficult, even if we find it-"

"You don't doubt its existence?"

"I do not, ma'am. I doubt it so little, ma'am, that I would ten times sooner engage to find than to fetch it. But I don't even despair of fetching it, if the lady goes on being as clever as she has begun."

"What?" exclaimed Plinny. "I? Clever?"

"Yes, indeed, ma'am," Captain Branscome answered, still in a slow, measured voice. "But, indeed, too, I might have been prepared for it when you started by taking a line that beats all my experience of landsmen; or perhaps in this case I ought to say landsladies."

"Why, what have I done that is wonderful?"

"You took the line, ma'am, that, from here to Honduras, what is it but a passage? A few months at the most-oh, to be sure, to a seaman that's no more than nature; but to hear it from any one land-bred, and a lady too! As a Christian man, I have believed in miracles, but to-day I seem to be moving among them. And after your saying that, I had no call to be surprised when you up and suggested a way that would have taken a seaman twenty years to hit upon! I am not talking about the ship, ma'am. That part of your plan (if you'll allow me, as a seaman, to give an opinion) won't work at all. But the plan in general is a masterpiece."

"But I do not see," Plinny confessed, with a small puckering of the brows, "that I have suggested anything that can be called a plan."

"Why, ma'am, you have been talking heavenliest common sense, and once you've started us upon common sense there's no such thing as a difficulty. 'Let us go to the island,' you said; and with that at a stroke you get rid of the worst danger we have to fear, which is suspicion. For who's to suspect such a company as this present, or any part of it, of being after treasure? 'Let us make it a pleasure trip,' said you, or words to that effect; and what follows but that the whole journey is made cheap and simple? We book our passages in the Kingston packet. Peace has been declared with France, and what more natural than that a party of English should be travelling to see the West Indies? Or what more likely than that, after what has happened, the doctor has advised a sea-voyage, to soothe your mind? As for me, I am Harry's tutor; every one in Falmouth knows it, and thinks me lucky to get the billet. It won't take five minutes to explain Mr. Goodfellow here, just as easily-"

"And as for me," struck in Miss Belcher, "I'm an old madwoman, with more money than I know what to do with. And as for Jack Rogers, I'm eloping with him to a coral island."

Mr. Rogers checked himself on the edge of a guffaw.

"But, I say, Lydia, you're not serious about this?" he asked.

"I don't know, Jack. I rather think I am. I'm getting an old woman, mad or not; and the hours drag with me sometimes up at the house. But"-and here she looked up with one of those rare smiles that set you thinking she must have been pretty in her time-"there's this advantage in having followed my own will for fifty years: that no one any longer troubles to be surprised at anything I may do. You're something of an eccentric yourself, Jack. You had better join the picnic."

"I ought to warn you, ma'am," said Captain Branscome gravely, "that although the West India route has been fairly well protected for some months now, there is a certain amount of risk from American privateers."

"The Americans are a chivalrous nation, I have always heard."

"Extremely so, ma'am; nevertheless, there is a risk, in the event of the packet being attacked. But I was about to say," pursued Captain Branscome, "that our being at war with America may actually help us to get across from Jamaica to the island. Quite a number of old Colonial families-loyalists, as we should call them-have been driven from time to time to cross over from the Main and settle in the West Indies. But of course they have left kinsfolk behind them in the States; and, in spite of wars and divisions, it is no unusual thing for relatives to slip back and forth and visit one another- secretly, you understand. I have even heard of an old lady, now or until lately residing in St. Kitts, who has made no less than eleven such voyages to the Delaware-whenever, in short, her daughter was expecting an addition to her family."

"Good," said Miss Belcher. "I have found some one to impersonate; and that settles it."

"I really think, ma'am," said Captain Branscome, "that, once in Jamaica, we shall have no difficulty in finding, at the western end of the island, just the ship we require."

"Bless my soul!" said Miss Belcher. "Except for the sea-voyage, it might be a middle-aged jaunt in a po'-shay!"

[1] Miss Belcher was here employing a smuggling term. A "spotsman"

is the agent who arranges for a run of goods, and directs the

operation from the shore, without necessarily taking a part in it.

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