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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 17129

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Indeed, the longer we weighed the pros and cons the more feasible appeared the simple adventure. We ran, to be sure, the risk of being waylaid on our passage by an American privateer; but this was a danger incident to all who sailed on board his Majesty's Post Office packets in the year 1814. That anything was to be feared from the man Glass, none of us (I believe) stopped to consider. We thought of him only as a foiled criminal, a fugitive from justice, and speculated only on the chance that, with the hue-and-cry out and the whole countryside placarded, the Plymouth runners would lay him by the heels.

Undoubtedly he had made for Plymouth. From Torpoint came news that a man answering to his description had crossed the ferry there on the morning after the murder. The regular ferryman there had stepped into a public-house for his regular morning glass of rum-and-water; and in his absence the small boy who acted as substitute had taken a stranger across. The stranger, who appeared to be in a sweating hurry, had rewarded the boy with half a crown; and the boy, rowing back to the Torpoint side and finding his master still in the tavern, had kept his own counsel and the money. Now the hue-and-cry had frightened him into confessing; and his description left no doubt that the impatient passenger was Aaron Glass.

Such a man had been observed, about two hours later, mingling in a fish auction on the Barbican; and had actually bidden for a boatload of mackerel, but without purchasing. From the auction he had walked away in the direction of Southside Street; and from that point all trace of him was lost.

Mr. Rogers, who had posted straight to Plymouth from the inquest, spent a couple of days in pushing inquiries here, there and everywhere. But not even the promise of a clue rewarded him. Two foreign-going vessels and four coasters had sailed from the port on the morning after the murder. The coasters were duly met, boarded, and searched at their ports of arrival-two at Liverpool, one at Milford, and one at Gravesend-but without result. If, as seemed likely, the man had contrived to ship himself on board the Hussar brig, bound for Barcelona, or the Mary Harvey barque, for Rio, the chances of bringing him to justice might be considered nil, or almost nil; for Mr. Rogers had some hope of the Hussar being overtaken and spoken by a frigate which happened to be starting, two days later, to join our fleet in the Mediterranean.

During the week or two that followed my father's funeral little was said of our expedition, although I understood from Plinny that the start would only be delayed until she and the lawyers had proved the will and put his estate in order for me. My father's pension had, of course, perished with him; but he left me a small sum in the funds, bearing interest between fifty and sixty pounds per annum, together with the freehold of Minden Cottage. Unfortunately, he had appointed no trustees, and I was a minor; and even more unfortunately his will directed that Minden Cottage should be sold "within a reasonably brief time" after his death, and that the sum accruing should be invested in Government stock for my benefit; and with this little tangle to work upon, our lawyers-Messrs. Harding and Whiteway, of Plymouth-and the Court of Chancery, soon involved the small estate in complications which (as Miss Belcher put it) were the more annoying because the fools at both ends were honest men and trying to do the best for me.

Of this business I understood nothing at the time, save that it caused delay; and I mention it here only to explain the delay and because (as will be seen) the sale of Minden Cottage, when at length the Lord Chancellor was good enough to authorize it, had a very important bearing on the rest of my story.

Meanwhile, Captain Branscome had, of course, returned to Falmouth, and would book our passages on the Kingston packet as soon as my affairs allowed. We received letters from him from time to time, and on Saturdays and Mondays a passing call from Mr. Goodfellow, on his way to and from Plymouth. He had stipulated that, before sailing with us, he should take his inamorata into his confidence; and this was conceded after Miss Belcher had taken the opportunity of a day's marketing in Plymouth to call at the dairy-shop in Treville Street and make the lady's acquaintance.

"A very sensible young person," she reported; "and of the two I'd sooner trust her than Goodfellow to keep a still tongue. There's no danger in that quarter!"

Nor was there, as it proved. Mr. Goodfellow told us that he could hardly contain himself whenever he thought of his prospects; "for," said he, "I was born a parish apprentice; in place of which here I be at the age of twenty with two fortunes waiting for me, one at each end of the world."

At length, in the last week of July, Messrs. Harding and Whiteway announced that all formalities were complete; and three days later a bill appeared on the whitewashed front of Minden Cottage announcing that this desirable freehold residence with two and a half acres of land would be sold by public auction on August 6, at 1.30 o'clock p.m., in the Royal Hotel, Plymouth. Any particulars not mentioned in the bills would be readily furnished on application at the office of the vendor's solicitors; and parties wishing to inspect the premises might obtain the keys from Miss Belcher's lodge-keeper, Mr. Polglaze-that is to say, from the nearest dwelling-house down the road.

Plinny, with the help of half a dozen of Miss Belcher's men and a couple of waggons, had employed these three days in removing our furniture to the great cricket pavilion above the hill; an excellent storehouse, where, for the time, it would remain in charge of Mr. Saunders, the head keeper. We ourselves removed to the shelter of Miss Belcher's lordly roof, as her guests; and Ann, the cook, to a cottage on the home farm, where that lady-who usually superintended her own dairy-had offered her the post of locum tenens until our return from foreign travel. By the morning when the bill-poster came and affixed the notice of sale, Minden Cottage stood dismantled-a melancholy shell, inhabited only by memories for us, and for our country neighbours by mysterious ghostly terrors.

This was one of the many grounds on which we agreed that the Lord Chancellor had acted foolishly in insisting upon a public auction. His lordship, to be sure, could not be expected to know that recent events had utterly depreciated the selling value of Minden Cottage over the whole of the south and east of Cornwall; that the homeward-trudging labourer would breathe a prayer as he neared it along the high-road in the dark, and would shut his eyes and run by it, nor draw breath until he reached the lodge, down the road; that quite a number of Christian folk who had been used to envy my father the snuggest little retreat within twenty miles would now have refused a hundred pounds to spend one night in it. So it was, however; and the chance of an "out"-bidder might be passed over as negligible. On the other hand, Miss Belcher had offered Messrs. Harding and Whiteway a handsome and more than sufficient price for the property. She wanted it to round off her estate, out of which, at present, it cut a small cantle and at an awkward corner. Moreover, if Miss Belcher had not come forward, Plinny was prepared to purchase. That Miss Belcher would acquire the place no one doubted. Still, a public sale it had to be.

Early in the afternoon of the 5th, she left us for Plymouth, to make arrangements for the bidding. I did not see her depart, having been occupied since five in the morning in a glorious otter-hunt, for which Mr. Rogers had brought over his hounds. The heat of the day found us far up-stream, and a good ten miles from home; and by the time Mr. Rogers had returned his pack to Miss Belcher's hospitable kennels the sun was low in the west. I know nothing that will make a man more honestly dirty than a long otter-hunt, followed by a perspiring tramp along a dusty road. From feet to waist I was a cake of dried mud overlaid with dust. I had dust in my hair, in the creases of my clothes, in the pores of my skin. I needed ablution far beyond the resources of Miss Belcher's establishment, which, to tell the truth, left a good deal to seek in the apparatus of personal cleanliness; and, snatching up the clean shirt and suit of clothes which the ever-provident Plinny had laid out on the bed for me, I ran down across the park to the stream

under the plantation.

Little rain had fallen for a month past, and, arriving at the pool on which I had counted for a bath, I found it almost dry. While I stood there, in two minds whether to return or to strip and make the best of it, I bethought me that-although I had never bathed there in my life, the stream would be better worth trying where it ran through the now deserted garden of Minden Cottage, below the summer-house. The bottom might be muddy, but the dam which my father had built there secured a sufficiency of water in the hottest months. I picked up my clothes again, and, following the stream up to the little door in the garden wall, pushed open the rusty latch, and entered the garden.

The hour, as I have said, was drawing on to dusk; and though, perhaps I ought to say, I am by nature not inclined to nervousness (or I had not ventured so near that particular spot), yet scared enough I was, as I stepped on to the little foot-bridge, to see a man standing by the doorway of the summer-house.

For an instant a terror seized me that it might be a ghost-or, worse, the man himself, Aaron Glass. But a second glance, as I halted on a hair-trigger-so to speak-to turn and run for my life, assured me that the man was a stranger.

He wore a suit of black, and a soft hat of Panama straw with a broad brim, and held in his hand a something strange to me, and, indeed, as yet almost unknown in England-an umbrella. It had a dusky white covering, and he held it by the middle, as though he had been engaged in taking measurements with it when my entrance surprised him.

It appeared to me for the moment that I had not only surprised him but frightened him, for the face he turned to me wore a yellowish pallor like that of old ivory. Yet when he drew himself up and spoke, I seemed to know in an instant that this was his natural colour. The face itself was large and fleshy, with bold, commanding features: a face, on second thoughts, impossible to connect with terror.

"Hallo, little boy! What are you doing in this garden?"

I answered him, stammering, that I was come to bathe; and while I answered I was still in two minds about running; for his voice, appearance, bearing, all alike puzzled me. He spoke genially, with something foreign in his accent. I could not determine his age at all. At first glance he seemed to be quite an old man, and not only old but weary; yet he walked without a stoop, and as he came slowly across the turf to the bridge-end I saw that his hair was black and glossy, and his large face unwrinkled as a child's.

"Not after the plums, eh?"

"No, sir; and besides," said I, picking up my courage, "there's no harm if I am. The garden belongs to me."

"So?" He regarded me for some seconds, his hands clasping the umbrella behind his back. The sight of the bundle of black clothes I carried apparently satisfied him. "Then you have right to ask what brings me here. I answer, curiosity. What became of the man who did it?" he asked, with a glance over his shoulder towards the summer-house.

"Nobody knows, sir," I answered, recovering myself.

"Disappeared, hey?"

"Yes, sir."

"I fancy I could put my hand on him," he said very coolly, after a pause. And I began to think I had to deal with a madman.

"Suppose, now, that I do catch him," he went on after a pause. "What shall I do with him? In my country-for I live a great way off-we either choke a murderer or cut off his head with a knife."

I told him-since he waited for me to say something-how in England we disposed of our worst criminals.

"No, you don't," said he quietly. "You let some of the worst go, and the very worst (as you believe) you banish to an island, treating them as the old Romans treated theirs. Now, I'm a traveller; and where do you suppose I spent this day month?"

I could not give a guess.

"Why, on the island of Elba. I'm curious, you know, especially in the matter of criminals, so I came-oh, a tremendous way-to have a look at Napoleon Bonaparte, there. Now I'll tell you another thing, he's going to escape in a month or two, when his plans are ready. I had that from his own lips; and, what's more, I heard it again in Paris a week later. From Paris I came across to London, and from London down to Plymouth, and from Plymouth I was to have travelled straight to Falmouth, to take my passage home, when I heard of what had happened here, and that the house was for sale. So I stopped to have a look at it; for I am curious, I tell you."

He went on to prove his curiosity by asking me a score of questions about myself: my age, my choice of a profession, my relatives (I told him I had none), and my schooling. He drew me (I cannot remember how) into a description of Plinny, and agreed with me that she must be a woman in a thousand; asked where she lived at present, and regretted-pulling out his watch-that he had not time to make her acquaintance. Oddly enough, I felt when he said it that this was no idle speech, but that only time prevented him from walking up the hill and paying his respects. I felt also, the longer we talked, I will not say a fear of him, for his manner was too urbane to permit it, but an increasing respect. Crazed he might be, as his questions were disconnected and now and again bewildering, as when he asked if my father had travelled much abroad, and again it I really preferred to remain idle at home instead of returning to finish my education with Mr. Stimcoe; but his manner of asking compelled an answer. I could not tell myself if I liked or disliked the man, he differed so entirely from any one I had ever seen in my life. His questions were intimate, yet without offence. I answered them all, with a sense of talking to some one either immensely old or divided from me by hundreds of miles.

In the midst of our talk, and while he was pressing me with questions about Mr. and Mrs. Stimcoe, he suddenly lifted his head, and stood listening.

"Hallo!" said he. "Here's the coach!"

I had heard nothing, though my ears are pretty sharp. But sure enough, though not until a couple of minutes had passed, the wheels of the Highflyer, our evening coach to Plymouth, sounded far along the road.

The stranger pulled out a bunch of keys from his pocket.

"I will ask you as a favour," said he, "to return these to the lodge-keeper, from whom I borrowed them. Will you be so kind?"

I said that I would do so with pleasure.

"I have been over the house. It appears-the lodge-keeper tells me- that I have been almost the only visitor to inspect it. That's queer, for I should have thought that to an amateur in crime- with a taste for discovery-it offered great possibilities. But never mind, child," said this strange man, and shook hands. "I have great hopes of finding the scoundrel, and of dealing with him. Eh? 'How?' Well, if we get him upon an island, he shan't get away, like Napoleon."

With these words, which I did not understand in the least, he turned and left me, passing out into the lane by the side-gate. A minute later I heard the coach pull up, and yet a minute later roll on again, conveying him towards Plymouth. I stole a glance at the water, at the summer-house, at the tree behind it. Somehow in the twilight they all wore an uncanny look. On my way home-for I decided to return and take my bath in the house, after all-my mind kept running on a story of Ann the cook's, about a man (a relative of hers, she said) who had once seen the devil. And yet the stranger had tipped me a guinea at parting, nor was it (except metaphorically) red hot in my pocket.

Next evening Miss Belcher rode back to us from Plymouth with the announcement that Minden Cottage was hers. She had not attended the sale in person, but Maddicombe, her lawyer, had started the bidding (under her instruction) at precisely the sum which she had privately offered Messrs. Harding and Whiteway. There was no competition. In fact, Maddicombe reported that, apart from the auctioneers and himself, but six persons attended the sale. Of these, five were local acquaintances of his whom he knew to be attracted only by curiosity. Of the sixth, a stranger, he had been afraid at first, but the man appeared to be a visitor, who had wandered into the sale by mistake. At any rate, he made no bid.

"What sort of man?" I asked.

"As to that, Maddicombe had no very precise recollection, or couldn't put it into words. A tall man, he said, and dressed in black; a noticeable man-that was as far as he could get-and, he believed, a foreigner."

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