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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 9958

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

The business of the sale concluded, we had nothing to detain us, and an order was at once sent to Captain Branscome to book our passages in the next packet for the West Indies. Meanwhile we held long discussions on details of outfit, for since our impedimenta included two moderately heavy chests-the one of guns and ammunition, the other of spades, picks, hatchets, and other tools-and since on reaching Jamaica we must take a considerable journey on muleback, it was important to cut our personal luggage down to the barest necessities. We did not forget a medicine-chest.

On August 28 we received word from Captain Branscome that he had taken berths for us on the Townshend packet, commanded by an old friend of his, a Captain Harrison. She was due to sail on the 1st. Accordingly, on August 30 we travelled down by Royal Mail to Falmouth, Mr. Rogers following that same noon by the Highflyer; spent a busy day in making some last purchases, and a sleepless night in the noisiest of hotels; and went on board soon after breakfast, to be welcomed there by Mr. Goodfellow, who had got over his parting three days before, at Plymouth, and professed himself to be in the very jolliest of spirits. At the head of the after-companion Captain Branscome met us and conducted us below, to introduce us to our quarters and be complimented on the thought and care he had bestowed in choosing them and fitting them up-for the ladies' comfort especially. He himself lodged forward, in a small double cabin which he shared with Mr. Goodfellow.

I will spare the reader a description of our departure and of the passage to Jamaica, not only because they were quite uneventful (we did not even sight a' privateer), but because they have been celebrated in verse by Plinny, in a descriptive poem of five cantos and some four thousand lines, entitled "The Voyage: with an Englishwoman's Reflections on her Favourite Element," a few extracts from which I am permitted to quote-

"We sailed for Kingston in the Townshend packet.

The day auspicious was, and calm the heavens;

Not so the scene on board-oh, what a racket!

And everything on deck apparently at sixes and sevens.

Mail-bags and passengers mixed up in every direction,

The latter engaged with their relatives in fond farewells;

On the one hand the faltering accents of affection,

On the other the unpolisht seamen emitting yells,

With criticisms of a Custom House official

Whose action for some reason they resented as prejudicial.

"At length the last farewell is said,

The anchor tripped, the gangway clear'd;

'Twas five p.m. ere past Pendennis Head

Forth to th' unfathomable deep we steer'd.

The bo'sun piped (he wore a manly beard);

And while th' attentive crew the braces trimm'd

(Alluding to the ship's), and while from observation

The coast receded, we with eyes be-dimm'd

Indulged in feelings natural to the situation.

"Albion! My Albion! So called from the hue

Thy cliffs wear by the Straits of Dover-

Though darker in this neighbourhood-still adieu!

Albion, adieu! I feel myself a rover.

Thy sons instinctively take to the water,

And so will I, albeit but a daughter."

A page later, in more tripping metre (which reflects her gaiety of spirits), she describes the ship-

"The Townshend Packet is a gallant brig

Of one hundred and eighty tons;

'Tis the Postmaster-General's favourite rig,

And she carries six useful guns.

As she sails, as she sails

With his Majesty's mails,

Hurrah for her long six-pounders!

They relieve our fear

Of a privateer,

But what shall we do if she founders?

I prefer not to think of any such contingency:

She has excellent sailing qualities,

And her captain appears to rule with stringency

And to be averse from minor frivolities.

With the late Admiral Nelson he may not provoke comparison.

But one and all place implicit confidence in Captain Harrison."

While Plinny cultivated the Muse-and with the more zest as, to her pride and delight, she found herself immune from sea-sickness-I kept up, through the long mornings, the pretence of studying mathematics with Captain Branscome, and regularly at noon received a lesson in taking the ship's bearings. Our fellow-voyagers were mostly merchants and agents bound for Jamaica, the trade of which had revived since the restoration of peace; and among them we passed for a well-to-do family travelling partly for pleasure to visit the island, but partly also with an idea of buying a plantation and settling there-which explained the presence of Mr. Goodfellow.

Our captain justified the confidence so poetically expressed above. He sailed his ship along steadily, taking no risks, and after a pleasant passage of thirty-six days brought her to anchor in Carlisle Bay, Barbadoes, where we were due to deliver some bags of mails. I have said that the trip was uneventful; it was even without incident save for some foole

ries on reaching the Line, and such trifling distractions as an unsuccessful attempt to shoot an albatross, and the sighting of some flying-fish and sundry long-tailed birds which the sailors called boatswains. But, as Plinny wrote-

"Life at sea has a natural monotony

Of which 'twere irrational to complain:

You cannot, for instance, study botany

As in an English country lane.

But the mind is superior to distance

With its own reminiscences stored,

Not to mention the spiritual assistance

We derived from a clergyman on board."

(He was a sallow young man of delicate constitution, and, partly for his health's sake, had accepted the pastorate of a Genevan church in Kingston.)

From Barbadoes we beat up for Jamaica, and anchored in Kingston Harbour just forty-five days from home. The next morning we said farewell to the ship, and were rowed ashore to a good hotel, where we spent a lazy week in email excursions, while Captain Branscome busied himself in hiring a mule-train and holding consultations with a firm of merchants, Messrs. Cox and Roebuck, to whom Miss Belcher came recommended with a letter of credit. These gentlemen, understanding that we desired to cross over to the Main to visit some relations of Miss Belcher resident in Virginia (for that was our pretence), opined that the matter was not difficult of management, but that we must needs travel to the extreme west of the island if we would hire a vessel for the purpose, and they mentioned an agent of theirs at Savannah-la-Mar-Jacob Paz by name-as the likeliest man for our purpose.

Armed with a letter of introduction to this man, in the early morning of October 22 we started on muleback, and, travelling without haste through the exquisite scenery of Jamaica (the main roads of which put ours of Cornwall to shame), arrived at Savannah-la-Mar on the 27th, a great part of the way having been occupied by Miss Belcher (who hated the sight of a negro) in rebuking Plinny's sentimental objections to slavery, and by Mr. Rogers in begging a collection of humming-birds.

It took (I believe) some time at Savannah-la-Mar to convince Mr Paz, a subtle half-breed, that we were actually fools enough to wish to purchase one of his vessels, and mad enough to propose working her alone. He had three boats idle, including a pretty little fore-and-aft schooner of thirty tons, the Espriella, which Captain Branscome had no sooner set eyes upon than he decided to be the very thing for our purpose. She was fitted with a large ladies' cabin aft of the companion, a saloon, and a small single-berth cabin between it and the fo'c's'le, which would house three men comfortably. We ended by purchasing her for three hundred and seventy pounds; and into the fo'c's'le I went with Mr. Goodfellow and Mr. Jack Rogers, who insisted on resigning the spare cabin to Captain Branscome- henceforward, or until we should reach the island, by consent the leader of the expedition.

So on October 30, at six in the morning, after being commended to God by Mr. Paz, we worked out of Savannah-la-Mar, and, having gained an offing with a light breeze, hoisted all her bits of canvas, even to a light jib-topsail we found on board-chiefly, I think, to impress her late owner, whom we could descry on the shore, watching us. He had steadfastly refused to believe us capable of handling a boat, whereas of our party Plinny and Mr. Goodfellow were the only landlubbers. Miss Belcher could take the helm with the best of us, and indeed it was reported of her that she had on more than one occasion played helmswoman to a run of goods upon her own Cornish estate. Mr. Jack Rogers had once owned a yacht and suffered from tedium; now, as a foremast hand, he was enjoying himself amazingly.

But the pride above all prides was Captain Branscome's. After many years he trod a deck again, commander of his own ship; and the bearing of the man was that of a prince restored after long exile to his kingdom. Courteous as ever to the ladies, to the rest of us he behaved as a master, noble but severe, unwearied in explaining the least minutiae of seamanship, inexorable in seeing that his smallest instruction was obeyed. Mr. Rogers at the end of the first day confided to me that he had much ado to refrain from touching his forelock whenever he heard the skipper's voice.

I shall not be believed if I say that in all the five days of our voyage Captain Branscome never snatched a wink of sleep. Doubtless he did sleep, between whiles; but doubtless also no one saw him do it.

It was daybreak or thereabouts on the morning of November 5-and a faint light coming through the decklight over the fo'c's'le-when I, that had kept the middle watch and was now snoring in my bunk, sat up at a touch on my shoulder, and stared, rubbing my eyes, into the dim face of Mr. Goodfellow.

"Skipper wants you on deck," he announced. "We've lifted something on the starboard bow, and he swears 'tis the Island."

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