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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13681

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

The word fetched me out of my bunk like a shot from a gun. I ran past him, scrambled up the fo'c's'le ladder, and gained the deck in time to see Miss Belcher emerge from the after-companion upon the dawn, her hair in a "bun," her bare feet thrust into loose felt slippers, her form wrapped in a Newmarket overcoat closely buttoned over her robe de nuit.

"The Island, ma'am!" announced Captain Branscome from the helm; and, turning there by the fo'c's'le hatch and following the gesture of his hand, I descried a purplish smear on the southern horizon. To me it looked but a low-lying cloud or a fogbank.

"I'll take your word for it," answered Miss Belcher, calmly. "You have timed it well, Captain Branscome."

"Under Providence, ma'am," the Captain corrected her, and called to me to take the wheel while he fetched out his chart and unrolled it for her inspection. "We are running straight down upon the northern end of it, and our best anchorage (if I may suggest) lies to the south'ard-in Gow's Creek, as they call it."

He laid a finger on the chart.

"We rely upon you, sir, to choose."

"I thank you, ma'am. If (as I doubt not) we find plenty of water there, it will be the best anchorage in this breeze; not to mention that this Gow's Creek runs up, as we are directed, to within a mile and a half of the No. 3 cache. If you agree, ma'am, I have only to ask your instructions whether to coast down the east or the west side of the Island. The wind, you perceive, serves equally well for both."

Miss Belcher considered for a moment.

"The Keys lie to the west of Gable Point, here. By taking that side we can have a look at them on our way."

"Right, ma'am. Harry!"-he turned to me-"bring her nose round to sou'-west and by south, and stand by for the gybe." He hauled in the main-sheet and eased it over. "Now, see here, lad," he called to me sharply as the little vessel yawed: "where were your eyes just then?"

"I was taking a look at the land-fall, sir," I answered truthfully.

"Then I'll trouble you to fix your mind on the lubber's-mark and hold her straight. That's discipline, my boy, and in this business you may want all you can learn of it."

It was not Captain Branscome's habit to speak sharply. I turned my attention to the card, conscious of a pair of red ears.

The sky brightened, and within an hour, as we ran down upon it at something like eight knots, the Island began to take shape. A wisp of morning fog floated horizontally across it, dividing its shore-line from the hills in the interior, which, looming above this cloudy base, appeared considerably higher than, in fact, they were. The shore itself along the eastern side showed almost uniformly steep-a line of reddish rock broken with patches of green, which we mistook for meadows (but they turned out to be nothing more or less than sheets of green creepers matted together and overhanging the cliffs). At its northern extremity, upon which we were closing down at an acute angle, the land dropped to a low-lying, sandy peninsula with a backbone of rock almost bare of vegetation, and beyond this we saw the white surf glittering around the Keys.

Our course gave them a fairly wide berth; and at first I took them for a continuous line of sandbanks running in a rough semicircle around the low spit which the chart called Gable Point; but as we drew level they broke up into islets, with blue channels between, and at sight of us thousands of sea-birds rose in cloud upon cloud, with a clamour that might have been heard for miles. One of these banks- the northernmost-showed traces of herbage, grey in colour and dull by contrast with the verdure of the Island. The rest were but barren sand.

We rounded them at about three cables' length and stood due south, giving sheet again. Southward from the neck of the peninsula this western side of the Island differed surprisingly from the other. Here were no cliffs, but a flat shore and long stretches of beach, gradually shelving up to green bush, with here a palmetto grove and there a lagoon of still water within the outer barrier of sand. Mr. Jack Rogers had relieved me at the helm, and with the Captain's permission I had stepped below to the saloon, where Plinny was waiting to give me breakfast, and persuaded the good soul not only to let me carry it on deck and eat it there, but to postpone washing-up for a while and accompany me. To this she would by no means consent until I had brought her the Captain's leave.

"You may take her my leave," said he, with a sudden flush on his face, "and my apologies for having neglected to request the honour of her company. The fact is," he added, with a hard glance at me, "Miss Plinlimmon's sense of discipline is so rare a thing that I am always forgetting to do justice to it. Were it possible to find a whole crew so conscientious I would undertake to sail to the North Pole."

I conveyed this answer to Plinny, and it visibly gratified her. She retired at once to the ladies' cabin to indue her poke-bonnet with coquelicot trimmings. Her apron she retained, observing that on an expedition of this sort one should never be taken at unawares, and that when at Rome you should do as the Romans did. "By which, my dear Harry," she explained, "you are not to understand me to refer to their Papist observances, such as kissing a man's toe. Were such a request proffered to me even at the cannon's mouth, I trust my courage would find an answer. 'No, no,' I would say,

"'I will not bow within the House of Rimmon:

Yours faithfully, Amelia Plinlimmon.'"

As we reached the head of the companion-ladder Captain Branscome, who was standing just aft of the wheel, behind Mr. Rogers's shoulder, and scanning the shore through his glass, made a motion to step forward and hand her on deck. This was ever his courteous way, and I turned a moment later in some surprise, to find that, instead of closing the glass, he had lifted it, and was holding it again to his eye, at the same time keeping his right shoulder turned to us.

While we looked, he lowered it and made his bow, yet with something of a preoccupied air.

"Good morning, ma'am. You are very welcome on deck, and I trust that Harry conveyed the apology I sent by him."

"I beg you will not mention it, sir. It is true that I suffered from the curiosity which outspoken critics have called the bane of my sex; yet, believe me, I was far from accusing you, knowing how many responsibilities must weigh on the captain of an expedition, even though it fare as prosperously as ours."

"True, ma'am," Captain Branscome tapped his spyglass absent-mindedly, and seemed on the point of lifting it again. "Though, with your permission, I will add 'D.V.'"

"Yes-yes"-Plinny smiled a cheerful approval-"we are ever in the Divine Hand; not more really,

perhaps, in the tropics than in those more temperate latitudes when, though the wolf and lion do not howl for prey, an incautious step upon a piece of orange-peel has before now proved equally fatal."

Captain Branscome bowed again.

"You call me the leader of this expedition, Miss Plinlimmon; and so I am, until we drop anchor. With that, in two or three hours at farthest, my chief responsibility ends, and I think it time"-he turned to Mr. Rogers-"that we made ready to appoint my successor. I shall have a word to say to him."

"Nonsense, man!" answered Mr. Rogers, looking up from the wheel. "If you mean me, I decline to act except as your lieutenant. You have captained us admirably; and if I decline the honour, you will hardly suggest promoting Harry, here, or Goodfellow!"

"I was thinking that Miss Belcher, perhaps-"

"Hallo!" said Miss Belcher, turning at the sound of her name, and coming aft from the bows, whence she had been studying the coastline. "What's the matter with me?"

"The Captain," exclaimed Mr. Rogers, "has been tendering us his resignation."


"Mr. Rogers misunderstands me, ma'am," said Captain Branscome. "I merely said that, so far as we have agreed as yet, My authority ceases an soon as we cast anchor. If you choose to re elect me, I shall not say 'No'-though not coveting the honour; but I can only say 'Yes' upon a condition."

"Name it, please."

"That I have every one's implicit obedience. I may-nay, I shall- give orders that will be irksome and at the same time hard to understand. I may be unable to give you my reasons for them; or able to give you none beyond the general warning that we are after treasure, and I never yet heard of a treasure-hunt that was child's-play."

He spoke quietly, but with an impressiveness not to be mistaken, though we knew no cause for it. Miss Belcher, at any rate, did not miss it. She shot him a keen glance, turned for a moment, and seemed to study the shore, then faced about again, and said she-

"I am not used to be commanded. But I can command myself, and am not altogether a fool."

The Captain bowed. "I was thinking, ma'am, that might be our difficulty. But if I have your word to try-"

"You have."

"I thank you, ma'am, and will own that my mind is relieved. It may even be that, from time to time, I may do myself the honour of consulting you. Nevertheless-"

"I mustn't count on it, eh? Well, as you please; only I warn you that, while in any case I am going to be as good as my word, if you treat me like a sensible person I shall probably be a trifle better."

For ten seconds, maybe, the pair looked one another in the eyes; then the Captain bowed once more, and apparently this invited her to step forward with him to the bows, where they halted and stood conning the coast, the Captain through his spyglass.

As they left us, Plinny and I moved to the waist of the ship, where we paused by consent, and I resumed my breakfast, munching it as I leaned against the port bulwarks. We were now rapidly opening Long Bay (as the chart called it), a deep recess running out squarely at either extremity, the bight of it crossed by a beach, and a line of tumbling breakers, that extended for close upon three miles. Above the beach a forest of tall trees, in height and colour at once distinguishable from the thick bush we had hitherto been passing, screened the bases of a range of hills which obviously formed the backbone of the island; and as the whole bay crept into view we discerned in the north (or, to be accurate, N.N.E.) corner of this long recess a marshy valley dividing the scrub from the forest. The mouth of this valley, where it widened out upon the beach, measured at least half a mile across. The chart marked it as Misery Swamp, and indicated a river there. We could detect none, or, at any rate, no river entrance. If river there were, doubtless it emptied its waters through the fringe of grey-green weeds, and dispersed over the flat-looking foreshore; but even at two miles' distance it looked to be a dismal, fever-haunted spot.

By contrast, the noble range of woodland to southward of it and the rocky peaks that rose in delicate shadow above the tree-tops were beautiful as a dream, even to eyes fresh from the forest scenery of Jamaica; and while Plinny leant with me against the bulwarks, I felt that in the silence immortal verse was shaping itself, which it did after a while to this effect-

"Arrived o'er the limitless ocean

In 16 degrees of N. latitude,

Our lips were attuned to devotion,

Our spirits uplifted in gratitude.

"Our hearts with poetic afflatus

Took wing and impulsively soared

As the lead-line (a quaint apparatus)

Reported the depth overboard.

"Oh, oft had I dream'd of the tropics-

But never to see them in person-

So full of remarkable topics

To speculate, sing, and converse on."

It was Mr. Goodfellow who worked the hand-lead, under Captain Branscome's orders, from a perch just forward of the main rigging; but at a mile's distance we carried deep water with us past Crabtree Point, and around the unnamed small cape which formed the south-western extremity of the island. We rounded this, and, hauling up to the wind, found (as the reader may discover for himself by a glance at the chart) that the shore made almost directly E. by N., with scarcely an indentation, for Gow's Gulf.

Here the water shoaled, though for the first mile almost imperceptibly. The inlet itself resembled the estuary of a mighty river, its both sides well wooded, though very different in configuration, the northern rising quietly from shelving beaches of coral-white sand to some of the most respectable hills in the island, while that on our starboard hand presented a succession of cliff and chasm, the cliffs varying, as we judged, from two hundred to two hundred and fifty feet sheer.

In three and a half fathoms (reported by Mr. Goodfellow) the water, which was exquisitely clear, showed good white sand under us. Ahead of us the creek narrowed, promising an anchorage almost completely landlocked and as peaceful as the soul of man could desire. We drew a short eight feet of water, and with such soundings (for the tide had not been making above an hour) I expected the old man to hold on for at least another mile, when, to my surprise, he took the helm from Mr. Rogers and, sending him forward, shook the Espriella up in the wind, at the same time calling to Goodfellow and me to lower the main throat-halliards.

"Leave go anchor!"

With a splash her anchor plunged over, took the ground, and in another twenty yards brought us up standing.

"Hallo!" Miss Belcher scanned the shore. "You're giving the boats a long trip, Captain."

"I take my precautions, ma'am," answered Captain Branscome, almost curtly.

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