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   Chapter 27 THE MAN IN BLACK.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13280

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Before ever I gained the gap I was panting, and as I panted the blood ran into my mouth from a deep scratch across the eyebrows. I tasted it as I ran. My shirt hung in strips, and one stocking flapped open on a rip from knee to ankle. But on the farther side of the ridge I ran no longer. I flung myself and fell through the matted ferns that, veiling the trough of a half-dry watercourse, now checked my descent as I clutched at them, now parted and let me drop and bruise myself on the rocky bottom. In the end, I found myself on soft sand beside the blessed water of the creek, bloodied indeed-for I had taken a shrewd knock on the bridge of the nose-but with a wrenched shoulder and a jarred knee-pan for the worst of my hurts. I valued them nothing in comparison with the terrors left behind in the woods. The schooner lay in sight, scarcely half a mile below, and I sobbed with gratitude as I dipped my face in the tide and washed off its bloodstains.

The tide was still at flood, and wanted (as I guessed) less than an hour of high water; but it left an almost continuous stretch of sand between me and the creek-head, and I found that the short intervals where it narrowed to nothing could be waded with ease. At first the curve of the foreshore and the overhanging woods concealed the spit of beach where I had made fast my punt beside the dinghy; but at the corner which brought the boats in sight I was aware of two figures standing beside them-Captain Branscome and Mr. Rogers.

I walked forward hardily enough; I had drunk my fill of terror, and could have faced the Captain had he been thrice as formidable. He did not help me at all, but stood with a thunderous frown, very quiet and self-restrained, while I plodded my way up to him, over the sand.

I think that, as I drew close, my battered appearance must have shocked him a little. But his frown did not relax, and the muscles of his mouth grew, if anything, tenser.

"You appear to have been in the wars," he said quietly. "Has anything happened to the schooner?"

"No, sir; at least not to my knowledge," was my answer; and he must have; expected it, or he would have shown more perturbation. "I saw her, not five minutes ago, lying at her moorings," I added, with a nod towards the bend of the creek which hid her from us.

"Then why has Miss Belcher sent you?"

"She did not send me, sir."

"In other words, you have chosen to disobey orders?"

I suppose he read some sullenness in my attitude, for he repeated the words sharply, in a tone that demanded an answer.

"I am sorry, sir; but all the same, it didn't seem fair to me to be left on board without being consulted."

I heard him take a short breath, as though my impudence him in the wind. For a full half a minute eyed me slowly up and down.

"Get into your boat, sir, and return to the ship at once! Mr. Rogers, this child is impossible. I must do what I would gladly have avoided, and ask the ladies to give me more authority over him, since they will not exercise it themselves."

At the implied sneer-and perhaps even more at the tone of it, so foreign to the Captain Branscome that I knew-I blazed up wrathfully.

"If you mean by that," said I, "to threaten me with the rope's-end, I advise you to try it. And if you mean that I'm child enough to be tied to apron-strings of a couple of women, that's just of a piece with the whole mistake you're making. No one's disputing your right to give orders-"

"Thank you," he put in sarcastically.

"-To those," I went on, "who appointed you captain. But I wasn't consulted, and until that happens, I shall obey or not, as I choose."

Now, this, no doubt, was extremely childish, even wickedly foolish, and the more foolish, perhaps, because a few minutes ago I would have given all I possessed, including my prospective share in the treasure, for Captain Branscome's protection. But somehow, since sighting the island, I had lost hold of myself, and my temper seemed to be running all askew. Strange to tell, the Captain appeared to be affected in much the same way.

"Why, you little fool," said he, "are you mistaking this for a picnic?"

"No," I retorted; "I am not. And, if you'll remember, it wasn't I who led the ladies to look forward to one."

He planted himself before me, and said he, looking at me sternly-

"See here, my boy, I don't want to make unpleasantness, and if you force me to appeal to the whole ship's company, you know very well you will find yourself in a minority of one."

"I don't care for that, sir. You'll be acting unfairly, all the same."

"We'll let that pass. You tell here in the act of breaking ship, that you're of an age to be consulted. Well, you shall have the benefit of the doubt. You want to know, then, why I'm careful about letting you run ashore? What would you say if I told you the island has people upon it?"

"Why, first of all, sir, that if you found it out before dropping anchor, it seems strange-your going ashore with Mr. Rogers and leaving the rest to take care of themselves. But if you've discovered it since-"

"I have not. I am not sure the island is inhabited; but as we were running down the coast I saw something through my glasses-a coil of smoke beyond the hills on the eastern side. Now, if, as seems certain, this fire was lit by human beings, it almost stands to reason they must have sighted our ship. Next comes the question Why did I go ashore and take Mr. Rogers? Well, in the first place, we didn't come here to lie at anchor and sail away again; and if the island happened to be inhabited, and by people who don't want us, why, then, the sooner we nipped ashore and prospected, the better, for the spot where I sighted the smoke must lie a good five miles from here as the crow flies, and by the shape of the hills and the amount of scrub between 'em, those five miles must be equal to fifteen. But why (say you) did I take Mr. Rogers? I took Mr. Rogers, after consulting with Miss Belcher-"

"Does she know there are people on the island?"

"She does. I took Mr. Rogers because, if danger there be, it seemed likelier we should find it ashore than on board the schooner; and because, as the shortest way to make sure if these strangers were after our treasure, we had agreed to make straight for the clump of trees described on the back of the chart and examine whether the ground thereabouts had been visited lately or disturbed; and, further, because our search might require more strength and agility than I alone, with my lame leg, could command. I felt pretty easy about the schooner. She can only be attacked by boat, and

I searched the coast pretty narrowly on our way down without sighting one. If these men possess a boat, she probably lies somewhere on the eastern side, not far from their camp fire. If she lies nearer, it must be somewhere under the cliffs to the south, in which case her owners would have a long journey to reach her, and that journey must take them around the head of the creek here. But (say you) there may be two parties on the island-one by the camp fire northward, and another under the south shore. I'll grant this, though I think it unlikely; but, even so, to attack the schooner they must bring their boat up the whole length of the entrance, where our people would have her in view for at least two miles. This would give ample time for a signal to recall us, and on the chance of it I left Goodfellow in charge of two rockets with instructions to touch them off on a hint of danger."

"Oh, oh!" said I. "So Mr. Goodfellow, too, knew of this? And Plinny, I suppose? And, in fact, you told every one but me?"

"No, sir," said Captain Branscome, gravely; "I did not trouble Miss Plinlimmon with these perhaps unnecessary fears. To a lady of her sensitive nature-"

"Oh, well, sir," I interrupted and, turning aside pettishly, began to haul my cockboat down to the water, "since you choose to treat me like a baby of six, I suppose it's no wonder you take Plinny for a timorous old fool."

"Sir!" exploded Captain Branscome, and glancing back over my shoulder I saw him leaning on his stick and fairly trembling with wrath. "This disrespectful language! And of a lady for whom-for whom-"

"Disrespect?"-I whistled. "Is it worse to speak disrespect or to act it? I have known Plinny for years-you for a month or two; and one of these days, if this expedition gets into a mess-as it likely will with such handling-that sensitive lady will make you see stars."

I knew, while I uttered it, that my speech was abominably ill-conditioned; that Captain Branscome had, in fact, been holding out the olive-branch, and that in common decency I ought to have caught at it. In short, I felt my boyish temper going from bad to worse, and yet, somehow, that I could not apply the brake to it.

"Why, confound the boy!" ejaculated Mr. Rogers. "What ever bee has stung him?" And gripping me by the shoulder as I heaved at the boat, he swung me round to face him. "Look here, young Harry Brooks! Do you happen to be sickening for something, that you talk like a gutter-snipe to a gentleman old enough to be your grandfather? Or, damme, have you and Goodfellow been coming to blows? By the nose of you and the state of your shirt a man would say you've come from a street fight; and by your talk, that your head was knocked silly."

"It's all very well, Mr. Rogers," said I, sulkily, "and I know I oughtn't to have spoken like that, but I hate to be tyrannized over. That's why I didn't take your warning first along and pull back to the ship-though I thank you for it all the same."

"Eh?" said Mr. Rogers. "My warning? What in thunder is the boy talking about?"

"When you saw me sculling for shore, here, about an hour ago," I explained, "you pretended not to see me, and went after Captain Branscome; but I saw you, fast enough, standing on the bank yonder, under the trees."

"For a certainty the child is mad!" Mr. Rogers stared at me round-eyed. "I saw you? I pretended not to? Why, man alive, from the time we left the ship I never set eyes on you (how should I?), nor ever guessed you were ashore till we came back and found your boat beside the dinghy. And as for standing under those trees, I was never on the bank there for one second-no, nor for the half of one. The Captain and I walked around the spit together-the tide has covered our footmarks or I could show 'em to you."

"At any rate there was a man," I persisted. "And he couldn't have been the Captain either, for he was wearing dark clothes-"

"The devil! I say, Branscome, listen to this-"

"I am listening," answered the Captain, gravely, taking, as he stepped forward, a long look at the bank above us and at the dense forest to right and left. "Did you see the man's face, Harry?"

"No, sir, or I should not have mistaken him for Mr. Rogers. He was standing there, under the boughs, and seemed to be looking through them and watching me. I was sculling the boat along with a paddle slipped in the stern notch, and he let me come pretty close-I couldn't have been two hundred yards away-when he slipped to the back of the trees, and I lost him."

"You didn't see him again?"

"No, sir; I didn't land just at once. I had a mind at first to put about and row to the schooner, thinking that Mr. Rogers had meant it for a hint. When I brought the boat ashore, five minutes later, he was gone."

"Which way did you take, then?"

"I went straight after you, sir, up the waterfalls; but couldn't find any trace of you except at one spot just beside a waterfall-the fourth, it was-where some one had slipped a foot-"

"Mr. Rogers," the Captain interrupted, "we had best get back to the Espriella with all speed. I may tell you, Harry, that we never went up by the waterfalls at all. It was a climb, and my half-pay leg didn't like the look of it. But, jump into your boat, boy, and pull ahead of us. You and I must do a little serious talking later on."

We pulled back briskly for the Espriella and reached her just as she began to swing with the turn of the tide. As we drew close-the cockboat leading-I glanced over my shoulder and spied Plinny leaning against the bulwarks by the starboard quarter, in the attitude of one gently enjoying the sunset scene; but at the sight of my torn shirt all her composure left her, and she came running to the accommodation ladder, where she met me with a string of agitated questions.

"Excuse me, ma'am," said Captain Branscome, as the dinghy fell alongside and he climbed on deck. "I have no wish to alarm you, and, indeed, there may be no cause at all for alarm. But Harry has brought us some serious news. He reports that there is a man-a stranger-on the Island."

"How could Harry have known?" was Plinny's unexpected response.

"He is confident that he saw a man, somewhat more than an hour since, standing at the head of the creek."

"Now, that is very curious," said Plinny; "for the gentleman told me he had borrowed Harry's boat without being observed."

"I-I beg your pardon, ma'am!" Captain Branscome stared about him. "A gentleman, did you say?"

"Yes, and such distinguished manners! He left a message for you-and, dear me, you should have heard how he praised my coffee!"

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