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   Chapter 30 THE SCREAM ON THE CLIFF.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 11963

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"A boat?" said Captain Branscome, staring again, and slowly rubbing the back of his head.

He took a step forward, to descend to the beach and examine her, but Dr. Beauregard laid a hand on his arm.

"Not so fast, my friend! Qui dit canot dit canotier-a glance will assure you that she did not beach herself in that position, above high-water mark, still less furl her own sail and stow it. Further, if you study the country behind us, you will see that, while we came unobserved and stand at this moment in excellent cover, by crossing the beach we expose ourselves to observation and the risk of a bullet."

"I take it, sir," answered Captain Branscome, still puzzled, "you knew this boat to be here, and have brought us with some purpose."

"I knew it, to be sure, and my purpose is simple. We cannot have a rival party of treasure-seekers on the island. We have ladies in our charge-gentle, well-bred ladies-and of the crew of that boat, one man, to my knowledge, is a pretty desperate ruffian. The other two-"

"You have seen them, then?"

Dr. Beauregard lifted his shoulders slightly, and took snuff.

"My good friend," he answered, "as lord proprietor of Mortallone, I pay attention to all my visitors. Well, as I was saying, to cross the beach just now would be venturesome and foolish to boot, seeing that we hold all the cards and have only to wait."

"What of the ladies?" asked the Captain.

"We can return at once and join them at luncheon. But the ladies, as you remind me, complicate the affair. Before you arrived, I had laid my plans to let these rascals have the run of the island and amuse me by their activities. I had, in fact, prepared a little deception for them-oh, a very innocent little trick! I don't know, my dear sir, if it has struck you how much simpler our amusements tend to become as we grow older. I had promised myself to watch them, lying perdu, and in the end to dismiss them with a quiet chuckle. You have read your Tempest, Captain Branscome? Well, I have no obedient Ariel to play will-o'-the-wisp with such gentry; yet I would have led them a very pretty dance. But the ladies-the ladies, to be sure! We cannot expose them to dangers, nor even to alarms. We must use more summary methods." He stood for a moment or two reflective, tapping his snuff-box. "Mr. Goodfellow is a carpenter, I understand."

"At your service, sir."

Mr. Goodfellow's hand went halfway to his waistcoat pocket, as if to produce his business card.

"I seem to remember, Mr. Goodfellow that you carry a bag of tools in the boat?"

"Yes, sir."

"Including, no doubt, an auger, or, at any rate, a fair-sized gimlet?"

"Both, sir."

"You will greatly oblige me, then, Mr. Goodfellow-always with Captain Branscome's leave-by returning to the boat and fetching your auger; if possible, without attracting the ladies' observation. With this instead of returning direct to us, you will make your way to the left, towards the head of the beach, keeping well under the rocks, which will serve you from landward. At the head of the beach you will bring us into sight a pace or two before you come abreast of the boat. There, at a signal from me, you will creep down to the boat-on hands and knees, or on your stomach if you will-and bore me three small holes close alongside her keelson, using as much expedition as may consist with neatness. You understand? Then the quicker you set about it, the less will be the risk."

Mr. Goodfellow touched his forelock, and sped on his errand. Dr. Beauregard seated himself on the rocks, and loosing the gun from his bandolier, laid it across his knees.

"A simple job," he remarked. "Any one of us could do it as well as Goodfellow. But it is a practice of mine to take the smallest risks into account; and if the honest fellow should be detected, why, I imagine he can be the most easily spared of the party."

Mr. Goodfellow, however, reached the boat without misadventure.

"Ah, he displays intelligence!" commented Dr. Beauregard, watching him as, before setting to work, he lifted the boat's gunwale and heaved her over on her other side, exposing the bilgepiece on which she had been resting. "Yes, decidedly, he displays intelligence."

Mr. Goodfellow having stripped off his coat, picked up his auger and bored his three holes very neatly. This done be rubbed them over with a handful of sand, and smoothed over with sand all traces of sawdust, heaved the boat back, so that she rested again in her original position; and retired, sweeping his coat behind him, and obliterating his footprints as he went.

"Couldn't be bettered!" said Dr. Beauregard, smiling cheerfully and smoothing his gun-barrel. "And now I think we may rejoin the ladies and pray that these rascals will put off disturbing us until after luncheon. At one time I feared they might have taken a panic yesterday morning at sight of your schooner; but they calculated, maybe, that the chances were all against your discovering their presence, which, of course, you never suspected."

"I suspected something fast enough," said Captain Branscome, "for in running along the coast I caught sight of smoke rising among the hills-from a camp-fire, as I reckoned-and no doubt from here or hereabouts, though I should have put it a mile or two farther south."

"The born fools!" said Dr. Beau-regard, laughing. "Well, it's even possible that in their furious preoccupation they let the schooner come close without spying her. Ah, Captain, you can hardly imagine- you, fresh from a civilized country, where folks must keep up appearances, while they prey upon one another-how this lust of gold brutalizes a man when, as here, he pursues it without restraint. And what, after all, will gold purchase?"

"Not happiness, I verily believe," said the Captain, "though to the poor-and I speak as one who has been bitterly poor-it may bring happiness for a while in the shape of relief from grinding discomfort."

"Yes, yes;

as pleasure lies in mere cessation from pain. But that does not meet my question. We will take Master Harry here, who seems a good, ordinary healthy boy. We will suppose him in possession of the treasure you are here to seek. What in the end can he purchase with it better than the fun he is getting out of this expedition? He can indulge all his senses, but for a while only; in the end indulgence brings satiety, dulls the appetite, takes the savour from the feast, and so destroys itself. He can purchase power, you say? But that again moves one difficulty but a step further. For what will his power give him when he has won it? These are questions, Captain, which I have asked myself daily here on this island. I have been asking them ever since, and while I was yet a young man they came to wear for me a personal application. 'Vanity of vanities,' Captain-what the Preacher discovered long ago I discovered again and of my own experience."

"The Christian religion, sir-" began Captain Branscome. But here our strange host laid a hand on his arm.

"We forget our politeness," he interrupted, yet gently, and without suspicion of offence. "We keep the ladies waiting."

"Captain Branscome and I," said our host, as he seated himself beside Miss Belcher, and uncorked one of the green-sealed bottles, "have been talking platitudes, to which, however, our present business lends a certain fresh interest. You are here, many thousands of miles from home, on a hunt for treasure. Now, Heaven forbid that I should criticise your intentions, seeing that incidentally I am in debt to them for this delightful picnic; but before I help you-as, believe me, I am disposed to help-may I ask what you propose to do with this wealth when you get it?"

"Why, sir," answered Miss Belcher, candidly, "we discussed that, you may be sure, before starting. The bulk of it, after paying expenses, was to go to young Brooks, here. Circumstances had given him, as we supposed-and for the matter of that, as we still believe-the clue to the treasure-"

"Pardon me, ma'am, for interrupting you; but did that clue take the form of a map of the island?"

"It did, sir."

"A map with three red crosses upon it and some writing on the back? Nay, I will not press the question. Your faces answer it."

"I ought to tell you, Dr. Beauregard, in justice to the boy, that he came by it honestly, though in very tragic circumstances."

"Again, ma'am, your faces would answer for the honesty of your business. As for the circumstances you speak of, it may save time if I tell you that I know the whole story. Why, truly," he went on, as we stared, "there is no mystery about it. I dare say, ma'am, the boy has found an opportunity to whisper to you that he and I have met before. It was at Minden Cottage, in his father's garden, and by the very spot where his father was murdered. He found me there taking measurements; for I had a theory about the crime-a theory of which I need only say here that, though right in the main, it missed certain details of which Harry's engaging conversation put me on the scent. I had read of the murder quite accidentally; but it happened that I knew something of Coffin-enough to explain his fate-and of the man who had murdered him. But of Major Brooks I knew nothing; and what I gathered by inquiry made the whole affair more and more puzzling. At length I hit on the explanation that Coffin-who had reasons, and strong ones, for going in deadly terror of Aaron Glass-had in some way chosen this Major Brooks for his confessor, and journeyed to Minden Cottage to deposit the secret with him; and that Glass, following in pursuit, had surprised and murdered the both of them. The exact catena of the two crimes mattered less to me than the question: Had Glass possessed himself of the secret before making off? At first I saw no room to doubt it. But your young friend's account of himself sent me to Falmouth, and at Falmouth I began to have my doubts. My earliest inquiries there were addressed to the pedagogue-the Reverend Something-or-other Stimcoe-a drunken idiot, who yielded no information at all; and to his wife, a lady who persisted in regarding me as sent from heaven for no other purpose than to discharge her small debts. From her, again, I learned nothing. But from a talk with one of her pupils-his name was Bates, if I remember-I discovered that Master Harry had been a particular crony of Coffin's, and this, of course, threw light on Coffin's visit to Minden Cottage. Still, there remained the question: Had Glass managed to lay hands on the chart, or had it found its way, after all, into the possession of Master Harry Brooks? You'll excuse me, young sir"-Dr. Beauregard turned to me-"but during our talk in the garden, your manner suggested to me that you had a card up your sleeve. Well, whatever the answer, my obvious course was to return to Mortallone and await it, as for fifteen years already I have been awaiting it, though question and answer were but now beginning to take definite form. Here you are then at last, and here am I- tout vient a point a qui sait attendre."

"Then our arrival, sir, did not altogether surprise you?" said Miss Belcher.

"On the contrary, ma'am-though for reasons you will not easily guess-it surprised me as I have never been surprised in all my life before; it confounded me, dumfounded me, made chaos of my plans, and-and-I am delighted to welcome you, ma'am! I desire to be allowed the honour of taking wine with you."

"Willingly!" assented Miss Belcher, holding out her glass to be replenished; "and the more so because I never drank better Rhone wine in my life."

Dr. Beauregard stood up and bowed, his fine features overspread with a flush of pleased astonishment.

"Madam-" began Dr. Beauregard, and I have no doubt he had a compliment on his lips. But at that moment the hills and the amphitheatre of cliff behind us, rang out-rang out and echoed-with two terrible screams.

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