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   Chapter 31 AARON GLASS.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 14025

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The second scream followed the first almost before we could lift our faces to the cliff. Dr. Beauregard had risen to his feet quickly, without fuss, and was unstrapping his gun. But Miss Belcher was quicker. A couple of muskets lay on the sand close beside the luncheon-cloth, and in a trice she had snatched up one of them, and held our host covered.

"You have deceived us, sir," she said quietly.

Dr. Beauregard looked along the barrel and into her eyes with an admiring, half-quizzical smile.

"Good," said he. "Good, but unnecessary. That the island is inhabited I supposed you to know, since Captain Branscome tells me he reported catching sight of smoke yesterday when off the western coast; but the fellows-there are, or were, three of them, by the way-are no friends of mine."

"We have only your word for it," said Miss Belcher, without lowering her musket.

"True, ma'am," the Doctor assented, with a bow. "I am about to give you proof. But first of all oblige me by listening for another moment."

He held up his hand, and while we all listened I looked around from face to face. Captain Branscome had unslipped his gun, and stood eyeing the Doctor with a puzzled frown. Plinny stared up at the cliffs. She was white to the lips, but the lips were firmly set; whereas Mr. Goodfellow's jaw hung as though loosed from its tacklings.

So we waited for twenty seconds, maybe; but no third scream came down from the heights.

"That makes one accounted for," said Dr. Beauregard. "I have known, first and last, eleven parties who hunted treasure on this island. They all quarrelled. They quarrelled, moreover, every one of them, before getting their stuff-such as it was-to the boats. Now, if you will permit me to say so, your own success-when you obtain it- will be a fluke and an absurd fluke. It will stultify every rule of precaution and violate every law of chance. I have studied this game for close upon twenty years, and reduced it almost to mathematics; and I foresee that you will play-nay, you have already played- ninepins with my most certain conclusions. But you have as gentlefolks, with all the disabilities of gentlefolks, the one thing that all these experts have fatally lacked. You have self-command."

"It appears to me that we need it, at any rate," said Miss Belcher, tartly, "if we are to be favoured just now with a lecture."

Dr. Beauregard smiled. "The purport of my lecture, ma'am, was to prepare you for a question which I have to put. When these men arrive, Captain Branscome, Mr. Goodfellow, and I must deal with them. Are you ladies prepared to exercise strong self-control? Will you, with Harry Brooks, await us here until our business is over?"

"Excuse me, sir, but I must first know what your business is."

"That, ma'am, will depend upon circumstances; but it is more than likely to be serious."

"I must trouble you, now and always, to speak to me definitely. If you propose to shoot these men, kindly say so."

"I do not, ma'am. But their boat lies on the next beach, and as soon as they launch her they will discover us; and as soon as they discover us it will be life for life."

"But they need not discover us. In five minutes we can embark ourselves and our belongings; in less than fifteen we can round the point to the south'ard, and beyond it lie two or three small coves where, as I judged in passing, a boat can lie reasonably safe from observation."

"Admirably reasoned, ma'am. By all means take the boat-take Harry Brooks with you, and Mr. Goodfellow for protection. But Captain Branscome and I must stay and see it out with these men."

"For my part," put in Plinny, "I cannot see why these men have not as much right as we to the treasure; and, in any case, if we let them go they leave us a clear coast to hunt for the rest."

"Captain Branscome"-Dr. Beauregard turned to him-"do these ladies, as a rule, assert a voice in your dispositions?"

"They do, sir," answered the Captain, with a tired smile; "and if you will take my advice, the only way with them is to make a clean breast of everything."

"I will." The Doctor faced about, with a smile. "You must know then, ladies, that these two ruffians-for by this time there are two only-will presently be coming down to the next beach to launch their boat and leave the island. How do I know this? Because my study of treasure-hunters has given me a kind of instinct; or because, if you prefer it, I have observed that the moment-the crucial moment-when these fellows quarrel is always the moment when, having laid hands on as much as they can carry, they turn to retreat. You doubt my diagnosis, ma'am?" he asked, turning to Miss Belcher. "Then I can convince you even more simply. These men are not camping here to-night; they will not return to-morrow to fetch a second load; and for the sufficient reason that there is no second load. I know the amount of treasure hidden where they have been searching. Two men can lift and carry it easily."

"How do you happen to know this?" asked Miss Belcher, eyeing him from under contracted brows.

"For the excellent reason, ma'am, that I put the treasure there myself."

The answer, staggering to the rest of us, seemed to brace her together. She had lowered her musket at the beginning of the discussion; but now, throwing up her head with a sharp jerk, she levelled her eyes on Dr. Beauregard's, as straight as though they looked along a gun-barrel.

"Then it can hardly be for the sake of the treasure, sir, that you propose to deal with these men."

"It is not, ma'am."

"Nor solely to protect us from them, since you have brought us here, where we need never have come."

"No, ma'am. I brought you here because I cannot be in two places at once, and it was necessary to keep both parties under my eye. Having brought you, I am bound to protect you; but my main business here, and yours-or at any rate Captain Branscome's-is to punish."

"To punish? But why to punish?"

Dr. Beauregard hesitated, with a glance at Plinny and at me, who stood beside her.

"A word in your ear, ma'am-if you will allow me?"

He stepped close to Miss Belcher, and spoke a sentence or two which I could not catch. But my eyes were on her face, and I saw it change colour. The next moment her square mouth shut like a trap.

"If that be so, I wait for him along with you," she announced. "Oh, you may trust me, sir! I have a fairly strong stomach with criminals, and no sentiment."

"It shall be as you please, ma'am. But, for the others, I would suggest their taking the boat and awaiting us around the point. See, the tide has risen, and within five minutes she will float. Mr. Goodfellow, will you accompany Miss Plinlimmon and the boy? Wait, please, until completely afloat before pushing off; for our friends must be near at hand by this time, and the grating of her keel might give them the alarm. For the same reason, ma'am, unless you have any particular question to ask, we had best start at once

, and, when we have started, keep the strictest silence. Shall I lead the way?"

They set off very cautiously, the Doctor leading, Miss Belcher close at his heels. Captain Branscome a couple of paces behind her; gained the ridge, and passed out of sight around an angle of the rocks. Now, to be left in this fashion was not at all to my mind. It seemed to me that, when serious business was on hand, every one conspired to treat me as a baby. I had told Captain Branscome yesterday that I would not put up with it; and though I stood in far greater awe of Dr. Beauregard than of the Captain, I felt none the less mutinous now. Plinny, who in moments of agitation invariably had recourse to some familiar work for a sedative, was on her knees repacking the luncheon-baskets. Her back was turned to me, and from her I glanced towards Mr. Goodfellow, who had stepped down to the boat, and was leaning over the gunwale to rearrange the gear. From him I looked up the beach, to the ridge behind which the others had disappeared, and to the creepers overhanging the cliff. Suddenly it came into my head that by gaining the upper end of the ridge, where it met the cliff, I could wriggle under these creepers, and observe from behind them all that went on, as well on the next beach as on this. And with another glance at Plinny's back I tiptoed away.

I moved as swiftly as I dared, making no noise, nor looked behind me until I reached the rocks under the cliff-the path by which Mr. Goodfellow had crept round to scuttle the boat.

I calculated that by working my way along for fifty yards between them and the rock-face I should gain an opening which, observed from below, had seemed to promise me an excellent view of the next beach. But they hung so heavily that I found myself struggling in an almost impenetrable thicket; and when at length I gained the opening, and drew breath, above the splash of waves on the beach I heard a sound which caused me to huddle back like a rabbit surprised in the mouth of its burrow.

Some three yards from my hiding the bank of low cliff bounding the beach shelved upward and inland in a stretch of short turf, and from the head of this slope came the thud of footsteps-of heavy footsteps descending closer and closer.

I drew back under the creepers, and held my breath. Between their thick woven strands my eyes caught only, to the right, a twinkle of the sea; in front, a yard or two of white shingle glittering beyond the green shade; and, five seconds later, this patch was blotted out as two men plunged past my spyhole. They walked abreast, and carried a box between them. I could hear them panting, so closely they passed.

They halted on the edge of the bank.

"The boat's all right," said one; and I heard him jump down upon the shingle. It seemed to me that I knew his voice. "Here, pass down the blamed thing . . . d-n it all, man!"

"I can't!" whimpered the other. "S'help me, Bill, I can't. . . . I'm not used to it, and I ain't got the nerve."

"Nerve? An' you call yourself a seaman! An' a plucky lot you boasted the night we signed articles. . . . Nerve? Why, you was the very man to find fault with him. 'Couldn't stand his temper another day,' you said; and must do something desprit. Those were your very words."

"I know it. I didn't think-"

"Oh, to hell with your 'didn't think'! The man's dead, an' cryin' won't bring him back. Much you'd welcome him, if he did come back!"

"Don't, Bill!"

"Now, look you here, Jim Lucky! Stand you up, and help me get this lot in the boat, and the boat to sea. After that you can lie quiet and cry yourself sick. . . . You'll be all right to-morrow, fit as a fiddle. I've been in this business before, and seen how it takes men, even the strongest. It's the sight o' blood; but the stomach gets accustomed. . . . By this day week you'll be lively as a flea in a rug, and lookin' forward to drivin' in your carriage-an'-pair. I promise you that; but what you've to do at this moment is to stand up, and help me get down the boat. For if he's anywhere on this island, God help the pair of us!"

"He!" quavered Jim Lucky.

"I shouldn't wonder."

"But you told me he was dead!"

"Did I? Well, perhaps I did. That was to keep your spirits up. But now I don't mind tellin' you that I'm not sure. He ought to be dead by this time; but 'tis a question if the likes of him ever die. He's own cousin to the devil, I tell you; and if he's anywhere alive, like as not he's watching us at this moment."

Whatever this meant, it appeared to rouse Jim Lucky, and start him in a panic. I heard him sob as he helped to lower their burden upon the beach. All this time they had been standing immediately beneath me, and I dared not lift my head for a look. But now, as they went staggering down the beach, I parted the creepers, and stared in their wake. They carried a heavy sea-chest between them, but my eyes were neither for the chest nor for Jim Lucky, but for his companion, the man he called Bill.

I knew him before I looked; and as I had recognized his voice, so now I recognized his narrow, foxy head, and sloping shoulders.

It was Aaron Glass.

The two men carried the chest along at a rate that perhaps came easily enough to Jim Lucky, who was a young giant of a seaman, but was astonishing for a thin, windlestraw of a man such as Glass. He ploughed his way across the sands like a demon, and had scarcely set down the chest, a little above the water's edge, before he was tugging at the boat. I heard him call to Lucky to help, and the pair heave-y-hoe'd together as they strained at the gunwale to lift her and run her down.

From this ridge, as yet, came no sign.

Presently from the boat-they had pulled her down to the water, and were both stooping over her with their shoulders well inside, busy in arranging her bottom board-I heard a fearful oath; an oath that rose in a scream, as the two men faced each other, scared, incredulous.

"Scuttled, by God!"

It was Glass who screamed it out, and with the sound of it a host of sea-birds rose from the neighbouring rocks, whitening the sky. But Jim Lucky cast up both hands and ran.

"Stop, you fool! Stop!"

I think the poor creature had no notion whither he ran; that he was merely demented. But, in fact, he headed straight for the ridge, not turning his head. Twice Glass called after him; then, in a sudden fury, whipped out a pistol and fired. For the moment I supposed that he had missed, for the man ran for another six strides without seeming to falter, then his knees weakened, and he pitched forward on his face.

I believe, on my word, that Glass had either fired in blind passion or with intent to stop the man rather than to kill him. He stood and stared; and, while the pistol yet smoked in his hand, I saw Dr. Beauregard step forth from his shelter, step delicately past the corpse, and raise his musket; and heard his clear, resonant voice call out-

"Both hands up, Mr. Glass, if you please!"

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