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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 22544

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Glass's arm fell limp by his side, as though Dr. Beauregard had actually pulled the trigger and winged him. He turned half-about as the pistol slid from his fingers. He gave no cry; only there leached us a loose, throttling sound such as a steam whistle makes before fetching its note. It came to us in the lull between two waves that broke and raised up the sands to ripple round his feet.

"Both hands up, Mr. Glass!"

Dr. Beauregard advanced a step.

But instead of lifting his arms, the man curved them before him, and held them so, as if to protect his treasure, while he sank on his knees beside the box. His face was yellow with terror.

"You fool!" The Doctor, still holding him covered, advanced step by step to the box, and bent over it, staring down at him. The rest of us-that is to say, Miss Belcher, Captain Branscome, and I-under I know not what compulsion, followed and came to a halt a few paces behind him. Standing so, I felt, rather than saw, that Plinny and Mr. Goodfellow, attracted by the report of the pistol, were peering at us over the ridge of rocks on the right.

"You fool!" Dr. Beauregard repeated, and suddenly dropped the butt of his musket upon the loose cover of the chest.

"You fool!" said he, a third time, and tearing aside a splintered board, dipped his hand and held it up full of sparkling stones. Opening his fingers slowly, he let a few jewels rattle back upon the heap, and held out a moderate fistful towards the cowering Glass. "Did you actually suppose, having proved me once, that I would suffer such a common cut-throat as you to march off with my treasure? Look up at me, man! I charge you with having murdered Coffin, even as you have just murdered that other poor blockhead who trusted you." He nodded sideways-but still keeping his eyes upon Glass-towards the body, which lay as it had fallen. "Answer me. Are you guilty? Yes or no?"

The man's mouth worked, but his tongue crackled in his mouth like a parched leaf.

"Yes, I know what you would say; that you had some excuse-that Coffin in his time had stuck at nothing to be quit of you; that he sold you to the press-gang; that through Coffin you spent eight, ten-how many years?'-in the war-prisons; that he believed you dead, as he had taken pains to kill you. Well, we'll grant it. As between two scoundrels I'll not trouble to weigh the rights against the wrongs. But look at this boy, here. You recognize him, hey? I charge you with having murdered his father, Major Brooks, as you murdered Coffin. You have run up a pretty long account, my friend, for so clumsy a performer; but I think you have reached the end of it."

Aaron Glass looked at me and blinked. Terror of the man confronting him had twisted his dumb mouth into a kind of grin horrible to see. It lifted his lip, like the snarl of a dog, over his yellow teeth. Dr. Beauregard laughed softly.

"And all for what? For an imperfect chart-and for these!" He thrust his hand close up to Glass's face, and spread his fingers wide, letting the gems drip between them, and rain back into the treasure-chest. "What's wrong with them? That's what you'd be asking-eh?-if your poor tongue could find the words. Well, only this, my friend-yes, look well at them-that I hid them myself, and every one of them is false."

"False!" I could see Glass's mouth at work, his lips forming to the echo of the word, as it struck across his terror like a whip. But he achieved no articulate sound.

"I give you my word-" resumed Dr. Beauregard; but a thud interrupted him. Glass had fallen forward in a faint, striking his forehead against the edge of the chest, and lay face downward-with the blood oozing from his temple and discolouring the sand. As the Doctor paused and bent over him, another wave came rippling up the beach, throwing a long, thin curve of foam before it, and washed out the stain.

"Is-is he dead?" I heard Plinny's voice quavering.

"Not yet, ma'am," answered the Doctor, grimly; and, taking the inanimate body by the collar, he drew it above reach of the waves, and turned it over.

"You are a doctor, sir?"

"Yes, ma'am, and have some small skill." He put up a hand to his breast-pocket, half withdrew it, and hesitated. "You have baulked me of a pretty little scheme," he said quietly. And still while he addressed us he seemed to be considering. "Think of this fellow's face when he got his treasure across to the mainland and attempted to trade it! To be sure, he gave us some fun for our pains-"

"If you call it fun, sir," protested Plinny.

"Well, yes, ma'am," he answered quietly, kneeling and lifting Glass's head, and resting it across his thigh. "My humour may be of a primitive sort, but I confess it tickled by shocking a murderer into a fainting fit." He felt in his breast-pocket and drew forth a small phial. "No, sir,"-he turned to Captain Branscome, who had stepped forward to offer his help-"let me alone, please. I prefer to treat my patient in my own way. It will be best, on the whole, for everybody."

He forced Glass's mouth wide open, and with one hand poured about half of the contents of the phial between the patient's teeth, drop by drop, very patiently, with the other smoothing the gullet between finger and thumb.

We all stood watching while he administered the dose, Miss Belcher close beside me, with her hand on my shoulder. At the twentieth drop or so I felt her give a start, as though a thought had suddenly occurred to her, and I looked up into her face. Her eyes were fixed inquiringly on Dr. Beauregard, and he, happening also to look up, met them with a smile.

"You will see in a moment," he said, as if answering her thought, and, reaching forward, he laid two fingers on Glass's pulse. "Yes, in a moment now."

Sure enough, in a moment Glass's eyelids fluttered a little, and he came back to life with an audible catch of the breath.

"In two minutes' time, sir"-the Doctor turned to Captain Branscome-"I shall be glad of your services, and of Mr. Goodfellow's, to carry the fellow down to the boat-that is to say, if, in deference to the ladies, you have really decided not to leave him here to his fate. He will sleep after this; nay, if you will listen, he is sleeping already. The other man is dead, I suppose?"

"He must have died instantly," answered Captain Branscome, who had stepped across to the body to assure himself.

"I had no doubt of it, by the way he dropped. Well, there is no need to fetch a spade. Their thoughtfulness provided one. You will find it in the boat there."

Half an hour later we embarked, leaving behind us on the beach a scuttled boat, a mound of sand, and a chest of false jewellery, over the top of which the rising tide had already begun to lap.

Aaron Glass lay along the bottom boards, asleep and breathing apoplectically. I pulled the stroke paddle, Mr. Goodfellow the bow, and the Captain steered. Dr. Beauregard addressed himself to the ladies, of whom Miss Belcher sat with a corrugated brow, as though turning a thought over and over in her mind, and Plinny with scared eyes, staring into vacancy.

"I am sorry, indeed, ladies," said the Doctor, "that I could not have spared you this. The fool shot his mate-you saw it yourselves- without rhyme or reason. Against madness, and the impulses of madness, no man can calculate. I might plead, too, that in an undertaking like this you match yourselves against forces with which it is not given to ladies to cope. I grant admiringly the courage that brought you across thousands of miles to Mortallone, as I grant, and again admiringly, the steadiness of your behaviour this afternoon. But one thing you did not know-that in the nature of things you were bound to meet with such men and see such things done. I have not lived beside treasure all these years without learning that it attracts such men as carrion attracts the vultures. Hide it where you will, from the end of the earth some bird of prey will spy it out, or at least some scent of it will lie and draw such prowlers as this fellow." Dr. Beauregard touched the sleeping man contemptuously with the toe of his boot. "I myself have been-shall we say?-fortunate. I have emptied, or assisted to empty, two caches of treasure in this island. A third remains, of which you have the secret, and I believe it to be the richest of all. But before you attempt it, I have a mind to tell you something of the other two, that at least you may not attempt it unwarned."

"You may spare yourself the pains, sir," said Miss Belcher, decisively; "since our minds are made up. You might, I doubt not, succeed in frightening us; but since you will not deter us, I suggest that the less we hear the better."

The Doctor bowed. "Ah, madam," sighed he, "if only Fate had timed your adventure two years ago; or if, departing with the treasure, you could even now leave me to regrets-in peace!"

"My good sir," said Miss Belcher, sharply, "I haven't a doubt you mean something or other; but what precisely it is, I cannot conceive."

"You will go, madam, leaving my island twice empty. That is Fate, and I consent with Fate. But the devil of it is, ma'am-if I may use the expression-your removing the treasure will not prevent others coming to look for it, and annoying an old age which has ceased to set store on wealth, or on anything that wealth can purchase."

She looked at him oddly. "Well, now," she confessed, "you are a mystery to me in half a dozen ways; but if on top of all you mean to turn pious-"

He laughed, and when the laugh was done it seemed to prolong itself inside him for fully half a minute.

"You are right, ma'am. Let us be practical again; and, as the first practical question, let me ask you, or Captain Branscome, what you propose to do with this man? Obviously, we cannot take him along with us after the treasure."

"Well, I imagine we are returning to the schooner. He can be left on board, in charge of Mr. Rogers."

"But I was about to suggest that we take Mr. Rogers along with us. In some ways, he is the most active of the party, and we can hardly spare him."

"Of Goodfellow, then, or whomsoever Captain Branscome may appoint to take charge of the ship."

The Doctor sat silent, as though busy with a thought that had suddenly occurred to him. After a minute, he lifted his head and threw a quick glance upward at the sky.

"The breeze is freshening again, Captain," he announced. "If you care to hoist sail, the rowers can take a rest, at least until we reach Cape Fea."

Captain Branscome gave permission to hoist sail, and soon we were running homeward with as much as we could carry. There was no danger, however, for beyond the northern point of Try-again Inlet the water lay smooth all along the shore. Dr. Beauregard here called on Plinny to admire the scenery, and, borrowing her sketchbook and pencil, dashed off a bold drawing of Cape Fea as, rounding a little to the westward, we caught sight of it standing out boldly against the afternoon sun. As he drew it, he guided the talk gently back to ordinary topics-to England and English scenery, to the charm of English domestic architecture, and particularly of our great country seats, to gardens and gardening, of which he professed himse

lf a devotee.

"Ah," he sighed at length, drawing a long breath; "if you, my friends, only knew how much of what is happiest in life you carry in your own breasts! I used-forgive me-to laugh at such pleasures as I am enjoying at this moment, I see that nothing but gaiety and a simple heart can bring a man peace at the last-and now it is too late to begin!"

Plinny, not understanding in the least, opened wide eyes upon him. His tone seemed to ask for her pity.

"Yes, yes. I have sought hard for pleasure and grudged no price for it; but the stuff I bought was all flash and sham-like this fool's diamonds-flash and sham, and the end of it weariness. Well, there is money left. You shall take it and endow a hospital if you choose, and that no doubt will increase your happiness and make it thrive. But the root of the plant lies within you. Pardon me, ma'am"-he looked towards Miss Belcher-"the question sounds an impudent one, I know, but are you not, even for England, a well-to-do lady?"

"I have a trifle more than my neighbours," owned Miss Belcher. "But it's almost more plague than blessing; at least I call it so, sometimes, which is a different thing from being ready to give it up."

"And you, ma'am?" He turned to Plinny.

"I have enough for my needs, I thank God," she answered. "But I have known what it is to be poor."

"Quite so," he nodded. "And yet you have come thousands of miles, you two, in search of treasure!"

At the entrance of Gow's Gulf we downed sail and took to our paddles again. The tide helped us against the breeze and within half an hour we came in sight of the schooner lying peacefully at anchor as we had left her.

So, at least, and at first glance, it seemed; but as we drew near, Captain Branscome stood up suddenly, the tiller-lines in his hands.

"Hallo! Where's the dinghy?"

It was gone; and-what was worse-our repeated hails fetched no answering hail from the ship. But just as we were beginning to feel seriously alarmed a voice shouted from the opposite shore, and Mr. Rogers came sculling out from the shadow of the woods, working the dinghy towards us with a single paddle overstern.

"Sorry, Captain!" he hailed. "Two deserters in two days! Oh, we're a cheerful team to drive! But I have my excuse ready. The fact is-" Here, catching sight of Dr. Beauregard, Mr. Rogers stopped short.

"I fancy," said the Doctor, amiably, turning to Captain Branscome, "your friend has not his excuse so ready as he supposed. Doubtless he'll impart it to you later on. Meanwhile, I would suggest that we take him along with us."

"But where are we going?" asked Captain Branscome.

"To my house. Ah, it is news to you that I have one? You supposed, perhaps, that the Lord Proprietor of Mortallone roosted at night in the trees? But where, in that case, would he stack his wine? My dear sir, I have a house, and cellarage, to the both of which you shall be made welcome. Even if you decline my hospitality we have the invalid here to dispose of, and surely you won't condemn a man of my years to carry him home pick-a-back!"

"But the schooner-"

"I give you my word of honour, sir, that your ship shall not be visited nor tampered with in any way. Return when you will, you shall find her precisely as she lies now. In another two hours even this faint breeze will have died down, as you are seamen enough to know. The anchorage is land-locked; the bottom is perfect holding; and as for unwelcome visitors, there can be none. I am the sole resident on this island!"

I looked up at Dr. Beauregard sharply; and so, it seemed to me, did Mr. Rogers, who had fallen alongside.

"That is to say," continued the Doctor, quietly, without regarding either of us, "the only male resident."

"All the same I don't like it," persisted the Captain, and shook his head, at the same time lifting his eyes towards Miss Belcher; "and it's clear against my rule."

"Stuff and nonsense!" said Miss Belcher. "We ought to be grateful to Dr. Beauregard for taking this creature Glass off our hands. I was thinking a moment ago that for a thousand pounds I'd rather he was anywhere than on board our ship. The least we can do is to bear a hand with him; and if we don't like the house we can come away."

"And before nightfall, if you insist," added Dr. Beauregard, genially. "But the afternoon is young, and between now and nightfall you may all have made your fortunes. Who knows?"

Captain Branscome yielded, after a look at Plinny, who backed up Miss Belcher, declaring herself ardent for new adventures. I began to see that the Captain was wax in the hands of these two, and it puzzled me, who had some experience of him both in school and on shipboard.

Instead, then, of heading for the ship, we rowed past her and up the creek-Mr. Rogers following in his dinghy-and disembarked at the landing-place under the green knoll. While Dr. Beauregard and Mr. Goodfellow lifted out Aaron Glass, and while the Captain explained to Mr. Rogers where and how we came by such a passenger, I stared about me, wondering where the Doctor's house might be and where the approach to it. For I remembered the narrow gorge leading up to the waterfalls and the thick, precipitous woods on either hand; and how, such a party as ours, including two ladies and a sick man, could hope to penetrate those woods or climb those waterfalls was a puzzle.

In ten minutes Mr. Goodfellow had patched up a fairly serviceable litter with the boat's sail and a couple of paddles. Dr. Beauregard bestowed the patient in it carefully enough, and when all was ready, led the way. The two carriers, Mr. Rogers and Mr. Goodfellow, came next with the litter between them, and at a nod from the former I fell in beside him. The Captain and the two ladies brought up the rear.

"Harry," whispered Mr. Rogers, as we wound our way round the knoll, "is this really the man who-"

"This is Aaron Glass," I said.

He stared down-for he carried the hinder end of the litter-upon the villainous, unconscious face.

"He looks a pretty bad one," said Mr. Rogers, after a pause.

"You should have seen him on the beach," said I.

"I've seen something myself," said he. "Closer, boy-there was a woman came down to the shore just now, waving to the ship and crying. At first I took her for a child. She was dressed all in white-white muslin and ribbons, you know-the sort of rig you see at a children's party; but when I rowed over close to her-"

"I know her," I said. "I met her in the woods yesterday."

"That explains; though I call it an infernal shame you didn't tell. I rowed across to find out what ailed her: she stood waving her arms so, and crying-like a child in distress. When I came near she called on to me to stop. 'Not you,' she said, 'the little boy! Where is the little boy?' I told her that we had a boy on board, but that just now you were off on a cruise; and with that she turned right about, and ran up through the woods and out of sight; but for some way I could hear her crying and calling out just as before: 'The little boy!' it was; 'Where is the little boy?'-meaning you, I suppose."

We were now come to the foot of the first waterfall, an obvious cul de sac for a party which included two ladies and a sick man on a litter. I stood gazing up at the wet, slippery rocks by which I had made my ascent yesterday, and searching in vain for a more practicable path. Dr. Beauregard halted and turned upon me with a smile.

"A moment," said he, "and you will grant that my privacy is rather neatly protected. But first"-he pointed to the water pouring past us from the pool beneath the fall-"you may remark that the stream here has more than twice the volume of the stream you see coming down the rocks."

I looked. The difference was plain enough, and I had been a fool in failing to observe it.

"The reason being," he went on, "that a second and larger stream flows into the pool under the very stones on which you are standing. I myself laid that channel for it, almost ten years ago, and Nature has very kindly helped to disguise it. Now, if you will follow me-"

He drew aside a mat of creepers overhanging a bush to the left of the path, and, stooping, disappeared into a dim, green tunnel, so artfully contrived that even without its curtain of creepers it suggested no more than a chance gap in the undergrowth. The tunnel zigzagged twice at a sharp angle, and then, quite suddenly, the dimness changed to warm sunlight, and we emerged at his heels upon a prospect that well excused my gasp of astonishment.

We stood at the lower end of a smooth, green glade, through which a broad stream-a river, almost-came swirling, its murmur drowned in the thunder of the waterfall behind us, which the bushes now concealed. The glade was, in fact, a valley-bottom, thinned of undergrowth and set with tall trees; and the stream such a stream as tumbles through many an English deer-park. The whole scene might have been transplanted from England but for a wall of naked cliff, sharply serrated, which enclosed the valley on the left. And under it, like a smooth military terrace at the foot of a fortress, the glade curved upward and out of sight.

The scene, I have said, was almost typically English-but to the eye only.

"Faugh!" exclaimed Miss Belcher, looking about her and sniffing suspiciously. "A pretty place enough, but full of malaria, or I'm a Dutchwoman! And what a horrible silence!"

"Malaria?" said Mr. Rogers, quietly. "There's better scent than malaria in this valley, and we're hot on it. Here's the river, and- What does the chart say, boy? Five trees, a mile and a half from the creek-head? We must have come a mile already. Keep your eyes skinned, and give me a nudge if you see such a clump."

But there was no need to keep my eyes skinned. At the next bend of the glade he and I caught sight of it simultaneously-a clump of noble pines that would have challenged notice even had we not been searching for them. My heart stood still as I counted them. Yes; there were five!

"I haven't often wanted to put a knife into a man's back," grunted Mr. Rogers, with a gloomy glance ahead at Dr. Beauregard.

For an instant I made sure the Doctor had overheard him. He halted suddenly, and turned to us with a proprietary wave of the hand towards the trees.

"A fine group, sirs, is it not? I have often regretted that the cliff yonder just cuts off the view of it from my windows. Indeed, I had almost altered the site of the house to include it. But health before everything-hey, ladies? There is always a certain amount of fever in these valleys, and you will own, presently, that the site I prepared has its compensations."

He resumed his way past the trees, and-a quarter of a mile beyond them-past an angle of the cliff where the ridge bent sharply back from the river and revealed a narrow gorge, its entrance choked with pines, running up towards the mountain. Here he paused again, and with another wave of the hand.

High on the right of the gorge, on a plateau above the dark pine-tops, a white-painted house looked down on us-a long, low house with a generous spread of shadow under its verandah and a dazzle of light where the upper windows took the sun.

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