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Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 20160

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

"I've a strong sense of the right of property," said Miss Belcher, sipping her tea.

We had gathered in Dr. Beauregard's deep verandah, at the corner where it took the late afternoon sunshine. The level rays sparkled on the silver and delicate Worcester china of the Doctor's tea equipage, and fell through the open French window into the Doctor's drawing-room. A wonderful room it was, as everything in the house was wonderful, a spacious, airy room, furnished in white and gold, with Dresden figures on the mantelshelf; Venetian mirrors, dainty water-colours sunk into the panels, cases of rare books (among them, as I remember, a set of the Cabinet des Fees, bound in rose-coloured morocco and stamped with the Royal arms of France), stands of music, and a priceless harpsichord inlaid with ivory. Next to the airiness of the house, which stood high above reach of the valley mists with their malaria, what most sharply impressed me, and the ladies in particular, was its exquisite cleanliness. Yet Dr. Beauregard assured us that he kept but one servant-the negress Rosa.

At her master's call she had appeared in the verandah above us as we mounted the last terrace towards the house, and had stood there watching our ascent with no trace of surprise, or, indeed, of any emotion whatever, on her black, inscrutable face. Her eyes met mine as though she had never seen me before. To her care Dr. Beauregard had given over the still unconscious Glass, and, with a sign to Mr. Rogers and Mr. Goodfellow to follow her with their burden, she had led the way through the house to the bedroom at the back. There, in a bed between spotlessly clean sheets, they had laid the patient, and been dismissed by her. It was she who, less than ten minutes later, had brought our tea to us in the verandah, and with our tea many little plates heaped with small cakes and sweetmeats- all fresh, as though she had been expecting us for hours, and could command the resources of a city. I kept a sharp look-out, but of the strange lady-the lady of the graveyard-I could detect no trace. Nothing indicated her presence, unless it were the dainty feminine furniture of the drawing-room.

"I've a strong sense of the right of property," said Miss Belcher, sipping her tea and touching the oilskin wrapper, which lay in her lap unopened as Captain Branscome had handed it to her; and so has Jack Rogers here. You tell me, sir, that you hold Mortallone by grant, and doubtless you can show your title."

"Willingly, madam." Dr. Beauregard rose, and stepped to the French window. "You can read Spanish?" he asked, turning there and pausing.

"Not a word", answered Miss Belcher. The Doctor smiled. "It would impart nothing it you could," said he, with a smile, "for I will own to you frankly that Mortallone has always been under suspicion of containing treasure, and in the grant all treasure-trove is expressly reserved. I cannot say," he added, smiling again, "that I have strictly observed the clause; but, as between you and me, it legally disposes of my claim."

"Thank you," said Miss Belcher; "but I don't own an equally tender conscience towards Governments." Here Mr. Rogers winked at me, for as a patron of smugglers Miss Belcher enjoyed some reputation, even for a Cornish landowner. "We will leave Government out of the question; but as proprietor-lord of the manor, as we should say at home-you have a right to your share; and that, by English law-which I suggest we follow-is one-third."

Dr. Beauregard bowed. "I'm infinitely obliged to you, ma'am, and I make no doubt that what you so generously promise you will as honourably give-when I claim it. In truth, I have something more than enough for my needs. There was a time (I will confess) when I had sold my soul, if I possessed such a thing, for a glimpse of what lies written on that parchment. But I am old; and old age-" He broke off the sentence and did not resume it, but went on presently, with a change of tone: "However, I still keep a sporting interest in the treasure, which has baffled me all these years, the more so because I have a shrewd suspicion that it has lain all the while within a mile or so of where we sit at this moment."

"It does, sir," said Miss Belcher, unfolding the chart and pointing.

Dr. Beauregard adjusted a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses and bent towards it. The writing was indistinct, and he put out a hand as if to take hold of the edge of the parchment and steady it. The hand, I noticed, did not tremble at all.

"Stay a moment, sir." Miss Belcher turned the chart over. "The clue is given here, upon the back. Listen." And she translated:-

"'Right bank of river a mile and a half up from Gow Creek.

Centre tree in clump of five: branch bearing north and half a

point east: two forks-'"

"My trees!" exclaimed the Doctor. "You remember my halting and pointing them out to you? Ah, yes, and I, too, remember now that you appeared to be disconcerted. You recognized them, of course?"

"Yes, we recognized them," Miss Belcher admitted. But let me finish:-"

"'Right fork, four feet. Red cave under hill, four hundred and

seventy-five yards from foot of tree, N.N.W. The stones here,

under rock four spans, left side'"

"-Which means, I suppose, that the cave lies some way up the face of the rock, and can only be seen by climbing out upon the right fork of the tree; and that the stones-that is to say, the jewels-are hidden under a rock to the left; which rock either measures four spans or lies, four spans within the entrance of the cave."

"I know of no such cave, ma'am," said Dr. Beauregard, bending his brows. "Though, to be sure, the cliff is of a reddish colour thereabouts, due to a drip of water and the growth of some small fungus."

"I was a fool," said Captain Branscome, "to leave the tools in the gig. If we go back to fetch them, sunset will be upon us before we get to work."

The Doctor rose, with a smile.

"You might have guessed, sir, that I am not unprovided with spades and picks, or with ropes and a ladder, which also I foresee we shall need. Come; if you have drunk your tea, I will ask you to follow me into the house-the ladies included-and choose your outfit."

They went in after him. I was in the act of following-I had, in fact, taken a couple of steps towards the French window-when a slight shiver seemed to run through my hair, and I stood still.

"Little boy!"

The words came in a whisper from the end of the verandah. I stole back, and, leaning well across the rail, peered around the corner of the house.

"Little boy!" whispered the voice again, and I saw the little lady of the graveyard. She was standing close back against the side-boarding, her body almost flattened against it. "Come," she whispered, beckoning with a timid glance over her shoulder towards the rear of the house.

I looked at her for a second or two, and shook my head.

"But you must come," she insisted, still in a whisper, and took a step or two as if to entice me after her. Then she halted, and, seeing that I made no motion to follow, came tip-toeing back.

"If you do not come," she said, "he will kill you! He will sar-tain-ly kill you all!"

She nodded vehemently, and so, after another glance to right and left, beckoned to me once again. Her face was white, almost as her muslin frock, and something in it persuaded me to climb over the verandah-rail and follow her.

About thirty yards from the corner of the house stood a clump of odorous laurels, the scent of which we had been inhaling while we sat at tea. For these she broke away at a run, nor looked back until she was well within their shadow and I had overtaken her.

"Good boy!" she said, nodding again and smiling at me with her desperately anxious face. "I would wish-I would very much wish-to kiss you. But you mus' not come a-near"-she sighed-"it is not healthy. Only you come with me. I dream of you, sometimes, all las' night. 'What a pity!' I dream, 'and you so pe-ritty boy!' Now you come with me, and I take you away so he never find you."

The woman was evidently mad.

"Please tell me what you have to say," I urged, "and let me go back. They will be missing me in a minute or so."

"If they miss you, it is no matter now. He will kill them all, he is so strong . . . as he killed all those others . . . you remember? See, now, pe-ritty boy, what I have done for you, to save you from him! He shut me up, in his other house-he has another house away up in the woods, beyond where we met." She waved a hand towards the hills. "But I break out, and come here to save you. He would kill me also, if he knew."

Mad though I believed her, I was growing pretty thoroughly frightened, remembering the graveyard under the trees. "You forget my friends," said I, speaking very simply, as to a child. "If he means to kill them, I ought to carry them warning."

"He will not kill them till to-night," she answered, shaking her head. "It is always at night-time, when they are at supper. There is no hurry, little boy; but he will sar-tain-ly kill them, all the same."

I turned my head, preparing to run, for I heard Captain Branscome's voice in the verandah, calling my name.

"They are starting after the treasure. I must go," I stammered.

She drew close, and laid a hand on my arm. Again a dreadful odour was wafted under my nostrils-an odour as of tuberoses, and I know not what of corruption-and, as before in the graveyard, it turned me both sick and giddy.

"They will not find it," she said, nodding with an air of childish triumph. "Shall I tell you why? I have hidden it!" Here she fell back on her old litany. "He would kill me if he knew . . . I hid it-oh, years ago! But come, and I will show you; and you shall take a great deal-yes, as much as you can carry-if only you will go away, and never be rash again."

A second time I heard Captain Branscome's voice calling to me, demanding to know where I had disappeared.

She put a finger to her lips, smiling. "Such treasure you never did see. . . . Ev

en Rosa does not know. . . . Come, little boy!"

She pushed her way through the laurels, and I followed her. The edge of the shrubbery overhung the dry bed of a torrent, in the cleft of which, when we had lowered ourselves over the edge, we were completely hidden from the house. From the edge a slope of loose stones ran down to the bottom of the cleft, where a thin stream of water trickled. The stones slid with me, but not dangerously; and as we scurried down-I in my thick boots, she in her diminutive dancing-shoes-I heard Plinny's voice join with Captain Branscome's in calling my name. But by this time I was committed to the adventure, and by-and-by they desisted, supposing (as Plinny told me later) that I had taken French leave again, and run off to be first at the clump of trees.

We might not climb the slope directly in face of us; for, by so doing (even if it had been accessible, which I doubt), we should have emerged into view. We therefore bent our way to the right up the bottom of the gorge, to a narrow tongue of rock dividing it, in the shelter of which we mounted the rough stairway of the torrent bed from one flat rock to another until we stepped out upon a shallow plateau where the contour of the hills shut off the house and its terraces. We stood, as I judged, upon the reverse or northern side of that ridge which to the south and west overlooked the valley of the treasure. Above the plateau a stone-strewn scarp of earth led to the forest, which reached to the very summit of the ridge; and towards the summit, after pausing for a second or two to pant and catch her breath, my strange guide continued her climb.

"What is your name, little boy?"

I told her, and she repeated it once or twice, to get it by heart.

"You may call me 'Metta," she said. "He calls me 'Metta always, when he is pleased with me, and that is almost every day. He is kind to me; oh, yes, very kind-though terrible, of course. . . . Keep on my left hand, Harry Brooks; so the breeze here will not blow from me to you."

I drew up in a kind of giddiness, for that dreadful scent of death had touched me again. She, too, halted with a little cry of dismay, and a feeble motion of the hands, as if to wring them.

"Ah, you must keep wide of me. . . . That is my suffering, Harry Brooks. I cannot bend over a flower but it withers, and the butterflies die if they come near my breath . . . and that, too, is his doing. He would be kind to me, he said, and would een-oculate me; yes, that is his word-een-oculate me, so that no poison could ever harm me. He knows the secrets of all the plants, and why people die of disease. Months at a time he used to leave me alone with Rosa, and go to Havana, to the hospitals; and there he would study till his body was wasted away with work; but at the end he would come back, bringing visitors. Oh, many visitors! for he was rich, and the house had room for all. There were singers-he loves music-and men who played all day at cards, and women who made me jealous. But he would only laugh and say, 'Wait, little one.' So I waited, and in the end they all died. Rosa said it was the yellow fever; but no." She held up both hands, and made pretence to pour something from an imaginary bottle into an imaginary glass. "He can kill with one tiny drop. In his study he keeps a machine which makes water into ice. Rosa would carry round the ice with little glasses of curacoa, after the coffee was served; and all would say: 'What wonders are these? Ice in Mortallone!' and would drink his health. But he never touched the ice. You tell that to your friends, little boy. But it will not save them: for he will find some other way."

As we went up the woods these awful confidences poured from her like childish prattle, interrupted only by little ripples of laughter, half shy, half silly, and altogether horrible to hear. I hung back, divided between the impulse to tear myself away and the fearful fascination of listening-between the urgent need to find and warn my friends, and the forlorn hope to extract from her something that might save them. The toil of the climb had bathed me in sweat, and yet I shivered.

I halted. We were close under the summit of the ridge, and had reached a passing clearing where, between the trees, as I turned about, I could see the whole gorge in shadow at my feet, the sunlight warm on its upper eastern slopes, and beyond these the sea. In half an hour-in twenty minutes, maybe-I might reach the valley there below, and at least cry my warning. I faced round again to my companion.

She had vanished.

My mouth grew dry of a sudden. Was she a ghost? And her prattling talk-the voice yet singing in my brain-

"Little boy! Little boy!"

I parted the tall ferns. Beyond them a small hand beckoned, and, following it, I came face to face with a wall of naked rock from which she lifted aside the creepers over a deep cleft-a cleft wide enough to admit a man's body if he turned sideways and stooped a little.

She clapped her hands at my astonishment. "You like my bower?" she asked gleefully. "Ah, but wait, and I will show you wonders! No one knows of it, not even Rosa."

She wriggled her way through the cleft. I peered in, and went after her cautiously, expecting, as the curtain of creepers fell behind me, to find myself in a dark cave or grotto. Dark it was, to be sure, but not utterly dark; and to my amazement, as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the faint light came from ahead of me and seemed to strike upwards from the bowels of the earth.

"Do not be afraid, little boy! But hold your head low; and look to your feet now, for it is steep hereabouts."

Steep indeed it was. A kind of shaft, floored for the most part with slippery earth, but here and there with an irregular stairway of rock; and still at the lower end of the tunnel shone a faint light. I would have given worlds by this time to retrace my steps. A slight draught, blowing up the tunnel from my companion to me, bore the odour of death upwards under my nostrils; but this, while it dizzied and sickened me, seemed to clog my feet and take away all will to escape. I had nearly swooned, indeed, when my feet encountered level earth again, and she put out a hand to steady me.

"Is-is-this the end?"

"It goes down-down, little boy; but we need not follow it. See, there is light, to the left of you; light, and fresh air, and my pretty bower."

I turned as her hand guided me. A puff of wind blew on my cheek, cold and infinitely pure. I stood blinking in a short gallery that ended suddenly in blue sky, and, staggering forward, I cast myself down on the brink.

It was as though I lay on the sill of a great open window. Below me-far below-waved great masses of forest, and beyond these-far beyond-shone the blue sea. I cannot say to what depth the cliff fell away below me. It was more than sheer-it was undercut. I lay as one suspended over the void.

"But see, pe-ritty boy! did I not promise you wonders?"

As I faced around to the darkness of the gallery, she held aloft something which, for the moment, I mistook for a great green snake with lines of fire running from scale to scale and sparkling as she waved it before me. I rolled over upon my elbow and stared. It was a rope of emeralds.

She flung an end over one shoulder and looped it low over her breast; then, passing the other end about her neck, she brought it forward over the same shoulder and let it dangle. It reached almost to her feet.

"Does it become me, little boy?" She made me a mock curtsey that set the gems dancing with fire. "Come and choose, then!" She put out both hands to the darkness by the wall, and a whole cascade of jewels came sliding down and poured themselves with a rush about her feet and across the floor of the gallery. She laughed and thrust her hands again into the heap.

"All these I found-I myself-and carried up here from the darkness. Take what you will, little boy, and run back to your ship. Is it diamonds you will choose, or rubies, or-see here-this chain of pearls? I do not like pearls, for my part; they mean sorrow. But-see here, again!-there were boxes and boxes, all heaped to the brim, and long robes sown all over with pearls. Take what you like- he will not know. He gives me diamonds sometimes. I adored them in the old days, in opera. And he remembers and gives me a stone from time to time, to keep me amused. I laugh to myself, then, when I think of the store I keep, here in my bower. And he so clever! But he does not guess. Ah, child, if I had had but these to wear when I used to sing Eurydice!"

She held out two handfuls of diamonds, and began to sing in a high, cracked voice, while she let them rain through her fingers.

"But listen!" I cried suddenly.

She ceased at once, and stood with her face half turned to the darkness behind her, her arms rigid at her sides, the gems dropping as her hand slowly unclasped them. Below, where the tunnel ran down into darkness, a voice hailed-

"'Metta! Is that 'Metta?"

It was the voice of Dr. Beauregard. The poor creature gazed at me helplessly and ran for the stairway. But her feet sank in the loose heap of jewels; she stumbled; and, as she picked herself up, I saw that she was too late; for already a light shone up from the tunnel below, and before she could gain the exit the Doctor stood there, lifting a torch, in the light of which I saw Mr. Rogers close behind his shoulder.


I do not think he would have hurt her. But as the torch flared in her face and lit up the shining heap of jewels, she threw up both hands and doubled back screaming. I believed that she called to me to hide. I put out a hand to catch her by the skirt, seeing that she ran madly; but the thin muslin tore in my clutch.


On the ledge, against the sky, the voice seemed to overtake and steady her for a second; but too late. With a choking cry, she put out both hands against the void, and toppled forward; and in the entrance was nothing but the blue, empty sky.

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