HotFreeBooks.com
Poison Island
by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (Q)
1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

POISON ISLAND.

By ARTHUR THOMAS QUILLER-COUCH (Q).



CONTENTS.

Chapter.

I. HOW I FIRST MET WITH CAPTAIN COFFIN.

II. I AM ENTERED AT COPENHAGEN ACADEMY.

III. A STREET FIGHT, AND WHAT CAME OF IT.

IV. CAPTAIN COFFIN STUDIES NAVIGATION.

V. THE WHALEBOAT.

VI. MY FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE CHART.

VII. ENTER THE RETURNED PRISONER.

VIII. THE HUNTED AND THE HUNTER.

IX. CHAOS IN THE CAPTAINS LODGINGS.

X. NEWS.

XI. THE CRIME IN THE SUMMER-HOUSE.

XII. THE BLOODSTAIN ON THE STILE.

XIII. CLUES IN A TANGLE.

XIV. HOW I BROKE OUT THE RED ENSIGN.

XV. CAPTAIN BRANSCOME'S CONFESSION—THE MAN IN THE LANE.

XVI. CAPTAIN BRANSCOME'S CONFESSION—THE FLAG AND THE CASHBOX.

XVII. THE CHART OF MORTALLONE.

XVIII. THE CONTENTS OF THE CORNER CUPBOARD.

XIX. CAPTAIN COFFIN'S LOG.

XX. CAPTAIN COFFIN'S LOG (CONTINUED).

XXI. IN WHICH PLINNY SURPRISES EVERYONE.

XXII. A STRANGE MAN IN THE GARDEN.

XXIII. HOW WE SAILED TO THE ISLAND.

XXIV. WE ANCHOR OFF THE ISLAND.

XXV. I TAKE FRENCH LEAVE ASHORE.

XXVI. THE WOMEN IN THE GRAVEYARD.

XXVII. THE MAN IN BLACK.

XXVIII. THE MASTER OF THE ISLAND.

XXIX. A BOAT ON THE BEACH.

XXX. THE SCREAM ON THE CLIFF.

XXXI. AARON GLASS.

XXXII. WE COME TO DR. BEAUREGARD'S HOUSE.

XXXIII. WE FIND THE TREASURE.

XXXIV. DOCTOR BEAUREGARD.



CHAPTER I.



HOW I FIRST MET WITH CAPTAIN COFFIN.

It was in the dusk of a July evening of the year 1813 (July 27, to be precise) that on my way back from the mail-coach office, Falmouth, to Mr. Stimcoe's Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen, No. 7, Delamere Terrace, I first met Captain Coffin as he came, drunk and cursing, up the Market Strand, with a rabble of children at his heels. I have reason to remember the date and hour of this encounter, not only for its remarkable consequences, but because it befell on the very day and within an hour or two of my matriculation at Stimcoe's. That afternoon I had arrived at Falmouth by Royal Mail, in charge of Miss Plinlimmon, my father's housekeeper; and now but ten minutes ago I had seen off that excellent lady and waved farewell to her—not without a sinking of the heart—on her return journey to Minden Cottage, which was my home.

My name is Harry Brooks, and my age on this remembered evening was fourteen and something over. My father, Major James Brooks, late of the 4th (King's Own) Regiment, had married twice, and at the time of his retirement from active service was for the second time a widower. Blindness—contracted by exposure and long marches over the snows of Galicia—had put an end to a career by no means undistinguished. In his last fight, at Corunna, he had not only earned a mention in despatches from his brigadier-general, Lord William Bentinck, but by his alertness in handling his half-regiment at a critical moment, and refusing its right to an outflanking line of French, had been privileged to win almost the last word of praise uttered by his idolized commander. My father heard, and faced about, but his eyes were already failing him; they missed the friendly smile with which Sir John Moore turned, and cantered off along the brigade, to encourage the 50th and 42nd regiments, and to receive, a few minutes later, the fatal cannon-shot.

Every one has heard what miseries the returning transports endured in the bitter gale of January, 1809. The Londonderry, in which my father sailed, did indeed escape wreck, but at the cost of a week's beating about the mouth of the Channel. He was, by rights, an invalid, having taken a wound in the kneecap from a spent bullet, one of the last fired in the battle; but in the common peril he bore a hand with the best. For three days and two nights he never shifted his clothing, which the gale alternately soaked and froze. It was frozen stiff as a board when the Londonderry made the entrance of Plymouth Sound; and he was borne ashore in a rheumatic fever. From this, and from his wound, the doctors restored him at length, but meanwhile his eyesight had perished.

His misfortunes did not end here. My step-sister Isabel—a beautiful girl of seventeen, the only child of his first marriage—had met him at Plymouth, nursed him to convalescence, and brought him home to Minden Cottage, to the garden which henceforward he tilled, but saw only through memory. Since then she had married a young officer in the 52nd Regiment, a Lieutenant Archibald Plinlimmon; but, her husband having to depart at once for the Peninsula, she had remained with her father and tended him as before, until death took her—as it had taken her mother—in childbirth. The babe did not survive her; and, to complete the sad story, her husband fell a few weeks later before Badajoz, while assaulting the Picurina Gate with fifty axemen of the Light Division.

Beneath these blows of fate my father did indeed bow his head, yet bravely. From the day Isabel died his shoulders took a sensible stoop; but this was the sole evidence of the mortal wound he carried, unless you count that from the same day he put aside his "Aeneid," and taught me no more from it, but spent his hours for the most part in meditation, often with a Bible open on his knee—although his eyes could not read it. Sally, our cook, told me one day that when the foolish midwife came and laid the child in his arms, not telling him that it was dead, he felt it over and broke forth in a terrible cry— his first and last protest.

In me—the only child of his second marriage, as Isabel had been the only child of his first—he appeared to have lost, and of a sudden, all interest. While Isabel lived there had been reason for this, or excuse at least, for he had loved her mother passionately, whereas from mine he had separated within a day or two after marriage, having married her only because he was obliged—or conceived himself obliged—by honour. Into this story I shall not go. It was a sad one, and, strange to say, sadly creditable to both. I do not remember my mother. She died, having taken some pains to hide even my existence from her husband, who, nevertheless, conscientiously took up the burden. A man more strongly conscientious never lived; and his sudden neglect of me had nothing to do with caprice, but came—as I am now assured—of some lesion of memory under the shock of my sister's death. As an unregenerate youngster I thought little of it at the time, beyond rejoicing to be free of my daily lesson in Virgil.

I can see my father now, seated within the summer-house by the filbert-tree at the end of the orchard—his favourite haunt—or standing in the doorway and drawing himself painfully erect, a giant of a man, to inhale the scent of his flowers or listen to his bees, or the voice of the stream which bounded our small domain. I see him framed there, his head almost touching the lintel, his hands gripping the posts like a blind Samson's, all too strong for the flimsy trelliswork. He wore a brown holland suit in summer, in colder weather a fustian one of like colour, and at first glance you might mistake him for a Quaker. His snow-white hair was gathered close beside the temples, back from a face of ineffable simplicity and goodness—the face of a man at peace with God and all the world, yet marked with scars—scars of bygone passions, cross-hatched and almost effaced by deeper scars of calamity. As Miss Plinlimmon wrote in her album—

"Few men so deep as Major Brooks Have drained affliction's cup. Alas! if one may trust his looks, I fear he's breaking up!"

This Miss Plinlimmon, a maiden aunt of the young officer who had been slain at Badajoz, kept house for us after my sister's death. She was a lady of good Welsh family, who after many years of genteel poverty had come into a legacy of seven thousand pounds from an East Indian uncle; and my father—a simple liver, content with his half-pay—had much ado in his blindness to keep watch and war upon the luxuries she untiringly strove to smuggle upon him. For the rest, Miss Plinlimmon wore corkscrew curls, talked sentimentally, worshipped the manly form (in the abstract) with the manly virtues, and possessed (quite unknown to herself) the heart of a lion.

Upon this unsuspected courage, and upon the strength of her affection for me, she had drawn on the day when she stood up to my father—of whom, by the way, she was desperately afraid—and told him that his neglect of me was a sin and a shame and a scandal. "And a good education," she wound up feebly, "would render Harry so much more of a companion to you."

My father rubbed his head vaguely. "Yes, yes, you are right. I have been neglecting the boy. But pray end as honestly as you began, and do not pretend to be consulting my future when you are really pleading for his. To begin with, I don't want a companion; next, I should not immediately make a companion of Harry by sending him away to school; and, lastly, you know as well as I, that long before he finished his schooling I should be in my grave."

"Well, then, consider what a classical education would do for Harry! I feel sure that had I—pardon the supposition—been born a man, and made conversant with the best thoughts of the ancients—Socrates, for example—"

"What about him?" my father demanded.

"So wise, as I have always been given to understand, yet in his own age misunderstood, by his wife especially! And, to crown all, unless I err, drowned in a butt of hemlock!"

"Dear madam, pardon me; but how many of these accidents to Socrates are you ascribing to his classical education?"

"But it comes out in so many ways," Miss Plinlimmon persisted; "and it does make such a difference! There's a je ne sais quoi. You can tell it even in the way they handle a knife and fork!"

That evening, after supper, Miss Plinlimmon declined her customary game of cards with me, on the pretence that she felt tired, and sat for a long while fumbling with a newspaper, which I recognized for a week-old copy of the "Falmouth Packet." At length she rose abruptly, and, crossing over to the table where I sat playing dominoes (right hand against left), thrust the paper before me, and pointed with a trembling finger.

"There, Harry! What would you say to that?"

I brushed my dominoes aside, and read—

"The Reverend Philip Stimcoe, B.A., (Oxon.), of Copenhagen Academy, 7. Delamere Terrace, begs to inform the Nobility, Clergy, and Gentry of Falmouth and the neighbourhood that he has Vacancies for a limited number of Pupils of good Social Standing. Education classical, on the lines of the best Public Schools, combined with Home Comforts under the personal supervision of Mrs. Stimcoe (niece of the late Hon. Sir Alexander O'Brien, R.N., Admiral of the White, and K.C.B.). Backward and delicate boys a speciality. Separate beds. Commodious playground in a climate unrivalled for pulmonary ailments. Greenwich time kept."

I did not criticise the advertisement. It sufficed me to read my release in it; and in the same instant I knew how lonely the last few months had been, and felt myself an ingrate. I that had longed unspeakably, if but half consciously, for the world beyond Minden Cottage—a world in which I could play the man—welcomed my liberty by laying my head on my arms and breaking into unmanly sobs.

I will pass over a blissful week of preparation, including a journey by van to Torpoint and by ferry across to Plymouth, where Miss Plinlimmon bought me boots, shirts, collars, under-garments, a valise, a low-crowned beaver hat for Sunday wear, and for week-days a cap shaped like a concertina; where I was measured for two suits after a pattern marked "Boy's Clarence, Gentlemanly," and where I expended two-and-sixpence of my pocket-money on a piratical jack-knife and a book of patriotic songs—two articles indispensable, it seemed to me, to full-blooded manhood; and I will come to the day when the Royal Mail pulled up before Minden Cottage with a merry clash of bits and swingle-bars, and, the scarlet-coated guard having received my box from Sally the cook, and hoisted it aboard in a jiffy, Miss Plinlimmon and I climbed up to a seat behind the coachman. My father stood at the door, and shook hands with me at parting.

"Good luck, lad," said he; "and remember our motto: Nil nisi recte! Good luck have thou with thine honour. And, by the way, here's half a sovereign for you."

"Cl'k!" from the coachman, shortening up his enormous bunch of reins; ta-ra-ra! from the guard's horn close behind my ear; and we were off!

Oh, believe me, there never was such a ride! As we swept by the second mile stone I stole a look at Miss Plinlimmon. She sat in an ecstasy, with closed eyes. She was, as she put it, indulging in mental composition.

Verses composed while Riding by the Royal Mail.

"I've sailed at eve o'er Plymouth Sound (For me it was a rare excursion) Oblivious of the risk of being drown'd, Or even of a more temporary immersion.

"I dream'd myself the Lady of the Lake, Or an Oriental one (within limits) on the Bosphorus; We left a trail of glory in our wake, Which the intelligent boatman ascribed to phosphorus.

"Yet agreeable as I found it o'er the ocean To glide within my bounding shallop, I incline to think that for the poetry of motion One may even more confidently recommend the Tantivy Gallop."



CHAPTER II.

I AM ENTERED AT COPENHAGEN ACADEMY.

Agreeable, too, as I found it to be whirled between the hedgerows behind five splendid horses; to catch the ostlers run out with the relays; to receive blue glimpses of the Channel to southward; to dive across dingles and past farm-gates under which the cocks and hens flattened themselves in their haste to give us room; to gaze back over the luggage and along the road, and assure myself that the rival coach (the Self-Defence) was not overtaking us—yet Falmouth, when we reached it, was best of all; Falmouth, with its narrow streets and crowd of sailors, postmen, 'longshoremen, porters with wheelbarrows, and passengers hurrying to and from the packets, its smells of pitch and oakum and canvas, its shops full of seamen's outfits and instruments and marine curiosities, its upper windows where parrots screamed in cages, its alleys and quay-doors giving peeps of the splendid harbour, thronged—to quote Miss Plinlimmon again—"with varieties of gallant craft, between which the trained nautical eye may perchance distinguish, but mine doesn't."

The residential part of Falmouth rises in neat terraces above the waterside, and of these Delamere Terrace was by no means the least respectable. The brass doorplate of No. 7—"Copenhagen Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen. Principal, the Rev. Philip Stimcoe, B.A. (Oxon.)"—shone immaculate; and its window-blinds did Mrs. Stimcoe credit, as Miss Plinlimmon remarked before ringing the bell.

Mrs. Stimcoe herself opened the door to us, in a full lace cap and a maroon-coloured gown of state. She was a gaunt, hard-eyed woman, tall as a grenadier, remarkable for a long upper lip decorated with two moles. She excused her condescension on the ground that the butler was out, taking the pupils for a walk; and conducted us to the parlour, where Mr. Stimcoe sat in an atmosphere which smelt faintly of sherry.

Mr. Stimcoe rose and greeted us with a shaky hand. He was a thin, spectacled man, with a pendulous nose and cheeks disfigured by a purplish cutaneous disorder (which his wife, later on, attributed to his having slept between damp sheets while the honoured guest of a nobleman, whose name I forget). He wore a seedy clerical suit.

While shaking hands he observed that I was taller than he had expected; and this, absurdly enough, is all I remember of the interview, except that the room had two empty bookcases, one on either side of the chimney-breast; that the fading of the wallpaper above the mantelpiece had left a patch recording where a clock had lately stood (I conjectured that it must be at Greenwich, undergoing repairs); that Mrs. Stimcoe produced a decanter of sherry—a wine which Miss Plinlimmon abominated—and poured her out a glassful, with the remark that it had been twice round the world; that Miss Plinlimmon supposed vaguely "the same happened to a lot of things in a seaport like Falmouth;" and that somehow this led us on to Mr. Stimcoe's delicate health, and this again to the subject of damp sheets, and this finally to Mrs. Stimcoe's suggesting that Miss Plinlimmon might perhaps like to have a look at my bedroom.

The bedroom assigned to me opened out of Mrs. Stimcoe's own. ("It will give him a sense of protection. A child feels the first few nights away from home.") Though small, it was neat, and, for a boy's wants, amply furnished; nay, it contained at least one article of supererogation, in the shape of a razor-case on the dressing-table. Mrs. Stimcoe swept this into her pocket with a turn of the hand, and explained frankly that her husband, like most scholars, was absent-minded. Here she passed two fingers slowly across her forehead. "Even in his walks, or while dressing, his brain wanders among the deathless compositions of Greece and Rome, turning them into English metres—all cakes especially"—she must have meant alcaics—"and that makes him leave things about."

I had fresh and even more remarkable evidence of Mr. Stimcoe's absent-mindedness two minutes later, when, the sheets having been duly inspected, we descended to the parlour again; for, happening to reach the doorway some paces ahead of the two ladies, I surprised him in the act of drinking down Miss Plinlimmon's sherry.

The interview was scarcely resumed before a mortuary silence fell on the room, and I became aware that somehow my presence impeded the discussion of business.

"I think perhaps that Harry would like to run out upon the terrace and see the view from his new home," suggested Mrs. Stimcoe, with obvious tact.

I escaped, and went in search of the commodious playground, which I supposed to lie in the rear of the house; but, reaching a back yard, I suddenly found myself face to face with three small boys, one staggering with the weight of a pail, the two others bearing a full washtub between them; and with surprise saw them set down their burdens at a distance and come tip-toeing towards me in a single file, with theatrical gestures of secrecy.

"Hallo!" said I.

"Hist! Be dark as the grave!" answered the leader, in a stage-whisper. He was a freckly, narrow-chested child, and needed washing. "You're the new boy," he announced, as though he had tracked me down in that criminal secret.

"Yes," I owned. "Who are you?"

"We are the Blood-stained Brotherhood of the Pampas, now upon the trail!"

"Look here," said I, staring down at him, "that's nonsense!"

"Oh, very well," he answered promptly; "then we're the 'Backward Sons of Gentlemen'—that's down in the prospectus—and we're fetching water for Mother Stimcoe, because the turncock cut off the company's water this morning! See? But you won't blow the gaff on the old girl, will you?"

"Are you all there is, you three?" I asked, after considering them a moment.

"We're all the boarders. My name's Ted Bates—they call me Doggy Bates—and my father's a captain out in India; and these are Bob Pilkington and Scotty Maclean. You may call him Redhead, being too big to punch; and, talking of that, you'll have to fight Bully Stokes."

"Is he a day-boy?" I asked.

"He's cock of Rogerses up the hill, and he wants it badly. Stimcoes and Rogerses are hated rivals. If you can whack Bully Stokes for us—"

"But Mrs. Stimcoe told me that you were taking a walk with the butler," I interrupted.

Master Bates winked.

"Would you like to see him?"

He beckoned me to an open window, and we gazed through it upon a bare back kitchen, and upon an extremely corpulent man in an armchair, slumbering, with a yellow bandanna handkerchief over his head to protect it from the flies. Master Bates whipped out a pea-shooter, and blew a pea on to the exposed lobe of the sleeper's ear.

"D—n!" roared the corpulent one, leaping up in wrath. But we were in hiding behind the yard-wall before he could pull the bandanna from his face.

"He's the bailiff," explained Master Bates. "He's in possession. Oh, you'll get quite friendly with him in time. Down in the town they call him Mother Stimcoe's lodger, he comes so often. But, I say, don't go and blow the gaff on the old girl."

On our way to the coach-office that evening I felt—as the saying is—my heart in my mouth. Miss Plinlimmon spoke sympathetically of Mr. Stimcoe's state of health, and with delicacy of his absent-mindedness, "so natural in a scholar." I discovered long afterwards that Mr. Stimcoe, having retired to cash a note for her, had brought back a strong smell of brandy and eighteen-pence less than the strict amount of her change. I knew in my heart that my new schoolmaster and his wife were a pair of frauds, and yet I choked down the impulse to speak. Perhaps Master Bates's loyalty kept me on my mettle.

The dear soul and I bade one another farewell, she not without tears. The coach bore her away; and I walked back through the crowded streets with my spirits down in my boots, and my fists thrust deep into the pockets of my small-clothes.

In this dejected mood I reached the Market Strand just as Captain Coffin came up it from the Plume of Feathers public-house, cursing and striking out with his stick at a mob of small boys.



CHAPTER III.

A STREET FIGHT, AND WHAT CAME OF IT.

He emerged upon the street which crosses the head of Market Strand, and, dropping his arms, stood for a moment us if in doubt of his bearings. He was flagrantly drunk, but not aggressively. He reminded me of a purblind owl that, blundering Into daylight, is set upon and mobbed by a crowd of small birds.

The 'longshoremen and loafers grinned and winked at one another, but forbore to interfere. Plainly the spectacle was a familiar one.

The man was not altogether repulsive; pitiable, rather; a small, lean fellow, with a grey-white face drawn into wrinkles about the jaw, and eyes that wandered timidly. He wore a suit of good sea-cloth— soiled, indeed, but neither ragged nor threadbare—and a blue and yellow spotted neckerchief, the bow of which had worked around towards his right ear. His hat, perched a-cock over his left eye, had made acquaintance with the tavern sawdust. Next to his drunkenness, perhaps, the most remarkable thing about him was his stick—of ebony, very curiously carved in rings from knob to ferrule, where it ended in an iron spike; an ugly weapon, of which his tormentors stood in dread, and small blame to them.

While he stood hesitating, they swarmed close and began to bay him afresh.

"Captain Coffin, Captain Coffin!" "Who killed the Portugee?" "Who hid the treasure and got so drunk he couldn't find it?" "Where's your ship, Cap'n Danny?" These were some of the taunts flung; and as the urchins danced about him, yelling them, the passion blazed up again in his red-rimmed eyes.

Amongst the crowd capered Ted Bates. "Hallo, Brooks!" he shouted, and, catching at another boy's elbow, pointed towards me. Beyond noting that the other boy had a bullet-shaped head with ears that stood out from it at something like right angles, I had time to take very little stock of him; for just then, us Captain Coffin turned about to smite, a stone came flying and struck him smartly on the funny-bone. His hand opened with the pain of it, but the stick hung by a loop to his wrist, and, gripping it again, he charged among his tormentors, lashing out to right and left.

So savagely he charged that I looked for nothing short of murder; and just then, while I stood at gaze, a boy stepped up to me—the same that Ted Bates had plucked by the arm.

"Look here!" said he, frowning, with his legs a-straddle. "Doggy Bates tells me that you told him you could whack me with one hand behind you."

I replied that I had told Doggy Bates nothing of the sort.

"That's all right," said he. "Then you take it back?"

He had the air of one sure of his logic, but his under lip—not to mention his ears—protruded in a way that struck me as offensive, and I replied—

"That depends."

"My name's Stokes," said he, still in the same reasonable tone. "And you'll have to take coward's blow."

"Oh, indeed!" said I.

"It's the rule," said he, and gave it me with a light, back-handed smack across the bridge of the nose; whereupon I hit him on the point of the chin, and, unconsciously imitating Captain Coffin's method of charging a crowd, lowered my head and butted him violently in the stomach.

I make no doubt that my brain was tired and giddy with the day's experiences, but to this moment I cannot understand why we two suddenly found ourselves the focus of interest in a crowd which had wasted none on Captain Coffin.

But so it was. In less time than it takes to write, a ring surrounded us—a ring of men staring and offering bets. The lamp at the street-corner shone on their faces; and close under the light of it Master Stokes and I were hammering one another.

We were fighting by rule, too. Some one—I cannot say who—had taken up the affair, and was imposing the right ceremonial upon us. It may have been the cheerful, blue-jerseyed Irishman, to whose knee I returned at the end of each round to be freshened up around the face and neck with a dripping boat-sponge. He had an extraordinarily wide mouth, and it kept speaking encouragement and good advice to me. I feel sure he was a good fellow, but have never set eyes on him from that hour to this.

Bully Stokes and I must have fought a good many rounds, for towards the end we were both panting hard, and our hands hung on every blow. But I remember yet more vividly the strangeness of it all, and the uncanny sensation that the fight itself, the street-lamp, the crowd, and the dim houses around were unreal as a dream: that, and the unnatural hardness of my opponent's face, which seemed the one unmalleable part of him.

A dreadful thought possessed me that if he could only contrive to hit me with his face all would be over. My own was badly pounded; for we fought—or, at any rate, I fought—without the smallest science; it was blow for blow, plain give-and-take, from the start. But what distressed me was the extreme tenderness of my knuckles; and what chiefly irritated me was the behaviour of Doggy Bates, dancing about and screaming, "Go it, Stimcoes! Stimcoes for ever!" Five times the onlookers flung him out by the scruff of his neck; and five times he worked himself back, and screamed it between their legs.

In the end this enthusiasm proved the undoing of all his delight. Towards the end of an intolerably long round, finding that my arms began to hang like lead, I had rushed in and closed; and the two of us went to ground together. Then I lay panting, and my opponent under me—the pair of us too weary for the moment to strike a blow; and then, as breath came back, I was aware of a sudden hush in the din. A hand took me by the shirt-collar, dragged me to my feet, and swung me round, and I stared, blinking, into the face of Mr. Stimcoe.

"Dishgrashful!" said Mr. Stimcoe. He was accompanied by a constable, to whom he appealed for confirmation, pointing to my face. "Left immy charge only this evening, Perf'ly dishgrashful!"

"Boys will be boys, sir," said the constable.

"M' good fellow "—Mr. Stimcoe comprehended the crowd with an unsteady wave of his hand—"that don't 'pply 'case of men. Ne tu pu'ri tempsherish annosh; tha's Juvenal."

"Then my advice is, sir—take the boy home and give him a wash."

"He can't," came a taunting voice from the crowd. "'Cos why? The company 've cut off his water."

Mr. Stimcoe gazed around in sorrow rather than in anger. He cleared his throat for a public speech; but was forestalled by the constable's dispersing the throng with a "Clear along, now, like good fellows!"

The wide-mouthed man helped me into my jacket, shook hands with me, and said I had no science, but the devil's own pluck-and-lights. Then he, too, faded away into the night; and I found myself alongside of Doggy Bates, marching up the street after Mr. Stimcoe, who declaimed, as he went, upon the vulgarity of street-fighting.

By-and-by it became apparent that in the soothing flow of his eloquence he had forgotten us; and Doggy Bates, who understood his preceptor's habits to a hair, checked me with a knowing squeeze of the arm, and began, of set purpose, to lag in his steps. Mr. Stimcoe strode on, still audibly denouncing and exhorting.

"It was all my fault!" Master Bates pulled up and studied my mauled face by the light of a street-lamp. "The beggar heard me shouting his own name, silly fool that I was!"

I begged him not to be distressed on my account.

"What's the use of half a fight?" he groaned again. "My word, though, won't Stimcoe catch it from the missus! She sent him out to get change for your aunt's notes—'fees payable in advance.' I know the game—to pay off the bailey; and he's been soaking in a public-house ever since. Hallo!"

We turned together at the sound of footsteps approaching after us up the street. They broke into a run, then appeared to falter; and, peering into the dark interval between us and the next lamp, I discerned Captain Coffin. He had come to a halt, and stood there mysteriously beckoning.

"You—I want you!" he called huskily. "Not the other boy! You!"

I obeyed, having a reputation to keep up in the eyes of Doggy Bates; but my courage was oozing as I walked towards the old man, and I came to a sudden stop about five yards from him.

"Closer!" he beckoned. "Good boy, don't be afraid. What's your name, good boy?"

"Harry Brooks, sir."

"Call me 'sir,' do you? Well, and you're right. I could ride in my coach-and-six if I chose; and some day you may see it. How would you like to ride in your coach-and-six, Harry Brooks?"

"I should like it finely, sir," said I, humouring him.

"Yes, yes, I'll wager you would. Well, now—come closer. Mum's the word, eh? I like you, Harry Brooks; and the boys in this town "—he broke off and cursed horribly—"they're not fit to carry slops to a bear, not one of 'em. But you're different. And, see here: any time you're in trouble, just pay a call on me. Understand? Mind you, I make no promises." Here, to my exceeding fright, he reached out a hand, and, clutching me by the arm, drew me close, so that his breath poured hot on my ear, and I sickened at its reek of brandy. "It's money, boy—money, I tell you!"

He dropped my arm, and, falling back a pace, looked nervously about him.

"Between you and me and the gatepost, eh?" he asked.

His hand went down and tapped his pocket slily, and with that he turned and shuffled away down the street. I stared after him into the foggy darkness, listening to the tap of his stick upon the cobbles.



CHAPTER IV.

CAPTAIN COFFIN STUDIES NAVIGATION.

Events soon to be narrated made my sojourn in tutelage of Mr. Stimcoe a brief one, and I will pass it lightly over.

The school consisted of four boarders and six backward sons of gentlemen resident in the town, and assembled daily in a large outhouse furnished with desks of a peculiar pattern, known to us as "scobs." Mr. Stimcoe, who had received his education as a "querister" at Winchester (and afterwards as a "servitor" at Pembroke College, Oxford), habitually employed and taught us to employ the esoteric slang—or "notions," as he called it—of that great public school; so that in "preces," "morning lines," "book-chambers," and what-not we had the names if not the things, and a vague and quite illusory sense of high connection, on the strength of which, and of our freedom from what Mrs. Stimcoe called "the commercial taint," we made bold to despise the more prosperous Rogerses up the hill.

Upon commerce in the concrete—that is to say, upon the butchers, bakers, and other honest tradesmen of Falmouth—Mrs. Stimcoe waged a predatory war, and waged it without quarter. She had a genius for opening accounts, and something more than genius for keeping her creditors at bay. She never wheedled nor begged them for time; she never compromised nor parleyed, nor condescended to yield an inch to their claims for decent human treatment. She relied simply upon browbeating and the efficacy of the straight-spoken lie. A more dauntless, unblushing, majestic liar never stood up in petticoats.

She was a byword in Falmouth; yet, strange to say, her victims kept a sneaking fondness for her, a soft spot In their hearts; while as sporting onlookers we boys took something like a fearful pride in the Warrior, as we called her. It was not in her nature to encourage any such weakness, or to use it. She would not have thanked us for it. But we had this amount of excuse: that she fed us liberally when she could browbeat the butcher; and if at times we went short, she shared our privation. Also, there must have been some good in the woman, to stand so unflinchingly by Stimcoe. Stimcoe's books had gone into storage at the pawnbroker's; but in his bare "study," where he heard our construing of Caesar and Homer, stood a screen, and behind it an eighteen-gallon cask. A green baize tablecloth covered the cask from sight, and partially muffled the sound of its running tap when Stimcoe withdrew behind the screen, to consult (as he put it) his lexicon.

His one assistant, who figured in the prospectus as "Teacher of English, the Mathematics, and Navigation," was a retired packet-captain, Branscome by name, but known among us as Captain Gamey, by reason of an injured leg. He had taken the hurt—a splintered hip-bone—while fighting his ship against a French privateer off Guadeloupe, and it had retired him from the service of my lords the Postmaster-General upon a very small pension, and with a sword of honour subscribed for by the merchants of the City of London, whose mails he had gallantly saved. These resources being barely sufficient to maintain him, still less to permit his helping a widowed sister whom he had partly maintained during his days of service, he eked them out by school mastering; and a dreadful trade he must have found it. In person he was slight and wiry, of a clear, ruddy complexion, with grey hair, and a grave simplicity of manner. He wore a tightly buttoned, blue uniform coat, threadbare and frayed, but scrupulously brushed, noticeably clean linen, and white duck trousers in all weathers. He walked with the support of a malacca cane, dragging his wounded leg after him; and had a trick of talking to himself as he went.

I need scarcely say that we mimicked him; but in school he kept far better discipline than Stimcoe, for, with all his oddity, we knew him to be a brave man. Such mathematics as we needed he taught capably enough and very patiently. The "navigation," so far as we were concerned, was a mere flourish of the prospectus; and his qualifications as a teacher of English began and ended with an enthusiasm for Dr. Johnson's "Rasselas."

Such was Captain Branscome: and, such as he was, he kept the school running on days when Stimcoe was merely drunk and incapable. He ever treated Mrs. Stimcoe with the finest courtesy, and, alone among her creditors, was rewarded with that lady's respect.

I knew, to be sure—we all knew—that she must be in arrears with Captain Branscome's pay; but we were unprepared for the morning when, on the stroke of the church clock—our Greenwich time—he walked up to the door, resolutely handed Mrs. Stimcoe a letter, and as resolutely walked away again. Stimcoe had been maudlin drunk for a week and could not appear. His wife heroically stepped into the breach, and gave us (as a geography lesson) some account of her uncle the admiral and his career—"distinguished, but wandering," as she summarized it.

I remember little of this lesson save that it dispensed—wisely, no doubt—with the use of the terrestrial globe; that it included a description of the admiral's country seat in Roscommon, and an account of a ball given by him to celebrate Mrs. Stimcoe's arrival at a marriageable age, with a list of the notabilities assembled; and that it ended in her rapping Doggy Bates over the head with a ruler, for biting his nails. From that moment anarchy reigned.

It reigned for a week. I have wondered since how our six day-boys managed to refrain from carrying home a tale which must have brought their parents down upon us en masse. Great is schoolboy honour— great, and more than a trifle quaint. In any case, the parents must have been singularly unobservant or singularly slow to reason upon what they observed; for we sent their backward sons home to them each night in a mask of ink.

Saturday came, and brought the usual half-holiday. We boarders celebrated it by a raid upon the back yard of Rogerses—Bully Stokes being temporarily incapacitated by chicken-pox—and possessed ourselves, after a gallant fight, of Rogerses' football. Superior numbers drove us back to our own door, where—at the invocation of all the householders along Delamere Terrace—the constable intervened; but we retained the spoil.

At the shut of dusk, as we kicked the football in triumph about our own back yard, Mrs. Stimcoe sought me out with a letter to be conveyed to Captain Branscome. I took it and ran.

The lamplighter, going his rounds, met me at the corner of Killigrew Street and directed me to the alley in which the captain's lodgings lay. The alley was dark, but a little within the entrance my eyes caught the glimmer of a highly polished brass door-knocker, and upon this I rapped at a venture.

Captain Branscome opened to me. The house had no passage. Its front door opened directly upon a whitewashed room, with a round table in the centre, covered with charts. On the table, too, stood a lamp, the light of which dazzled me for a moment. On the walls hung the captain's sword of honour (above the mantelpiece), a couple of bookshelves, well stored, and a panel with a ship upon it—a brig in full sail—carved in high relief and painted. My eyes, however, were not for these, but for a man who sat at the table, poring over the charts, and lifted his head nervously to blink at me. It was Captain Coffin.

While I stared at him Captain Branscome took the letter from me. It contained some pieces of silver, as I knew from its weight and the feel of it—five shillings, as I judged, or perhaps seven-and-sixpence. As his hand weighed it I saw a sudden relief on his face, and realized how grey and pinched it had been when he opened the door to me.

He peised the envelope in his hand for a moment, then broke the seal very deliberately, took out the coins, and, as if weighing them in his palm, turned back to the table and laid Mrs. Stimcoe's letter close under the lamp while he searched for his gold-rimmed spectacles. (There was a tradition at Stimcoe's, by the way, that the London merchants, finding a small surplus of subscriptions in hand after purchasing the sword of honour, had presented him with these spectacles as a make-weight, and that he valued them no less.)

"Brooks," said he, laying down the letter and pushing the spectacles high on his forehead while he gazed at me, "I want to ask you a question in confidence. Had Mrs. Stimcoe any difficulty in finding this money?"

"Well, sir," said I, "I oughtn't perhaps to know it, but she pawned Stim—Mr. Stimcoe's Cicero this morning, the six volumes with a shield on the covers, that he got as a prize at Oxford."

"Good Lord!" said Captain Branscome, slowly. As if in absence of mind, he stepped to a side-cupboard and looked within. It was bare but for a plate and an apple. He took up the apple, and was about to offer it to me, but set it back slowly on the plate, and locked the cupboard again. "Good Lord!" he repeated quietly, and, linking his hands under his coat-tails, strode twice backwards and forwards across the room.

Captain Coffin looked up from his charts and stared at him, and I, too, stared, waiting in the semi-darkness beyond the lamp's circle.

"Good Lord!" said Captain Branscome for the third time. "And it's Saturday, too! You'll excuse me a moment."

With that he caught up the letter, and made a dart up the wooden staircase, which led straight from a corner of the room through a square hole in the ceiling to his upper chamber.

"Money again!" said Captain Coffin, turning his eyes upon me and blinking. "Nothing like money!"

He picked up a pair of compasses, spread them out on the paper of figures before him, and looked up again with a sly, silly smile.

"You won't guess what I'm doing?" he challenged.

"No."

"I'm studyin' navigation. Cap'n Branscome's larnin' it to me. Some people has luck an' some has heads; an' with a head on my shoulders same as I had at your age, I'd be Prime Minister an' Lord Mayor of Lunnon rolled into one, by crum!" He reached across for Captain Branscome's sextant, and held it between his shaking hands. "He can do it; hundreds o' men—thick-headed men in the ord'nary way—can do it; take a vessel out o' Falmouth here, as you might say, and hold her 'crost the Atlantic, as you might put it; whip her along for thirty days, we'll say; an' then, 'To-morrow, if the wind holds, an' about six in the mornin',' they'll say, 'there'll be an island with a two-three palm-trees on a hill an' a spit o' sand bearing nor'-by-west. Bring 'em in line,' they'll say, 'an' then you may fetch my shaving-water'—and all the while no more'n ordinary men, same as you and me. Whereby I allow it must come in time, though my head don't seem to get no grip on it."

Captain Coffin stared for a moment at a sheet of paper on which he had been scribbling figures, and passed it over to me, with a sigh.

"There! What d'you make of it?"

At a glance I saw that nothing could be made of it. The figures crossed one another, and ran askew; here and there they trailed off into mere illegibility. In the left-hand bottom corner I saw a 3 set under a 10, and beneath it the result—17—underlined, which, as a sum, left much to be desired, whether you took it in addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.

"And yet," he went on plaintively, "there's hundreds can do it—even ord'nary men."

He reached out a hand and gripped me by the elbow; and again his brandy-laden breath sickened me as he drew me close.

"S'pose, now, you was to do this for me? You could, you know. And there's money in it—lashin's o' money!"

He winked at me, glanced around the room, and with an indescribable air of slyness dived a hand into his breast-pocket.

"It's here," he nodded, drawing out a small parcel wrapped about in what at first glance appeared to me an oilskin bag, tied about the neck with a tarry string. "Here. And enough to set you an' me up for life." His fingers fumbled with the string for two or three seconds, but presently faltered. "You come to me to-morrow," he went on, with another mysterious wink, "and I'll show you something. Up the hill, past Market Strand, till you come to a signboard, 'G. Goodfellow. Funerals Furnished'—first turning to the right down the court, and knock three times."

Here he whipped the parcel back into his pocket, picked up his compasses, and made transparent pretence to be occupied in measuring distances as Captain Branscome came down the stairs from the garret.

Captain Branscome gave no sign of observing his confusion, but signalled to me to step outside with him into the alley, where he pressed an envelope into my hand. By the weight of it, I knew on the instant that he was returning Mrs. Stimcoe's money,

"And tell her," said he, "that I will come on Monday morning at nine o'clock as usual."

"Yes, sir."

I turned to go. I could not see his face in the gloom of the alley, but I had caught one glimpse of it by the lamplight within, and knew what had detained him upstairs. Honest man, he was starving, and had been praying up there to be delivered from temptation.

"Brooks," said he, as I turned, "they tell me your father was once a major in the Army. Is he, by chance, the same Major Brooks—Major James Brooks, of the King's Own—I had the honour to bring home in the Londonderry, after Corunna?"

"That must have been my father, sir."

"A good man and a brave one. I am glad to hear he is recovered."

I told him in a word or two of my father's health and of his blindness.

"And he lives not far from here?" I remembered afterwards that his voice shook upon the question.

I described Minden Cottage and its position on the road towards Plymouth. He cut me short hurriedly, and remarked, with a nervous laugh, that he must be getting back to his pupil. Whereat I, too, laughed.

"Do you think it wrong of me, boy?" he asked abruptly.

"Wrong, sir?"

"He insists upon coming; and he pays me. He will never learn anything. By the way, Brooks, I have been inhospitable. An apple, for instance?"

I declared untruthfully that I never ate apples; and perhaps the lie was pardonable, since by it I escaped eating Captain Branscome's Sunday dinner.



CHAPTER V.

THE WHALEBOAT.

A barber's pole protruded beside the ope leading to Captain Coffin's lodgings. It was painted in spirals of scarlet and blue, and at the end of it a cage containing a grey parrot dangled over the footway.

"Drunk again!" screamed the parrot, as I hesitated before the entrance, for the directing-marks just here were so numerous as to be perplexing. To the right of the alley the barber had affixed his signboard, close above the base of his pole; to the left a flanking slopshop dangled a row of cast-off suits, while immediately overhead was nailed a board painted over with ornate flourishes and the legend—

"G. Goodfellow. Carpenter and House-Decorator, &c. Repairs Neatly Executed. Instruction in the Violin. Funerals at the Shortest Notice. Shipping Supplied."

"Drunk again!" repeated the parrot. "Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me! Oh, you nasty image! Kiss me, kiss me! Who killed the Portugee?"

"He don't mean you," explained the barber, reassuringly, emerging at that moment from his shop with a pannikin of water for the parrot's cage, which he lowered very deftly by means of a halliard reeved through a block at the end of the pole. "He means old Coffin. Nice bird, hey?"

He slipped a hand through the cage-door, and caressed him, scratching his head.

"If you please, sir," said I, "it's Captain Coffin I'm looking for."

"Drunk again!" screamed the bird. "Damn my giblets, drunk again!"

"He don't like Coffin, and that's a fact," said the barber.

"He don't appear to, sir," I agreed.

"You'll find the old fellow down the yard. That is, if you really want him." The barber eyed me doubtfully. "He's sober enough, just now; been swearin off liquor for a week. I dare say you know his temper's uncertain at such times."

I did not know it, but was too far committed to retreat.

"Well, you'll find him down the yard—green door to the right, with the brass knocker. He's out at the back, hammering at his ship, but he'll hear you fast enough: he's wonderful quick of hearing."

A man, even though he possessed a solid brass knocker, had need to be quick of hearing in that alley. Without, street-hawkers were bawling and carts rattling on the cobbled thoroughfare; from the entrance the parrot vociferated after me as I went down the passage beneath an open window whence an invisible violin repeated the opening phrase of "Come, cheer up, my lads!" plaintively and persistently; while from the far end, somewhere between it and the harbour side, an irregular hammering punctuated the music.

I knocked, and the hammering ceased. The rest of the din ceased not, nor abated. In about a minute the green door opened—a cautious inch or two at first, then wide enough to reveal Captain Coffin. He wore a dirty white jumper over his upper garments, and held a formidable mallet. I observed that either his face was unnaturally white or the rims of his eyes were unnaturally red, and that sawdust besprinkled his hair and collar. I recalled the tavern sawdust which had bepowdered his hat on the night of our first meeting, and jumped to a wrong conclusion.

"Eh? It's Brooks—the boy Brooks! Glad to see you, Brooks! Come inside."

"Thank you, sir," said I, feeling a strong impulse to bolt as he shook me by the hand, so hot was his and so dry, and so feverishly it gripped me.

"You're sure no one tracked ye here?" he asked, as he closed the door behind us.

"There was a barber, sir, at the head of the passage. I stopped to ask him the way."

"He's all right, or would be but for that cursed bird of his. How a man can keep such a bird—" Captain Coffin broke off. "I had a two-three nails in my mouth when you knocked. Nearly made me swallow 'em, you did. They was copper nails, too."

I suppose I must have stared at this, for he paused and peered at me, drawing me over to the window, through which—so thickly grimed it was—a very little light dribbled from the courtyard into the room. Yet the room itself was clean, almost spick and span, with a seaman-like tidiness in all its arrangements—a small room, crowded with foreign odds-and-ends, among which I remember a walking-stick even more singular than the one Captain Coffin carried on his walks abroad (it was white in colour, with lines of small grey indentations, and he afterwards told me it was a shark's backbone); a corner-cupboard, too, painted over with green-and-yellow tulips.

"Copper nails, I tell you. Nothing but the best'll do for your friend Coffin." He leaned back, still eyeing me, and tapped me twice on the chest. "You heard me say that? 'Your friend' was my words."

"Thank you, sir."

"But you made me jump, you did—me being that way given when off the liquor." He hesitated a moment, with a glance over his shoulder at the tulip-painted cupboard. "Brooks," he went on earnestly, "you and me being met on a matter of business, and the same needin' steadiness—head and hand, my boy, if ever business did—what d'ye say to a tot of rum apiece?"

Without waiting for my answer, he hobbled off to the cupboard, and had set two glasses on the table and brimmed them with neat spirit before I had finished protesting. The bottle-neck trembled on the rims of the glasses and struck out a sort of chime as he paused.

"You won't?" he asked, gulping down his own portion; and the liquor must have been potent, for it brought a sudden water to his eyes. "Well, so be it—if you've kept off it at your age. But at mine"— he drank off the second glassful and wiped his mouth—"I've had experiences, Brooks. When you've heard 'em, you wouldn't be surprised, not if it took a dozen to steady me."

He filled again, and came close to me, holding the glass, yet so tremulously that the rum spilled over his fingers.

"Ingots, lad—golden ingots! Bars and wedges of solid gold! Gems, too, and cath-e-deral plate, with crucifixions and priests' vestments stiff with pearls and rubies as if they was frozen. I've seen 'em lyin' tossed in a heap like mullet in a ground-net. Ay, and blazin' on the beach, with the gulls screamin' over 'em and flappin', and the sea all around. I seen it with these eyes, boy" He stood back and shivered. "And behind o' that, the Death! But it comes equal to all, the Death. Not if a man had learned every trick the devil can teach could he lay his course clear o' that. Could he, now?"

His words, his uncouth gestures, which were almost spasms, and the changes in his face—from cupidity to terror, and from terror again to a kind of wistful hope—fairly frightened me, and I stammered stupidly that death was the common lot, and there couldn't be a doubt of it; that or something of the sort. But what I said does not matter. He was not listening, and before I had done he drained and set down the glass and gripped my arm again.

"I seen all that—ay, an' felt it!" He drew away and stretched out both hands, crooking his fingers like talons. "Ay, an' I seen him!"

"Him?" I echoed. "But you were talking of Death, sir."

"You may call him that. There's men lyin' around in the sand— Did ever you hear, boy, of a poison that kills a man and keeps him fresh as paint?"

"No, sir."

He nodded. "No, I reckon you never did. Fresh as paint it keeps 'em, and white as a figure-head. The first heap as ever I dug, believin' it to be the treasure—my reckoning was out by a foot or two—I came on one o' them. Three foot beneath the sand I came on him, an' the gulls sheevoing all the while over my head. They knew. And the sea and the dreadful loneliness around us all the while. There was three of us, Brooks—I mention no names, you understand—three of us, and him. Three to one. Yet he got the better of us all—as he got the better of the first lot, and they must ha' been a dozen. Four of them we uncovered afore we struck the edge of the treasure—uncovered 'em and covered 'em up again pretty quick, I can tell you. Fresh as paint they were, in a manner o' speaking, just as though they'd died yesterday; whereas by Bill's account they must ha' lain there for more'n a year. And the faces on 'em white and shinin'—"

Here Captain Coffin shivered, and, glancing about him, poured out another go of rum.

"You wouldn't blame me for wantin' it, Brooks—not if you'd seen 'em. That was on the Keys, as they're called—half a dozen banks to no'thard of the island, and maybe from half a mile to three-quarters off the shore, which shoals thereabout—sand, all the lot of 'em, and nothin' but sand; sand and sea-birds, and—what I told you. But the bulk lies in the island itself, in two caches; and where the bigger cache lies he don't know, and nobody knows but only Dan Coffin."

Captain Coffin winked, touched his breast, and wagged his forefinger at me impressively.

"That makes twice," he went on. "Twice that devil has got the better of every one. But the third time's lucky, they say. He may be dead afore this; he'll be getting an oldish man, anyway, and life on that cursed island can't be good for his health. We won't go in a crowd this time, neither; not a dozen, nor yet four of us, but only you an' me, Brooks. It's the safer way—the only safe way—an' there'll be the fatter sharin's. Now you know—hey?—why Branscome's givin' me lessons in navigation."

He chuckled, and was moving off mysteriously to a back doorway behind the dresser, but halted and came back to the table beside which I stood, making no motion to follow him.

"Look ye here, Brooks," said be. "If there's anything you don't get the hang of—anything that takes ye aback, so to speak, in what I'm tellin' you—you just hitch on an' trust to old Dan Coffin; to old Dan, as'll do for you more than ever your godfathers an' godmothers did at your baptism. You'll pick up a full breeze as you go on. Man, the treasure's there! Man, I've handled it, or enough of it to keep you in a coach-an'-six, with nothing to do but loll on cushions for the rest o' your days, an' pick your teeth at the crowd. And look ye here." He waved a hand around the room. "I'm old Danny Coffin, ain't I? poor old drunken Danny Coffin, eh? Yet cast an eye about ye. Nice fittin's, ben't they? Hitch down my coat off the peg there; feel the cloth of it; take it between finger and thumb. Ay, I don't live upon air, nor keep house an' fixtures upon nothin' at all. There—if you want more proof!" He dived a hand into his trouser-pocket, and held out a golden coin under my nose. "There! that very dollar came from the island, and I'm offerin' you the fellows to it by the thousand. Why? says you. Because, says I, you're a good lad, and I've took a fancy to see you in Parlyment. That's why. An' it's no return I'm askin' you, but just to believe!"

He made for the back door again, and opened it, letting in the sunlight; but the sunlight fell in two slanting rays, one on either side of a dark object which all but filled the entrance, blocking out my view of the back court beyond. It was the stern of a tall boat.

The boat, in fact, filled the small back court, leaving an alley-way scarcely more than two feet wide along either party-wall. She rested on the stocks, about three-parts finished, in shape very like a whaleboat, and in measurement—so Captain Coffin informed me, with a proprietary wave of the hand—some twenty-nix feet over all, with a beam of nine feet six inches amidships. And even to a boy's eye she showed herself a pretty model, though (as I say) unfinished, with a foot and more of her ribs standing up bare and awaiting the top strakes.

"Designed her myself, Brooks. Eh, but your friend Dan'l Coffin has an eye for the shape of a boat, though no hand at pencilling, nor what you might call the cabinet-making part of the job. There's a young carpenter lives up the court here—a cleverish fellow. I got him to help me over the niceties, you understand; but on my lines, lad. Climb up and cast your eye over the well I've put in her. That's for the treasure; and there'll be side-lockers round the stern-sheets, and a locker forward big enough to hold a man. The fellow don't guess their meanin', an' I don't let him guess. He thinks they're for air-compartments, to keep her buoyant; says she'll need more ballast than I've allowed her, and wants to know what sense there is in buildin' a boat so floatey. We'll ballast her, Brooks; all in good time. We'll ship her aboard the Kingston packet, bein' of a size that she'll carry comfortable as deck-cargo; and soon as we get to Kingstown we'll—"

"Avast there, cap'n!" interrupted a cheerful voice; and I glanced up, to see a sandy-haired youth with an extremely good-natured face nodding at us across the coping of the party-wall. "Avast there! Busy with visitors, eh? No? Well, I've been thinkin' it over, and I'll take sixpence an hour."

"I don't give a ha'penny over fippence," answered Captain Coffin, patently taken aback by the interruption.

"Fivepence, then, as a pro-temporary accommodation," said the youth, and, throwing a leg over the wall, heaved himself over and into the back yard. "But it's taking advantage of me; and you know that if I weren't in love and in a hurry it wouldn't happen."

"You can take fippence, or go to the devil!" said Captain Coffin. "By the way, Brooks, this is my assistant, Mr. George Goodfellow."



CHAPTER VI.

MY FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE CHART.

"Good day," said Mr. George Goodfellow, nodding affably. "I hope I see you well."

"Pretty well, thank you, sir," I answered.

"And where might you come from, makin' so bold?"

I told him that I was a boarder at Mr. Stimcoe's.

"Then," said Mr. Goodfellow, taking off his coat and extracting a pencil and a two-foot rule from a pocket at the back of his small-clothes, "I'm sorry for you. What a female!" He chose out a long and flexible plank from a stack laid lengthwise in the alley-way along the base of the wall, lifted it, set it on three trestles, and began to measure and mark it off. "She's calculated to destroy one's belief in human nature, that's what she is! Fairly knocks the gilt off. Sometimes I can't hardly realize that she and Martha belong to the same sex. Martha is my young woman."

"Yes, sir?"

"Yes. At present she's living in Plymouth, assistant in a ham-and-beef shop, as you turn down to the Barbican. That's her conscientiousness, instead of sitting at home and living on her parents. Don't tell me that women—by which I mean some women—ain't the equals of men.

"Because," continued Mr. Goodfellow, after a pause, "I know better. Ever been to Plymouth?"

"Yes, sir."

"Live there?"

"No, sir."

He seemed to be disappointed.

"You go past the bottom of Treville Street, and there the shop is, slap in front of you. You can't miss it, because it has a plaster-of-Paris cow in the window, and the proprietor's called Mudge. I go to Plymouth every week on purpose to see her."

"By coach, sir?" I asked, suddenly interested, and eager to compare notes with him on the Royal Mail and its rivals, the Self-Defence and Highflyer.

"Coach? Not a bit of it. Shank's mare, my boy, every step of the way; and Martha's worth it. That's the best of bein' in love; it makes you want to do things. By the way," he asked "you ain't thinkin' to learn the violin, by any chance?"

"No, sir."

"No," he said reflectively. "You wouldn't—not at Stimcoe's. Not, mind you, that I believe in coddling. Nobody ever coddled Nelson, and yet what happened?" He shut one eye, put his pencil to it for an imaginary telescope, and took a nautical survey of the back premises.

"That rain-shute's out of order," he said, addressing Captain Coffin. "Give me a shilling to put it right for you, and you'll save yourself a lot of trouble."

"That's the landlord's affair," answered Captain Coffin, "and I'm not paying you fippence an' hour to talk.

"But, sir," I put in, "if you walk to Plymouth you must pass the house where I live—a low-roofed house about three miles this side of St. Germans village, with a thatch on it, and windows opening right on the road, and 'Minden Cottage' painted over the door."

"Know it? Bless my soul, to be sure I know it! Why, the last time but one I passed that way, taking note that one of the window-hinges was out of gear, I knocked and asked leave to repair it. A lady with side-curls opened the door, and after the job was done took me into the parlour an' gave me a jugful of cider over and above the sixpence charged. I believe she'd have made it a shillin', too, only when I told her she lived in a very pretty house, and asked if she owned it or rented it, she turned very stiff in her manner. Touchy as tinder she was; and if that comes of being a lady, I'm glad my Martha's more sociable."

"That was Plinny—Miss Plinlimmon, I mean. You didn't catch sight of my father—Major Brooks?"

"No, I didn't. But I stopped to pass the time o' day with the landlord of the Seven Stars Inn, a mile along the road, and there I heard about 'en. So you're Major Brooks's son? Well, then, by all accounts you've got a thunderin' good father. Old English gentleman, straight is a ramrod—pays his way, fears God and honours the King— such was the landlord's words; and he told me the cottage, as you call it, was rented at twenty-five pounds a year, with a walled garden an' a paddock thrown in, which I call dirt cheap."

"I don't see that it's any business of yours what my father pays for his house!" said I, my flush of pleasure changing to one of annoyance.

I glanced round for Captain Coffin's support, but he had walked indoors, no doubt in despair of Mr. Goodfellow's loquacity.

"No?" queried Mr. Goodfellow. "No, I dare say not; but you just wait till you fall in love. It's a most curious feelin'. First of all it makes you want to pull off your coat and turn a hand to anything, from breakin' stones to playing the fiddle—it don't matter what, so long as you sweat an' feel you're earnin' money. Why, just take a look at my business card!" He stepped to his coat, pulled one from his pocket, and glanced over it proudly: 'George Goodfellow, Carpenter and Decorater—Cabinet Making in all its Branches—Repairs neatly executed—Funerals and Shipping supplied—Practical Valuer, and for Probate—Fire Office claims prepared and adjusted—Good Berths booked on all the Packets, and guaranteed by personal inspection—Boats built and designed—Instruction in the Violin—Old instruments cleaned and repaired, or taken in exchange—Rowboat for hire.' "There, put it in your pocket and take it away with you. I've plenty more in my desk."

"That's what it feels like, bein' in love," continued Mr. Goodfellow. "And, next thing, it makes you take a termenjus interest in houses— houses an' furnicher an' the price o' things—right down to butter, as you might say. I never see a house, now—leastways, a house that takes my fancy—but I want to be measuring it an' planning out the furnicher, an' the rent, an' where to stow the firewood, an' sitting down cosy in it along with Martha—in the mind's eyes, as you may say—one on each side o' the fire, an' making two ends meet. I pity any man that ends a bachelor." He glanced towards the house. "By the way, how do you get along with Coffin?"

"He—he seems very kind."

"Tis'n his way with boys as a rule." Mr. Goodfellow tapped his forehand with the end of his two-foot rule. "Upper story," he announced.

"You think so?"

"Sure of it. Cracked as a bell. Not," said Mr. Goodfellow, picking up a saw and making ready to cut the plank lengthwise to his measurements—"not that there's any harm in the man, until he gets foul of the drink. The tale is he gets his money out o' Government— a sort of pension. Was mixed up in the Spithead Mutiny, by one account, an' turned informer; but there's another tale he earned it by some hanky-panky over in Lisbon, when the Royal Family there packed up traps from the Brazils; and that's the story I favour, for (between you and me) I've seen Portugal money in his possession."

So, indeed, had I. But Captain Coffin himself cut short the talk at this point by appearing and announcing from the back doorstep that he had a treat for me if I would come inside.

The treat consisted in a dish of tea—a luxury in those times, rarely afforded even at Minden Cottage—and a pot of guava-jelly, with Cornish cream and a loaf of white, wheaten bread. Such bread, I need scarcely say, with wheat at 140 shillings a quarter, or thereabouts, never graced the table of Copenhagen Academy. But the dulcet, peculiar taste of guava-jelly is what I associate in memory with that delectable meal; and to this day I cannot taste the flavour of guava but I find myself back in Captain Coffin's sitting-room, cutting a third slice from the wheaten loaf, with the corals and shells of mother-of-pearl winking at me from among the china on the dresser, and Captain Coffin seated opposite, with the silver rings in his ears, and his eyes very white in the dusk and distinct within their inflamed rims.

"Nothing like tea," he was saying—"nothing like tea to pull a man round from the drink and cock him back like a trigger."

His right hand was at his breast as he spoke. It came out swiftly, as upon a sudden impulse. His left hand closed upon it and partly covered it for a moment; then the two hands spread apart and disclosed an oilskin case.

"Brooks!" he whispered hoarsely. "Brooks, look at this!"

His fingers plucked at the oilskin wrapper, uncovered it, unfolded an inner parcel of parchment, and, trembling, spread it out on the table.

I leaned closer, and I saw a chart of the Island of Mortallone in the Bay of Honduras dated MDCCLXXVII. From the scale on the chart, the island was some eight to ten miles long in the north-south direction, and perhaps eight miles broad at the widest point. At the north end of the island, around a promontory called Gable Point, there were five small islands called The Keys. To the south was a wide inlet with a ship seemingly in the act of sailing towards it. The eastward edge of this inlet was labelled Cape Fea and just around from this, in an easterly direction wa a small cove called Try-Again Inlet. In the sea to the west of the island was drawn a mythical sea-monster.

Twice, while I leaned across and stared at it, Captain Coffin's fingers all but closed over the parchment to hide it from me. The afternoon light was falling dim, and I stood up to walk around the edge of the table for a better look. As I pushed back my chair he clutched his treasure away, and hid it away again in the breast of his jumper, at the same moment falling back and passing a hand over his damp forehead.

"No, no, Brooks! You mustn't think—Only you took me sudden. But my promise I've passed, and my promise I'll stand by. Come to-morrow, lad."

Outside in the back yard I could hear Mr. Goodfellow, the slave of love, sawing for dear life and Martha.



CHAPTER VII.

ENTER THE RETURNED PRISONER.

Strange to say, although I paid six or eight visits after this to Captain Coffin, and by invitation, and watched his whaleboat building, and ate more of his delectable guava-jelly, I saw nothing more of the chart for several months.

On each occasion he treated me kindly, and made no secret of his having chosen me for his favourite and particular friend; but somehow, without any words, he contrived to set up an understanding that further talk about the chart and the treasure must wait until the boat should be ready for launching. In truth, I believe, a kind of superstitious terror restricted him. He trusted me, yet was afraid of overt signs of trust. You may put it that during this while he was testing, watching me. I can only answer that I had no suspicion of being watched, and that in discussing the boat's fittings with me—her tanks, wells, and general storage capacity—he took it for granted that I followed and understood her purpose. If indeed he was testing me, in my innocence I took the best way to reassure him; for I honestly looked upon the whole business as moonshine, and made no doubt that he was cracked as a fiddle.

Christmas came, and the holidays with it. As Miss Plinlimmon sang—

"Welcome, Christmas! Welcome, Yule! It brings the schoolboy home from school. [N.B.—Vulgarly pronounced 'schule' in the West of England.] Puddings and mistletoe and holly, With other contrivances for banishing melancholy: Boar's head, for instance—of which I have never partaken, But the name has associations denied to ordinary bacon."

Dear soul, she had been waiting at the door—so Sally, the cook, informed me—for about an hour, listening for the coach, and greeted me with a tremulous joy between laughter and tears. Before leading me to my father, however, she warned me that I should find him changed; and changed he was, less perhaps in appearance than in the perceptible withdrawal of his mind from all earthly concerns. He seldom spoke, but sat all day immobile, with the lids of his blind eyes half lowered, so that it was hard to tell whether he brooded or merely dozed. On Christmas Day he excused himself from walking to church with us, and upon top of his excuse looked up with a sudden happy smile—as though his eyes really saw us—and quoted Waller's famous lines:

"The soul's dark cottage, battered and decay'd, Lets in new light through chinks that time hath made. . . ."

To me it seemed rather that, as its home broke up, the soul withdrew little by little, and contracted itself like the pupil of an eye, to shrink to a pinpoint and vanish in the full admitted ray.

This our last Christmas at Minden Cottage was a quiet yet a singularly happy one. It was good to be at home, yet the end of the holidays and the return to Stimcoe's cast no anticipatory gloom on my spirits. To tell the truth, I had a sneaking affection for Stimcoe's; and to Miss Plinlimmon's cross-examination upon its internal economies I opposed a careless manly assurance as hardly fraudulent as Mr. Stimcoe's brazen doorplate or his lady's front-window curtains. The careful mending of my linen, too—for Mrs. Stimcoe with all her faults was a needlewoman—helped to disarm suspicion. When we talked of my studies I sang the praises of Captain Branscome, and told of his past heroism and his sword of honour.

"Branscome? Branscome, of the Londonderry?" said my father. "Ay, to be sure, I remember Branscome—a Godfearing fellow and a good seaman. You may take him back my compliments, Harry—my compliments and remembrances—and say that if Heaven permitted us to meet again in this world, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to crack a bottle with him."

I duly reported this to Captain Branscome, and was taken aback by his reception of it. He began in a sudden flurry to ask a dozen questions concerning my father.

"He keeps good health, I trust? It would be an honour to call and chat with the Major. At what hour would he be most accessible to visitors?"

I stared, for in truth he seemed ready to take me at my word and start off at once, and at my patent surprise he grew yet more nervous and confused.

"I have kept a regard for your father, Brooks—a veneration, I might almost call it. Sailors and soldiers, if I may say it, are not apt to think too well of one another; but the Major from the first fulfilled my conception of all a soldier should be-a gentleman fearless and modest, a true Christian hero. Minden Cottage, you say? And fronting the road a little this side of St. Germans? Tell me, pray—and excuse the impertinence—what household does he keep?"

It is hard to write down Captain Branscome's questions on paper, and divest them, as his gentle face and hesitating kindly manner divested them, of all offensiveness. I did not resent them at the time or consider then impertinent. But they were certainly close and minute, and I had reason before long to recall every detail of his catechism.

Captain Coffin, on the other hand, welcomed me back to Falmouth with a carelessness which disappointed if it did not nettle me. He fetched out the tea and guava-jelly, to be sure, but appeared to take no interest in my doings during the holidays, and was uncommunicative on his own. This seemed the stranger because he had important news to tell me. During my absence he and Mr. Goodfellow between them had finished the whaleboat.

The truth was—though I did not at once perceive it—that upon its completion the old man had begun to drink hard. Drink invariably made him morose, suspicious. His real goodwill to me had not changed, as I was to learn. He had paid a visit to Captain Branscome, and give him special instructions to teach me the art of navigation, the intricacies of which eluded his own fuddled brain. But for the present he could only talk of trivialities, and especially of the barber's parrot, for which he had conceived a ferocious hate.

"I'll wring his neck, I will!" he kept repeating. "I'll wring his neck one o' these days, blast me if I don't!"

I took my leave that evening in no wise eager to repeat the visit; and, in fact, I repeated it but twice—and each time to find him in the same sullen humour—between then and May 11, the day when the Wellingboro' transport cast anchor in Falmouth roads with two hundred and fifty returned prisoners of war.

She had sailed from Bordeaux on April 20, in company with five other transports bound for Plymouth, and her putting into Falmouth to repair her steering-gear came as a surprise to the town, which at once hung out all its bunting and prepared to welcome her poor passengers home to England with open arm. A sorry crew they looked, ragged, wild eyed, and emaciated, as the boats brought them ashore at the Market Stairs to the strains of the Falmouth Artillery Band. The homes of the most of them lay far away, but England was England; and a many wept and the crowd wept with them at sight of their tatters, for I doubt if they mustered a complete suit of good English cloth between them.

Stimcoe, I need scarcely say, had given us a whole holiday; and Stimcoe's and Rogerses met in amity for once, and cheered in the throng that carried the home-comers shoulder high to the Town Hall, where the Mayor had arrayed a public banquet. There were speeches at the banquet, and alcoholic liquors, both affecting in operation upon his Worship's guests. Poor fellows, they came to it after long abstinence, with stomachs sadly out of training; and the streets of Falmouth that evening were a panoramic commentary upon the danger of undiscriminating kindness.

Now at about five o'clock I happened to be standing at the edge of the Market Stairs, watching the efforts of a boat's crew to take a dozen of these inebriates on board for the transport, when I heard my name called, and turned to see Mr. George Goodfellow beckoning to me from the doorway of the Plume of Feathers public-house.

"It's Coffin," he explained. "The old fool's sitting in the taproom as drunk as an owl, and I was reckonin' that you an' me between us might get him home quiet before the house fills up an' mischief begins; for by the looks of it there'll be Newgate-let-loose in Falmouth streets to-night."

I answered that this was very thoughtful of him; and so it was, and, moreover, providential that he had dropped in at the Plume of Feathers for two-pennyworth of cider to celebrate the day.

We found Captain Coffin seated in a corner of the taproom settle, puffing at an empty pipe and staring at vacancy. "Drunk as an owl" described his condition to a nicety; for at a certain stage in his drinking all the world became mirk midnight to him, and he would grope his way home through the traffic at high noon in profound, pathetic belief that darkness and slumber wrapped the streets; on which occasions the dialogue between him and the barber's parrot might be counted on to touch high comedy. I knew this, and knew also that in the next stage he would recover his eyesight, and at the same time turn dangerously quarrelsome. If Mr. Goodfellow and I could start him home quietly, he would have reason to thank us to-morrow.

We were bending over him to persuade him—at first, with small success, for he continued to stare and mutter as our voices coaxed without penetrating his muddled intelligence—when a party of 'longshoremen staggered into the taproom, escorting one of the returned prisoners, a thin, sandy-haired, foxy-looking man, with narrow eyes and a neck remarkable for its attenuation and the number and depth of its wrinkles. This neck showed above the greasy collar of a red infantry coat, from which the badges and buttons had long since vanished; and for the rest the fellow wore a pair of dirty white drill trousers of French cut, French shoes, and a round japanned hat; but, so far as a glance could discover, neither shirt nor underclothing. When the 'longshoremen called for drink he laughed with a kind of happy shiver, as though rubbing his body round the inside of his clothes, cast a quick glance at us in our dim corner, and declared for rum, adding that the Mayor of Falmouth was a well-meaning old swab, but his liquor wouldn't warm the vitals of a baby in clouts.

As he announced this I fancied that our persuasions began to have effect on Captain Coffin, for his eyes blinked as in a strong light, and he seemed to pull himself together with a shudder; but a moment later he relapsed again and sat staring.

"Hallo!" said one of the 'longshoremen. "Who's that you're a-coaxin' of, you two? Old Coffin, eh? Well, take the old shammick home, an' thank 'ee. We're tired of 'en here."

As I looked up to answer I saw the returned prisoner give a start, turn slowly about, and peer at us. He seemed to be badly scared, too, for an instant; for I heard a sudden, sharp click in his throat—

"E-e-eh? Coffin, is it? Danny Coffin? Oh, good Lord!"

He came towards our corner, still peering, and, as he peered, crouching to that he spread his palms on his knees.

"Coffin? Danny Coffin?" he repeated, in a voice that, as it lost its wondering quaver, grew tense and wicked and wheedling.

Captain Coffin's face twitched, and it seemed to me that his eyes, though rigid, expanded a little. But they stared into the stranger's face without seeing him.

The fellow crouched a bit lower, and still lower, as he drew close and thrust his face gradually within a yard of the old man's.

"Shipmate Danny—messmate Danny—tip us a stave! The old stave, Danny!—

"'And alongst the Keys o' Mortallone!'"

As his voice lifted to it in a hoarse melancholy minor (times and again since that moment the tune has put me in mind of sea-birds crying over a waste shore), I saw the shiver run across Captain Coffin's face and neck, and with that his sight came back to him, and he bounced upright from the settle, with a horrible scream, his hands fencing, clawing at air.

The prisoner dropped back with a laugh. Mr. Goodfellow, at a choking sound, put out a hand to loosen Captain Coffin's neckcloth; but the old man beat him off.

"Not you! Not you! Harry!"

He gripped me by the arm, and, ducking his head, fairly charged me past the 'longshoremen and out through the doorway into the street. As we gained it I heard the stranger in the taproom behind me break into a high, cackling laugh.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE HUNTED AND THE HUNTER.

All the drunkenness had gone out of Captain Danny. Gripping my arm, he steered me rapidly through the knots of loafers, up Market Strand into the crowded Fore Street, across it and up the hill towards open country, taking the ascent with long strides which forced me now and again into a run. Twice or thrice I glanced up at his face, for I was scared, and badly scared. His mouth worked, and I observed small beads of sweat on his shaven upper lip; but he kept his eyes fastened straight ahead, and paid no heed to me.

At the head of the street the town melted off into a suburb of scattered houses, modest domiciles of twenty-five pounds or thirty pounds rentals, detached, each with its garden and narrow garden-door, for Falmouth in those days boasted few carriage-folk. He paused once hereabouts, in the roadway between two walls, and stood listening, while his right hand trembled on his stick; but presently gripped my arm again and hurried me forward, nor halted until we reached the summit, and the open country lay before us, with the Channel and its long horizon on our left. Here, in a cornfield on the very knap of the hill, and some two hundred yards back from the road, stood the shell of an old windmill, overlooking the sea— deserted, ruinous, without sails, a building many hundreds of years older than the oldest house in Falmouth, serving now but as a landmark for fishermen, and on Sundays a rendezvous for courting couples. At the stile leading into the cornfield, Captain Coffin released me, climbed over, hurried up the footpath to the windmill, and, having satisfied himself that the building was empty, motioned me to seat myself on the side where its long shadow pointed down across a bank of nettles, and beyond the edge of the green young barley sheeting the slope towards the harbour.

"Brooks," he began—but his voice rattled like a dried pea in a pod, and he had to moisten his under-lip with his tongue before he could proceed—"Brooks, are you in any way a superstitious kind o' boy?"

"That depends, sir," said I, diplomatically.

"After all these years, too," he groaned, "an' agen' all likelihood o' natur'. But you saw him—hey? You heard what he said, an' that cussed song, too? Sang it, he did; slapped it out at the top of his voice in a public tavern. I tell you, Brooks—knowin' what he knows—a man must have all hell runnin' cold in him to sing them words aloud an' not care who heard."

"Why, he sang but a line of it," said I, "and that harmless enough, though dismal."

"Is that so, lad—is that so?" Captain Danny put out a hand like a bird's claw and hooked me by the cuff. "Wasn' there nothing in it about Execution Dock; nothing about ripe medlars—'medlars a-rottin' on the tree'? No?"—for I shook my head. "Well, then, I could be sworn I heard him singin' them words for minutes, an' me sittin' all the while wi' the horrors on me afore I dared look in his damned face. An' you tell me he piped but a line of it?" His eyes searched mine anxiously. "Brooks," he went on, in a voice almost coaxing, "I'd give five hundred pound at this moment if you could look me in the face an' tell me the whole scare was nothing but fancy—that he wasn't there!"

His grasp relaxed as I shook my head again. Despair grew in his eyes, and he pulled back his hand.

"I'll put it to you another way," said he, after seeming to reflect for a while. "Suppose there was a couple o' men mixed up in an ugly job—by which I don't mean to say there was any real harm in the business; leastways not to start with; but, as it went on, these two men were forced to do something that brought them within reach o' the law. We'll put it that, when the thing was done, the one o' this pair felt it heavy upon his mind, but t'other didn' care no more than a brass button; an' the one that took it serious—as you might say— lost sight o' the other for years, an' meantime picked up with a little religion, an' made oath with hisself that all the profits o' the job (for there were profits) should come into innocent hands— You catch on to this?"

I nodded.

"Well, then"—he leant forward, his palm resting amid a bed of nettles. He did not appear to feel their sting, although, while he spoke, I saw the bark of his hand whiten slowly with blisters— "well, then, you can't go for to argue with me that the A'mighty would go for to strike the chap that repented by means o' the chap that didn'. Tisn' reasonable nor religious to think such a thing—is it now?"

1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse