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By great good fortune, Mr. Stimcoe had been drinking the health of the returned prisoners until his own was temporarily affected. In fact, as I reached Delamere Terrace, panting and excogitating the likeliest excuse to offer Mrs. Stimcoe, the door of No. 7 opened, and the lady herself emerged upon the night, with a shawl swathed carelessly over her masculine neck and shoulders.
I drew up and ducked aside to avoid recognition, but she halted under the lamp and called to me, in no very severe voice--
"You are late, and I have been needing you. Mr. Stimcoe is suffering from an attack."
"Indeed, ma'am?" said I. "Shall I run for Dr. Spargo?"
She stood for a moment considering. "No," she decided; "I had better fetch Dr. Spargo myself. Being more familiar with the symptoms, I can describe them to him."
More familiar with the symptoms, poor woman, she undoubtedly was, though I was familiar enough; and so, for the matter of that, was the doctor, whose ledger must have registered at least a dozen similar "attacks." But I understood at once her true reason for not entrusting me with the errand. It would require all her courage, all her magnificent impudence, to browbeat Dr. Spargo into coming, for I doubt if the Stimcoes had ever paid him a stiver.
"But you can be very useful," she went on, in a tone unusually gentle. "You will find Mr. Stimcoe in his bedroom--at least, I hope so, for he suffers from a hallucination that some person or persons unknown have incarcerated him in a French war-prison, such being the effect of to-day's--er--proceedings upon his highly strung nature. The illusion being granted, one can hardly be surprised at his resenting it."
I nodded, and promised to do my best.
"You are a very good boy, Harry," said Mrs. Stimcoe--a verdict so different from that which I had arrived expecting, or with any right to expect, that I stood for some twenty seconds gaping after her as she pulled her shawl closer and went on her heroic way.
I found Mr. Stimcoe in deshabille, on the first-floor landing, under the derisive surveillance of Masters Doggy Bates, Bob Pilkington, and Scotty Maclean, whose graceless mirth echoed down to me from the stair-rail immediately overhead. Ignoring my preceptor's invitation to bide a wee and take a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne, I ran up and knocked their heads together, kicked them into the dormitory, turned the key on their reproaches, and--these preliminaries over--descended to grapple with the situation.
Mr. Stimcoe, in night garments, was conducting a dialogue in which he figured alternately as the tyrant and the victim of oppression. In the character of Napoleon Bonaparte he had filled a footbath with cold water, and was commanding the Rev. Philip Stimcoe to strip--as he put it--to the teeth, and immerse himself forthwith. As the Rev. Philip Stimcoe, patriot and martyr, he was obstinately, and with even more passion, refusing to do anything of the kind, and for the equally cogent reasons that he was a Protestant of the Protestants and that the water had cockroaches in it.
"Of course," said Mr. Stimcoe to me, "if you present yourself as Alexander of Russia, there is no more to be said, always provided"-- and here he removed his nightcap and made me a profound bow--"that your credentials are satisfactory."
Apparently they were. At any rate, I prevailed on him to return to his room, when he took my arm, and, seating himself on the bedside, recited to me the paradigms of the more anomalous Greek verbs with great volubility for twenty minutes on end--that is to say, until Mrs. Stimcoe returned with the doctor safely tucked under her wing.
At sight of me seated in charge of the patient, Dr. Spargo--a mild little man--lifted his eyebrows.
"Surely, madam--" he began in a scandalized tone.
"This is Harry Brooks." Mrs. Stimcoe introduced me loftily. "If you wish him to retire, be kind enough to say so, and have done with it. Our boarders, I may say, have the run of the house--it is part of Mr. Stimcoe's system. But Harry has too much delicacy to remain where he feels himself de trop. Harry, you have my leave to withdraw."
I obeyed, aware that the doctor--who had pushed his spectacles high upon his forehead--was following my retreat with bewildered gaze. As I expected, no sooner had I regained the dormitory than my fellow-boarders--forgetting their sore heads, or, at any rate, forgiving--began to pester me with a hundred questions. I had to repeat the punishment on Doggy Bates before they suffered me to lie down in quiet.
But the interlude, in itself discomposing, had composed my nerves for the while. I expected no sleep; had, indeed, an hour ago, deemed it impossible I should sleep that night. Yet, in fact, my head was scarcely on the pillow before I slept, and slept like a top.
The town clock awoke me, striking four. To the far louder sound of Scotty Maclean's snoring, in the bed next to mine, I was case-hardened. I lay for a second or two counting the strokes, then sprang out of bed, and, running to the window, drew wide the curtain. The world was awake, the sun already clear above the hills over St. Just pool, and all the harbour twinkling with its rays. My eyes searched the stretch of water between me and St. Mawes, as though for flotsam--anything to give me news, or a hint of news. For many minutes I stood staring--needless to say, in vain--and so, the morning being chilly, crept back to bed with the shivers on me.
Two hours later, in the midst of my dressing, I looked out of the window again, and I saw the St. Mawes packet reaching across towards Falmouth merrily, quite as if nothing had happened. Yet something-- I told myself--must have happened.
The Copenhagen Academy enjoyed a holiday that day, for Captain Branscome failed to present himself, and Mr. Stimcoe lay under the influence of sedatives. At eleven in the morning he awoke, and began to discuss the character of Talleyrand at the pitch of his voice. Its echoes reached me where I sat disconsolate in the deserted schoolroom, and I went upstairs to the bedroom door to offer my services. Doggy Bates, Pilkington, and Scotty Maclean had hied them immediately after breakfast to the harbour, to beg, borrow, or steal a boat and fish for mackerel; and Mrs. Stimcoe, worn out with watching, set down my faithful presence to motives of which I was shamefully innocent. In point of fact, I had lurked at home because I could not bear company. I preferred the deserted schoolroom, though Heaven knows what I would not have given for the dull distraction of work--an hour of Rule of Three with Captain Branscome, or Caesar's Commentaries with Mr. Stimcoe. But Mr. Stimcoe lay upstairs chattering, and Captain Branscome appeared to be taking a protracted holiday. It hardly occurred to me to wonder why.
It was borne in upon me later that during this interval of anarchy in the Stimcoe establishment--it lasted two days, and may have lasted longer for aught I know--I wasted little wonder on the continued absence of Captain Branscome. I was indeed kept anxious by my own fears, which did not decrease as the hours dragged by. From the window of Mr. Stimcoe's sickroom I watched the St. Mawes packet plying to and fro. I had a mind to steal down to the Market Strand and interrogate her skipper. I had a mind--and laid more than one plan for it--to follow up my first impulse of bolting for home, to discover if Captain Coffin had arrived there. But Mrs. Stimcoe, misinterpreting my eagerness to be employed, had by this time enlisted me into full service in the sick-room. After the first hint of surprised gratitude, she betrayed no feeling at all, but bound me severely to my task. We took the watching turn and turn about, in spells of three hours' duration. I was held committed, and could not desert without a brand on my conscience. The disgusting feature of this is that I was almost glad of it, at the same time longing to run, and feeling that this, in a way, exonerated me.
At about seven o'clock on the evening of the second day, while I sat by Mr. Stimcoe's bedside, there came a knock at the front door, and, looking out of the window--for Mrs. Stimcoe had gone to bully another sedative out of the doctor, and there was no one in the house to admit a visitor--I saw Captain Branscome below me on the doorstep.
"Hallo!" said I, as cheerfully as I might, for Mr. Stimcoe was awake and listening.
"Is--is that Harry Brooks?" asked Captain Branscome, stepping back and feeling for his gold-rimmed glasses. But by some chance he was not wearing them. After fumbling for a moment, he gazed up towards the window, blinking. Folk who habitually wear glasses look unnatural without them. Captain Branscome's face looked unnatural somehow. It was pale, and for the moment it seemed to me to be almost a face of fright; but a moment later I set down its pallor to weariness.
"Mrs. Stimcoe has gone off to the doctor," said I, "and Mr. Stimcoe is sick, and I am up here nursing him. There is no one to open, but you can give me a message."
"I just came up to make sure you were all right."
"If you mean Stim--Mr. Stimcoe, he's better, though the doctor says he won't be able to leave his bed for days. How did you come to hear about it?"
"I've heard nothing about Mr. Stimcoe," answered Captain Branscome, after a hesitating pause. "I've been away--on a holiday. Nothing wrong with you at all?" he asked.
I could not understand Captain Branscome. Why on earth should he be troubling himself about my state of health?
"Nothing happened to upset you?" he asked.
I looked down at him sharply. As a matter of fact, and as the reader knows, a great deal had happened to upset me, but that any hint of it should have reached Captain Branscome was in the highest degree unlikely, and in any case I could not discuss it with him from an upstairs window and in my patient's hearing. So I contented myself with asking him where he had spent his holiday.
The question appeared to confuse him. He averted his eyes and, gazing out over the harbour, muttered--or seemed to mutter, for I could not catch the answer distinctly--that he had been visiting some friends; and so for a moment or two we waited at a deadlock. Indeed, there is no knowing how long it might have lasted--for Captain Branscome made no sign of turning again and facing me--but, happening just then to glance along the terrace, I caught sight of Mrs. Stimcoe returning with long, masculine strides.
She held an open letter in her hand, and was perusing it as she came.
"It's for you," she announced, coming to a standstill under the window and speaking up to me after a curt nod towards Captain Branscome--"from Miss Plinlimmon; and you'd best come down and hear what it says, for it's serious."
I should here explain that Mr. and Mrs. Stimcoe made a practice of reading all letters received or despatched by us. It was a part of the system.
"I picked it up at the post-office on my way," she explained, as I presented myself at the front door and put out a hand for the letter. "Look here, Harry: I know you to be a brave boy. You must pull yourself together, and be as brave as ever you can. Your father--"
"What about my father?" I asked, taking the letter and staring into her face. "Has anything happened? is he--is he dead?"
Mrs. Stimcoe lifted her hand and lowered it again, at the same moment bowing her head with a meaning I could not mistake. I gazed dizzily at Captain Branscome, and the look on his face told me--I cannot tell you how--that he knew what the letter had to tell, and had been expecting it. The handwriting was indeed Miss Plinlimmon's, although it ran across the paper in an agitated scrawl most unlike her usual neat Italian penmanship.
"My dearest Harry,
"You must come home to me at once, and by the first coach. I cannot tell you what has happened save this--that you must not look to see your father alive. We dwell in the midst of alarms which A. Selkirk preferred to the solitude of Juan Fernandez; but in this I differ from him totally, and so will you when you hear what we have gone through. Come at once, Harry, with the bravest heart you can summon, Such is the earnest prayer of:"
"Your sincere friend in affliction,"
"P.S.--Pray ask Mrs. Stimcoe to be kind enough to advance the fare if your pocket-money will not suffice."
"And I doubt if there's two shillings in the house!" commented Mrs. Stimcoe, candid for once, "and God knows what I can pawn!"
Captain Branscome plunged his hand into his pocket and drew out a guinea. Captain Branscome--who, to the knowledge of both of us, never had a shilling in his pocket--stood there nervously proffering me a guinea!
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