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CAPTAIN BRANSCOME'S CONFESSION--THE MAN IN THE LANE.
He opened the gate and came across the turf to me. I observed that his hand trembled on his walking-cane, and that he dragged his injured leg with a worse limp than usual; also--but the uncertain light may have had something to do with this--his face seemed of one colour with the grey dust that powdered his shoes.
"Good morning, Harry!"
"Good morning, sir," I answered, crushing the oilskin into my pocket and waiting for his explanation.
"You are surprised to see me? The fact is, I have something to tell you, and could not rest easy till it was off my mind. I have travelled here by Russell's waggon, but have trudged a good part of the way, as you see." He glanced down at his shoes. "The pace was too slow for my impatience. I could get no sleep. Though it brought me here no faster, I had to vent my energies in walking." His sentences followed one another by jerks, in a nervous flurry. "You are surprised to see me?" he repeated.
"Why, as to that, sir, partly I am and partly I am not. It took me aback just now to see you standing there by the gate; and," said I more boldly, "it puzzles me yet how you came there and not to the front door, for you couldn't have expected to find me here in the garden at this time in the morning."
"True, Harry; I did not." He paused for a moment, and went on--"It is truth, lad, that I meant to knock at your front door, by-and-by, and ask for you. But, the hour being over-early for calling, I had a mind, before rousing you out of bed, to walk down the lane and have a look over your garden gate. Nay," he corrected himself, "I do not put it quite honestly, even yet. I came in search of something."
"I can save you the trouble, perhaps," said I, and, diving a hand into my breech-pocket, I pulled out the gold-rimmed eyeglasses.
He made no offer to take them, though I held them out to him on my open palm, but fell back a step, and, after a glance at them, lifted his eyes and met mine honestly, albeit with a trouble in his face.
"You found them?"
"To whom have you shown them?"
"Yet there has been some inquiry?"
"At which you were present?"
I nodded again.
"And you said nothing of this--this piece of evidence? Why?
"Because"--I hesitated for a couple of seconds and then gulped hesitation down--"because I could not believe that you--that you were really--"
"Thank you, Harry."
"All the same, sir, your name was mentioned."
"Eh?" He was plainly astonished. "My name mentioned? But why? How? since no one saw me here, and if, as you say, you hid this only evidence--"
"It came up, sir, when they examined me about Captain Danny. You know--do you not?--that they have found his body, too."
"I heard the news being cried in Truro streets as we came through. Poor old Coffin! It is all mystery to me--mystery on mystery! But how on earth should my name have come up in connection with him?"
"Why, about your teaching him navigation, sir."
Captain Branscome passed a hand over his forehead.
"Navigation? Yes; to be sure, I taught him navigation--or, rather, tried to. But what of that?"
"Well, sir, Miss Belcher seemed to think it suspicious."
He reached out a hand, and, taking the glasses from me, sat down upon the stone base of the flagstaff and began feebly to polish them.
"Impossible!" he said faintly, as if to himself; then aloud: "The man was a friend of yours, too, wasn't he?"
"Yes, sir; if you mean Captain Coffin, he was a friend of mine."
"And of mine; and, as you say, he came to me to learn navigation. Now, what connection there can be between that and his being murdered a dozen miles inland--"
But here he broke off, and we both looked up and across the stream as, with a click of the latch, the door there creaked and opened, and Miss Belcher entered the garden. She wore an orange-coloured dressing-gown, top-boots to guard her ankles from the morning dew, a red kerchief tied over her brow to keep her iron-grey locks in place, and over it her customary beaver hat--et vera incessu patit dea. Even thus attired did Miss Belcher, a goddess of the dawn, come striding over the footbridge and across the turf to us; and the effect of the apparition upon Captain Branscome's nerves, after a night of travel alongside Russell's van, I can only surmise. I did not observe it, having for the moment no eyes for him.
"Hallo!" said Miss Belcher, walking straight up to us, and halting, with a hand planted, washerwoman fashion, on either hip, as Captain Branscome staggered to his feet and saluted. "Hallo! who's this?"
"Captain Branscome, ma'am," stammered I.
"I thought as much. And what is Captain Branscome doing here?"
"By your leave, ma'am," said Captain Branscome, "I--I was just dropping in for a talk here with my friend Harry Brooks."
"H'm!" sniffed Miss Belcher, and eyed him up and down for a full ten seconds with an uncompromising stare. "As an explanation, sir, you will allow that to be a trifle unsatisfactory. What have you been eating lately?"
Captain Branscome stared at her in weak bewilderment; and, indeed, the snort which accompanied Miss Belcher's question seemed to accuse him of impregnating the morning air with a scent of onions.
"You can answer a plain question, I hope?" said she. "When did you eat last, and what was it?"
"To be precise, ma'am--though I don't understand you--it was an apple, and about--let me see--seven hours ago."
Miss Belcher turned to me and nodded.
"In other words, the man's starving. I don't blame you, Harry Brooks. One can't look for old heads on young shoulders. But, for goodness' sake, take him into the house and give him something to eat!"
"Madam--" again began Captain Branscome, still a prey to that mental paralysis which Mrs. Belcher's costume and appearance ever produced upon strangers, and for which she never made the smallest allowance.
"Don't tell me!" she snapped. "I breed stock and I buy 'em. I know the signs."
"I was about to suggest, ma'am, that--travel-stained as I am--a wash and a shave would be even more refreshing."
"H'm! You're one of those people--eh?--that study appearances?" (In the art of disconcerting by simple interrogation I newer knew Miss Belcher's peer, whether for swiftness, range, or variety.) "Brought a razor with you?"
"Take him to the house, Harry; but first show me where the hens have been laying."
Half an hour later, as Captain Branscome, washed, brushed, and freshly shaven, descended to the breakfast-parlour, Miss Belcher entered the house by the back door, with her hat full of new-laid eggs.
"Nothing like a raw egg to start the day upon," she announced. "I suck 'em, for my part; but some prefer 'em beaten up in a dish of tea."
She suited the action to the word, and beat up one in the Captain's teacup while Plinny carved him a slice of ham.
"Ladies," he protested, "I am ashamed. I do not deserve this hospitality. If you would allow me first to tell my story!"
"You're all right," said Miss Belcher. "Couldn't hurt a fly, if you wanted to. There! Eat up your breakfast, and then you can tell us all about it."
The two ladies had, each in her way, a knack of making her meaning clear without subservience to the strict forms of speech.
"It will be a weight off one's mind," declared Plinny, "even if it should prove to be the last straw."
"There's one thing to be thankful for," chimed in Miss Belcher, "and that is, Jack Rogers has gone to St. Mawes. When there's serious business to be discussed I always thank a Providence that clears the men out of the way."
I glanced at Captain Branscome. Assuredly he had come with no intention at all of unbosoming himself before a couple of ladies. He desired--desired desperately, I felt sure--to confide in me alone. But Miss Belcher's off-handish air of authority completely nonplussed him; he sat helplessly fidgeting with his breakfast-plate.
"To tell you the truth, ladies," he began, "I had not expected this-- this audience. It finds me, in a manner of speaking, unprepared." He ran a finger around the edge of his saucer after the manner of one performing on the musical glasses, and threw a hunted glance at the window, as though for a way of escape. "My name, ladies, is Branscome. I was once well-to-do, and commanded a packet in the service of his Majesty's Postmasters-General. But times have altered with me, and I am now an usher in a school, and a very poor man."
He paused; looked up at Miss Belcher, who had squared her elbows on the table in very unladylike fashion; and cleared his throat before proceeding--
"You will excuse me for mentioning this, but it is an essential part of my story."
"The Stimcoes," suggested Miss Belcher, "didn't pay up--eh?"
"Mr. Stimcoe--though a scholar, ma'am--has suffered from time to time from pecuniary embarrassment."
"--Traceable to drink," interpolated Miss Belcher, with a nod towards Plinny. "No, sir; you need not look at Harry: he has told us nothing. I formed my own conclusions."
"Mrs. Stimcoe, ma'am--for I should tell you she keeps the purse--is too often unable to make two ends meet, as the saying is. I believe she paid when she could, but somehow my salary has always been in arrear. I have used remonstrance with her, before now, to a degree which it shames me to remember; yet, in spite of it, I have sometimes found myself on a Saturday, after a week's work, without a loaf of bread in the cupboard. I doubt, ma'am, if any one who has not experienced it can wholly understand the power of mere hunger to degrade a man; to what lengths he can be urged, willy-nilly, as it were, by the instinct to satisfy it. There were Sabbaths, ma'am, when to attend divine worship seemed a mockery; the craving drove me away from all congregations of Christian men and out into the fields, where--I tell it with shame, ma'am--I have stolen turnips and eaten them raw, loathing the deed even worse than I loathed the vegetable, for the taste of which--I may say--I have a singular aversion. Well, among my pupils was Harry here, whom I discovered to be the son of an old friend of mine. I dare to call the late Major James Brooks a friend in spite of the difference between our stations in life--a difference he himself was good enough to forget. Our acquaintance began on the Londonderry transport, which I commanded, and in which I brought him home from Corunna to Plymouth in the January of 1809. It ended with the conclusion of that short and anxious passage. But I had always remembered Major Brooks as one who approached, if ever man did, the ideal of an officer and a gentleman. Now at first, ladies, the discovery suggested no thought to me beyond the pleasure of knowing that my old friend was alive and hale, and the hope of seeing Harry grow up to be as good a man as his father. But by-and-by I found a thought waking and growing, and awake again and itching after I had done my best to kill it, that the Major might be moved by the story of an old shipmate brought so low. God forgive me, ladies!" Captain Branscome put up a hand to cover his brow. "The very telling of it degrades me over again; but I came here to make a clean breast, and there is no other way. I had cross-examined Harry about the Major and his habits--not always allowing to myself why I asked him many trivial questions. And then suddenly the temptation came to a head. Certain Englishmen discharged from the French war-prisons were landed at Plymouth. The town turned out to welcome the poor fellows home, and the Mayor entertained them at a banquet, to which also he invited some two hundred townsmen. Among the guests he was good enough to include me; for it has been a consolation to me, ladies, and a source of pride, that my friends in Falmouth have not withdrawn in adversity the respect which in old days my uniform commanded."
"Captain Branscome is not telling you the half of it," I broke in eagerly. "Every one in Falmouth knows him to be a hero. Why, he has a sword of honour at home, given him for one of the bravest battles ever fought!"
"Gently, boy--gently!" Captain Branscome corrected me, with a smile, albeit a sad one. "Youth is generous, ladies; it sees these things through a haze which colours and magnifies them, and--and it's a very poor kind of hero you'll consider me before I have done. Where was I? Ah, yes, to be sure--the banquet. His Worship can little have guessed what his invitation meant to me, or that, while others thanked him for a compliment, to me it offered a satisfying meal such as I had not eaten for months. Mr. Stimcoe had given the school a holiday. In short, I attended.
"I fear, ladies, that the food and the generous wine together must have turned my head--there is no other explanation; for when the meal was over and I sat listening to the speeches, but fumbling with a glass of port before me, scarcely with the half-crown in my pocket which must carry me over another week's house-keeping, all of a sudden the man inside me rose in revolt. I felt such poverty as mine to be unendurable, and that I was a slave, a spiritless fool, to put up with it. There must be hundreds of good, Christian folk in the world who had only to know to stretch out a hand of help and gladly, as I would have helped such a case in the days of my own prosperity. Remember, I am not putting this forward as a sober plea. I know it now to be false, self-cheating, the apology that every beggar makes for himself, the specious argument that every poor man must resist who would hold fast by his manhood. But there, with the wine in me and the juices of good meat, the temptation took me at unawares and mastered me as I had never allowed it to master me while I hungered. I saw the world in a sudden rosy light; I felt that my past sufferings had been unnecessary. I thought of Major Brooks--"
"Bless the man!" interjected Miss Belcher. "He's coming to the point at last."
"Your pardon, ma'am. I will be briefer. I thought of Major Brooks. I took a resolve there and then to extend my holiday; to walk hither to Minden Cottage, and lay my case before him. The banquet had no sooner broken up than I started. I reached Truro at nightfall, and hired a bed there for sixpence. Early next morning I set forward again. By this time the impulse had died out of me, but I still walked forward, playing with my intention, always telling myself that I could relinquish it and turn back to Falmouth, cheating--yes, I fear deliberately cheating--myself with the assurance until more than half the journey lay behind me, and to turn back would be worse than pusillanimous. At St. Austell a carrier offered me a lift, and brought me to Liskeard. Thence I walked forward again, and in the late afternoon came in sight of Minden Cottage.
"I recognized it at once from Harry's description, and at first I was minded to walk up and knock boldly at the front door. But remembering also the lad's account of the garden and how the Major would spend the best part of his day there--and partly, I fancy, being nervous and uncertain with what form of words to present myself--I pulled up at the angle of the house, where the lane comes up alongside the garden wall to join the road, and halted, to collect myself and study my bearings.
"The time was about twenty minutes after five, and the light pretty good. But the lane is pretty well overgrown, as you know. I looked down and along it, and it appeared to end in a tangle or brambles. I turned my attention to the house, and was studying it through my glasses, taking stock of its windows and chimneys, and generally (as you might say) reckoning it up, along with the extent of its garden, when, happening to take another glance down the lane, to run a measure of the garden wall--or perhaps a movement caught my eye-- I saw a man step across the path between the brambles, out of the garden, as you might say, and into the plantation opposite. The path being so narrow, I glimpsed him for half a second only. But the glimpse of him gave me a start, for, if to suppose it had been anywise possible, I could have sworn the man was one I had known in Falmouth and left behind there."
"Captain Coffin!" I exclaimed.
"Ay, lad, Captain Coffin--Captain Danny Coffin. But what should he be doing at Minden Cottage?"
"The quicker you proceed, sir," said Miss Belcher, rapping the table, "the sooner we are likely to discover."
 Russell's waggons--"Russell and Co., Falmouth to London"--were huge vehicles that plied along the Great West Road under an escort of soldiers, and conveyed the bullion and other treasure landed at Falmouth by the Post Office packets. They were drawn, always at a foot-pace, by teams of six stout horses. The waggoner rode beside on a pony, and inside sat a man armed with pistols and blunderbuss. Poor travellers used these waggons, walking by day, and sleeping by night beneath the tilt.
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