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
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!