The Gallowstree Mystery
The Gallowstree Mystery
By J. S. Fletcher
I SUPPOSE the first thing to be set down in this history of black crime (in which a good deal of mystery, and some amount of love-making, will have to be duly chronicled), is the fact that at about four o’clock of a certain spring afternoon, Nellie Apps, who carried out the meager mail of our neighborhood, came to the garden gate of our house with something that we very rarely received—a telegram. I was sitting on the porch when she came, being downstairs that day for either the first or second time after an illness that had attacked me just before leaving school, and had put off the start of my career as articled clerk to Lawyer Philbrick in Kingshaven; and it was I who took the buff envelope from her. But it was no sooner in my hand than out of it; my sister Keziah, senior to me by twenty years, had the flimsy thing from my fingers before you could have counted two.
“Ben,” she exclaimed in her sharp, decisive fashion, “I shouldn’t wonder if Mrs. Hozier is taken bad!”
Mrs. Hozier was Keziah’s great friend; a fellow-villager, she had lately married and gone to live in Kingshaven. At my age—eighteen—I was supposed—by Keziah—not to know much of such matters, but I had an idea that Mr. and Mrs. Hozier were expecting the advent of what might be a son and heir, and failing that, at least a daughter, and a shrewd suspicion that this event had transpired, or was about to transpire, came over me as Keziah smoothed out the sheet which she drew from its cover. But Keziah gave me no precise in formation; her hawk eyes had read the message, and her long fingers had crumpled up the paper and thrust it into her pocket, all in a second. She turned swiftly on Nellie Apps, who stood among the hollyhocks, staring at her.
“You needn’t wait!” she said peremptorily. “There’s no answer.”
Then, as Nellie went away down the path, Keziah turned again, in more leisurely fashion, on me in my easy-chair.
“Ben,” she went on, “I’ll have to go to Kingshaven! And at once! I promised I’d go, and go I must! And I shall have to be away for the night, and maybe for some of tomorrow,” she continued. “I can trust you, Ben.”
“Trust me, Keziah?” I inquired wonderingly. “What about?”
SHE looked round, as if afraid the thrushes and blackbirds might hear us, and she dropped her voice to a whisper—a reverential whisper.
“The family silver!” she said. “Never have I left it before! And if anything should happen to it—”
She paused, and I looked up at her tall, gaunt figure, amazed, even at my age, that a grown woman could be so wholly infatuated. The family silver was Keziah’s “Old Man of the Sea.” I doubt if ever a night of her life passed by which did not find her agitated with fear for the family silver’s safety: more than once, seeing her examination of locks, bolts and brass, I had wished the family silver at the bottom of the creek. She talked of it as if its value were colossal; in sober truth it consisted of a silver teapot, a cream jug, and a sugar basin, six large and six small forks, six large and six small spoons, a dozen teaspoons and a couple of soup-ladles. True, it had belonged to our great-, or great-great-grandmother, but Keziah affirmed that it had been made in the reign of Queen Anne; but even granting these facts, I saw no reason why our lives should be perpetually shadowed by the remembrance of its presence under our old roof. And I dare say I replied to Keziah rather dryly and a little sneeringly.
“Not much chance of anything happening to it, I should think, Keziah!” said I. “You’ve taken good care of that!”
I referred to Keziah’s elaborate precautions for the safety of the family silver. It lay swathed in multitudinous folds of soft paper and rolls of wash-leather, in an oak box, iron-cornered and double-locked, which was clamped down to the floor in Keziah’s bedroom, underneath her bed. The devil himself would have been hard put to it to get at that silver whilst Keziah was anywhere about, and Up to now she always had been about, being one of those women who never take a holiday and would be utterly miserable if they did.
“I know—I know!” she agreed hastily. “Of course, one has to take great care when one’s in possession of family heirlooms like ours! But promise me, Ben, that you’ll not cross this threshold till I get back, and that you’ll keep both doors locked!”
“I can promise all that easy enough, Keziah,” said I, glancing at my wasted legs. “I don’t think I could walk to the end of the garden!”
“Oh, but you soon will do, Ben!” she answered reassuringly. “You’re improving wonderfully, and this fine spring weather’ll do you no end of good. You’re a great deal stronger today than you were yesterday—I wouldn’t leave you if you weren’t, even for Mrs. Hozier. And you’ll manage, easy enough; you can get your own supper tonight and breakfast in the morning; you could even make shift to get your dinner tomorrow, if I’m not back in time. But—you’ll not leave the house, Ben?”
“You can bet on that, Keziah!” I assured her. “I sha’n’t!”
“Then we’ll have our tea, and I’ll put things to rights, and then I’ll make ready and catch the six o’clock train,” she said. “I don’t like going, Ben: I’m not one for leaving home at any time. But when you’ve promised a friend that you’ll stand by at a time of trouble—”
“Is Mrs. Hozier in trouble, then?” I inquired.
“Well, you’ll hear more about it when I’m back,” replied Keziah. “Maybe it’ll end up in rejoicing; but anyway, I’ve got to go. But tea first.”
WE had our tea; and Keziah, punctilious about such matters, washed up the tea-things and put them in their place, before attiring herself in her best clothes, in which, as she scarcely ever wore them, she looked strangely out of place. She fussed about a great deal before setting off, seeing to the fastenings of doors and windows, and giving me a pile of instructions and admonitions, from counsel as to what to do in case burglars came, to the importance of taking my medicine at the exact minute and in the precise quantity; and I was thankful when at last, with an umbrella in one hand and an old-fashioned reticule in the other, she finally marched off, in a great hurry, to catch the train to Mrs. Hozier. She was a good woman, my sister Keziah, but she had a lot more of Martha than of Mary in her composition, and the house seemed delightfully quiet when her queer bonnet had disappeared behind the garden hedge.
That was a beautiful spring evening, and I continued to sit in my easy-chair in the jasmine-covered porch. I had books by me, and newspapers, but I looked at neither; there were things far better worth looking at in front of me. Our old house, in which, according to Keziah, at least nine generations of our family of Heckitt had been born and had died, stood, a quaint survival of other days, in the very center of a semicircle of coast line that turned in ward from high cliffs on the west to a long, shelving promontory on the east. The sea came up to within fifty yards of our garden; a mile out, lay the bar, marked all day long by its line of white surf, and all night by a signal-light; beyond the bar stretched the wide expanse of the English Channel.
Our village, Middlebourne, lay behind our house—a collection of straggling farm steads and cottages, through which ran the great highroad from London to Kingshaven; as far as we were concerned, there might not have been any village there at all, for we were well out of it; from our windows and our garden we could see only three objects which had any relation to human life, and as regards two of them, it was a relation of the far past.
ALMOST before our gate there stretched out into the shining waters of the creek a spit of sand at the seaward extremity of which was a group of black, smooth-topped rocks; on them stood a stout post or pillar of dark wood, clamped about with heavy iron bands, and riveted firmly to the rock by iron supports; it had an arm projecting from it at its head, and from that swung an old lantern, which occasionally was lighted. But in the old days men had been hanged from that bar—pirates, smugglers, murderers; and then their bodies had swung in chains until the flesh dropped off on the surf-swept rocks beneath. Hence the local name of the spit of sand and group of rocks—Gallowstree Point.
A grisly, grim spot, that, especially on moonlit nights! And there was another, close by, scarcely less eerie, in the shape of the ruin of a tide-mill, long since disused, and now given over to the ravages of the rushing waters which had once turned its wheel.
These things were of the dead; but there was a house of the living at the farther end of the semicircular sweep of the creek. This was a solitary, ancient place, once a farmstead but now modernized into a private residence, known as Middlebourne Grange. It had the sea on one side, and a wide moat on the other three, and there was a high, solidly built wall on all four sides, and within the wall a double line of high elms, fencing in and shading the house; and the only way into the place was by a bridge over the moat and through a door in the wall. It wore an air of seclusion and mystery, this moated and guarded house, and of it's tenant at that time, a newcomer, none of us knew anything, except that she was a middle-aged woman named Miss Ellingham, who came from London, kept menservants and three or four maids, and had staying with her a nephew, who was just about my own age, and of whom I was madly jealous at that time, because I suspected him of casting sheep’s-eyes on my girl, Pepita.
PEPITA was the daughter—and only child—of Captain Lucas Marigold, a retired mariner who lived in a smart little box of a place in the village. He had a nice, shady garden, with a tall mast in it, from which he flew flags, and an arbor, in the shelter of which he sipped his grog, smoked his pipe and told sea-tales: a brown-faced, gnarled old chap who, I think, had married late in life; anyway, he must have been getting on, when Pepita came into the world.
For Pepita, at the time of which I am writing, was only seventeen—and a very sweet seventeen, too. Her mother being a Spaniard, and Pepita having taken after her more than after Marigold, though he, no doubt, had been a good-looking man in his better time, Pepita was a beauty of the dark order—dark hair, dark eyes, rich coloring. And whoever says that boys of eighteen cannot fall in love, lies in his throat! I was eighteen just then, and I was madly in love with Pepita, and properly miserable about it. For Pepita was one of those damsels who are happiest when not one but half a dozen swains are silly about them, and there was scarce a youngster of our neighborhood who had not begun being particular about his necktie and his socks, and the cut of his best clothes, and the proper parting of his hair, all because Pepita Marigold looked as if you could eat her and die in sheer ravishment of ecstasy at the first mouthful.
PEPITA came along as I sat there on the porch. She had been to see me two or three times during this latest stage of my illness, but her last visit had taken place a good week previously, and I had tormented myself every day since in wondering what she was after—if she was boating with the parson’s son, or birds’-nesting with the squire’s, or if Miss Ellingham’s nephew, Bryce, had inveigled her into going a-fishing with him. But there were no signs of mental disquietude on Pepita’s face: she looked as unconcerned and heart-whole as ever when, catching sight of me, she pushed open the garden gate and came up the path.
“Hello, Ben!” she exclaimed. “Out and about again? Hurrah!”
“Not much about, Pepita,” I answered. “I haven’t walked twenty yards so far—not been outside that hedge yet.”
“Come now!” she said. “Come down to the Point! It’ll do you good.”
“Can’t!” I replied. And I told her why—not forgetting Keziah’s admonitions about the family silver. Pepita’s big black eyes opened.
“Sakes!” she exclaimed. “You got to stop in that rambling old house all night through, by just yourself, Ben? I’d be frightened to death!”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” said I. “I don’t mind. If I did hear anything, it would only be rats.”
“Bad enough, too,” she remarked. “What would you do, though, if robbers came? You’d ought to have a gun, like my old dad’s. I reckon that would blow half a dozen robbers into mincemeat, once you let it off!”
“And me too!” I said, visualizing a certain blunderbuss which Captain Marigold kept hung on a rafter of his parlor. “No, I think I’d rather do without, Pepita. And there aren’t any robbers round here, anyway.”
“Well, ghosts, then, Ben,” she insisted. “Ghosts! Seems to me this is just the place where you’d see a tidy lot.” She craned her neck and looked up at the ivy-covered front of the old house. “Which is your room,” she went on. “That one, isn’t it, over the porch? Well, now, I guess if you look out from your window, you can see Gallowstree Point and that old gibbet! Fancy that, now, on a moonlight night! If I saw it, I’d let out a scream that would lick any siren or foghorn that ever sounded in the Channel!”
“You’re a baby, Pepita!” said I indulgently. “You forget that I’m a man!”
Instead of laughing at me, she studied me closely, with a sidelong glance from under her big hat.
“You’ve grown, Ben!” she said suddenly. “You look like as if you were going to be a young man now, instead of a boy! Sakes! I guess you’ll take to wearing a tailed coat Sundays!”
“Ordered!” said I proudly. “Members of the legal profession always wear tailed coats—it’s etiquette. And silk hats! Mine’s ordered too. You wait till I’m better, and start going to the office at Kingshaven every morning! Guess you wont know me!”
“Oh, yes, I shall, Ben, my boy!” she retorted, with the brutal candor of seventeen. “You haven’t got a snub nose or a heap of freckles and sandy hair for nothing! But I’m no end glad you’re better, old chap, and I’ll come and take you out—look out for me tomorrow, Ben, and we’ll have a nice walk.”
AND then, with one of her ravishing smiles, Pepita was gone. The light of the day went with her—and I turned regretfully into the house, and after locking the front door, in religious observance of Keziah’s behests, lighted the lamp in the parlor. It was then, I think, that I began to realize that the house, as Pepita had been kind enough to remark, really was rambling and old, and that there was a certain amount of queerness about being left absolutely alone in it.
However, there were things to be done, and occupation of any sort is a relief in circumstances like these. I prepared my own supper, and having been brought up from infancy by Keziah (my mother had died before I left the cradle), I washed up cups, plates and dishes after using them, and replaced each in its proper niche in the kitchen dresser—Keziah, a veritable martinet in all domestic matters never allowed dirty things to be about, and she would never have slept if as much as a teaspoon had been left uncleaned over night. All that done, I took my medicine, and sat down by what was left of the parlor fire, to read. And the old house got quieter and quieter and quieter—you could feel the quiet. If Keziah had come home unexpectedly, I wouldn’t have minded if she’d talked for a solid hour about the family silver, and its hallmarks, and its history.
I got sick of that stillness by nine o’clock, and I went to bed. And being still weak after my illness, I soon fell asleep—dropping off suddenly. But I woke more suddenly—to hear two separate sounds. One was the sound of our old grandfather clock—it was striking midnight, twelve long, dull strokes. I didn’t mind that. But I did mind the other sound—the sound of footsteps, stealthy, but unmistakable. I sat up in bed, listening, and I’m not ashamed to say, sweating with fear. And I sweated more than ever, and was more than ever afraid, when the footsteps stopped at our porch.
Uncle Joseph Krevin
WHEN you come to consider all the circumstances, you will not wonder that I was afraid. To begin with, I was weak, physically weak, from a long illness: there was not sufficient strength in me to grapple with a child. I was alone in a house which despite all its bolts, bars and window-fastenings, could be broken into. It was an isolated house, too; the nearest cottage was a couple of hundred yards away. And who should come to it, at that time o’ night, but some evil-disposed person? It was not Keziah, returning unexpectedly; Keziah would have thrown pebbles at my window and raised her voice. It wasn’t Veller, the local policeman—the tramp of Veller’s feet could have been heard a mile away. Whoever this man was, he had a soft tread, not as quiet as a cat’s, to be sure, and yet velvety. And who was he, and what was he after? I had heard the footsteps distinctly on the last stretch of the path which led from the garden gate to the shelter of the porch.
Now there was silence again; no doubt the man was examining the fastening of the front door: I pictured him—having a vivid imagination in those days—bending down to the lock in the moonlight, fingering the handle, perhaps, considering what he might do to get in. But suddenly I heard him going away again. There was no doubt of it—he was retreating down the path. And at that, I sprang out of my warm bed, and hurrying to the window, drew aside the blind and peered out into the night.
There was a three-quarter moon in the sky, right over the creek; but owing, perhaps, to the heat of the previous afternoon and evening, there was a heavy white mist on the shore and the land at its edge, and it circled about the trees and bushes in our garden. Still, I saw my midnight visitor; at least, I got a glimpse of him as he disappeared at the gate. He seemed to be a big man, broad of shoulders; maybe the mist made him look bigger than he was. And he went into the mist and was presently swallowed up in it, as he moved slowly in the direction of the spit of sand that ran down to Gallowstree.
I had some thought, then, of lighting a lamp, and setting it near the window of an upstairs room, so that this man, who ever he was, might know that the house was tenanted. But upon reflection I decided that he would probably take that as an invitation to come back. I did not want him back before full daylight, at any rate. So I returned to my bed, and of course lay there wide awake and listening, for a long time. I heard nothing, save the faint lap of the waves on the beach, and the occasional cry of a sea-bird. And at last I slept, and slept soundly; and when I woke, and went halfway down the stair to glance at the grandfather’s clock, it was close on seven, and the blessed sun was high in the heavens and smiling cheerily over shore and sea.
THERE was no reason why I should get up; I could have lain in bed till noon if I had liked. But my strength and my spirits were coming back to me, and there was that in the fresh spring morning which impelled me to action. So I got into some clothes, and lighted the kitchen fire, and put on the kettle, and as it wore toward eight undid the ponderous fastenings of the front door and looked out into the garden. And at once I had a surprise which was almost a shock. For there, on the left-hand side of the bench which ran round the porch, lay a bag—a queer-looking, travel-worn bag, old-fashioned in make, the leather much rubbed, the metal clasps battered and rusted—altogether, a bag that had seen much service. It was the sort of bag that you could carry easily in your hand, and it was roughly tied about with a bit of common cord in a fashion which suggested that the bag itself contained nothing that was valuable, and that anything was good enough for a fastening.
That my midnight visitor had set down his odd piece of luggage on the porch, I had no more doubt than that it lay there before my eyes. I made no attempt to touch it, but I went onto the porch and looked more closely at its exterior. There had been some initials painted on its side, in black, at one time, but they were now almost obliterated. And it had in past times borne many labels; there were traces of them all over it, back and front. But there was no recent label, nothing to show to whom it belonged, nor whence or by what route its owner had come there. Come he had, however, and straight to our door, as I made things out, and there had set down his bit of gear and gone away.
I WAS speculating with various why’s and what’s and who’s, when I heard a heavy and unmistakable tread on the pebbly road outside the garden. That was Veller, passing along to his cottage; he passed every morning. Presently he stuck his big round red face over the hedge and saw me and grinned—he was one of those men who smile perpetually.
“Morning, Master Ben!” said he. “Glad to see you out and around again!”
“Much obliged to you,” I answered. “But come here, Veller.”
He opened the garden gate and came up the path, his small eyes inquisitive. I silently pointed to the thing on the bench.
“Ah!” he exclaimed. “Just so! I sees it—a bag! And what might it signify, now, Master Ben?”
“Veller,” said I, “you listen to me. My sister’s away; she had to go away last night to Kingshaven, to see Mrs. Hozier—”
He nodded understanding, grinning more widely than ever, as if with great satisfaction.
“Ah!” he said, interrupting me. “Just so—exactly! I see Mr. Robinson last night as he come home on the last train from Kingshaven. Mrs. Hozier, now—her presented her good man with twinses yesterday. Afternoon it was, said Mr. Robinson—five o’clock. Which, when he called there, was doing well—all of ’em. Twinses—a boy and a gel.”
“Oh!” said I. “Well, anyway, that’s where my sister went, so I was all alone in the house, all night, d’ye see, Veller? And about twelve o’clock I heard footsteps come up the path there. They paused here, on the porch. Then they went off. I jumped out of bed and saw a man leave the garden and go away toward Gallowstree Point. And this morning—just now, in fact—I found this bag here, where you see it. What d’you make of that, Veller?”
He scratched the lobe of his red right ear, thoughtfully.
“Well, to be sure, that’s a main queer thing, Master Ben!” he answered. “You wasn’t expecting anybody—a visitor, now?”
“No!” said I. “Nobody!”
“Seems like as if whoever this here bag belongs to knew his way about in these parts,” he remarked ruminatively. “Here he comes, straight to the spot, puts down his luggage, and goes away! Whither? And for what purpose?”
“That’s just it!” I said. “Where’s he gone? Will he come back? What would you do, now, if you were me, Veller?”
He consulted his ear again, and presently smiled as with a great inspiration.
“Just so—exactly!” he answered. “Ah—if it was me, Master Ben, I should get my breakfast! Let things bide till that was done with, so to speak—leaving that there article where it is. ’Cause you never know what may be inside luggage of that complexion. Maybe this chap is a sea faring man. And I’ve knowed seafaring men as carried queer goods in their gear! Snakes! I wouldn’t open that there bag not for nothing—might be a rattle-serpent in it! You get your breakfast, Master Ben, and if so be as this here mysterious mortal do turn up, and there’s cause for what they call invoking the presence of the law—well, you knows where to find me!”
HE became portentously solemn and dignified in pronouncing the last word, and we parted without spoiling its effect, he to his cottage and I into the kitchen, to cook my breakfast. As was our custom, I left the front door wide open, and I had just got the bacon nicely sizzling in one pan, and the water for a couple of eggs near boiling-point in another, when I heard steps advancing along the garden path. I popped my head out of the kitchen and looked down the hall. There was a man on the porch.
He did not see me, for he was looking at the bag. So I took a good look at him. He was, I felt sure, the man I had seen from my window at midnight: the set of his shoulders seemed familiar. He was a big man, some five feet ten inches, I should say, in height, and broadly built, and his girth was accentuated by his loosely made suit of blue cloth. He wore a big slouch hat, and carried a queer-looking, un-English stick in his hand; there was a heavy gold cable chain across his waistcoat, and a gold pin in his neckcloth; somehow he gave the impression of being a solid, substantial man, financially. As for his face, which he presently turned in my direction, it was as big as his body, clean-shaven, pale-complexioned, flabby. There was a small nose in the middle of it, and two small, sly gray eyes, and a small, pursed-up mouth, but a big chin, and big jowl—my budding-lawyer instincts warned me that this was a man in dealing with whom it would be well to have all your wits about you.
I went toward him, and at sight of me he started. It was either a well-affected gesture, intended to deceive, or it was a genuine start of surprise; I found it difficult to decide which. And in making it, he let out a little, indefinite sound—a sort of almost affectionate murmur. But I was short and sharp enough.
“Well?” I demanded. “What do you want?”
His answer was as remarkable as it was unpleasant. He suddenly shot out a big flabby hand and grasped my chin and jaw, turning my face this way and that. It was all done in a second, and he spoke just as quickly.
“Aye!” he said in a fat, unctuous voice. “To be sure! It will be. Unmistakably a Heckitt! Know him anywhere!”
“I am a Heckitt!” I declared, edging away from him. “Who are you?”
He nodded at me solemnly, three times, and when he answered my question, his voice was fatter than ever.
“Your uncle, Joseph Krevin, my lad—that’s who I am!” he replied. “Your poor mother’s only brother Joe, what she was so fond of. You’ll have heard of me, no doubt—from your sister Keziah.”
“Never!” protested I. “Never heard Keziah speak of you at any time!”
HE looked highly pained at that. But a certain holy meekness spread itself as a cloak across the look of pain.
“Well, well!” he said. “Rellytives is—not always what they should be. But look you here, my lad—and this’ll show you that I know what I’m talking about. Inside the parlor there, on the left-hand side as you go in, there’s an ancient bureau, and on top of that bureau there’s two family Bibles; one’s bound in black morocco, and t’other in red calf. And the black one is the Heckitt family Bible, and the red one is the Krevin. And in the Krevin you’ll find me—Joseph Krevin; and in both you’ll find your mother, Hannah Krevin as was, what married a Heckitt—your father, Charles Heckitt. Uncle Joseph Krevin, I am—you can call me Uncle Joe for short, if you like; and well Keziah knows me, whether she mentions me or not. And where is Keziah—my niece Keziah, what I aint set eyes on for more years nor I can remember. A fine young woman, Keziah, and handsomest in these parts, when I was last hereabouts!”
He raised his voice considerably in the last sentence, as if hoping that Keziah would overhear this tribute to her charms, and his small eyes looked beyond me into the shadows of the hall. But I damped his ardor—or affectation of it.
“Keziah is not in at present,” I said, still keeping in the doorway. “I’m not quite sure when she will be in, either.”
“But you’re in, my lad!” he retorted sharply. “And I smells bacon—and coffee! Aint you going to welcome your Uncle Joe, what was your poor mother’s fav’rite? The Heckitts, as I remember them, was always given to hospitality, and—”
“Keziah doesn’t allow me to ask anybody in when she’s out,” I said. “But since you’re a relation—”
“Aye, there’s no doubt of that!” he interrupted quickly. “And, my lad,” he added, with a significant grimace, “not a poor one, neither—as you may find, to your profit, some of these days. And what may your name be, now, for ’tis so long since I was this way that there are matters I’ve forgotten.”
I told him my name, asked him in, and put more bacon in the pan and added more eggs to those I was boiling for myself. He sat down near the kitchen fire and watched me, making remarks about his surroundings from time to time which showed me that he was familiar enough with them.
“There’s little changed in this old house, nephew Ben,” he said, as he drew his chair to the table. “I says to myself as soon as ever I cast eyes on it that it was just the same as ever was!”
“That would be when you came to the porch last night?” I remarked, already curious about his movements. “I heard you—and saw you, too!”
But the words were no sooner out of my lips than I realized that I was a bit too cocksure in my assertions. He put down his knife and fork with a gesture of surprise.
“Me?” he exclaimed. “No, my lad! You didn’t see me, nor hear me neither, last night, at your porch! ’Cause why? I wasn’t there!”
“Isn’t that your bag outside on the porch?” I asked.
“Surely! My bag it is, and no other’s,” he asserted gravely. “But not brought there by me, my lad. You see, I’d a bit of business with a man hereabouts. And when I come along from London and got out at the station, I gives that there bit of a bag to a man what had come along with me in the train for the last few miles and said he knew this part, to leave for me at Heckitts’. That’d be the man you see.”
“Queer time for a man to come!” I said. “It was midnight!”
“Aye, well, it’d be past ten o’clock when I give him the bag,” he replied. “Late train, you see. No, I wasn’t nowheres about here last night, Ben, my boy—miles off, in the country. Seeing—ah—an old friend o’ mine. And what may you be thinking of doing with yourself, my lad? Finished your schooling, no doubt, and ekally no doubt, you’ll be a fine scholard?”
I gave him as much family news as I considered good for him, and then tried to extract some personal information about himself. But beyond ascertaining that he had knocked about the world a good deal and was for the present living somewhere in London, I learned very little of Uncle Joseph Krevin and his doings. He made a very good breakfast, and seemed to enjoy it; and when he had finally pushed aside his plate, drained his cup and lighted his pipe, he went back to the chimney-corner and became reminiscent. But all his reminiscences were of the family sort; he seemed to have the pedigrees of Krevins and Heckitts at his finger-ends, and if I tried to switch him off and to turn him into tracks more intimately concerned with his personal affairs, he adroitly eluded me and went back. About himself and his adventures during the many years which had elapsed since his last visit to Middlebourne, I squeezed nothing out of him.
KEZIAH came back from Kingshaven before dinner-time. She walked in on us unexpectedly, and she knew Uncle Joe Krevin at once, and at sight of him she looked as if somebody had just given her something very sour to bite at.
“So it’s you, is it?” she said. “After all these years?”
“Better late than never, Keziah,” he answered, almost humbly. “You see, I’d a bit of business in these parts, and I thought I’d look in. And no doubt you’ll give me a bed tonight, Keziah—and you’ll be glad to hear I’ve made my fortune since them other days?”
Keziah did not say whether she would be glad to hear that or not—she said nothing, except to reply dryly that she’d no doubt there would be a bed for our visitor, and a bite too. And I noticed that she held very little converse with Uncle Joe; what talk they had was of the nature of his talk to me after breakfast. He was out, by himself, that afternoon, and again for a couple of hours late in the evening: when he came in after that second excursion, he went straight to bed. And when he had gone, and his chamber door was shut, Keziah came close to my chair, and with a look of caution, whispered:
“Ben!” she said. “Flesh and blood of ours he is—but that’s the deepest and wickedest old scamp you ever saw!”
UNCLE JOSEPH KREVIN had been put in the best sleeping chamber, right over our heads, and though there was a good solid floor between him and us, I glanced at the ceiling, involuntarily, as if afraid he might overhear his niece Keziah’s denunciation of him. Keziah saw my gesture and dropped her tones still lower.
“Never heard word or seen sign of that man since you were born, Ben!” she went on. “And before that, never heard a good word of him! He talks about our poor mother, and him being her fav’rite! Lord save us—he was her fav’rite to the extent that she was the only one that stood by him! He was a bad ’un at all times—sly, deceitful, dishonest; he was in trouble with the coast-guard hereabouts, for he was mixed up in smuggling when but a lad; many’s the time I’ve heard my mother talk of it. And his own father turned him out when he came to be a man grown; and after that, he’d come back to these parts now and again, and never could one find how he made his living, nor where he’d been, nor what he did, but I reckon what ever he did was black work, and done in dark places. And ’tis nineteen years, Ben, since I set eyes on him, and now he’s back, and I’d like to know why! No good, I’ll be bound!”
“He said he’d business hereabouts, Keziah,” I remarked, “—business with some old friend of his.”
“Business!” she exclaimed with a sniff. “Aye, I’ll warrant him! Devil’s business, if any! And what friends has he about here, I’d like to know? There isn’t a Krevin left alive but him—your mother was the last. I can’t think of a soul hereabouts that’d be glad to see him or would have anything to do with him! Joe Krevin was far too well known all across the countryside in his younger days for them that knew him then to want to have truck with him now. He’s come down here for no good, Ben, and I’ll be truly thankful to see his big back turn out of that gate!”
“You wouldn’t ask him to go away, Keziah?” I suggested.
KEZIAH smoothed out the folds of the black silk apron which she always wore of an evening, regarding them with her head on one side.
“Well, flesh and blood is flesh and blood, Ben,” she answered; “and after all, he belongs to our particular blend, doesn’t he? You can’t very well show the door to a man who’s your own mother’s brother, can you, however bad you believe him to be? We’re half Krevins, ourselves—though we’re not bad eggs, such as he is.”
“He seems quiet and civil enough,” said I, “and in a way, a bit afraid of you, Keziah. He’s very humble and polite to you, anyway.”
Keziah sniffed again.
“I’m afraid of a man like that when he comes extra-polite!” she said. “That’s all put on! When a man of that sort gets, Ben, you look out for yourself. I’d rather see a burglar with a dark lantern and a pistol in his hand than a man like that, all soft speech and sugary smiles—far rather! Joe Krevin’s here in these parts for no good, and I hope to goodness he’ll take himself off before another sun’s down!”
“You don’t think he’s after the family silver, Keziah?” I suggested. “I suppose he knows about it?”
But for once in her life Keziah looked as if the family silver were a matter too contemptible to be mentioned in connection with Uncle Joseph Krevin. Her sniff deepened into a snort of something like derision.
“Family silver, lad!” she exclaimed. “No, indeed—it’ll be something more than a mere parcel of spoons and forks that’s brought Joe Krevin hereabouts! But it’s no use speculating, Ben, on what his game is; it’s wearing on to eleven o’clock, and time we were in bed. I’ll lock up.”
SHE went out into the hall and after winding up the grandfather’s clock, passed on to the front door, and as was her invariable custom, opened it and went out onto the porch to see what sort of night it was and what signs there were for the morrow. I followed her. It was a very still night; there was scarce a breath of wind, and all the sound we heard was the faint lapping of the waves on the beach. The moon was high above us, over the creek, but there was a great deal of cloud about, and all along the shore and over the sea there was white mist; we could see neither the dark belt of trees about Middlebourne Grange, the headlands at the opposite end of the creek, nor the old gallows at the extremity of the sand-spit. But it was a shifting mist, that—while we watched, it shifted, swirling away above the flats of sea-pink and spear-grass, and curling round the edges of the coppices that here and there ran down between the village and the coast. Once upon a time, looking out of our windows, I had fancied those curling mists to be ghosts—the ghosts of the pirates and smugglers who had been hanged from the old gibbet.
WE were turning out of the porch, where the scent of the jasmine hung thick and sweet on the night air, when the clinging silence was broken by a scream. It was a scream such as I had never heard before, have never heard since, and pray God I may never hear again: the scream of a human being in awful fear—and unmistakably the scream of a man. It clove the air with the speed of a bullet; its echo came for a sickening second from the wall of our house, and then there was silence, and Keziah clutching at the pillar of the porch.
“Merciful Heavens, Ben!” she gasped. “What—what’s that? Oh!”
For the scream came again—shorter and more subdued this time, snapped off, as it were, as if some hand had clutched the throat and mouth from which it came, and choked it ere it rose to full strength. And then the silence was deeper than ever. But I heard my own heart beating, and I saw Keziah put her hand to her breast.
“Where was it?” she asked faintly.
“Down there—out on Gallowstree,” I said. “What—”
“There!” she exclaimed. “Of all places! Ben!”
“Well?” I answered.
“There’s—there’s something going on down there!” she said. “I—I wonder if it’s—if it’s got to do with—with what we were talking about?”
I got an idea of what she meant, and half turned toward the stair at the side of the hall.
“Shall I call him?” I asked.
“No!” she said. “No! But—we must see. Shut the door and come on!”
I pulled to the door of the house, and we crept down the garden, and out on the bit of coarse grass that lay between it and the sand. Suddenly Keziah gripped my arm and came to a sharp halt.
“Listen, Ben!” she whispered. “What’s that? Oars!”
I too pulled myself up and stood listening. I heard a sound, and at first took it to be no more than that of the tide lapping against the rocks. But presently I decided that she was right in her surmise. Somebody was pulling a boat away from the shore, a little to our left, between Gallowstree Point and Middlebourne Grange, pulling steadily and swiftly—a single pair of oars, I fancied.
“Yes!” I said. “If only there was more moonlight—”
But just then another sort of light appeared. Round the corner of the narrow lane which led from the shore to the village came a blot of yellowy-red light, swinging to and fro, and near it we heard voices.
“Veller!” I exclaimed. “That’s his bull’s-eye, Keziah! He’s heard those screams too, and he’s got somebody with him.”
We edged swiftly across the sand-hills toward Veller and his lantern, and suddenly emerging into the circle of light which it threw, found ourselves confronting him and Captain Marigold. He, the Captain, it appeared, was on his way home from the house of a friend with whom he had been spending the evening, and foregathering with Veller in the village street, had stopped to talk for a moment or two; their peaceful conversation had been broken in upon by the screams.
“And if those weren’t the cries of a poor mortal in his death-agony, ma’am,” declared Captain Marigold, “and being done to death in some devilish manner, then you may write me down a Dutchman, which I’m certainly not! You heard the cries, ma’am?”
“Twice!” answered Keziah. “And just now we heard oars—over there!”
We all stopped, on the ridge of a rise of sandy turf, and listened, straining our eyes into the gray mist. But now we heard nothing; the sound of the oars had died away completely. And presently, Veller and his lantern going on in front, we went forward, slowly, and full of a certain fear, in the direction from which we had believed the cries to come.
IT was Captain Marigold who first saw the horror on which we were all presently to stare and were never again to forget. Perhaps his eyes were sharper than ours; perhaps his position at the policeman’s right hand gave him a better vantage point, but anyway, he saw before we did. And he let out a smothered exclamation that had nothing of irreverence in it.
“God in Heaven!” he said, and almost fell back on Veller. “Look!”
We were by that time at the edge of the rocks on which the old gibbet was so firmly fixed; and there, right in the middle of the circle of light thrown by the lantern, stood the gibbet itself, black, sinister. And to it was tied up a man—a little thin rat of a man, tied up by the throat. I saw at once how he had been tied; a coil of rope, new rope, was wound with relentless tightness round his neck and the iron-clamped post behind him; he had been garroted, strangled, anything you like to call it; and it needed but a glance to see that he was as dead as man can be. His head hung downward; his arms and hands fell limp against his sides; his legs dangled aimlessly toward the slimy rock. And when Veller moved to him and lifted his head, I saw that the tongue was sticking out of the mouth and that the eyes bulged horribly, and glazed though they were, were still wide open.
Captain Marigold darted forward by the policeman’s side, and seized the dead man’s right hand.
“Warm!” he exclaimed. “Quite warm! The man hasn’t been dead many minutes! And you heard oars?”
He snatched the lantern out of Veller’s hand and swept the water with it in the direction which Keziah and I pointed out to him. But you might as well have tried to lighten midnight with a match; the lantern threw no more than a tiny patch of light on the creaming surf at our feet. We turned again to the gibbet and its awful burden. The two men produced knives and began to cut the cord by which the dead man had been strangled against the post.
“Look you well at this before we take him down, Miss Heckitt!” said Captain Marigold. “And you too, boy! Your evidence’ll be wanted as to what you’ve actually seen. Get it fixed in your recollection!”
“There’s no need for any special effort to do that, Captain Marigold!” answered my sister in her very quietest tones. “We’ve both got eyes in our heads, and we’ve seen enough already. But—this man?”
Neither Veller nor Captain Marigold had ever seen the dead man before. He was, as I have already said, a little man—a rat of a man, and dead though he was, and horribly murdered, I could not help thinking that he had all the appearance of a thorough bad lot. A thin, sly, ferrety face, a shock of red hair, sharklike teeth between evil lips—all these things I noted. And I noted, too, that across the left cheek, running from the corner of the eye to near the lip, there was a long, livid scar, as if the man had been at some time slashed across the face by a sword cut or had had a dagger-thrust.
“You’re certain sure about hearing the sound of oars, Miss Heckitt?” asked Veller suddenly. “You don’t make no doubt on it? Then this here poor fellow must ha’ been brought in from sea by them as done this to him! He aint nobody belonging to these parts, and hasn’t been seen about the village, I’ll take my ’davy. I should ha’ heard of him if he’d been about here—looks like a foreigneerin’ feller, to me. Look at them earrings!”
The dead man had gold rings in his ears. And he had a gold chain across his waist coat, and was carrying a good silver watch at the end of it, and wearing a good blue serge suit, and altogether he looked as if in life he had been in comfortable circumstances. Veller hastily examined some of his pockets and withdrew his hand, looking mystified.
“Money there!” he exclaimed. “Seems plenty o’ money, too. I don’t understand this, Captain. He aint been robbed!”
“Bah!” said Captain Marigold impatiently. “Do you think robbery’s the only motive for murder? Something deeper and darker than that in this, my lad! Hadn’t you better get the body up to the village and have a proper examination?”
“There’s folks coming,” answered Veller, nodding at two or three sparks of lights across the beach. “I thought others than us would hear those screams. We’ll have to take him up to the Merry Mariner—that’s how the law stands, I reckon. Inquest’ll have to be there. And what evidence can anybody give, I’d like to know?”
“That remains to be seen,” observed Captain Marigold dryly. “Don’t interfere with his clothing any more now, Veller. Get him up to the inn, and send for a doctor, and get your inspector or sergeant.”
KEZIAH and I went away as the village people came down to Gallowstree Point. One thought was uppermost in the minds of both of us: Had this awful and ghastly murder any connection with the presence at Middlebourne of our relation Uncle Joseph Krevin? And if so—but beyond that things became vague.
“If he’s asleep,—and I suspect he is,—I’m going to wake him and tell him what’s just happened, Ben!” exclaimed Keziah suddenly, as we stumbled across the rough beach. “He’s got to know!”
“Keziah!” I murmured, half afraid of my own voice. “Do—do you think he’d anything to do with—with that?”
“I don’t know, Ben, I don’t know!” she answered. “I wish to God I did know! But—he’s here! And he was out this afternoon, and he was out this evening, after dark. Where? On what business? Whom did he see? And who’s this strange man—murdered by men that row away as quietly as they came? Here’s murder, black, foul, horrible, at our very door, Ben, and he’s there—sleeping in our best bed!”
We went into the house, and Keziah marched straight up the stair. The light in the hall was still burning at full, and it shone broadly on Uncle Joseph Krevin’s door. And in the silence we heard him snoring—a long, steady, deep-bass snore.
Keziah knocked—once, twice, thrice. The snoring stopped at last, and she knocked again, more loudly. Then we heard movements and creakings, and Uncle Joseph Krevin’s voice, demanding, sleepily, to know who was there?
“I’m here!” answered Keziah, peremptorily. “Come out! There’s news for you!”
We heard more movements and tumblings; then the door opened, and Uncle Joseph appeared wondering and blinking. He wore a suit of gorgeously colored pajamas, and in that uncertain light looked twice as big as he really was.
“Anything the matter?” he asked. “Not a fire, I hope, my lass?”
“There’ll be hell-fire for somebody over it!” said Keziah sharply. “No—murder! There’s a man been murdered outside here —just now! A strange man! Now, is it anybody you’re acquainted with—anybody you came to meet? I want to know.”
I was watching Uncle Joseph closely, and I saw his big, flabby face grow pale, and a queer look come into his eyes. He stared from Keziah to me, moistening his lips. But before he could speak, I spoke.
“A little dark man, with gold rings in his ears, and a slash right across his left cheek,” I began. “He—”
Before I could say a word more, he made a queer look come into his eyes. He stared straightway collapsed in a heavy heap on the doormat.
The Lady of the Grange
WE each got a hand under Uncle Joseph’s fat arms, and with some difficulty pulled his heavy body into a sitting posture against the door-post. After some sighings and groanings, he came round a little, rolled his eyes at us, and shaking his head, contrived to point a hand into the bedroom, toward his old traveling bag, which stood on a comer of the dressing-table.
“In bag!” he murmured faintly. “Bottle—brandy—glass.”
I hurried into the room, opened the bag, found a large black bottle, and snatching up a tumbler from the washstand, went back to him.
“Pour it out!” he whispered. “Ready mixed—brandy and water—forced to keep it by me—case of—attacks like this.”
He took a good swig of his medicine when I gave him the tumbler, and presently seemed to revive; certainly he looked at us with more assurance.
“Weak heart, Keziah!” he announced apologetically. “Suffered from it for some time. Can’t stand being woke up suddenly, nor get startled. And you gave me a shock!”
“Do you know anything of that man?” demanded Keziah. “You’ve heard him described—Ben described him! Come, now!”
He took another hearty pull at the brandy and water, got up from his undignified position, and shook his head.
“No!” he answered suavely. “Oh, no, Keziah and Benjamin, I don’t know the man you speak of! How should I? A man with gold rings in his ears, and a scar across his left cheek, say you? Oh, no, I don’t know any such person! How should I? I aint been in these parts for a many years, as you know.”
“This man isn’t of these parts,” snapped Keziah. “He’s as much a stranger as you are. And you were out twice yesterday and may have met him. Anyway, there’s been murder done at my very door, and in the morning the police’ll want to know a good deal that I can’t tell them, whether you can or not! Come away, Ben, and get to your bed.”
SHE stalked out of the room, leaving Uncle Joseph, glass in hand, leaning against the post of his bed, and I followed her. And presently I went to bed, and found it difficult to sleep; as soon as I had blown out my candle, I saw that awful sight again: the black gibbet-post, the rat of a man tied to it by his throat, his protruding tongue, his bulging eyes. I did sleep at last; and then I dreamed—horrible things. Dead men—Uncle Joseph—Veller—boats slipping away into darkness—lanterns dancing in yellow fog—all sorts of perplexing and terrifying matters. And at last somebody was shaking my shoulder, and I started up, and there was Keziah at my bedside, and the sun streaming in at the windows.
“Nine o’clock, Ben, and time you’d your breakfast,” she said. “I let you sleep—I’ve been in twice before. And Ben, he’s gone!”
I sat up in bed—no doubt with my mouth as wide open as my eyes.
“Uncle Joseph?” I exclaimed. “Left?”
“Gone when I got up, at six o’clock,” answered Keziah. “Bag and all! He’s as soft-footed as a cat, when he likes—always was, as I remember him; and that’s another bad sign in man or woman. Never you trust anybody, Ben, that walks about as if they wore velvet-soled slippers! Yes, he was gone, and our back door left open.”
“He must have known of that five-forty train to Kingshaven,” I said musingly. “You aren’t sorry, Keziah?”
“I’d as soon have the devil in my house as Joseph Krevin!” she answered. “That’s a fact, Ben! No, I’m glad to be rid of him. But there’ll be trouble. Of course it’s known that he’s been here; and now, in view of that murder, and his going off secret, like this, things will be said, and we shall have the police nosing round. Well, I shall keep nothing back! But get up, Ben; I’ve a nice piece of fish for your breakfast.”
I GOT up, not so much because of the fish, though my appetite as a convalescent was keen enough, as from a desire to look out on the scene of last night’s horrors. I drew up my blind, and opening the casements of the window, leaned out and looked across the beach toward Gallowstree Point. It was a wonderfully beautiful morning, with a blue and cloudless sky, and floods of bright sunshine covering sea and land; the thrushes were singing gayly in our garden, and I could hear the larks in the cornfields behind; I heard, too, the gentle lapping of the waves on the edge of the sands. And there, in the midst of all this springtide freshness, stood the black gibbet, on its platform of black rock; and once more, with a shudder, I saw the man tied to it, as clearly as I had seen him in the light of Veller’s lantern.
Veller himself came in while I was eating my breakfast. After his usual custom, he told us nothing until Keziah began to question him. And both he and Keziah had discussed the weather, and the state of their gardens, before they came to what they were both really thinking about.
“Any more news about last night?” asked Keziah at last.
Veller, sitting by the fire, with his large hands folded across the broadest part of his tunic, twiddled his thumbs and smiled widely.
“Well, scarcely what you might term news,” he answered. “We don’t know who the man is, nor where he came from, nor what he was doing here. Seems like he was brought ashore. But nobody as I can come across, see or hear of any vessel a-standing in to this part o’ the coast last evening. Mysterious affair—uncommon. He had plenty o’ money, on him, that man. Gold and silver money—matter o’ fifteen pound, all told. However, looking around that there old gibbet early this morning, one thing I did find as may be important.”
“What?” asked Keziah.
“Have it on me,” replied Veller. He unbuttoned one of the flap pockets of his tunic and produced a little parcel, done up in soft paper. “Have to be shown at the coroner’s ’quest, this will,” he continued. “You see what ’tis? An old pocketbook. Been a good article once, but now worn. Two or three pockets in it—morrocy leather, I believe. But—empty!”
“No papers in it?” suggested Keziah.
“Not a single dockyment, ma’am! I found it,” he went on, putting his find carefully away, “at the foot of them rocks, beneath where we found him. Lying open, on the sand, as if somebody had thrown it away. Well—maybe something’ll come o’ that. No telling!”
THEN, getting at last to what he had really come for, he asked quietly if Mr. Joseph Krevin had yet risen.
“Yes, and gone away too!” answered Keziah. “He left early this morning.”
“Ah!” said Veller, rubbing his chin. “I hear he was a-visiting you, and was out and about a bit yesterday, and I wondered if he’d seen this here dead man in his pilgrimages?”
“No, he hadn’t, and knew nothing about him!” snapped Keziah. “We woke him out of his sleep last night to ask him that very question.”
“Ah!” repeated Veller. “Just so—exactly. That’d be Mr. Joseph’s little bag, no doubt, that Master Ben, there, drew my official notice to on the porch yesterday morning?”
“It was his bag,” said I.
“To be sure!” assented Veller. “Deposited there midnight, I think, Master Ben? Just so! And where might Mr. Joseph ha’ been between midnight and breakfast-time?”
“Ben doesn’t know, Veller, and I don’t know!” said Keziah. “Nobody knows—here, anyway. Ask Joseph Krevin!”
Veller smiled more widely than ever, and rolled his eyes from one to the other of us, as if all this was a highly amusing game.
“Aye, just so, to be sure, ma’am!” he said. “And where might Mr. Joseph abide when he’s to home, like?”
“We don’t know that, either,” snapped Keziah. “We know nothing whatever about him, except that after nineteen years’ absence he came here yesterday morning about eight, left this morning before five, and went out twice yesterday on business that he never mentioned to us. And when you’ve written all that down, Veller, as you no doubt will, you’ve got every scrap of evidence we can give you!”
“To be sure, ma’am,” said Veller, good-humoredly. “Well, ’tis a ’nation queer business, aint it? Don’t remember that I ever heard of a queerer.” Then, rapidly turning to a more congenial subject, he added: “If so be as you’re wanting a setting of eggs for that there old brown hen of yours, Miss Heckitt, my missus she have some rare good ’uns.”
“Well, tell her to send them round,” answered Keziah. “I can do with them.” And as Veller, picking up his peaked cap, was moving off, she stopped him with a question. “I suppose some of your lot will be coming down to Middlebourne about this?” she suggested. “Police from Kingshaven, eh?”
“Half a dozen in the village, now, ma’am,” replied Veller, cheerfully. “And newspaper fellers, too! And I hear the Chief say something about getting down a Scotland Yard detective too, as I come out.”
“Well, I don’t want any more policemen here!” declared Keziah. “I don’t mind answering you, as a neighbor, Veller, but I want no more—I’ve told all we know. And as for those newspaper men, if any of ’em come here, I shall shut the door on ’em! I’ve no opinion of newspapers—a lot o’ trash!”
VELLER promised to do what he could to keep me from molestation and went away. I thought hard when he had gone and while I was finishing my breakfast. Having been destined, at my own wish, for the legal profession ever since I was twelve years of age, and sent by Keziah to Kingshaven Grammar School with that aim in view, I knew rather more than my sister did about the things we had just discussed, and I foresaw trouble and annoyance over Uncle Joseph Krevin.
“Keziah!” I said. “I’m afraid it’s not much good asking Veller to keep people away. People will come who wont be kept away!”
“An Englishman’s home is his castle!” affirmed Keziah stoutly.
“Not when the law wants to get in,” said I. “I’m afraid the law will want to know a good deal about Uncle Joseph. He came here, Keziah, under highly suspicious circumstances. The circumstances under which he left were highly suspicious also. Honest and innocent men, Keziah, don’t leave their relations’ houses at five o’clock in the morning, without as much as a hasty farewell; nor—”
“As if I didn’t know all that as well as you do, my lad!” broke in Keziah. “Don’t you start haranguing me! You’re not a judge yet, nor a lawyer neither. And I don’t want to hear another word about Joseph Krevin! This is my day for cleaning out the best parlor, and I don’t allow anybody or anything to come between me and my work. You put on your overcoat, and go for a bit of a walk in this nice sunshine—it’ll do you good.”
I TOOK Keziah’s advice, and after a while, when the morning had grown still warmer, went upstairs to get my best over coat, preparatory to setting out for a stroll on the shore. The overcoat was kept in a wardrobe in the room in which Uncle Joseph Krevin had slept: I had to go in there to get it. And as I passed across the floor, I chanced to see lying on the carpet near a chair at the side of the bed,—on which chair, no doubt, Uncle Joseph had cast some of his clothing when he unrobed,—a couple of small squares of paper, or of cardboard, half-hidden by the dimity valance of the bedstead. I picked them up and found them to be cards, common things, cheaply printed. Each bore the same name and address—a surname, without prefix of Christian name or initial—“Crippe, Marine Store Dealer, Old Gravel Lane, E.”
I carried them downstairs and showed them to Keziah, who looked at them with a suspicious eye.
“That’ll be a London address, Ben,” she remarked. “Where all the wickedness comes from! But who Crippe may be, or why he was carrying Crippe business tickets in his pocket, goodness—or as one should say, the devil!—only knows. Put ’em in the tea-caddy, my lad; they may come in for something, some time.”
THE tea-caddy, an ornamental affair, used as a receptacle for odds and ends, stood on the parlor sideboard. I put the cards in one of the compartments and then went out, leaving Keziah to her cleaning. That was only my second time of going abroad since my illness, and though I had a stout stick to aid my steps, I felt that I should not get very far, fine though the morning was, and bracing as the light breezes, blown in from the sea, seemed to me. Still, I managed to wander round the semicircle of the beach until I got to near the wall of Middlebourne Grange. There I gave out, and was glad to sit down on a low balustrade that projected from the little bridge which crossed the moat.
And I had scarcely perched myself on it, when the door in the wall behind me opened, and there came out a woman whom, though I had never seen her before, I immediately took to be the recently arrived tenant of the Grange, Miss Ellingham. She caught sight of me, sitting there, and came forward, looking intently at me; and I, on my part, looked just as intently at her. There was reason—I had never seen anybody like her. She was a thinnish, spare woman, rather above medium height, and, I should say, somewhat older than Keziah, which would make her about forty or forty-five. But it was her face and her dress which attracted me; the dress was a plain black affair, prim and straight, with nothing to relieve its plainness but a white collar and cuffs; the face, sharp, angular, every feature clear cut, was bleached almost as white as the linen, and in it, deep-set, were a pair of the blackest eyes I ever saw in man or woman. They seemed to burn you, those eyes, and if they fixed themselves on you once, it was as if they were never to be taken off again.
Those eyes were on me now, and as their owner drew nearer, I felt as if I was being bewitched, or fascinated, or—something. But she spoke, and her voice was extraordinarily soft, gentle, soothing.
“I think you’re Ben Heckitt?” she said, her thin, straight lips curving into a smile that was as pleasing as her voice.
“Yes, ma’am,” said I.
“And you’re about again after your illness?” she went on. “But”—here she nodded knowingly at me—“not feeling overstrong, eh?”
“I don’t feel very fit,” I answered. “This is about as far as I can walk, I think.”
“Weak about your legs, eh?” she suggested, with another smile. “And only too glad to sit down? You see I know how you’re feeling. But I don’t think you ought to sit on that stone; you may get a chill. Come in with me, and I’ll find you something more comfortable to rest on.”
I suppose I did not realize it at the time, but this was one of those women whose orders you’ve just got to obey: I obeyed her, anyway, and rising, followed her through the door in the wall and into the grounds of the Grange. Oddly enough, though I had lived close by it all my life, I had never been in there before, and I was interested to see what a fine, romantic old place it was—an ancient, gabled old mansion set amidst fine trees and carefully: tended gardens. But I had little time to observe this—Miss Ellingham marched me across a lawn, into the house, and through a stone-walled entrance hall to a big room that looked south. She pointed to an easy-chair, and then rang a bell at the side of the fireplace.
“I’m going to give you some medicine, Ben,” she said, with another of her smiles. “A glass of good old port and a biscuit! Do you like port? Most boys do.”
Before I could reply, the door opened again, and there came into the room, gorgeous in his brilliant Eastern dress, a Hindu manservant.
I SUPPOSE Miss Ellingham saw my start of surprise and astonishment at sight of this unexpected apparition, for when the man had taken some order from her and relieved the room of his multicolored presence, she turned to me with a laugh.
“Something new for you, that, eh?” she said. “Never seen anything like that before, have you?”
“Not out of a picture, ma’am,” said I.
“Oh, well, he’s real enough, poor Mandhu Khan!” she remarked. “A very good and faithful servant! I brought him with me from India where I lived a great many years—most of my life, in fact. He feels the English climate, though, and so do I, up to now. We have to keep good fires going, in spite of the spring warmth. But here’s the port, and you shall have a glass; when I was young, and people had been ill, they always had port, and I don’t see any reason why that custom should change, though most customs have changed, I’m sorry to say, since I left England.”
The Hindu had come back with a tray on which was a decanter and glasses, and a jar of biscuits: Miss Ellingham helped me to one glass of port and herself to an other, and putting the biscuits at my elbow, bade me serve myself. She nodded smilingly at me over the rim of her glass.
“Here’s wishing you a speedy return to your usual health, Ben Heckitt,” she said. “The parson was telling me about you yesterday. Your illness caught you on the very brink of a legal career, didn’t it?”
“Yes ma’am,” I answered. “I was just going to be articled to Mr. Philbrick, in Kingshaven. I’ve been intended for the law ever since I was twelve years old, ma’am. I’ve lost six months through my illness.”
“Oh, well, you’ll soon make that up!” she remarked cheerfully. “Got to be articled five years, haven’t you? You see, I know something about it—my father was a famous London solicitor—attorneys, they used to call them in those days. He made a big fortune out of the law; let’s hope you will.”
“Yes ma’am—thank you,” said I. “What branch of the profession did your father go in for, ma’am?”
She laughed at that, as if my obvious eagerness contrasted with some recollection.
“Oh, I’m afraid he was a dull and prosaic commercial lawyer, my father,” she replied. “Conveyancing, and companies, and all that sort of thing, you know. Which branch are you going in for?”
“I incline to criminal practice, ma’am,” said I, with a grave assurance that she no doubt found amusing. “I’ve read a lot of criminal law and practice already. Mr. Philbrick, he’s the best police-court practice in Kingshaven.”
“Well, that’s an interesting line!” she remarked, with another laugh. “More fun about police-courts than county courts, no doubt. I suppose you’re well up in what they call leading cases—murder-trials and so on, eh? That’s a deeply interesting—”
JUST then the door burst open, and in rushed Miss Ellingham’s nephew, Bryce, evidently in a state of high excitement, followed by Pepita Marigold. Bryce was an aggressively healthy youngster, about my own age, whom I secretly hated because since his arrival at the Grange he was forever persuading Pepita to go boating or fishing or birds’-nesting with him, and so getting more of her company than I liked. But he was not thinking of Pepita just then; the blaze in his eyes rose out of sheer delight at something utterly unusual.
“Aunt Kittie! Aunt Kittie!” he vociferated at the top of his voice. “Have you heard? Do you know what’s happened? There’s been a murder—a real, proper, awful murder, just close by. Last night! Captain Marigold—”
He broke off, suddenly catching sight of me, and his eyes grew as big as saucers, and his mouth opened wider and wider. Then he pointed straight to my face.
“Why—why!” he exclaimed. “He saw it! You did see it, didn’t you, Ben Heckitt? Pepita says—”
Pepita, too, was gazing at me as with an awful fascination, and I was quick to see that for that train at least, Master Bryce would have to take a back seat. I was the man who knew—the first-hand informant! I played up to the part, affecting an almost cynical indifference.
“Oh, yes!” I said, picking a crumb or two of biscuit off the table. “Oh, yes, I was there. Yes!”
“Where?” demanded Miss Ellingham, looking from one to the other. “What is all this? A murder? A man murdered? What man? When? And why didn’t you tell me, Ben?” she went on, turning in my direction. “We’ve not heard of it here!”
“I thought you’d know all about it, ma’am,” I replied. “It’s known all over the neighborhood, I should think.”
“No one has been out from here this morning,” she said quickly, “except Bryce. But tell me about it, Ben! Do I understand that you were there? That you saw—whatever was done—you? Tell me!”
“Yes, tell, tell!” exclaimed Bryce, almost dancing in his eagerness. “Tell! Tell about the man you found, tied up to the gallowstree! Go on!”
I felt quite revived by that time, and the glass of old port helped me to be, if not eloquent, at any rate dramatic. I imagined myself appearing for the prosecution, and laying out a case, lucidly, and with fitting detail, before a judge and jury, or a bench full of magistrates. And while I addressed myself to Miss Ellingham, I was conscious that Bryce on one side of me, and Pepita on the other, were drinking in and gloating over all the horrors of the story in full exercise of their youthful appetite for the gruesome. But young as I was, I could see that it was not the horror, but the mystery of the thing that impressed my chief listener. Miss Ellingham listened with concentrated attention, evidently forming ideas of her own as I went on. When I concluded by telling what Veller had told Keziah and me that morning, about there being a likelihood of a Scotland Yard detective being sent for, she shook her head.
“I don’t see much of a clue for him to lay hold of,” she remarked. “Well—here’s something for you to exercise your taste for criminal practice on, Ben! A strange, dark affair! And close to one’s own door! It would seem—”
She paused there: a man had come into the room, a man who carried some silver things on a tray, and was quietly placing them on the sideboard. I had never seen him before; Miss Ellingham and her servants had arrived at the Grange during my illness. I took him for the butler—that was what he looked like, in his gray trousers, black coat and vest, and neatly tied neckcloth. He was a little, quiet-looking man, very prim, proper, precise, with a rather taking, thoughtful face, on either side of the otherwise clean-shaven expanse of which was a bit of dark whisker, and his movements, as he flitted from one end of the big sideboard to the other, were as quiet and subdued as his looks. Miss Ellingham turned in his direction.
“Carsie!” she said. “Have you heard of this murder?”
The man turned, deferentially, folding his hands: I remember noticing, somehow, what soft, white hands he had, and how they stood sharply defined against the dead black of his cutaway morning coat.
“I have just heard of it, ma’am,” he answered in quiet, level accents. “From one of the tradesmen who called just now, ma’am—a mere outline.”
“No further news?” asked Miss Ellingham. “No clue?”
“Not that I am aware of, ma’am,” replied Carsie. “My informant, ma’am, inclined to the opinion—a generally prevalent opinion, I gathered—that the unfortunate victim was brought ashore from the sea.”
“That’s what I should think,” said Miss Ellingham. “You heard the sound of oars, didn’t you say, Ben?”
“Yes ma’am—my sister and I both heard the sound of oars, as if a boat was being pulled away from the beach,” I replied. “But we didn’t see anything—there was a pretty thick mist over the sea.”
“My informant, ma’am,” remarked Carsie, still busied with his silver at the side board, “told me that he had heard that toward dusk of the evening in question, a strange vessel was seen just outside the bar. It is believed, he says, in the village that the dead man was brought ashore from her.”
“I suppose there’ll be an inquest,” said Miss Ellingham. “Perhaps things will come out at that.”
“The inquest, ma’am, is fixed for tomorrow afternoon,, at three o’clock,” said the butler. “In the village schoolroom, ma’am.”
“Let’s go! Let’s go!” exclaimed Bryce. “I want to hear all about it! Shall we go, Aunt Kittie?”
The C. I. D. Man
MlSS ELLINGHAM made no definite reply; all the same, I saw her and Bryce among the general public when Keziah and I entered the schoolroom on the following afternoon. They were squeezed into a corner; Keziah and myself, having been notified that we had better be present, were placed more to the front of things. There were a lot of people there whom I did not know—solicitors who didn’t come from Kingshaven (I knew every Kingshaven solicitor by sight) and police officials, and men who looked very important and mysterious. And there was a young man, very smartly dressed, a boyish, pleasant-faced sort of fellow, who sat near the local police-inspector, and now and then engaged in conversation with him: I set him down as a clerk to some of the bigwigs, especially when I saw him from time to time make notes in a little black book.
But there was really very little to make notes about. The coroner, old Mr. Voules, whom everybody in the district knew as an old-established legal practitioner in Kingshaven, said at the very beginning that this was a mystery which was not going to be solved in a hurry, and that they could do no more that day than take a little necessary evidence, and then adjourn for a week or two until more information was forth coming. I gathered from this that Keziah and I were not going to learn any more than we already knew, but in that I was mistaken.
Veller and Captain Marigold set forth the particulars of our finding of the murdered man, and Dr. Bellairs testified as to the cause of his death. But there came into the witness-box a man whom I did not know, and who gave his name as John Watson, manager of the Collingwood Hotel, at Kingshaven. He was a middle-aged, rather surly-looking man, and when the coroner asked him if he had just been taken to see the dead body, he replied with a tense affirmative, and in a tone which seemed to imply that he would have much preferred to have been elsewhere.
“Did you recognize him as a man you have seen lately?” asked Mr. Voules.
“Yes!” replied Watson. “He’s a man who came to our hotel a few days ago.”
“What day was that?”
“Monday—last Monday afternoon.”
Mr. Voules looked at his notes.
“Monday, eh?” he remarked. “Let me see—the man was found tied to the gibbet-post late on—oh, yes, Tuesday night. Very good! So he came to your hotel, the Collingwood in Kingshaven, on Monday afternoon? What time?”
“Tea-time—five o’clock, or thereabouts.”
“Had you ever seen him before?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“A stranger to you. Well, what did he want?”
“Wanted to book a room. Said he might be there one night or two nights. As he’d no luggage, I asked him for a deposit. He gave me a couple of pound notes. I noticed he’d a fine lot of money in his pocket.”
“Is yours a cheap hotel?” inquired Mr. Voules.
“Moderate prices. It’s really a commercial hotel. But we get other people.”
“Did this man give you any name and address?”
“Yes. He signed the register-book—the police have seen the entry. Name—Sol Cousins. Address—London.”
“Well, what happened?”
“Nothing out of the common. He had his tea. He went out, came back about nine, had a bit of supper and went to his room. I saw him at breakfast next morning, and at intervals during the day—Tuesday. He seemed to be hanging about the place, as if he expected somebody. But I never saw him with anybody, and nobody made any inquiry at the office for him. About half-past six on Tuesday evening he came to me at the office window and said he was leaving and would settle up. There was change due to him out of his two pounds deposit. I gave it to him, and he went away.”
“That was the last you saw of him?”
“Yes. I saw no more of him, of course, after he walked out.”
“And that was at half-past six on Tuesday evening?”
“Just about that time.”
MR. VOULES looked at his jury over the tops of his gold-rimmed spectacles.
“An important fact, gentlemen!” he remarked solemnly. “This man leaves a Kingshaven hotel at half-past six o’clock, alive and alert; within a few hours—five hours—he is found murdered, in a very strange and horrible fashion, on the beach at Middlebourne, nine miles away. A most extraordinary case! You’re absolutely sure, Watson, that the man whose body you’ve just seen is the man you have been telling us about?”
“No doubt about that!” answered the witness, almost sneeringly. “I recognized him at once. I took particular stock of him while he was at our place!”
“Why, now?” inquired Mr. Voules.
“Because I didn’t like his looks!” said Watson. “He was respectably dressed, and as I said, had plenty of money about him; but I didn’t like him.”
He was about to leave the witness-box when the young man whom I have mentioned as sitting near the police-inspector whispered something in the inspector’s ear—who half-rose from his seat, motioning the witness to wait.
“A question!” he said. “Did you take this man, from his speech, to be an English man or a foreigner?”
Watson gave his questioner a glance which signified his own complete assurance about the point raised.
“I took him for what he obviously was!” he answered. “An East End Londoner—and no very good class, either!”
Mr. Voules adjourned the inquest on that—for a fortnight. During that time, he remarked, the police would doubtless acquire more information, and perhaps the gentlemen of the press—here he beamed benevolently on two or three men who had been scribbling away at a table beneath him—would give assistance.
KEZIAH bundled me out while the old coroner was still mumbling his platitudes—out and away before the rest of the folk could leave.
She gave my arm a grip as we quitted the schoolroom.
“Ben!” she said. “They never called you or me! And we haven’t been asked a word about Joseph Krevin!”
“Well, aren’t you glad, Keziah?” I answered. “You didn’t want—”
“I don’t like it, Ben!” she interrupted hastily. “I’d rather have been questioned straight out and been done with, than feel that the police are doing things behind one’s back! They know about people, of course, and they’ll follow it up. We shall have them at our door yet!”
Keziah was rarely wrong about anything: I think she was born shrewd. That very afternoon, as she and I were just sitting down to tea, a knock came to the door; and when I went to answer it, there on the porch stood the pleasant-faced smart young man whom I had noticed at the inquest making occasional notes in a little black book. He bade me good-afternoon smilingly, asked for Miss Heckitt, and thrust into my hand a card whereon I read: “Edward Cherry, Criminal Investigation Department, New Scotland Yard, S. W.”
The Crab and Lobster Inn
I WAS so utterly amazed to find that our visitor was a full-fledged Scotland Yard detective, having until then cherished a wholly fanciful and imaginary idea of the personalities of these sleuth-hounds, that for a moment I stood staring at him in blank silence. But Keziah called from the parlor, to know who was there, and I hurried back and thrust the card before her. She uttered an exclamation of annoyance, and stalked out into the hall.
“Now, I told Veller—” she began. But at sight of the caller, she checked herself.
Keziah had certain weaknesses, and one of them, with which I was well enough acquainted, was for well-dressed and good-looking people. I saw her face change. “You don’t mean to say that you’re a policeman!” she exclaimed incredulously. “A smart young gentleman like you!”
“I hope I’m not the less fitted for my job because of that, ma’am,” replied our visitor, with a laugh of enjoyment at Keziah’s bluntness. “I believe I’ve the pleasure of seeing Miss Heckitt—Miss Keziah Heckitt?”
“You can come in,” said Keziah, motioning him to enter. “Perhaps you’ll take a cup of tea? It’s all ready. Of course, I saw you at the inquest, but I never dreamed that you’d anything to do with the police. And as I was just going to say, I told Veller yesterday morning all I know, and all that Ben, there, knows, and I said that I wouldn’t be bothered any more, nor with the newspaper men neither—especially them, a parcel of busybodies! But well I knew the police would come! However, sit you down—do you take milk and sugar?”
“Both, if you please, Miss Heckitt, and you’re very kind,” answered our visitor, taking the chair which I offered him. “But don’t think that I’m going to bother you! As a matter of fact, I’m here to save you a lot of bother. You see, the local police—Veller, of course—told me what you’d already said, and I suggested to them that instead of putting you in the witness-box this afternoon, it would be far better if I just called and had a bit of quiet talk with you. Ladies, I know, don’t care about going into witness-boxes.”
“Well, I don’t know that they’d have got anything much out of me if I had gone into the box,” remarked Keziah. “As to finding that poor fellow, Captain Marigold and Veller saw as much as Ben and me did; and as to anything else—try a bit of that hot tea-cake, now!”
“It’s the anything else, Miss Heckitt, that I called about,” said the detective, helping himself. “And the anything else is—your uncle, Mr. Joseph Krevin. As I understand matters, Mr. Krevin came down here, where he hadn’t been seen for a great many years, and said that he’d a little private business with somebody hereabouts. Since yesterday morning the local police have been making inquiries all round the immediate district, and they can’t find that Mr. Krevin called on anybody, saw anybody, did anything. Yet I believe he was twice away from your house during the day he spent here?”
“Out in the afternoon, and out again in the evening,” asserted Keziah. “But we don’t know where he went!”
“The notion is—or may be—that he came here to meet the dead man,” said Cherry. “I gather that you don’t know much about Mr. Krevin—of late years?”
“I know nothing!” declared Keziah. “Never set eyes on him—never heard tell of him for nineteen years, till the other day. I don’t know why he came here, Mister, and I don’t know what he did here, and I don’t know where he went!”
“That’s a queer thing, too,” observed Cherry. “The local police spent a lot of time yesterday trying to find out where Mr. Krevin went when he left your house. They haven’t heard a word of him! From the time he walked out of your garden—five o’clock in the morning, I understand—”
“I never said it was five o’clock,” interrupted Keziah. “What I said was that he’d gone by five o’clock, at which hour, following my usual custom, I was up. He might ha’ gone at three o’clock, or at two, or at one, for all I know. What I do know is only that he’d gone! And good riddance!”
“You don’t feel friendly to your relative, Miss Heckitt?” suggested Cherry, smiling. “Just so—I understand. Well, he went during the night. But before that, you’d told him of what had happened—of what you and your brother had seen?”
“We had, and a nice turn it gave him!” replied Keziah. She proceeded to tell of Uncle Joseph’s seizure and of his denial of acquaintance with the murdered man. “But he may ha’ known him, for all that!” she concluded. “First and last, flesh and blood of ours though he is, Joe Krevin’s a bad ’un, Mister! And I’ll warrant me he was down in these parts for no good purpose.”
“This is very excellent tea, ma’am,” said our visitor. “May I trouble you for another cup? Well, mysteries are mysteries, Miss Heckitt, and all we can do is to keep finding one bit of the puzzle and fitting it into another, and—so on! Haven’t found many bits of this, so far, though!” he added with a grin. “Pretty well obscured, I think! Now, I hear that you all thought that you heard the sound' of oars—”
“We did!” said I, breaking in for the first time. “There’s no doubt about that! We heard them distinctly!”
“Close at hand?” he queried, giving me a keen look.
OUR tea-table was set in the wide window-place, from which there was a view of the whole expanse of the creek; and I turned, pointing out of the casements.
“You see the big black post set in the rocks down there, across the sands?” I said. “That’s Gallowstree Point, where we found the man tied up. Then you see the chimneys and gables of the big house set in the trees, to the eastward? That’s Middlebourne Grange. And you see the promontory on this other, the west side, running out into the sea? That’s Fliman’s End. Well, the boat that we heard was being pulled across there; it was between Gallowstree and Fliman’s End—I should say about halfway across. And it was a single pair of oars, too!”
He listened to me with great attention, nodding his head at each point I made, and following my finger as I indicated the various directions. But he made no comment on this information, and presently finishing his tea, he thanked Keziah again for her hospitality, promised that she should be kept out of things as far as possible, and said he must be going. Then as he picked up his hat, he turned to us as with an afterthought.
“I suppose you don’t know Mr. Joseph Krevin’s address?” he asked. “It might be useful.”
“No!” said Keziah, with emphasis. “We don’t know his address—if he has one! My opinion is that he goes about, like somebody we needn’t mention, seeking what he can devour! We’ve no idea where he can be heard of.”
But a sudden recollection came to me.
“Keziah!” I exclaimed. “Those cards!”
Keziah remembered too. She glanced at the tea-caddy.
“Oh, well!” she said. “You can give him those, Ben. But what use they’ll be—”
IT seemed to me, when I had produced the cards and handed them over to Cherry, with an account of how and where I had found them, that they struck him as likely to be very useful. He put them in his pocket, said good-by to Keziah, and went off. I walked down the garden with him, and when we were outside the porch, he gave me a keen look.
“I’ve heard about you—from Veller,” he said. “You’re going in for the law, eh?”
“As soon as I’m all right again,” I answered.
“This affair interests you,” he suggested. “Just so! Now, what do you make of it?”
I was flattered at being asked such a question by a man, who, young as he seemed, was, after all, a genuine detective. He saw that I was—and he laughed, and gave me an encouraging nod.
“You’re old enough to have an opinion!” he said. “Come, now?”
“Well, I think it’s a very queer thing that it should happen just when Uncle Joseph Krevin was here!” I replied, after a moment’s thought. “Besides, Uncle Joseph’s movements were strange.” I went on to tell him about the midnight visit, and the bag on the porch, and all the rest of it. “And where did he go when he went out—twice—that day he spent with us?” I concluded. “If we knew that—”
“I’m going to know!” he interrupted. “I’ll comb this neighborhood! He went—somewhere! He saw—somebody! All right! We’ve got to find that out. No love lost, I think, between your sister and Uncle Joseph, eh?”
HE laughed again, waved his hand, and went off in the direction of Veller’s cottage. We neither saw nor heard any thing of him during the rest of that day, nor on the following morning, either, until, just after dinner, he came up the garden and approached the open window of the parlor, at which I was sitting.
“How are you today?” he asked, leaning over the windowsill. “I just looked round to say that I’m going a few miles along the coast on a bit of business—got a car waiting up the lane. Would you like to come?”
“Aye, take him, Mister!” said Keziah, who was close behind me. “A ride’ll do him good. Put your overcoat on, Ben—it’s cold work in those motors. Got any news?” she inquired of Cherry as I made myself ready. “Anything come out?”
“Nothing much, ma’am,” replied the detective, smiling. “Slow and sure is the game! We live on hope, you know.”
“Poor stuff to live on, too, very often!” said Keziah. “I see there’s plenty about this affair in the newspapers this morning: them newspaper fellows is the boys to make a lot out of a little, to be sure! What beats me, considering all the fuss there’s been about this, is that that dead man’s friends don’t come forward to claim him! What?”
“They may have good reasons for keeping quiet, ma’am,” answered Cherry. “If there’s a bad egg in a sitting, the best thing is to throw it away, you know. Perhaps this man’s people aren’t overanxious to acknowledge any relationship. But I’ve no doubt somebody will be coming forward who knows something about him.”
I was ready then, and Cherry and I went off to a car which was waiting at the end of the lane. Once outside the garden gate, he gave me a knowing look.
“I wasn’t going to say anything before your sister,” he said, “but I’ve heard of a bit of possible information, though I don’t know of what value it may be. Look at this—it was sent to the police-inspector this morning, and he handed it over to me.”
HE gave me a sheet of coarse, cheap letter-paper on which a few lines were scrawled in watery ink by some hand which, obviously, was not at all accustomed to the frequent use of a pen.
Crab and Lobster Inn,
Hearing about this matter at Middlebourne make bold to tell you that if you will call here at any time convenient, me being always in, can tell you something as may have something to do with that but too long to write in a letter. Remaining yours truly,
“I’ve an idea that the something to which Sarah Tappen refers has to do with your uncle,” said Cherry as I gave him back the letter. “That’s why I asked you to go with me—if we hear any description of such a man, you can tell if it fits him. Now, where is this Fishampton?”
“Six or seven miles away, on the Kingshaven road,” said I. “It’s a queer little place, at the head of a creek. Tell the driver to go straight to the Crab and Lobster—he’ll know it. And that’s a queer place, too!”
Everybody knew the Crab and Lobster in our part of the country. It was one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood; a ramshackle place, one side of which rose sheer out of the waters of Fishampton Creek, while the other fronted the highroad from London to Kingshaven. It was a place to which people walked out from Kingshaven in summer, to go boating and fishing on the creek, or to have tea in the garden—a place, too, convenient for drovers and carters, and sure at all times of a good trade: not the house, it seemed to me, where secret meetings could be held; and I had the idea that if Uncle Joseph Krevin had been there, there would be something secret about his visit.
BUT Cherry and I had not been closeted with Mrs. Tappen, a little, sharp-eyed elderly woman, many minutes before I realized that we had hit a trail.
“I heard, of course, of this here murder business at Middlebourne,” said Mrs. Tappen, when she had assured herself of Cherry’s status as a policeman, and seen her own letter produced as warrant and credentials, “and it struck me at once as there was something I could tell, but as I remarked, too long to put in a letter. You see, I learned that this here unfortunate man what was done in so shameful, he was wearing gold rings in his ears and had a scar, an unusual one, on the left cheek. Very well, young man—that there person came to this house one afternoon about a fortnight ago!”
“Alone?” asked Cherry.
“No! He’d another man with him,” replied the landlady. “I see ’em come—I happened to be at the front, buying some fish. They come along the road from Kingshaven, walking. The other man was a big, broadly built, clean-shaven fellow, well-dressed in a blue suit; they both wore blue suits—serge, you know, young man, like seagoing men affects for their best: I took particular notice of both of ’em. They turned in here, and went into the little parlor at the side of the bar—turned in there as if they knew it quite well, though I’m sure I’d never set eyes on either of ’em before—at least, it’s not in my recollection that I ever had. But I think the big man must ha’ been in here at some time or other, for I heard him remark to his mate that the old place wasn’t noways altered.”
“Did they stay long?” inquired Cherry.
“Most of two hours,” replied Mrs. Tappen. “The big man drank brandy and water, the man with the rings in his ears, rum. They talked together—with their heads close; from what I saw of ’em, it seemed to be very confidential business. At last they went off, and I saw ’em go back by the same road—Kingshaven way.”
“And that was the last, I suppose?” asked Cherry.
“No!” said Mrs. Tappen. “The big man came here again last Monday. He walked in about four o’clock, and he asked at once if I remembered him being here a fortnight before with a friend, and if the friend had been in that day? I said I remembered him well enough, and that his friend had not been in; and at that, he said he’d wait for him. He did wait, in the little parlor—he waited till well past six, but the other man never came. It seemed to me that the big man got fidgety; he was all right with his brandy-and-water and his pipe at first, but after a time he began to look out of the door, up and down the road, as if impatient. And in the end he went away, but he gave me a card on which he’d scribbled something, and asked me, if his friend came in that night, or next morning, or any time next day, to give it to him. But the man with the rings in his ears never came at all, and the card’s there, where I put it, stuck in that looking-glass.”
She took the card down from a mirror above the fireplace, and handed it to Cherry. I looked over his shoulder, and I knew then that we had been hearing of Uncle Joseph. It was another of the cards bearing the name of Crippe of Old Gravel Lane; and on the back was written a line in pencil: “Tomorrow, afternoon or evening. S. S.”
WE left Mrs. Tappen, and the Crab and Lobster, soon after that, and went out to our car. But instead of getting into it, Cherry motioned me to walk along the road with him, and bade the driver follow us.
“Well?” he said as we moved away. “And what do you make of all that, young fellow? I saw you keeping your ears open!”
“I make of it that Uncle Joseph Krevin was here a fortnight ago with Sol Cousins, and that he came again, by himself, last Monday, expecting to meet Sol Cousins, and didn’t meet him,” I answered. “What else is there to make of it?”
“Just so—on the surface of things!” he remarked. “But Monday is the important matter! It was Monday night when Krevin came to your house, wasn’t it?”
“Monday midnight,” I said.
“Well, we’ll have to find out where he was on Monday evening,” he continued, “between being here and turning up at your porch. It’s an odd thing, putting everything together, that Cousins, being somewhere about—he was certainly at Kingshaven, at the Collingwood Hotel, on Monday night—didn’t turn up here at the Crab and Lobster on Monday afternoon. And—where were those two to meet on Tuesday—in accordance with this card?”
He had the card in his hand, and kept glancing at the penciled line on the back. I too glanced at it.
“Uncle Joseph was out twice on Tuesday,” I remarked, “—once in the afternoon, once in the evening. Perhaps they did meet.”
“If they did, it must have been at some place nearer to your house than this is,” he observed. “This is a good seven miles from Middlebourne, and your Uncle Joseph couldn’t have come—we wont say here to Mrs. Tappen’s, for we know he didn’t, but anywhere about here, within the time. There’s communication by train and by motorbus. is there? Yes, but we know that he was never seen on either—we should have heard of him in that respect by now. No! If he met this man Sol Cousins, on Tuesday, it must have been at some quiet place near your house. Did they meet?”
“Is that very important?” I asked.
He gave me a half-whimsical look, and pulling out pipe and pouch, began to smoke, keeping silence until the tobacco was in full blast.
“In jobs like this, my lad, there isn’t a detail that isn’t important,” he said dryly. “It’s very often the apparently insignificant things that are of prime importance. I’d give a lot to know if Cousins and Krevin met on Tuesday—in accordance with the suggestion on this card.”
“Well,” said I, “if even small things are of importance, what do you make of one that seems very small? On that card is written ‘Tomorrow afternoon or evening. S. S.’ What does ‘S. S.’ signify?”
He glanced at the card again, almost with indifference.
“Oh!” he answered. “I take it that those things are the initials of some name that Cousins knew Krevin by—they’ve always some fancy names, sobriquets, aliases, these chaps! No doubt, from what your sister says of him, Krevin had half a dozen: Cousins knew him as Sam Smith, or Silas Saunders, or Seth Simpson, or Simon Scott. See?”
“No, I don’t!” I retorted. “I think that S. S. are the initials of the name of some place, well known to both, where they were to meet. That’s what I think! Why should Krevin have signed any initials, assumed or otherwise, to his message? Cousins would know well enough from whom the message came.”
He gave a start of surprise, laughed, almost gleefully, and clapped me on the shoulder.
“Good lad—good lad!” he exclaimed. “It may be! I’m an ass, Ben, not to have thought of it! And what places are there, hereabouts, now, whose names begin with S?”
“Two or three,” I answered. “There’s Summerstead, and Sheldrake and Settlecroft—all in the neighborhood. And there’s another place, close by, South Stilbeach. There you are—there’s S. S. for you!”
“Is that anywhere on our way back?” he asked.
“It could be made so,” I replied. “It’s between here and Middlebourne, but off the road—a quiet little place between the road and the sea.”
HE turned and beckoned to the driver of our car, and we got in and went to South Stilbeach. It was a queer, out-of-the-way fishing village, a mere collection of huts and cottages, with a shabby beer house fronting the beach. And we drew it blank; nobody there had seen or heard of any two such men as those we described. We went homeward after that. And we were driving down the one street of our village, toward the garage from which Cherry had hired the car, when, as we passed Veller’s house, we heard ourselves hailed by more voices than one, and turning, saw Veller hurrying out of his door, followed by Pepita Marigold and Bryce Effingham, and all three in an evident state of high excitement. We stopped the car, got out, and met them in Veller’s garden. Pepita and Bryce were too full of something to be able to speak; Veller waved a big hand toward them as he strode in front.
“These two,” he said with one of his widest grins, “has made what they call a discovery. May ha’ something to do with this here job, and mayn’t. However, they come straight to me about it just now.”
Bryce Ellingham shoved himself forward.
“Of course, it’s a discovery, and a most important one!” he exclaimed in his cocksure fashion. “We came to find you about it, Mr. Cherry, but as you weren’t about, we told Veller, because in these things time’s important, isn’t it? Look at this, now! If that isn’t what you detectives call a clue, then I’d like to know what is!” He suddenly held out his left hand, palm upward, and there lying on its somewhat grubby expanse, we saw a gold coin, in which a hole had been drilled, and to which, by the hole, a bit of broken chain was attached. And as soon as I set eyes on it, I let out an exclamation which I couldn’t repress.
“Uncle Joseph’s!” said I, close to Cherry’s elbow. “His!”
NEITHER Bryce Ellingham nor Pepita seemed to know exactly what I meant, but Cherry was quick to grasp the significance of my exclamation, and for the moment to divert attention from it. He took the coin out of Bryce’s fingers and examined it, turning it over with special attention to the bit of broken chain.
“An American ten-dollar piece, eh?” he said. “Um! Very handsome coin, too! And where did you find this, young gentleman?”
“It was like this,” replied Bryce loftily. “Miss Marigold and I were walking along the bottom of the rocks there at Fliman’s End. There’s a sort of recess, something like a cave, there. I picked up the coin in that cave, lying among some seaweed—”
“Look as if it had been there long?” interrupted Cherry. “Any sand on it?”
“No; it was just as it is now,” replied Bryce. “Looked as if somebody dropped it recently, and it had fallen or rolled among the seaweed. But that’s not all,” he continued, growing more and more important. “There are footmarks in that recess that I’m sure you ought to see. A man’s—a big man’s too! And they lead straight across the sand: firm white sand it is, there, and they’re the only marks on it. We didn’t stop to see where they went—”
“No, we hurried back to see you!”Pepita, obviously anxious to join in the game, “and as you weren’t about, we were persuading Veller to go back with us—”
“We’ll all go,” said Cherry. He looked at Veller and winked. “How near can we take the car to this point they’re talking about?” he asked.
“Down to the end of the lane that runs past our house,” said I. “Get in—I’ll show the driver where to go.”
The other four got into the car; I seated myself in front by the driver. As we moved off, Cherry put his head over the low screen, close to my ear.
“Certain that coin is your uncle’s?” he asked in a whisper.
“Dead certain!” said I. “I noticed it particularly the other day. It hung from his watchchain.”
He nodded and sank his voice still lower.
“All right. But say no more about that when we get out,” he whispered. “Those two youngsters were too excited to understand what you said just now, and they’ll forget. And keep your eyes open when we see this place.”
THE car took us to within a quarter of a mile of Fliman’s End; on leaving it, we crossed a narrow field, and coming out on the beach, followed the line of the cliffs till we came to the rocks. Those rocks made a great black pile, noticeable along the coast for a long way in both directions. There were several caves and recesses in them; that to which Bryce led us faced westward, away from our creek; there was a view from its mouth of all the long curving coast as far as Kingshaven in the hazy distance. And within it were ledges of worn rock, and at the foot of them masses of weed and of driftwood, blown in there by the high winds that often swept up Channel from the Atlantic.
“That’s where I picked it up!” exclaimed Bryce, pointing to a heap of seaweed at the bottom of the cave. “Just there! And now you look at those big footmarks! Lots of ’em here in the cave; and see, they go in a straight line down there!”
Cherry glanced round, and seemed to get some idea.
“Those footprints are plain enough along there,” he said. “They’re those of a big, heavy-footed man who’s come along here by pretty much the same way that we did—from the end of that lane and across the field. But I’m not concerned with that so much; what I want to know is where does this track lead to?”
He pointed to the marks which led away from the cave, westward, and adjuring all of us to walk on either side of them, began to trace them toward the sea. The sands thereabouts were white, dry and firm, and the big footprints were plain enough. The man who made them had evidently walked straight down to the beach, turning to neither left nor right, as if to a definite point, with an equally definite object.
“Whereabouts is high-water mark?” inquired Cherry suddenly.
Veller pointed a little ahead.
“You’ll see where that is as soon as we come to where the sand changes color,” he answered. “At this time o’ year, somewhere about halfway up beach.”
“Just so! And we shall find that these marks come to a sudden stop there!” said Cherry. “The man who made them has been taken off in a boat which came to this point to meet him, by previous arrangement. Here you are—there they end!”
He nodded confidently at a definite line in the beach, marked by a thin tangle of weed and rubbish; the line to which the tide flowed in at high water. The foot marks came right up to that in the dry white sand; beyond it, on the wet beach there were none.
“Yes, that’s it!” remarked Cherry musingly, as we stood staring at the high-water-mark line and the wet sands beyond. “I see how it’s been: here he came, and here he waited for the boat. Well, let’s have another glance at that cave.”
WE went back to the cave, and had a more careful look round it. And suddenly it was my privilege to make a discovery; fortunately, I made it when Bryce, Pepita and Veller were at one end of the cave, and Cherry and myself at the other. In addition to the seaweed and driftwood that lay heaped in the recesses, there was a lot of rubbish about in there—folk from Kingshaven sometimes came along that coast, picnicking, and they left stuff about, newspapers, bottles and the like. And I saw a bottle that had certainly not come from Kingshaven, a bottle that I recognized, and I picked it out from a corner into which it had been carelessly tossed, and held it up before Cherry.
“Another link!” I exclaimed triumphantly. “This too was Uncle Joseph Krevin’s property! I know this is the bottle Uncle Joseph had in his old bag—I told you I got it out at his bidding, when he turned faint on hearing about the murder? Look at the queer names on the label! That’s why I remember it.”
He followed my pointing finger and nodded his acquiescence.
“I see!” he said. “Odd names, to be sure! ‘Zetterquist and Vanderpant, Wine and Spirit Merchants, St. George Street, E.’ Oh, yes! I think that’s no local product. Come—we’re beginning to get a bit of knowledge about your Uncle Joseph’s haunts. He has something to do with Crippe, who keeps a marine stores place in Old Gravel Lane; and he buys his liquor, or has bought it, in St. George Street, which is fairly close by. We shall have to inquire about Uncle Joseph in those parts, Ben. But in the meantime—”
He gave me a warning wink, put the bottle in a deep pocket of his overcoat, and then, going across to the others, said that we’d be going back. On the way to the car he admonished Bryce Ellingham and Pepita to keep the news of this discovery to themselves, promising them at the same time that when the precise moment arrived for making it public, they should have the full and entire credit. When we reached the car, he sent them and Veller forward in it: he and I walked up the lane toward our house.
“Ben,” he said, when we were alone, “I begin to see into some of your Uncle Joseph’s little ways! There’s no doubt that when he left your house in the night, he came along to that cave we’ve just seen. There he finished his brandy; there he dropped this American ten-dollar piece; and there he waited till a boat came to take him off. Now, all that—the waiting at that particular spot, anyway—presupposes cut-and-dried arrangement between Uncle Joseph and somebody hereabouts. Who is that somebody? That somebody was to be off Fliman’s End at a certain time—high-water time, I think—on Wednesday morning, to take Uncle Joseph off—and probably, Sol Cousins too. He took off Uncle Joseph, but not Cousins, for Cousins had met his fate, and been murdered. Queer business, isn’t it, Ben? Don’t you wish you knew who murdered Cousins, and why? However, I want to have a look at the bedroom in your house in which Uncle Joseph slept—or didn’t sleep, for I think he watched. By the by, are you and your sister sound sleepers? Neither of you seem to have heard Uncle Joseph’s movements!”
“I’ve thought of that,” said I. “Yes, I think we are, both, good sleepers. And you see, neither of us was very near Uncle Joseph’s room. Our house, as you know, is a big, rambling old house—he was in the best bedroom; we were in another wing. And there are two staircases; he could slip downstairs by either. I think he went in the very middle of the night—when Keziah and I were both fast asleep.”
“Aye, well, I want to look round his room,” he repeated. “While I’m doing that, don’t tell your sister anything of what’s transpired. Let it wait a bit—in all these cases, there’s no need to hurry. We’ll do the hurry business when we’ve got fairly on the scent—let’s pick that up first.”
Keziah made no opposition to his going upstairs, and I showed him to the best bedroom and left him. But I had scarcely got downstairs again when, greatly to our surprise, Miss Ellingham came to our door. She looked very grave, very serious, and she said without preface that she understood the Scotland Yard man was there, and she asked to see him at once. Cherry heard her, and came down—direct, businesslike.
“Yes?” he said. “You want me?”
“I want you!” replied Miss Ellingham, equally direct. “The fact is, I’ve just discovered that at some time since Monday afternoon, I’ve been robbed—and of an article of immense value!”
The Kang-he Vase
KEZIAH was standing in the doorway of the parlor, behind me and Cherry, and as Miss Ellingham spoke, I heard her let out a stifled exclamation which was not so much one of surprise as of assurance that what she had been expecting to hear was about to be told her. She moved aside, beckoning Miss Ellingham to enter. And Miss Ellingham, with a friendly nod, stepped in at once, and we all four turned into the parlor, where I made haste to hand our visitor a chair.
“Yes?” repeated Cherry. “You have been robbed? And of something valuable—very valuable? Yes?”
He showed no surprise. He seemed outwardly as unconcerned and indifferent as if Miss Ellingham had uttered some platitude. He took a chair himself, opposite to hers, and sat watching her, keenly. I could see, however, that her extraordinary presence impressed him as much as it had impressed me, and that already he was curious about her.
“Of very great value,” said Miss Ellingham. She glanced at Keziah and at me. “Ben I know already,” she continued with a smile. “And Miss Heckitt will forgive me, I am sure, if I inflict my troubles upon her—the news of them will doubtless be all over the neighborhood before—”
“That entirely depends, ma’am!” interrupted Cherry sharply. “It depends upon what you tell me. I know enough of Miss Heckitt and her brother to know that they wont tell anything they ought not to tell. But—what have you to tell? What is it you think you have been robbed of?”
“Think!” exclaimed Miss Ellingham. “It’s not a case of thinking, if by thinking you imply—but I had better tell you my story in plain words. This afternoon, about an hour ago, I opened a cupboard which forms part of an old-fashioned bureau in my drawing-room, and immediately saw that the principal object kept in it had disappeared. I made an inquiry or two among my servants, and then came out to find you, as I had heard there was a Scotland Yard man in the village.”
“What was this principal object?” asked Cherry.
“A Kang-he vase,” replied Miss Ellingham, “—worth—I don’t know how much!”
“And what is a Kang-he vase?” inquired Cherry, quietly. “Something ancient?”
“Chinese pottery,” answered Miss Ellingham. “It is stuff, pottery, you know, made by the old Chinese potters about—oh, four thousand years ago! Collectors of it, who of course can only be very wealthy people, will give any price for it. Even damaged, badly damaged specimens will fetch an enormous price. An absolutely perfect pair of Kang-he vases is, you may say, literally priceless, so I’m told. Of course, mine is merely one—not a pair. But I know that it’s worth a great sum. A good many thousands of pounds, anyhow!”
“How big is this vase, ma’am?” asked Cherry. His manner had grown very businesslike, and he put his questions rapidly. “Height? Width?”
“About twenty inches high, and ten across the top,” replied Miss Ellingham.
“When did you see it last?”
“Last Monday afternoon.”
“In the cupboard you mentioned just now?”
“Exactly! In that cupboard—in its usual place.
“Was the cupboard locked—kept locked?”
“No!” replied Miss Ellingham ruefully. “It wasn’t! But of course, I never dreamed of this; I had no idea that anybody about here would know anything of the value of the vase. No, the cupboard wasn’t locked!”
“Nothing to do but open the door and take out the vase, eh?” observed Cherry. “Precisely! But I think it highly probable, Miss Ellingham, that other people than your servants and the folk about here may have heard of your vase. Now, how long have you had it, and where did you get it?”
“I’d better tell you its history,” said Miss Ellingham. “At least, as far as it’s known to me. I may tell you that I am a duly qualified medical practitioner, and pretty well known in the scientific world, too, if it’s worth while your knowing. Most of my work, however, has been done in India: I had fifteen years’ experience there. Now, during my last year there, I was called in to see the favorite daughter of a very rich Parsee merchant. I needn’t go into details, but I saved her life, undoubtedly—she had been given up by other doctors. Her father was almost extravagantly grateful to me, and in addition to forcing upon me a very generous fee for my services, he made me a present of this Kang-he vase. He had a wonderful collection of such things. This, of course, is an odd vase—one of a pair. If its fellow were in existence—”
“Perhaps it is, ma’am,” interrupted Cherry, with a glance at Miss Ellingham which seemed to puzzle her. “However, did many people know of your acquiring this very rare and valuable object?”
“A few people in Bombay knew,” replied Miss Ellingham, “—personal friends, you know.”
“Just so,” said Cherry. “But—when you came home to England? Did your possession of it get out here?”
“Well, yes, I suppose it did,” admitted Miss Ellingham. “Yes! Some little time after I returned home and settled down here, at the Grange, I was induced to give an interview to a representative of the Lady’s Circle,—you know, the illustrated weekly,—who wanted to know all about my work in India. I allowed him to photograph my more important art treasures—things I had brought home; and among them, of course, was the Kang-he vase.”
“Just so!” remarked Cherry. “And no doubt you told the interviewer how you acquired the vase? Exactly! So a good many people were put in possession of the fact that you had it! For the Lady’s Circle, I believe, has a very large circulation. By the by, have you got a copy of the issue in which the interview and photographs appeared? Good! I shall be obliged if you’ll let me have it. And now, ma’am, if you please, I’ll just walk round to your house with you, and you shall show me the cupboard and the drawing-room—and anything else.”
I GAVE Cherry’s elbow a nudge, and he was quick to catch the meaning of it.
“And, if I may, I’ll bring Ben here with me,” he added. “Ben is by way of being my right-hand man just now, and he’s seen one thing today that I failed to see, so he may be useful.”
“Oh, let Ben come by all means!” agreed Miss Ellingham. She stayed behind a moment to say a few words to Keziah, then joined Cherry and me in the garden. “I have been wondering, Mr. Cherry,” she observed, as we set out toward the Grange, “if this robbery has any connection with the affair that took place there at Gallowstree Point—the other night, Tuesday night. What do you think?”
Cherry laughed. “I shall be very much surprised—when we’ve ironed everything out—if it hasn’t, ma’am!” he answered. “I think it exceedingly likely.”
“That would seem to argue the existence of a scheme,” observed Miss Ellingham, “a deeply laid scheme, too!”
“Possibly of more than one scheme, ma’am,” assented Cherry. “It’s certainly significant that at or about the time of your loss, one man should be murdered and another effect a mysterious disappearance! But this vase of yours—I’m getting interested in that. I gathered from what you said just now that these things were usually made in pairs. How is it that the Parsee merchant you mentioned hadn’t the fellow to the one he gave you?”
Miss Ellingham laughed, a little cynically. “Ah!” she replied. “Grateful—pathetically grateful—as he was, I don’t think he’d have given me the vase if he’d still possessed its fellow! But that, once in his possession, had been stolen some years before.”
“Oh!” said Cherry. “Stolen—um! Are these things—this Kang-he ware—thought much of in their own country, now?”
“Thought much of!” exclaimed Miss Ellingham. “Bless your life and soul! They’re regarded there as something sacred! It’s forbidden, by the Chinese Government, to take them out of the country. They are treasured in families for generation after generation. Lives have been lost in defense of them—yes, and in trying to get hold of them. I remember,” she added with a queer little laugh, “that when I was given my vase, and showed it to a friend of mine in Bombay, he said that he wouldn’t have such a thing in his house for a fortune, and that I’d better not let any Chinaman know I’d got it! But—I’m not given to cultivating panics.”
“And you reflected, doubtless, that you were coming home, to a country where people don’t cut throats or break into houses for the sake of a bit of pottery!” observed Cherry. “Still, ma’am, there is one thing you forgot!”
“What?” asked Miss Ellingham.
“There are Chinamen in England—plenty of ’em,” replied Cherry. “And you advertised your possession of this sacred object pretty well if you told its story to an interviewer and permitted photographs of it to appear in a widely circulated journal!”
Miss Ellingham shook her head.
“I don’t think Chinese laundrymen and opium-den keepers in Limehouse are very likely to take in the Lady’s Circle, Mr. Cherry,” she observed. “No—I don’t think my vase has been stolen by a Chinaman!”
“Chinamen have long arms!” said Cherry with a knowing laugh. “I’ve heard of them stretching all the way from Pekin to Piccadilly—and getting a tight hold at the end of the stretch, too. However—no doubt much remains to be discovered!”
THIS profound remark, at which both my companions laughed, brought us to the door of the Grange. Carsie, the butler, chanced to be there as we entered, and Miss Ellingham at once turned to him.
“Heard anything, or discovered anything, Carsie?” she inquired.
“Nothing, ma’am,” replied Carsie. “I have made every inquiry in and around the house, and have not succeeded in getting any information.”
“Of what sort?” asked Cherry sharply.
Carsie gave his questioner a quiet look.
“As to any strange person having been seen about between Monday noon and today,” he replied in his subdued level accents. “No such person has been noticed by any of the servants, indoor or outdoor, during the daytime, at any rate.”
“And as to the night, of course you can’t say,” remarked Cherry, offhandedly. He turned away from the butler, and looked at Miss Ellingham. “I should like to see the drawing-room,” he said.
MISS ELLINGHAM led us to a big room at the far end of the house, a great, square room with windows looking east and west, and a French window looking south and opening on the walled garden which lay between the house and the sea. It was to my eyes a very fine and beautiful room, filled with picturesque furniture, and lavishly decorated with ornaments, water-color drawings, and finely bound books in small cases. But Cherry gave no more than a glance at the general effect; his eyes turned straight to a bureau which stood on one side of the room and had in its upper part a small square cupboard fronted by an elaborately carved door. Miss Ellingham, too, went straight to this cupboard and laid a hand on the door. And she had no sooner thrown it open and looked inside than she let out a sharp exclamation.
“Oh, really!” she said. “I—I never noticed that! I’ve been robbed of more than the Kang-he vase! My two little Hindu gods are gone! Dear me! This—”
“I think you had better examine everything, ma’am,” remarked Cherry. “You may find that still more has been stolen. But now just tell me about this cupboard; it has, I see, two shelves in it.”
“Yes, and the Kang-he vase stood on that, and on the other, in the background, there were two quaint little figures, statuettes of Hindu gods,” said Miss Ellingham. “They were all three here on Monday afternoon—”
“And now they’re not!” said Cherry, peering into the gloom of the cupboard. “Very well, ma’am! Now just let me have a look at things.”
HE was very speedy in what he did; and he reminded me, somehow, of a hound trying to pick up a scent. He looked all over the bureau; he looked at a big, thick rug which lay before it; he looked over the carpet. Then he crossed the room, examined the French window, opened it, walked out and disappeared in the garden. But within a few minutes he was back again in the drawing-room.
“I can show you exactly how your property was stolen, Miss Ellingham,” he said, with an air of something very closely resembling cheerfulness. “To begin with, look at the fastening of your French window—a simple lock of the most elementary description, which any even half-trained cracksman would manipulate in two seconds with the greatest ease. Your burglar came in through that window, of course, and went straight to the cupboard in the bureau. He brought with him a bag, wherein to place the loot. The bag was fitted with those fine shavings that they use in crockery shops, to pack their wares in. Here you are—there are stray odds and ends of those shavings in this rug, strewed about among the long rough hair of which it’s made. You couldn’t have a simpler case than this! The man had nothing to do but walk in, help himself and go off by the way he came!”
“And yet,” observed Miss Ellingham quietly, “Carsie assures me that there has never been any occasion on which he has not personally seen that that French window was locked at night and still locked when he examined it next morning.”
“Just so!” said Cherry, smiling. “But the thief probably turned the key in it again when he left, to make you think the robbery was effected from inside—by some one in your house. The instrument he used to turn the key one way, to admit him, could be used just as effectually to turn it the other, when he’d got what he wanted. Oh, a very easy burglary! But talking of people inside your house—are you sure of all your servants? Your butler, now? It’s best to be brutally plain, ma’am.”
“I had the highest references with Carsie,” replied Miss Ellingham. “I don’t think there’s the slightest doubt of his absolute honesty and respectability. As for my Hindu manservant, Mandhu Khan, he has been in my service twelve years, and is devoted to me. As to the rest—well I don’t suppose my cook, nor my parlor maid nor my housemaids and scullery-maids, or the boy who cleans knives and boots, or the two gardeners, or my chauffeur, would, any one of them, covet what to them would look like nothing but an ornamental jar and a couple of little stone figures—”
“You never know however humble a cat’s-paw may be useful to a clever and unscrupulous criminal, ma’am,” interrupted Cherry with a laugh. “And there’s one thing you can make sure of in connection with your affair. This is no common theft! However—can you give me a copy of the Lady’s Circle in which the interview and pictures figure?”
MSS ELLINGHAM found him the promised copy, and presently he and I went away. When we were out of the grounds, he began to turn over the paper, and suddenly he laughed cynically.
“Ben!” he said. “You’d think from her looks that the good lady we’ve just left was about as clever as they make ’em—and so, no doubt, she is, in her own line. But she’s simple, my lad; she’s simple! Knowing all she does about the something-like-superstitious value attached by the Chinese to this, Kang-he stuff, she goes and advertises her possession of a fine specimen of it! Just look here, at these pictures! Photographs of the vase itself! Photographs of the cupboard in which the vase is kept—door open, showing vase! Photograph of the drawing-room, showing exact situation of bureau! Lord! Why, the thief had all his work done for him in advance! He’d nothing to do but slip in and lay his hands on the thing!”
He left me abruptly at the end of our lane, and went off to his lodging, muttering over the Lady’s Circle and its pictures of Miss Ellingham and her treasures. But late that night, when Keziah and I were thinking of going to bed, in he walked and dropped into a chair between us, as we sat on either side of the parlor fire.
“Miss Heckitt!” he said abruptly. “You know me, by now, I hope! I’ll take great care of him—but I must have what I want. And that’s that Ben should go to London with me, first thing tomorrow morning.”
Even more fascinating is the second of the three generous installments into which we have divided this, the best story yet written by the author of the famous “Black Money” and “The Middle of Things.”
Copyright, 1924, by The Consolidated Magazines Corporation (The Blue Book Magazine).
All rights reserved.