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Our Library => J. S. Fletcher - Sea Fog (1925) => Topic started by: Admin on May 27, 2023, 05:55:29 am



Title: Chapter 11: The Lock-Up Shed
Post by: Admin on May 27, 2023, 05:55:29 am
CHISSICK threw us a cheery good morning as he and his men went by, and Chrissie Hentidge was quick to respond to it.

“Going to do a bit of building, Mr. Chissick?” she asked. “Where, now?”

Chissick halted and turned towards the garden wall, where Chrissie and I were standing. He pointed up the hill-side.

“Nothing very considerable, Miss Hentidge,” he answered. “Couple of nice little bungalows on that bit of land I bought some time ago. On the hill-side there.”

Chrissie affected concern.

“I hope you won’t spoil the look-out from our back windows, Mr. Chissick,” she remarked, “Red brick, now! Not much in keeping with the rest of the place, you know!”

“Well, miss, use comes before ornament,” replied Chissick. “There’s the land, and it’s a pity not to make use of it. But there’s no need to fear---I shan’t spoil the prospect from your back windows. For one thing, I shan’t cut down any trees: they’ll all be left standing. Some of the gorse’ll have to be cleared away, to be sure, but I shall plant shrubs. Oh, they’ll be very smart little places, gay and bright, I assure you, when I’ve done with them. Here’s the picture of them, as they will be---when finished.”

He unrolled a screed of cartridge-paper which he carried under his arm, and showed us a vividly tinted water-colour sketch of twin bungalows, with the hill and its mill in the background, the dwarf oak trees in situ, and---so far imaginary---gardens laid out in the foreground.

“Of course, the gardens aren’t there yet,” he continued apologetically. “This picture represents the place as it will be when finished. Highly desirable residences they’ll be, Miss Hentidge! Splendid views on all sides; south aspect; the sea in front; the hills behind; plenty of sun and shelter. And in the bungalows themselves, all the latest improvements and conveniences---everything up to date.”

“Oh, well, if they look like that!” said Chrissie concedingly. “What I don’t like is a hideous red-brick cottage, Mr. Chissick, stuck down where it oughtn’t to be.”

“Oh, nothing of that sort, nothing of that sort!” protested Chissick. “These, you see, are in thorough keeping with the scenery. What with letting all the old trees remain, and planting the right sort of shrubs, and with the shingled roofs and general style of architecture, they’ll melt into the atmosphere like sugar into tea, Miss Hentidge. There’ll be no difficulty about selling or letting them, I can tell you! Better get your father to buy ’em off me---when finished.”

“How much will you want for them?” asked Chrissie in business-like fashion.

“I’ll tell you, Miss Hentidge,” answered Chissick, equally business-like. “I can do them, all finished and ready to go into, for a thousand pounds apiece---freehold. Each, of course, has its own plot of land---forty feet by two hundred, Miss Hentidge. Yes---say a thousand apiece.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Chrissie. “We should have bought that piece of hill-side as it was if you hadn’t stepped in first. And that’s one reason why I don’t want to see it spoiled---it’s right under our eyes.”

“No spoiling, Miss Hentidge, no spoiling!---and you think about my offer,” said Chissick. “All complete---spick-and-span order---ready for occupancy---two thousand for the pair---and freehold!”

He rolled up his picture and went hurrying off to the hill-side, and after talking a little longer with Chrissie, I followed him. His men were already unloading building materials from the cart close to the place from which I had watched their master after his pacings and reckonings at midnight. Further away up the rise of the hill, seated on a rock, where, of late times, I had often seen him sitting, silent and morose, for hours, was Trawlerson, watching their doings.

Chissick was a chatty and approachable man, and I feared no rebuff from him when I went up and asked him what he and his men were going to do first. I had my own reasons (arising out of what I had seen during the night) for asking that question, but Chissick took it at its surface value.

“Do, my lad?” he replied. “Why, first lay out this stuff we’ve brought with us, and then fetch some more and lay that out---all in readiness, you understand. And then---well, then we’re going to build a bit of a shed.”

“What’s the shed for, Mr. Chissick?” I enquired innocently.

“The shed, my lad? Why, to keep tools in, and do odd jobs of carpentry, and masonry, and the like,” he answered. “First thing to be done, that, my lad, when you start building a house---must have a shed to work in. Men can’t carry their tools backwards and forwards, you know---oh, a nice shed’s a great convenience, when you’ve a bit of building work on the go. Now let’s see---where shall we put ours?”

He began to walk about, his hands under the tails of his coat, examining the lie of the ground. He made great show of this, inspecting first one place and then another, but I was not surprised when he finally stopped by a tree which I had seen him examining with great care during his nocturnal visit.

“I think this’ll be a good place,” he remarked musingly. “Under this tree, and nicely clear of the site, and yet close to it. Catch hold of that, my lad, and give a hand,” he continued, producing a big measuring-tape from his pocket, and flinging one end of it to me. “We’ll just get the dimensions.”

Now, as all this became of considerable importance later on, I wish to be exact in describing what Chissick actually did as regards his preparations for building that shed. The tree to which he had just referred was an old oak which stood on an imaginary line that you could have drawn from the mill at the top of the down to the corner of Hentidge’s farmstead at the foot, and about equidistant from either. It was a much older and bigger oak than any of the others on the hill-side; I dare say the other oaks were its children or grandchildren. And it stood alone; in its way, it was as much a landmark as the mill itself. I had noticed that Chissick did a lot of pacing about it when I watched, unknown to him, at midnight; now, I holding one end of his measuring-tape and he the other, he proceeded to measure a distance of so many feet from its trunk in a south-easterly direction; the exact distance I could not see, for my end of the tape began at zero and he kept his figures under his thumb, but it seemed to me to be about forty feet. And there he made a mark in the turf, and motioning me to come up to him with my end, instructed me to put it down again on his mark.

“That’ll do for a corner,” he said. “We’ll start from that as from a corner. Now then, let me see---yes, I think a twelve-foot square shed’ll do, or maybe we’ll make it fifteen by twelve. Plenty of room---yes, we’ll make it fifteen by twelve.”

We measured the space he wanted, and he called up a man and made him place pegs at the corners. Then he summoned other men and gave them instructions; within five minutes these men were at work on the preliminaries. Chissick rubbed his hands.

“Have that shed all up and finished by to-morrow night, my lad!” he said gleefully. “Not a thing o’ beauty, perhaps, but then ’tis only temp’ry. Yes, my lad, by to-morrow night---lock, stock, and barrel, as they say!”

That was a Thursday---a Thursday morning. Chissick was as good as his word by five o’clock on the Friday afternoon the shed was finished---I was there when the men put the finishing touches to it, and Chissick gave me a look of triumph.

“There, my lad!” he exclaimed. “What did I tell you? Here we are!---all complete. A good, serviceable, water-tight performance. Now, if we could run up those bungalows as sharp as that---what?”

I walked into the completed shed and looked round. And a certain fact struck me at once.

“Mr. Chissick,” said I, “you haven’t got a window in your shed!”

He gave me a sharp glance and shook his head.

“No!” he replied. “No, we’ve no window, my lad. You see, it’s mainly for a tool-house, and to keep odd things in. Cement, now---you couldn’t leave cement out in the rain. No, we don’t need a window. It’s a wide doorway, you see, and when the door’s open there’ll be light enough.”

He himself was busied at the door just then, and I saw that he was fitting a lock to it, and that it was none of your cheap two-and-sixpenny things that any prowler could easily force, but a fine, strong lock, thoroughly secured to the woodwork on either side. And the lock was only a supplement to a bolt, a formidable bolt, that, with its staples, had already been fixed.

I watched him finish his work at the lock, and finally saw him turn the key in it from outside and put the key in his pocket.

“Good two days’ work that, my lad!” he remarked, with a grin. “Preliminaries finished, eh?”

“When’re you going to start on the bungalows, Mr. Chissick?” I asked. For as yet nothing had been done in that direction, save to stick white pegs in the ground at the places where the bungalows were to be built. “Soon?”

“Monday morning, my lad, Monday morning!” he answered. “Start preparing the ground Monday morning. Then---full steam ahead!” He looked round the site, and his eye travelling up the hill-side, he suddenly frowned. Following his gaze, I saw that he had caught sight of Trawlerson, sitting motionless on his rock.

“What’s that fellow sit there all day for?” he exclaimed angrily. “Hanged if he ain’t enough to get on a man’s nerves!---always watching---watching, watching! And if he isn’t watching, he’s mooning. Mooning all over the place! Tell you what it is, my lad---in my opinion that man’s dotty! Dotty!---that’s it! Why doesn’t he go home? Go home---instead of hanging around here?”

“I believe he’s looking for something, Mr. Chissick,” I answered.

“That’s all damn silliness!” exclaimed Chissick “He was looking for a mill---well, there’s a mill up above him. Brain, my lad, brain!---that’s what it is. Brain gone pappy---ought to be in a ’sylum. Well---I’m going home to my tea. Captain come back yet?”

“No, Mr. Chissick,” I answered. “He’s coming home Sunday.”

He nodded and went off, and I turned down the hill to Hentidge’s---Chrissie had asked me to tea. I told her and her father all about Chissick and his doings: she and old Hentidge were mainly concerned lest he should spoil the look-out from their windows. But they seemed to have no suspicion of Chissick. It was certainly odd, observed Chrissie, that he should make his measurements by moonlight; but, anyway, there was the fact that he’d started his building operations.

It was dark when I left the Hentidges’. That was about ten o’clock; I had lingered that late listening to the old man, who, over his evening paper and glass, was fond of talking of bygone days. In the darkness, as I went out of the farmstead garden into the road, I looked up the hill-side and saw a sudden flash of light, such as might be caused by the quick opening and closing of a door. It was a bright flash too, as from a strong lamp. And the thought came into my head---Chissick was up there, in that shed, and had a powerful light in it, and had opened the door for a second, perhaps to admit somebody.

I didn’t hesitate a moment about going up the hill. But I went cautiously. Instead of going straight up, by a track that led direct to where the bungalows were to be built, I turned back through Hentidge’s garden and orchard, climbed the wall, and skirted right round that part of the hill, finally creeping down to the shed through the gorse and bramble above it. I had no fear of being seen; the night was dark for that time of the year, and the moon was not due to rise for another two hours or more. Nor had I any fear of being heard either, for I slipped along circumspectly, as soft as a cat. In this way I got close up to the old oak tree under which Chissick had built his shed, and as soon as I looked round the trunk I saw a spark of light at the keyhole, and just a ribbon of more light at the foot of the door. But I thought little of that; what I did think something of was the fact that inside that shed somebody was digging!

Digging!---there was no doubt about that. Or, I might say, delving, though, not being a scholar, I have no exact knowledge of the meaning of that word. I know what I mean by it, though somebody in that shed was at work with a pick as well as a spade. I could hear the sounds clearly. Hard work too!---for that was hard stuff. But---there it was.

I crept up to the shed after a time, and put an eye to the keyhole. No good!---that is, I couldn’t see anything---anything, at any rate, but the new white wood of the blank inner wall opposite the door. There was a brilliant light on that; whoever was in that shed had got a splendid lamp with him. But of him, and his pick, and his spade, and of the stuff he was tearing out of the earth, I couldn’t see anything: he was evidently working in a corner.

As I crouched there at the door, I heard somebody coming up the hill, from the village, stealthily. At that I jumped for cover; first to the oak tree, then into and behind the nearest clump of gorse. I made a bad mistake in that second move: I ought to have stuck to the oak. For I was a bit too far off, and when a man emerged into the open, by the shed, and, after standing still for a while, began to prowl around it, I couldn’t tell who he was. A man of a medium height and thick-set figure---that was all I could definitely decide on. But I believed he was Trawlerson.

Whoever he was, the man, after stooping at the keyhole, went away, by the way he had come, and after a time, during which the digging went on more or less continuously, I too went, seeing no use in staying. I hoped to have a look into the shed next morning, Saturday. But when I went up nobody was there, and the shed was locked up. Nobody came near it that day; no Chissick, no workmen.

I held my tongue about this until Trace came home on Sunday evening, when I told him all that I had seen and heard. We sat up late, theorising about the whole thing, and when at last I went to bed I dreamt that I was in the shed, and that somebody was knock, knock, knocking at the door---no end of knocking. Then I woke to find the light just breaking, and Trace at my bedside, shaking me.

“Get up, Tom!” he said, as I started from my pillow. “Didn’t you hear Preece thumping at our door? Here’s murder again!---murder! It’s Chissick!---murdered in his own house!”