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Our Library => J. S. Fletcher - Sea Fog (1925) => Topic started by: Admin on May 27, 2023, 10:04:06 am

Title: Chapter 18: Ditti-Box and ’Bacca-Box
Post by: Admin on May 27, 2023, 10:04:06 am
SILVERMORE turned up at Preece’s one afternoon in company with a little elderly man who had all the unmistakable signs of the seafarer on him. Preece brought the two of them up to Trace’s; we could talk more freely there, he said, than in his cottage, where there were women-folk about. And Silvermore introduced his companion as Silas Cushion.

“The man that pledged that ditty-box with me,” he explained. “He’s been knocking about all over the world since then, and has only just come back. And---he’s been reading the papers, and came to see me in consequence. There isn’t much those newspaper chaps have left out, I think!”

Silvermore was right there. The newspaper reporters, or correspondents, or whatever they called themselves, had made the most of what they termed the South Downs Mystery. It constituted a fine story, and they had given every detail they could lay hands on about it. I think the police authorities encouraged them, under the impression that publicity of the widest sort would be a good thing.

“Yes?” said Preece. He sized up Silas Cushion with a comprehensive inspection. “That ditty-box, now?” he continued. “I suppose you know all about it? Previous history, eh?”

Cushion was one of those men who appear to be always chewing something. It may have been that he had a quid of tobacco in his cheek, but his jaws were for ever working. This gave him a meditative expression.

“Well,” he answered ruminatingly, “from the time I got it. Not before---though, to be sure, I know where it came from.”

“That’s just what we’d like to know,” said Preece. “Where did it come from?”

“To me,” replied Cushion, “from a man that I knew years ago. Him and me was shipmates. In the Pacific, that was. Merchant vessel---from Valparaiso to Sydney. He was took bad, uncommon bad, just before we made Sydney. And, of course, they put him in hospital. I used to go to see him there. But he was mostly past speech. Never got nothing much out of him, nohow. Nothing about his private affairs, you understand. And one day when I goes up to the hospital, they tells me he’d died. In the night---a bit sudden, at the last. There was a few things of his that had been taken to the hospital with him. The hospital folks, they give ’em to me, d’ye see, as being the only man that knew anything about him. That ditty-box, it was amongst ’em.”

“What was this man’s name?” asked Preece.

“Cossin---Dave Cossin. Name I knew him by, anyway. Some of ’em, of course, has a many names in a lifetime. But from what I see of him, I should say that was his right name.”

“What like was he, can you say?” demanded Macpherson eagerly. “Was he a tall, dark, spare fellow, now?”

But Cushion shook his head---with signs of a decided negative.

“No, mister, he was not!” he answered. “He was a little, sandy, weechy sort of a chap! I never rightly knew whether he was Scotch or Irish---one of ’em. I did hear him say once he was born in Liverpool. But there’s a sight of Irish there---and Scotch too. No!---he wasn’t at all what you say. An offal sort o’ little man.”

“Did he ever tell you where he got that ditty-box, or what was in it?” enquired Preece.

“He did not. Never mentioned it to me, as I remember. I never see it, neither, till it was give to me by the hospital folks, when he was dead. You see, when they took him off from the ship to the hospital, I reckon they bundled up all the bits o’ things he had in his locker, and sent ’em with him, and the ditty-box was amongst ’em. No, I never had no word from him about it.”

Macpherson was obviously intensely disappointed to find that the man who died in hospital at Sydney did not answer to the description of either Kit Flinch or Ralph Charlesworth, and he muttered something about an impasse. But Preece, as became an intelligent policeman who had kept his ears open at quarter-sessions and assizes, proceeded with his examination-in-chief.

“Well, you eventually pledged that ditty-box with Mr. Silvermore there, at Portsmouth, didn’t you?” he suggested. “You, yourself?”

“Oh, I pledged it!” said Cushion. “With other matters. A bit down on my luck at that time, I was. Yes!”

“Well, now, Mr. Silvermore says there were a lot of small articles, curiosities, and the like, in the box. Were they all what you’d found in it, when it was given to you after Cossin’s death?”

“No! Some were what was in it then; some was what I put into it time and again. Bits o’ things. Such as a man what uses the sea picks up, you understand.”

“Well, about this map,” continued Preece, producing his pocket-book. “You’ve read about it in the newspapers? Just so! Was it in the ditty-box when that came into your possession?”

“Oh yes---the map was there! Lying at the bottom---a lot o’ little things atop of it.”

“Had you any idea as to what it meant---what it was about?”

“Not I! I’ve seen that sort o’ thing before. I thought it was something Cossin had drawed out, or somebody’d drawed out for him---’maginary stuff, I reckoned! I never gave no particular heed to it.”

“But you left it in the box?”

“Never took it out but once, when I examined what was in the box. I put it back then, and t’other articles on top of it. There it stuck, and there it was when I pledges it at Mr. Silvermore’s.”

“Would you know it again if you saw it, Cushion?”

“Oh I should know it---remember it, and how it was drawed, well enough!”

Preece produced the map from his pocket-book, and spread it on the parlour table.

“Is that it?” he asked.

“Oh, that’s it, right enough!” declared Cushion. “Don’t look no worse, neither.”

“You can swear that’s the map you found in the ditty-box at Sydney?”

“Swear to it, yes! No doubt about it!”

Preece put the map away again.

“Have you ever known a man named Kest?” he asked abruptly.

“Not as I’m aware of,” replied Cushion. “I’ve read about him, of course, in these here newspaper pieces, but I can’t recall him nohow. He may ha’ been known to me at some time or other, under another name, d’ye see? But as Kest---no, don’t know him at all.”

“Did you ever talk to anybody, any of your shipmates, anybody at all, about this map?”

“I can’t recollect as I ever did. I don’t remember doing so at any time. You see, I never attached no importance to it. I thought it was just a trifle that Cossin had picked up---sailor-men has a habit of picking up and keeping things that landsmen ’ud throw aside. No---I never talked about it.”

That was all we learnt from Silas Cushion. The problem arising out of it, discovered at length by Macpherson when Preece and his visitors had gone, was---who was the man Cossin?---how did he get hold of that map?---was he a man who originally hailed from these parts?---he might have been in these parts at some time or other, said Macpherson, even though he was born in Liverpool.

“Well, there’s one thing certain, Macpherson,” said Trace. “He wasn’t Kit Flinch, and he wasn’t Ralph Charlesworth, the two men you’re anxious to know more about. He was a little, sandy, weechy man! That settles you!”

“It’s but another obstacle,” replied Macpherson. “It can be overcome. I think Cossin got that map from the man called Smarto. Maybe he stole it. Maybe he bought it. Maybe he found it. But anyway, Trace, I’m sure it came from Smarto. And Smarto was one or other of those dark, spare fellows that went away from this quarter after the murder of Dan Welgrave the younger! Man, I contend that bit by bit we’re progressing to the grand climacteric!”

“We certainly keep learning a bit!” agreed Trace.

We heard a bit more, two or three days later---again through Preece. Preece, in company with another local policeman, put in an hour or two now and then in examining the surroundings of Chissick’s house. That house, as I have said, stood in a lonely situation: at least a hundred yards from its nearest neighbour. It had a garden in front, a flower garden, well shielded from the lane by thick hedges; there was another garden at the back, also well hedged, in which Chissick grew vegetables and cultivated fruit-trees. And there was a fenced-off yard, in which there were two refuse-bins, one reserved for stuff thrown out of the kitchen by the charwoman, Mrs. Watson, another sacred to ashes, waste paper, and the like. Preece took it into his head to examine this ash-bin and its contents; he had already gone through a waste-paper basket in Chissick’s parlour, and had also raked out the parlour grate, without finding anything. It was difficult to imagine his finding anything, it seemed to me. But one day he turned up at Trace’s with a small parcel in his hand, carefully done up in brown paper.

“See here!” he said, as he set it down on the sitting-room table. “If this isn’t a find, I don’t know what could be! Unearthed this, myself, in a refuse-bin at Chissick’s back door, amongst a lot of torn-up paper and stuff that he’d evidently emptied out of a waste-paper basket. If this doesn’t refer to that business of forty years ago that you’re always nosing into, Mr. Macpherson, I’m a Dutchman! And I’m not a Dutchman!”

He was plainly highly elated at his discovery, and he enjoyed our suspense and curiosity as he undid the wrappings of his parcel. Eventually, having stripped off various folds of brown paper, he revealed an old tin box, about five inches in length, three in width, and two in depth. It bore unmistakable signs of age and of rust, but the lettering on it, in block letters, not on a paper label, but on the lid itself, was still plain enough. And that was: Soldans and Sandberg, Tobacconists and Cigar Merchants, 85, Alderley Street, Cape Town.

The depth of Macpherson’s delight at the sight of this ancient relic---for it was obvious to all that the box was by no means of recent manufacture---was evidenced by the way in which he seized on the thing.

“Man, Preece!” he exclaimed, his voice hoarse with emotion, “ye’ve made a most important discovery!---the most important, in my opinion, of any that’s been made in the whole procedure of investigation into this truly amazing mystery! Man!---this is a grand day!”

“Aye---and how do you make all that out, Mr. Macpherson?” asked Preece, with a wink at me and Trace. “Something---perhaps a good deal---in it, no doubt, but----”

“Something in it, you say?” interrupted Macpherson excitedly. “Man!---do you tell me that you don’t see what’s in it? Man!---I’m telling you! This is the box yon Dan Welgrave carried his diamonds in when he came to the inn down below! This is the box was taken off him when he was murdered! This is the box was hidden by the murderer under yon old oak tree up the hill-side, where Chissick built his bit shed! This is the box Chissick dug out o’ that hole he made in the floor of the corner of the shed! Losh, man!---I see it all as plain as I see your fat face, Preece! And the great question, great, great question”---I cannot presume to describe how Macpherson rolled his r’s, and broadened his o’s and a’s during this speech---“is---where are the diamonds?”

He gazed from one to the other of us as if demanding an instant reply. But Preece and I only stared at him. Trace, however, who had got into a way of chaffing him about his newly developed passion for sleuth-work, smiled good-humouredly.

“Better theorise a bit more, Macpherson!” he said. “It’s amusing!”

“No, but I’m serious, Captain,” protested Macpherson. “Man!---it’s a very serious matter! And ye’ll get no practical result in anything, in my opinion, unless you theorise first. Now, it’s my theory that whoever killed Dan Welgrave forty-two years ago found this very box containing diamonds on him. They may have been uncut; they may have been cut. I think they were uncut. Didn’t he tell his cronies at the inn that he’d come straight from the diamond-fields? Anyway, this box and its contents o’ diamonds was found by the murderer; he didn’t know exactly what to do with them then, and he buried the box for safety. Now, I argue that the diamonds were in the box when Chissick dug it up, and that Chissick took them out of the box in the privacy of his own house, and flung away the box where friend Preece here has just discovered it. Then Chissick put the diamonds in his own pocket! And now I’ll just ask you to recall a highly important matter. D’ye recollect, all of you, what yon charwoman body, Mrs. Watson, told us when the lad Tom here fetched her to Chissick’s house that morning he was found murdered? Whether it’s escaped your poor mem’ries or not, it’s no escaped mine! What did yon woman say Chissick had told her that Saturday morning she last had speech of him? That he was going to Brighton! Aye, but that was his usual custom; there was nothing in that. But more---from Brighton he was going to London, on the Monday, and might be away till the Tuesday or Wednesday. What for was Chissick going to London---which, as I’ve made out, was not usual with him? Man alive!---I could take my oath on what he was going for! He was going to London to sell those diamonds!”

I am sure that Preece and myself were vastly impressed by Macpherson; we saw it all as plainly as if it had been printed in a book. And even Trace seemed struck.

“Excellent theory, excellent, Macpherson!” he said. “You’d make a detective, I think. And----”

But that caused Preece to interrupt.

“Why, talking about detectives, Captain,” he remarked, “Mr. Macpherson’ll be glad to hear that we’re going to do just what he advised some little time ago. There’s a still bigger man coming down from Scotland Yard to-morrow, to take special charge of this Chissick case---the famous Detective-Sergeant Parkapple.”