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Our Library => J. S. Fletcher - Sea Fog (1925) => Topic started by: Admin on May 27, 2023, 12:24:50 pm

Title: Chapter 25: The Package of Cocoa
Post by: Admin on May 27, 2023, 12:24:50 pm
MACPHERSON showed his appreciation of Trace’s cleverness in a series of approving grunts.

“Aye---aye---aye!” he said, becoming articulate. “Yon was a smart idea o’ yours, Captain! I was wondering what made you so ready to change the woman’s note for her. Aye---and ye’ll ha’ been ’phoning to the bank-people?”

“To be sure!” agreed Trace. “It struck me, you see, that the ten-pound note which Halkin had sent his wife was probably one of the notes she’d seen him handling that night in their cottage, when he didn’t know she was watching him. Halkin’s a deep, sly man, but the slyest and deepest make mistakes. He no doubt thought---if he ever thought at all!---that nobody would ever think of tracing that note; nobody about here, of course, knows anything of these money matters but ourselves and the police. But we know of Fewster’s drawing £500 out of his bank---eh? And so I just rang up the manager and told him of what had happened here, and of our discovery of the counterfoil in Fewster’s cheque-book---and there you are! This ten-pound note is one of several paid out to Fewster on the Monday on which Chissick’s murder was discovered. Fewster drew the money himself, some of it in gold, most of it in notes, early that Monday afternoon. As far as I can make out---I’ve just seen Mrs. Halkin again---it was on that Monday night that she saw Halkin counting money and putting it in a belt. One thing with another, I think there’s no doubt that Fewster drew that £500 to hand over to Halkin.”

“None, I should say!” declared Macpherson. “And---the reason?”

“Ah! Now you’re asking!” exclaimed Trace. “Reason? I’ve thought of two reasons why Fewster should have paid that money over to Halkin. One---that it was actually paid for those diamonds, in which case it looks as if Halkin murdered Chissick to gain possession of them. That’s possible!---we know that Halkin was working in Fewster’s garden on the Saturday on which Chissick was murdered. Now, from Fewster’s garden to Chissick’s garden---I’m talking about their back gardens and orchards---is only a hundred yards, and between them lies that thick coppice. Halkin, who may have been the man that Tom saw spying about Chissick’s new shed the night before, could easily slip through that coppice to Chissick’s house, perhaps with the original intention of blackmailing him, and, seeing his chance of finding Chissick alone, have murdered him, got the diamonds, and sold them to Fewster. Fewster, I think, wouldn’t ask any inconvenient questions. That’s one thing, anyway.”

“And the other?” questioned Macpherson.

“The other is that what Fewster paid to Halkin was---hush-money!” said Trace. “And it’s extremely likely. Fewster may have known more about Chissick and his doings than he ever confessed to knowing---he may have murdered Chissick, finding him alone, and Halkin, being about, may have known it, or guessed it, and bled him. I think that a very likely theory---very. But I also think something else may be put forward. I’ve an idea, vague enough, but still there, that somehow or other Halkin and Trawlerson are mixed up in all this. It’s a significant fact that both disappeared about the same time. Now, they may both have known about Halkin---each may have got blood-money, hush-money, out of him. That £500 may have been shared between them.”

“I doubt it!” exclaimed Macpherson. “Yon Trawlerson would no ha’ been satisfied with the moiety o’ £500! He’d have an idea o’ the value of the diamonds. Halkin wouldn’t. And there’s the fact---important, if you’re going on the collusion theory---that Halkin was quick to tell that he’d seen Trawlerson and heard his voice in Chissick’s garden the evening o’ the murder.”

“I don’t attach the slightest importance to that, Macpherson,” declared Trace. “Halkin’s as big a liar as ever walked, and he no doubt said that to distract attention from himself. But---if Trawlerson really was in Chissick’s garden that night, and if he spoke to anybody, as Halkin says he did, then I think the man he spoke to was---Fewster!”

“Aye!” agreed Macpherson. “I should no be surprised at that!”

“However,” concluded Trace, “it’s all theorising, this. We shan’t know anything definite until we hear something from Parkapple. I thought Preece would have had a message from him by now.”

Preece did get a message from Parkapple about tea-time. He brought it up to us---a telegram from Brighton. Up to the time of its dispatch, four o’clock, nobody, said Parkapple, had called at the Brighton post office for the registered packet. But it was there---Parkapple and the Brighton police had seen it and were keeping a watch on it. If Preece had any news his end, he was to wire it. Preece had none; nothing had happened since morning. All we could do, as Trace had said, was to wait.

I had a job of my own, of a vastly different sort, to carry out that evening. I have already said that Captain Trace in his retirement devoted a good deal of his time to the keeping of bees and breeding of prize fowls. As regards the fowls, he made it a business speculation as well as a hobby. And on this particular evening, tea being over, he sent me on an errand across the hills at the back of the village, to see a farmer at an outlying hamlet who had some fine Leghorns for sale. With money in my pocket and a commission to buy, I set off about six o’clock on an hour’s walk.

The place to which I went was a lonely farmstead lying in one of the narrow valleys to the northward, behind the deep woods in which I had wandered so much at my first coming to these parts. I had difficulty in finding it, and when I got to it, the man I wanted to see was out on the hill-sides. Altogether, what with waiting for him and bargaining with him, it was past eight o’clock when I set out on my return journey. My thoughts had been concentrated all the time on the recent events, and I was eager to get home and hear the latest news---in my absence, no doubt, Preece would have heard again from Parkapple. And so, instead of sticking to the route by which I had come, I determined on a short cut through the woods. I knew the exact point of the compass at which our village lay, and I decided to make a bee-line for it. But I knew nothing of these particular woods, and before I had been in them half an hour I got hopelessly mixed and bewildered, and began to wander about, searching for any sign of a southward path. Taking other short cuts in this endeavour, I got more mixed up than before, and it was as I stood in a bit of clearing wondering which was east and which west---for the trees and undergrowth were so thick that I could not make out where the fading sunlight came from---that I suddenly caught sight of something, the discovery of which led there and then to revelation which I had certainly never anticipated.

This something was a small, square packet of the sort that you can see by the score in any grocer’s shop. I had handled thousands of such packets in my time. I picked it out of the clump of green stuff into which it had been dropped, and saw at once what it was, a packet of a certain brand of prepared cocoa. The wrapping was damp; the thing had evidently lain there for many nights and days. But the lettering on the green and gilt band around it was legible enough, and these words at the foot of the band immediately caught my attention---Scale, Grocer, Barlaton.

It needed no more than the sight of those words to convince me that I had made a discovery which might be of immense importance. Scale!---that was the man who had told Preece and Trace and me of the visit to his grocer’s shop at Barlaton of a mysterious man who had bought an unusually large supply of provisions from him, and afterwards calling at the village inn, had purchased some bottles of rum. He had said, that man, that he was working a steam-roller somewhere up in the hills, was camping out, and wanted to provide himself. Scale had told us that his neighbours knew of no steam-roller at work in the district, and that he had wondered if the man was Trawlerson. But from his description of the man---a tall, spare-built, elderly man---we knew this was not Trawlerson. So much for what I recalled of Scale’s talk. What was really important now was that this packet of cocoa was undoubtedly part of the purchase made by the unknown man at Scale’s shop and dropped by him out of his sack as he made his way through the woods to---where?

I began to look about me in the dusk, and after a close examination of the little clearing, I found a path going off it from one corner---or, rather, not a path at all, but signs, evidence that somebody, heavy-footed, had gone that way through the undergrowth. And being always keen for any adventure, I went that way myself, there and then, looking about me, and scarcely knowing what I expected to find. What I did find, having pushed my way through the trees for fifty yards or so, was a narrow, defined track, which I unhesitatingly followed. I could see that it was little used; last year’s leaves were thick on its surface. It went deeper and deeper into the heart of the woods. Very soon it descended, and presently I found myself in a sort of ravine, with dark limestone cliffs overhanging the trees and bushes on either side. A black, eerie place, that!---and the silence, when at last I pulled up and stood, looking and listening, was profound.

I was thinking of turning, of going back, and I suddenly realised that, if I did, I should run! There was something about the place that was frightening. I was conscious of fear then, and I had a queer feeling that if I once turned to retreat I should be far more frightened. And, just to brace myself up, instead of retreating, I dared myself, as lads will, to go a bit farther. I went---deeper into the narrowing ravine. The rocks rose more steeply on either side; there was a general atmosphere of decay and damp. I saw that this was one of the places you find in woods like those thick, neglected woods into which the sun scarcely penetrates. The trees, all ancient, were black and impenetrable, and amongst their boughs I heard strange flutterings---birds, doubtless, startled by my presence.

Still, sheer solitude though the spot seemed to be, the bit of a path was there, and I kept following it until it narrowed between two high rocks. And in the face of one of these, that on my left hand, I saw what was evidently the mouth of a cave. After all I was little more than a boy, and I suppose there was never a boy in the world who, seeing a cave, was not tempted to explore it. Indeed, the sight of that black, yawning mouth revived my spirits at the same time that it excited my curiosity, and without more ado I stepped off the path and advanced boldly to the foot of the rock. There was still enough light for me to see into the cave for two or three yards, and I went close up and peered in. The next instant I started back, heart leaping and pulses throbbing. There, just within the cavity, doubled up a queer way, which, somehow, did not convey the impression that he was asleep, lay a man!

I stood where I was for a good minute---motionless. I had made no effort at silence as I approached the cave. If the man was awake, he could not have failed to hear me. But I did not think he was awake---and I did not think he was asleep. I scarcely knew what I thought. His back was towards me, and I could not see his face. The attitude in which he lay was peculiar: he was all bunched together, as it were; knees drawn up, arms in a queer position. And all this time my eyes were growing more accustomed to the light, and I began to feel a vague conviction that the suit of blue serge—which, even in my perturbation, I noticed pretty observantly---was familiar to me, stained with earth and clay though it was, and as if its wearer had been rolling on the damp ground. I knew somebody who always wore such a suit. Who was it, now? But I had not answered that question when, nerving myself to the effort, I suddenly moved into the cave, and to the man’s side, and bent down to his face---to recognise him at the first glance. Trawlerson!

Trawlerson was dead. I knew that before even I put a finger on him. And he was the second dead man I had found that day. But I think I scarcely thought of that, at the moment. I stood staring at him. There was a terrible lump on his left temple---a great, ugly swelling, suffused with blood. But there was more than that. Round his throat was knotted a striped handkerchief, such as sailors wear, only, instead of being all black, it was of gay colours. It was tied so tightly about his throat, and knotted at the back of his neck with such fiendish purpose, that I could not thrust even the top of my little finger between its folds and the skin. And I realised then how Trawlerson had come to his end. He had been lured to this place by somebody, and first stunned by a blow on the temple, and then---strangled. The blow on the temple was an awful one: perhaps that had killed him. But the murderer had left nothing to chance.

If I had been nearer the village, I should have rushed off, there and then, for help. But the village, to my reckoning---for I had certainly got astray in these woods---was some distance off, probably from two to three miles, and I thought it best, my first sensations of fright and horror over, to make some examination of the dead man’s clothing. It looked to me as if he had been dragged into that cave, but I did not go out then to see if I could find any signs of that near by. Instead, I felt in his pockets. And I soon came to the conclusion that he had been robbed. I remembered a few facts about Trawlerson. The landlord of the village inn had spoken of him more than once in my presence as a man who carried plenty of ready money about him. Besides, hadn’t he come to me at Trace’s and offered me a hundred sovereigns for the map, giving me to understand that he had them on him? Well, there was no money on Trawlerson now---except a few coppers, which, to be sure, were not on him at all, but lying on the ground near, as if the murderer and robber had thrown them aside, contemptuous of them. Then, again, I knew that Trawlerson carried a good gold watch and a gold chain, of the heavy cable pattern; there was no watch and no chain there now. Murder and robbery, this. . . .

I had ascertained all these facts within a few minutes of my recognition of the dead man, and as soon as I realised all that had happened, I left him and made for the open. But as I was about to step out of the cave I heard two sounds. Heavy footsteps were coming down the wood, close by, and a man’s voice was singing---some country-side ditty which seemed strangely incongruous. I drew back into the shelter of the cavity, waiting and watching. In another minute the man came in sight.