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Chapter 7: The Clamped Chest

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Author Topic: Chapter 7: The Clamped Chest  (Read 22 times)
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« on: May 27, 2023, 01:27:59 am »

FROM the very moment in which Trawlerson had heard from Preece of the existence of a map his entire demeanour had changed. At Petworth, talking with me amongst the gravestones, his attitude had been soft, silky, ingratiating. When Trace and I hailed him outside Hentidge’s orchard wall, he had been at least polite and friendly. But everything about him altered as we sat in the back-parlour of the inn and he learned that Kest had a paper on him, which I, sole eyewitness, took to be a plan of the old mill and its surroundings. He grew sulky, suspicious, irritable---and now, as he stood facing the coroner, and while all round remained strangely silent in view of this duel of wills, he typified absolute defiance. He and the coroner remained silent, too, for a good minute, gazing at each other. Then the coroner spoke---smoothly.

“Listen to me, Trawlerson,” he said. “You tell us that you are a retired man, having means and property of your own, and I take it that you wish to be known as a law-abiding citizen. You surely don’t want to go out of this court bearing the character of one who refuses to help the course of justice? Here, as I have said before, is a case of murder---the police want all the help they can get. A word from you---an explanation---a suggestion as to why Kest should have come to this old windmill----”

“No!” interrupted Trawlerson. “I shall say nothing. My business! Let the police do their own work. What ideas I have I’ll keep to myself. I say again---my business. Let them chaps”---he waved his hand at the police officials with a gesture that seemed to indicate contempt---“do their own job! I’ll attend to mine!”

“You refuse to tell us why you sought out this mill?” said the coroner curtly.

Trawlerson scowled---but the scowl turned into an obvious sneer.

“I’ve never yet said, never admitted, that I did seek out this mill!” he retorted. “I agreed that I asked that young fellow if he knew anything of an old windmill the like of what I described to him, and that I was keen about finding it---for reasons of my own. But I never said, and don’t admit now, that this mill o’ yours, up above there, is the mill I want! Understand that!”

“You may go down!” said the coroner peremptorily. He had evidently had enough of Trawlerson, and he turned to the jurymen, who, one and all, were regarding the retired mariner with uneasy looks. “Since these proceedings began,” he continued, “and consequent upon the reports in the local newspapers last night and this morning, certain information has been acquired about the dead man, and three persons have come here who can not only identify, but can also tell us a good deal about him---in fact, gentlemen, we could have dispensed very well with the last witness and his evidence! It appears”---here he consulted a slip of paper which a police official had passed to him---“that this man Kest has been living for some little time not very far away from this place; his landlady is here now; there is also here a policeman who visited her house this morning and examined the room which Kest rented in it; further, there is in attendance a clerk from a local bank whereat Kest kept an account, who has been sent on by his manager in consequence of the newspaper reports I have just alluded to. I think we will hear the landlady first---Mrs. Susan Jordan.”

Mrs. Jordan was brought out of a class-room—a little, quiet, middle-aged woman, nervous but determined. She told the coroner she was a widow and lived in Emsworth, and to eke out her slender means was in the habit of letting lodgings to respectable men. She had just been shown the dead man’s body, and recognised it as that of a man whom she knew as Jabez Kest, who had lodged with her for about twelve months, and who, she had always understood, was a retired sailor, with money of his own.

“When did you see Kest last, Mrs. Jordan?” enquired the coroner.

“Well, sir, this here is Thursday---it would be Monday. Monday morning, sir. He went out before dinner-time, saying he should be away for a few days.”

“What sort of man was Kest---as you knew him?”

“A very quiet, steady man, sir. I never had no trouble with him. Very regular in his habits, sir. A sober man. Of course, he took his glass of a night, but I never had no trouble with him at all, sir.”

“Regular in his payments, Mrs. Jordan?”

“As clockwork, sir. Every Saturday morning. Never knew him a minute late at that, sir. Gave me his money as soon as he’d finished his breakfast, Saturdays. I couldn’t wish for a better lodger than what Mr. Kest was sir!”

“Did he seem to be pretty well off?”

“I think he’d money, sir---never seemed noways short of it. He never denied himself anything, in reason.”

“What did he do with himself, Mrs. Jordan---what were his habits?”

“Well sir, as I say, very regular. After breakfast, he’d read the newspaper. Then he’d go for a walk till dinner-time. After dinner he’d have a nap. Then he’d take another walk till tea-time. After that he’d go round to his favourite public for an hour or two. Then he’d come home to supper, and after talking a bit and smoking his pipe, he’d go to bed. He was often away, sir.”

“Often away, was he? Where did he go?”

“That I could not say, sir. Every now and then, as on this last occasion, he’d go away for three or four days at a time. He never said a word to me as to where he went. He was what I call a secret man, sir.”

Some of the people who were listening with true rustic curiosity to these revelations laughed at that. But their laughter changed to stares of astonishment presently. A police-sergeant followed Mrs. Jordan into the witness-box. He said that as a result of what had been reported in the stop-press editions of last night’s evening newspapers, and again in the morning papers, he, acting on instructions, had very early that morning visited Mrs. Jordan’s house, where, it was well known locally, Kest lodged. With Mrs. Jordan’s permission he had examined the dead man’s room and his belongings, and he detailed what he had found there. Nothing remarkable, save one thing, and that was remarkable enough---or, rather, its contents were. That was a certain box or seaman’s chest, clamped at the corners, a strong, heavy affair, with a padlock, to which he, the police-sergeant, at his inspector’s orders, had fetched a locksmith.

“And you found inside this box---what?” enquired the coroner.

The witness produced a slip of paper and began to read in formal fashion.

“Three silver cups, believed, from information in our possession, to be the property of Sir John Rodgate, of Rodgate Hall. Silver salver and two silver candlesticks---ditto. Small silver clock---ditto. Silver-mounted paper-knife---ditto. Silver----”

“Are you implying that these things were stolen from Rodgate Hall?” interrupted the coroner.

“Yes, sir! A burglary occurred there about six weeks ago, sir. The burglar has not been traced. These articles correspond with those reported to us as missing, sir. There are several other silver articles on this list, sir---found in the box referred to. I also found a number of gold watches, gold rings set with jewels, and a number of other valuables which I believe to have been stolen. Also some apparently valuable furs, and two bundles of silk. Also a quantity of odds and ends, curiosities, of the value of which we cannot at present form an estimate.”

“You conclude that this man was a burglar?” asked the coroner.

“Yes, sir. We have no doubt that all these articles were stolen. At the bottom of the box,” continued the witness, resuming his formal manner of giving evidence, “in a separate compartment, I found certain things which, acting on instructions, I have brought here with me, and now produce.”

Every neck in that place was craned forward as the police-sergeant, deftly unearthing a small bundle from somewhere about him, whipped off its outer covering of cloth, revealed a wrapping of chamois leather, and, unrolling this, laid out on the shelf on the desk a collection of highly polished instruments that shone brightly in the sunlight. The coroner forgot his dignity.

“Good Heavens!” he exclaimed in genuine astonishment. “What on earth are those things?”

“Burglar’s tools, sir!” replied the witness. “Steel. Exceptionally well made. The---the very latest thing in that line of goods, sir!”

Amidst a ripple of excited comment, the coroner examined the various pieces of steel which the police-sergeant had unwrapped. He was obviously as interested as he was inquisitive; so were the jurymen to whom he passed each article.

“Have the police at your station ever had any reason to suspect this man Kest?” asked the coroner after a pause.

“No, sir---no reason.”

“Never had any complaints about him?”

“None, sir!”

“Was he known to you at all?”

“By sight only, sir. I’ve seen him about, since he went to live at Mrs. Jordan’s. Never knew him as anything but a quiet, inoffensive man---to all appearance.”

“You’ve no doubt about the things you found in this box you speak of?---no doubt that they’re stolen goods?”

“No doubt at all, sir, as regards the silver articles. We’ve identified them---or, I should say, compared them---with a list furnished to us by Sir John Rodgate when his place was broken into. The other matters---watches, rings, and so on---are brand-new. They look like jeweller’s stock, sir. We’re already making enquiries about them.”

The coroner turned to his jury.

“This man, Kest, appears to have lived a double life,” he remarked. “Posed as a quiet, respectable man in the neighbourhood where he lodged, and when he went away on those occasions of which Mrs. Jordan told us, transformed himself into a burglar! We have learned a good deal about him!---however, there is still another witness to hear. Let us have the gentleman from the bank.”

The gentleman from the bank proved to be almost as youthful a person as myself; a clerk, who informed the coroner that his manager, having read the newspaper accounts of the murder of Kest, and knowing Kest as a customer, had sent him over to tell what they knew of the man, if the coroner thought proper.

“Very proper, indeed, I think,” said the coroner. “Any information at all is welcome! What did you know at your bank of this man Kest?”

“He opened an account with us, an ordinary current account, about twelve months ago,” replied the clerk. “He described himself as a retired seaman, and gave a satisfactory reference to a Portsmouth tradesman. He paid in a sum of money on opening his account, and from time to time paid in other sums. He drew on his account now and then. On Monday last he called personally at the bank and drew out a hundred pounds. He made some remark to our cashier about buying some property and paying a cash deposit on it.”

“Did you, yourself, see him on that occasion?” asked the coroner.

“Yes, I saw him---just glanced at him.”

“Have you been shown the dead man?”

“I have!”

“And he is the man you have known as Kest, your customer?”

“Oh yes---I knew him at once.”

The coroner had no more questions to ask, but Halkin stretched a finger towards the witness.

“An important question to that young gentleman, Mr. Coroner!” he said. “A highly important question, considering what we’ve just heard. Now”---he smiled significantly at the witness---“now, you say this Kest drew a hundred pounds on Monday. In what shape did he carry that there money away?”

The clerk held up a slip of paper.

“I have particulars here,” he answered. “He had two £10 notes, four £5 notes, and sixty pounds in gold, sovereigns and half-sovereigns. We have the numbers of the notes,” he added, turning to the coroner.

“Aye, but you can’t take the numbers of sovereigns and half-sovereigns, young gentleman!” exclaimed Halkin. “Sixty pounds in gold! Now we know where we are! Mr. Coroner, this here man Kest was followed---from the bank, sir. He’s been knifed for that gold, sir. Such is my opinion!”

There was a murmur of assent amongst certain of Halkin’s fellow-jury men, and a still louder expression of agreement in the crowd of spectators. The coroner allowed himself to smile a little.

“I am not disposed at this stage to dispute your expression of opinion,” he remarked, glancing indulgently at Halkin. “He may have been followed from the bank, and he may have been murdered for his money. Unfortunately, on the evidence before us, we haven’t any clue to the murderer! Our duty is to enquire into the circumstances of this man’s death---to find how it came about, and, if he was murdered, to say, if we can, who murdered him. It seems to me,” he went on, after a moment’s thought, “that he may have been robbed while asleep that morning by some man who found him in the mill, that he woke while he was being robbed, or as the robber left him, that he pursued the thief and struggled with him, and that his assailant drew a knife on him, with the result we know. But up to now, though we know a great deal more than I had anticipated we should discuss this afternoon, there is no evidence as to the identity of Kest’s murderer, and in order that the police may have some further chance of obtaining such evidence, I think it advisable to adjourn for, say, a fortnight. In the meantime, gentlemen of the jury . . . .”

We left the coroner giving the jurymen solemn advice as to keeping their minds free and open, and went away to Trace’s cottage. Andrew Macpherson was full of talk. He talked all the time we were at the tea-table and long after. Most of this talk was about Trawlerson, to whom he had taken a great dislike. In his opinion Trawlerson was a deep, designing, crafty rogue, who knew a lot---perhaps everything.

“But I’ll tell you what he didn’t know, Macpherson!” said Trace. “He didn’t know of the existence of that map! That hit him right amidships! Everything changed in Trawlerson when he heard of that map! I was watching him closely, and----”

He paused at a sudden click of the garden gate, and we looked out of the window. Halkin was coming up the path, a curious smile around his lips, and his eye cocked inquisitively at our faces.

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