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Chapter 9: The Ditty-Box

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« on: May 27, 2023, 04:13:19 am »

WHETHER my two seniors wondered at the story I had to tell them I could not at that moment make out clearly. Trace smiled at it, and Macpherson rubbed his chin now and then as I went from one point to another. Neither made any comment on it, nor, indeed, spoke, until Trace eyed Macpherson quizzically.

“You’ll be thinking?” he suggested.

“Aye, I’m thinking!” admitted Macpherson. “I’m a good hand at that!”

“Well,” returned Trace, “you were about to give us your deliberate and considered opinion, when this second call came at the door. Eh?”

“Aye!” said Macpherson. “I was! But now I’ve got another, and I’ll sleep on it! Maybe I’ll have a still more weighty opinion---a third!---in the morning.”

If he had, he said nothing about it. He was unusually silent at breakfast, and when that was done he announced that though it was his stern intention to stand by me while this affair was going on, and that whenever his presence was necessary he would be with us on demand, he must for the time being return to his business. But first he wanted us to take him up the hill-side to the old mill, and to the scene of the murder; it was well, he observed, if you were concerned in any matter, to be acquainted with all its details.

Trace and I took him up the rising ground behind the village to the spot whereat Kest had received his death-blow. Preece, on the day of the murder, had caused that place to be enclosed with stakes and a rope, and for a day or so after had stationed a man there, to keep the inquisitive sightseers from trampling the turf. But there was no guardian there now, though the rope was still round it, and we were free to examine the actual spot as closely as we pleased. There was little to see there; the turf was of that short-cropped and wiry sort that is too resilient to carry the marks of pressing feet. But still there was one thing to which Macpherson at once pointed his umbrella.

“That’ll be the puir creature’s blood!” he said. “Aye, he’ll ha’ lost a deal of that, by the looks of it. A sair thrust, no doubt. And where were ye standing, Tom, my man, when ye saw it given?”

I took him into the old mill, pointing out all the various details relative to my story of the night and morning I had spent there. Up in the loft, at the broken casement from which I had witnessed the fight in the sea fog, he stared inquisitively across-country. There was no sea fog that morning, and from that lofty position we could see the surrounding hills, villages, and sea-plain for many a mile.

“Which way ran the murderer, d’ye say?” he asked suddenly.

I pointed to a dark belt of wood that lay to the east, at the head of a sudden fall in the land.

“Down there!---straight down there,” I answered. “Towards that wood, though, of course, I couldn’t see any wood then; you couldn’t see many yards before you that morning. But that was the way---and he ran fast too!”

“Aye, for reason that he knew where he was going,” remarked Macpherson musingly. “Well, let’s take a daunder in that direction.”

We left the mill and, going back to the roped-off space, went eastward in the direction in which, according to the best of my belief, the murderer had fled. There was a beaten track there, going straight to a hunting-gate on the edge of the wood; once through that gate, we found that the wood itself was dark, thickly planted, heavy with undergrowth. It was a neglected wood; there had been no clearing done in it for many a year; here and there a tree had rotted and fallen; those that stood, many of them dead, were thick with parasitic growth; the path which led into the heart of this wilderness was padded, inches thick, with the accumulated waste of countless visitors. Trace said that he had never been in that wood before; it would, he remarked, form a highly convenient shelter for a man who, having committed a murder close by, needed a retreat for as many minutes as would enable him to formulate a plan of escape. Here, no doubt, he added, Kest’s assailant lay quiet until he could clear off. Neither Macpherson nor myself had any inclinations to dispute that theory; indeed, within a few minutes of entering the wood we found evidence that it was a true one. For suddenly, as we walked aimlessly along staring into the dark recesses on either side, I was aware of certain objects lying at the side of the path---objects which it scarcely needed a second glance to recognise. I let out a cry that woke all the echoes of the wood at sight of these things, and, darting forward, I snatched up and held out to my companions the piece of canvas and the square of oiled silk from which I had seen Kest take out his map.

“See these?” I shouted in my excitement. “These are the wrappings that Kest had the map in! The murderer’s been here!---here where we’re standing!”

They came close and looked at the things I held up. The piece of canvas was saturated with moisture; beads of dew were thickly sprinkled on the oiled silk.

“You can recognise them?” asked Trace.

“Take my oath of it!” said I. “He had the map wrapped first in this oiled silk; the piece of canvas was round that. The murderer must have examined the packet when he got in here, thrown the wrappings away, and pocketed the map.”

“Unless he threw that away too, as useless to him,” said Trace. “Let’s take a look round about.”

But we found no map. Macpherson said we shouldn’t; in his opinion, Kest was murdered for the map. Still, we found something going back towards the hunting-gate, and that was the whity-brown paper in which canvas and oiled silk had been enclosed. There had been heavy rain since the morning of the murder, and the whity-brown paper was soaked and pulpy. But I carried it off when we presently left the wood and set down the hill-side to tell Sergeant Preece of our discoveries.

We encountered Preece in the open space outside the inn. He had two men with him, each in plain clothes. One was obviously a civilian, and just as unmistakably a Jew---a little, hook-nosed, black-eyed man; the other, a big, burly fellow of an official type. They stood listening silently while we told our tale and showed our finds to the sergeant. When Preece handled the canvas and the oiled silk, the Jew made some remark to him in an undertone.

“You recognise ’em, eh?” said Preece. “Well; we seem to be getting at something, bit by bit!” He turned to Trace and Macpherson, indicating his two companions. “These gentlemen have come over about this affair,” he said. “This is Warder Sharpwell, from Parkhurst. He’s just identified Kest as a man who served five years there, some little time ago, for burglary. That’s a help!---we know now that Kest was, as things seemed to indicate at the inquest, a professional burglar. Of late, at any rate, whatever he may have been in the past. And this is Mr. Silvermore, jeweller, of Portsmouth. He’s been at Emsworth this morning, inspecting that small stuff, watches, and so on, that the police there found in Kest’s box; he’s identified it as his property, the proceeds of a burglary committed some little time ago. And he’s seen Kest too, and identified him!”

“As a man whom I knew by sight, but whose name I never knew,” remarked Silvermore quietly. “An occasional customer!”

“Well, you knew him, and that’s something,” remarked Preece, who seemed to be in high good-humour as a result of the morning’s revelations. “I say---we’re really getting at a good deal, bit by bit! Better tell these gentlemen what you told me, Mr. Silvermore---they’ll see how things fit in. And especially since you recognise these bits of things,” he added, pointing to the canvas and the oiled silk, which he had carefully laid on the wall of his garden, by which we were all standing. “Tell ’em!”

Silvermore smiled deprecatingly, in the fashion of a man who, in his own opinion, has very little to tell.

“I know next to nothing about him,” he said, pointing towards the saddle-room of the inn, where Kest’s dead body still lay. “I recognised him at once, just now, as a man---a sailor-man, I always thought---who used to come, occasionally, to my shop in Portsmouth, and bought a thing or two---a cheap watch, or ring, or chain, or something of that sort. What I chiefly remember about him is that he was a slow-going man; used to hang about a long time, making up his mind----”

“Taking stock of his surroundings---that’s what he was after!” interrupted Preece, with a knowing laugh. “Getting an idea of the lie of the land, eh?”

“He always paid for whatever he bought, cash down, and took it away with him,” continued Silvermore. “So, of course, I never had occasion to ask his name. And, as I say, he never bought anything out of the common. Except once”---he paused, and his eyes fixed themselves on the canvas and the silk. “That transaction,” he went on, “has certainly something to do with those things---if they’re the identical wrappings that he had a map in.”

“I don’t think there’s much doubt about that,” remarked Trace. “This boy is prepared to identify them as the wrappings of the map which he saw Kest produce in the mill the night before he was murdered. What do you know about them?”

“Well,” replied Silvermore slowly, “I conclude, from all I’ve heard here, and just now, that Kest got that map from me. In this way. In addition to my jewellery business, I have a pawnbroking business. Unredeemed pledges, of course, occasionally come into my stock for sale. Now, some years ago, a sailor pledged with me a ditty-box---which is, as I suppose you know---a box in which sailors keep all sorts of odds and ends, little personal possessions, curiosities that they pick up, valuables, if they have any---and he never redeemed it. In time it came into stock, amongst a lot of other miscellaneous goods. This man, whom I now know as Kest, bought it. But I’d examined it, before that, more than once, and I know that amongst its various contents was a map, folded in oiled silk, with an outer wrapping of thin canvas. In my opinion that’s the silk, and that’s the canvas!”

“Getting at things!---getting at things!” chuckled Preece, rubbing his hands. “Narrowing down, things are---get to a fine point, presently!”

But Trace and Macpherson and myself were concentrated on Silvermore. And Trace put the question that was in the minds of all three.

“The map, now? Can you remember anything about it?”

Silvermore seemed trying to clear his memory. He struck me as a punctilious man, anxious not to lead anybody astray.

“Well, something,” he answered. “I’ve seen a good many similar things---drawn by sailors. It was---I’ve called it a map, but it was a rough chart. There was a round dot in the middle, with the word mill written against it, in very faint characters. There were marks here and there on the paper which I couldn’t understand. There was a faint line running from the centre dot down the paper---sloping, I fancy, to what you might call the south-east. And there were some figures---several figures.”

“Was there anything---words, lettering, that sort of thing---to indicate where the place was?” asked Trace.

“No! But up at the top in the right-hand corner there was figuring that I took to be the longitude and latitude,” replied Silvermore. “And I think---I’m not clear or positive about it---but I think that in one place there was a mark in red ink. That’s my general impression, as far as I can recollect.”

“Did Kest know the map was in the box when he bought it?” asked Trace.

“I suppose so---he’d full liberty to turn over everything that was in the box,” replied Silvermore. “It was full of odds and ends---none of any value. Curiosities, all of them, but not worth anything.”

“Do you remember anything about the man who originally pawned the box with you?” enquired Trace. “A sailor, you said.”

“A sailor, yes. But I don’t remember much of him---it’s years ago. This last affair, selling the box to Kest,” continued Silvermore, “is recent---a few months since. Personally, I’ve no more doubt that the map you’re talking about is the map that was in that ditty-box than I have that Kest was the man who burgled my shop!”

“Just so!” said Preece. “Not a doubt about either! As I say, we’re getting on fine! Well, gentlemen, I think that’s all this morning. I must ride into town and report---very satisfactory budget of information too, eh?”

He was turning away, with the warder and the jeweller in attendance, when Macpherson, who had been attentively observing him, tapped his uniformed arm.

“Man,” he said, in his driest fashion, “ye amaze me!”

Preece drew himself up, staring, amused and good-natured.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Aye, and how’s that, Mr. Macpherson?”

“Ye’re that well content wi’ yourself!” answered Macpherson. “Rubbing your hands and laughing to yourself as if ye’d achieved a great feat o’ mental strength. Man, ye’ve done nothing---nothing at all, so far!”

“I was thinking we’d done a great deal, Mr. Macpherson,” replied Preece. “Come, now----”

“Man, ye’ve a twisted mind!” persisted Macpherson. “Ye can’t see straight---not even along your line o’ duty! Here ye are devoting all your energies to finding out who and what yon puir murdered body was, and none to discovering who murdered and robbed him! Ye’re at the wrong game! It’s not the character and antecedents of Kest that’s important. What is important is a plain solution of the problem---who killed Kest?”

“We have to solve problems in our own way, Mr. Macpherson,” said Preece good-humouredly. “We want to know all about Kest, to begin with. We didn’t know at first. Now we know that Kest was a burglar, an ex-convict, a bad lot----”

“Aye, but ye don’t know and ye haven’t got the least idea who stuck that knife in Kest’s throat!” interrupted Macpherson. “And ye’re not going the right way about to find out. Man, ye want one of those smart London men down here! I’m surprised at your superiors----”

But Preece had had enough of that, and he picked up the canvas and the oilskin.

“I’ll tell ’em what you advise, Mr. Macpherson,” he said, as he motioned his companions to follow him. “Of course, we country police haven’t got the brains of those Scotland Yard chaps; but we do our best, Mr. Macpherson, we do our best, you know!”

This asseveration failed to convince Macpherson. He went away to the nearest railway station grumbling, and I thought Trace was probably right when he said that we should have him back again before long.

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