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Chapter 8: Complex

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« on: May 27, 2023, 02:03:25 am »

SINCE he had taken me to his bosom, so to speak, throwing a protecting arm about me at an awkward episode of my adventures, I was grateful to Trace, and glad to do things for him, and when I saw Halkin approaching the door, I made haste to get there and to ask him his business. But Trace knew what that business was before I could question the man. As I moved to leave the room, he threw me a half-humorous, half-rueful glance.

“Let him in, Tom!” said he. “Another born gossiper, this!---there’s no use in keeping him off. I can see from the turn of his eye that he’s bursting with news. And we may hear something.”

Halkin got one foot across the threshold as soon as I opened the door to him. He looked past me, with a suspicious enquiry in his glance, and his voice sank to a whisper.

“Anybody particular with him?” he questioned. “That is---no police folk?---Preece, or anybody of his sort?”

“You can come in,” said I. “There’s no police here!”

He stole in, still looking round, and, being one of those men who, when they want to be confidential, walk on the tips of their toes, he tiptoed across the little hall, and was still tiptoeing when he entered the parlour. At sight of Macpherson he drew himself up, glancing quickly at Trace.

“All friends here, I hope, Captain?” he said with an oily smile. “On occasions like these here----”

“You’ve seen Mr. Macpherson before, Halkin,” replied Trace. “And heard of him too---when you were in the jury-box this afternoon. So---what’s it all about?”

He pointed to a chair, and the man sat down, drawing his chair and himself forward with a gesture that suggested secrecy.

“Jury-box, say you, Captain!” he remarked, with something of a sly chuckle. “Aye, well, there’s all sorts of juries in this world, eh? There’s---for example, gentlemen, just for example, as it might be---there’s the jury of public opinion! D’ye take me, gentlemen?”

“Ye’re meaning public-house opinion, I’m thinking,” said Macpherson dryly. “Aye, there’s that! Ye’ll no doubt ha’ just come away from it?”

Halkin put his hands on his knees and for a moment sat rubbing them up and down, rocking his body in silent laughter.

“I see you’ve a pretty sense of the humorous, Mr. Macpherson,” he answered. “Just so!---public-house opinion! Well, and a man can know a good deal of what other folk are thinking if he sits quiet in a public-house---when others aren’t as quiet!”

“What ha’ you learnt, yourself?” demanded Macpherson.

Halkin gave us a sly glance, all round, and jerked his thumb in the direction of the inn.

“They will talk, down there, you know, gentlemen!” he replied. “They ain’t bound by no coroner’s instructions, that lot! Now me, of course, I can’t open my mouth. But a man can keep his mouth shut and his ears open. And that lot---village wiseacres, gentlemen!---they ain’t slow to express their opinions. Evidence, now!---bless you, they put their own notions before any evidence!”

“And what are their notions?” asked Trace.

Halkin twisted round in his chair and pointed a finger at me.

“They think this here young man knows more than he’s let out!” he answered, eyeing me inquisitively. “They say he was ready enough with his tale before the coroner---over-ready, all cut and dried, says one. But, says another, he’d plenty of time to take whatever there was on Kest and hide it before ever he come running down the hill! That’s---village talk!”

He continued to watch me all the time he was talking, and as for me, I kept my eyes fixed steadily on his, wondering why he watched me. Nobody spoke when he had finished; there was a full minute’s silence. Then Trace spoke, and there was something, some note in his voice that I couldn’t quite understand.

“That’ll be one set of opinions! What’s the next, Halkin?”

“To be sure, Captain! Of course, there’s another. There are those who want to know what you and this young man did when you went up the hill---before Preece came? For you see, Captain, you ain’t been in the village more than---what is it?---is it two, or three years?---and so you’re a stranger. And----”

“So some of ’em think this boy robbed the dead man, and some of ’em think the boy and I, in partnership, robbed him?” interrupted Trace. “Aye, to be sure, we both had the opportunities! Well---it’s not a bad thing to know what’s being said of us, Halkin! Any more?”

“Not from that lot---public-house gossips, Captain. But me!---gentlemen, what about that man Trawlerson? In bed at Chichester he may ha’ been at six, aye, and at seven o’clock that morning, but---accomplices, gentlemen; an accomplice! Eh?---do you take my meaning? For there was a man!---a man as came, and as did it, and as run away when he’d done it. Young fellow!”---he turned on me with an eye that was almost affectionately entreating---“you couldn’t nowise identify that man you saw making off in the mist?”

“You heard what I said before the coroner---to you!” I replied huffily. “No!”

“To be sure I heard!” he said, “But now, if you was to think a bit, what? Mist, sea fog, though there was, ’twas a man you saw, and there’s a difference ’twixt any one man and the next. Wasn’t there nothing, now?---a limp in his walk, a peculiarity in his figure----”

“I couldn’t recognise him anyhow, anywhere, from anything, Mr. Halkin,” said I, wondering at his persistence. “It’s a fact!”

He rose from his chair with a sigh, looking me over with a sort of commiseration.

“Well, it’s a pity!” he remarked. “For by identifying the right man, you’d clear yourself of all suspicion, and, as I’ve been telling you, these country-folk are nat’rally suspicious---it’s mother’s milk to ’em, is suspicion!---and they will talk, and the more they talk---ah! And I’m talking, but all with the best intentions, Captain,” he said, suddenly turning on Trace. “My meaning is---all I’ve said is with the best Christian intentions, as befits a follower, which I trust I am. I bid you good night, gentlemen both.”

I went to let him out, and on the threshold he turned on me with a whisper.

“You couldn’t tell that man if you was brought right face to face with him?” he asked. “You couldn’t?---nohow?”

“Nohow!” said I.

“Wouldn’t know him back or front?” he asked, with a queer chuckle.

“Neither front nor back, Mr. Halkin!” I answered. “Have you got it?”

He went away, silently, at that, and I returned to the parlour, where Trace was describing our departed visitor to Macpherson.

“A sly, canting, psalm-singing rogue, that!” he was saying. “Now, what did he come here for? Not out of friendliness, in spite of all his protestations! He’d some idea, some motive---he was after something. What?”

Macpherson, who was smoking his pipe in the chimney corner, puffed his tobacco in silence for awhile. Then he took the pipe from his lips and waved it at me.

“It’s my deliberate and considered opeenion----” he began.

But he got no further, for just as I sat down to listen to him there came another knock at the door, a quiet, stealthy knock. And at a nod from Trace I repaired to the porch once again. The dusk was settling in by that time, and the lamp in the passage had not been lighted, but I instantly recognised the man who demanded admittance. That was he, sure enough---Trawlerson!

I had come by that time, though, of course, in only a vague, boyish sense, to consider Trawlerson as a man of varying moods and emotions. I had seen him in confidential moods and in secretive; in gently insinuating and placatory and in utterly defiant, as when before the coroner and his jury that afternoon. And while he stood there, blinking---he had a trick of that, working his eyelids up and down as he talked---I wondered what mood he was in now, and---to be sure---what he had come there for. But he left me in no doubt concerning the last particular.

“Anybody in there?” he asked laconically, nodding at the half-open door of the parlour.

“Captain Trace, Mr. Trawlerson,” said I. “And Mr. Macpherson.”

He edged himself nearer me, and, as far as I could make out, one of his eyes gave me a wink.

“It’s you I’m wanting to see,” he said. “Come outside!”

“No!” I answered peremptorily.

“Come on!” he persisted. “No harm intended! Just a bit of private talk---in the road there.”

“I’m not coming, Mr. Trawlerson,” I answered. “If----”

“What is it, Tom?” called Trace from the parlour. “Who’s there?”

Trawlerson made as if to draw back, but I spoke loudly.

“It’s Mr. Trawlerson, Captain Trace,” I replied. “He wants me to go out into the road to talk to him. I won’t!”

I heard an exchange of words between Trace and Macpherson; then Trace called again.

“If Trawlerson wants to talk to you, Tom, take him into the back room,” he said. “Nobody’ll interrupt you there.”

I looked at Trawlerson, and he hesitated a moment, and then, unwillingly, I thought, entered, and followed me down the passage. There was a small room at the back of the parlour; we went into it and shut the door. But there was another door in the room, one that communicated with the parlour, and his first action was to walk over to it and assure himself that it was closed. Then he unbuttoned his overcoat and sat down on the edge of a chair and looked at me; as for me, I leaned against the mantelpiece, watching him intently.

“Between ourselves,” he said in a low voice. “Confidential! Me, as it were, having, in a manner o’ speaking, been confidential with you from the time we come together in Petworth, amongst the tombs. And since that there inquest this afternoon, most of which, in my opinion, was tomfool business, done to provide the lawyers and police fellers with something to do, I ha’ been listening to what’s said down there at the public. Do you know what they’re saying about you---and him?”

He jerked his head in the direction of the wall behind which he imagined Trace to be sitting, at the same time giving me a queer smile.

“Yes, I do, Mr. Trawlerson!” said I. “They’re saying that Captain Trace and myself, separately or together, had plenty of opportunity of robbing Kest’s dead body! I think that’s about it, Mr. Trawlerson!”

His queer smile changed into something like a searching glance.

“Heard it, eh, have you?” he remarked. “And---how do you take it?”

“Like I’d take the prick of a pin, Mr. Trawlerson,” I said. “I’m not caring!”

“And you’re in the right,” said he. “I shouldn’t care myself. Keep a stiff upper lip!---that’s my notion. All the same---and it’s what I came to see you about, private, like---you’ll be knowing a deal more about this matter than what you told, careful to the crowner and his pack o’ fools! Of course!”

“You think so, do you, Mr. Trawlerson?” I asked.

“Why, to be sure!” he answered, with a sly leer at me. “You’re a clever young feller, with an uncommon good headpiece of your own, and strike me if ever I see one that knew better how to take care of hisself! And nat’rally, such a one knows, too, how to do his best for hisself. Which is what all of us has a right to do---nat’ral is that.”

“Is it what you came to say to me, Mr. Trawlerson?” I asked.

At that he edged his chair closer to where I was standing, and after giving me a look that was intended to signify his sense of some fellow-feeling between us, sunk his voice to a whisper.

“What I came to say to you, my lad, is this here”, he went on. “You’re a young feller as is starting out in life, and, to such, a bit o’ good money is a consideration. Good, golden money!---sovereigns, what tinkles nice and musical one again t’other, eh? I dare say you’d do with---shall we say a hundred of ’em?---as well as anybody?”

“I dare say I should, Mr. Trawlerson,” I replied readily. “Quite glad of ’em! Are you proposing to give me a hundred sovereigns?”

He suddenly thrust forward a hand and laid it, with a trembling grip, on my nearest wrist, and a strange light shot into his eyes.

“For the map, yes!” he whispered. “Here!---now!”

I let his hand rest on my arm for a moment, staring at him.

“So you think I’ve got the map, Mr. Trawlerson, do you?” I asked.

“Or know where it is!” he exclaimed eagerly. “One or t’other---yes!”

“And---why?” I enquired, quietly disengaging my arm. “Why, Mr. Trawlerson?”

He shook his head at me.

“Human natur’!” he said. “Human natur’! I’m well acquainted wi’ that---studied it, deep. Same thing, all the world over---white, black, red, brown, and coffee-coloured. All alike! And it stands to reason---though you wouldn’t, of course, be so foolish as to admit it---that when you were left alone, all alone, with a dead man, why, you’d go through him!”

“Is that what you’d ha’ done, Mr. Trawlerson?” I asked.

“I certain sure should, my lad!” he answered. “And what I’d do, another would---unless he was a born fool! And you’re not, and----”

“I’m afraid I am, Mr. Trawlerson!” I interrupted. “For I didn’t go through Kest, and I haven’t got the map, and----”

But he was already on his feet, staring hard at me. I stared back at him, and presently, making a sound the exact meaning of which I failed to comprehend, he turned away and let himself out of room and house, leaving me to go back, wondering, to the parlour.

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