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Chapter 10: The Hill-Side--Midnight

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« on: May 27, 2023, 05:07:09 am »

I DON’T know whether Sergeant Preece told his superiors of Macpherson’s strictures, or whether he didn’t. But within the next few days, and after the authorities had buried Kest in a corner of the churchyard (nobody came forward to claim him, or betray any knowledge of him), two or three men appeared in the village whom Trace declared to be from Scotland Yard, and who occupied themselves in going over the ground which, to do him justice, Preece had already gone over with patient thoroughness. They were the sort of men who wrap themselves in mystery, and what they did, and how much they discovered, or whether they discovered anything at all that was not already known, it is beyond me to say. My own opinion at that time was that Macpherson was just about right in saying that the police took an infinite lot of trouble to find out who and what Kest was, and rejoiced greatly in proving him an ex-convict and a burglar, but very little to discover the identity of the man who knifed him. There was a great deal of talk, and much labour in getting sworn statements from people---I myself, summoned into the presence of a great personage, saw a formidable pile of these things on his desk---but when Kest had been a fortnight in his grave there was not a soul thereabouts who was any the wiser as to the direct cause of his having been thrust there. It seemed to me that there was an inclination to let the matter drop; the clever men from London vanished as quietly as they had come; Preece went about his ordinary avocations. He was a reserved man, Preece, and said little; but I gathered from a chance remark of his that his own belief was that Kest had been followed to the old mill by some man who knew that he had money on him, and had there been robbed in his sleep and murdered on his awaking, and that the murderer had got clean away and would never be found. And, after all, Kest was an uncommon bad lot, and the world could well spare him. Certainly the world wasn’t going to stand still because Kest had left it; so said Preece.

Preece’s attitude, I think, was that of his neighbours. Whether they continued to regard me, or Trace and me conjointly, with the suspicion of which Halkin had been kind enough to tell us, we could not tell; there was nothing in the outward behaviour of the villagers to show that they did. The general atmosphere made you think that in rustic opinion the job was over. No thoroughbred countryman ever cries over spilt milk---and the spilling of Kest’s blood was no great matter: the thing was done. I question---from what we heard---if Kest’s murder would have remained a principal topic of conversation at the inn for more than the usual nine days---until something else, some local topic, drove it out. Yet there, still lodging at the inn, still sitting, for the most part, they said, silent and morose, in its parlour of an evening, drinking rum and sucking at his pipe, and, when he was not thus occupied, wandering about the hill-side with drooping head and hands in pockets, was Trawlerson.

Trawlerson appeared to have forgotten his desirable residence at Fareham, with the mast in the front garden and the bit of glass at the back. Anyway, for the time being he had taken root at the scene of Kest’s murder, and he divided his day equally between the immediate neighbourhood of it and the inn parlour. I think he used to meditate in the inn on what he had seen or learnt on the hill-side. Every morning and afternoon you could see him up there, sometimes motionless against the sky-line, apparently staring at nothing, sometimes walking about, up and down, this way and that, his eyes on the turf at his feet. He became monosyllabic in his conversation too, they said. Trace and I got none of it, for if we met him, he favoured us with no more than a scowling nod. The only man he was ever seen in talk with was Fewster, the retired gentleman, with whom he was sometimes observed in close converse in lonely places. But Fewster was not a frequenter of the inn. He, of course, had his bottle at home, therefore nobody was in a position to know what he and Trawlerson talked about. When you once got to know Trawlerson, the landlord of the inn said, he was the quietest man as ever was, and carried plenty of money in his pocket.

To everybody officially concerned with the Kest case, Trawlerson, of course, was the mystery man. Trace and Macpherson considered it proper that I should tell the authorities about Trawlerson’s coming to me and offering me a hundred pounds in gold, there and then, for the map which I hadn’t got, and when the adjourned inquest was held, the coroner had Trawlerson before him again and questioned him strictly about that little matter. He got nothing out of him. Trawlerson said he’d a perfect right to buy the map if he liked, and if he could find it; and as to any reason for his wish to require possession of it, that was his affair. Then he flung a question at coroner and jury which made them stare at him---How did they know the map wasn’t his, and that if he had given me a hundred pounds for it, if I’d had it, it would only have been as a reward for restoring lost---perhaps stolen---property? Nobody---not even Halkin---said a word to Trawlerson in reply to that. It was evident that they felt him too tough a nut to be cracked---readily, at any rate.

It was just after the jury, on the coroner’s direction, had returned a verdict to the effect that Kest was murdered by some person unknown, that Trace had to go away for a few days to see about his little property in another part of the country. He left me and his housekeeper in charge of his cottage, pressing on me to stay there until he came back, because he had some scheme for my future which he wanted to discuss with me at leisure. I had no objection: looking after the garden and the trees was a much more congenial occupation than weighing out pounds of tea and sugar at Macpherson’s. But that pastoral life got broken in upon.

Chrissie Hentidge broke in upon it. By that time I knew all about Chrissie Hentidge and Trace. Middle-aged, or nearly middle-aged folk though they were, Chrissie and Trace were in love with each other: always had been, said Trace, from their first acquaintance. But Chrissie was under a vow. Her mother, on her death-bed, had made her swear, on the family Bible, that she would never marry while her father lived, and Chrissie was a religious woman. So---she and Trace were waiting, and in the meantime both of them, as I saw, doing all they could to make old Hentidge live to be a hundred. That was the sort of man and woman they were---good folk.

Chrissie Hentidge sent for me on the fourth afternoon of Trace’s absence. She met me at the gate of their garden, and I saw at once that she had some secret.

“Tom,” she said, “I want to tell you something that I should tell Captain Trace if he were at home, and that I don’t want to tell Sergeant Preece---yet, anyway. You can keep a secret?”

She said this more as if she knew that I could than as if asking whether I could, and I answered her with a nod.

“Come round to the back of the house,” she continued. “I want to show as well as tell you something.”

I followed her round to the other side of the old farmstead, where the walls rose abruptly at the foot of the hill on the topmost height of which the mill stood. There she pointed to a window in one of the gables.

“That’s my father’s bedroom, Tom,” she said. “You see, it looks out over the hill-side. Now, my father is often very wakeful at night, and I have to sit up with him, and I spend a good deal of time by that window, looking out while he’s dropping off to sleep. I’ve been at that window a lot during the last few nights, Tom, and last night, and the night before, I saw something!”

I knew at once that she had the recent events in her mind, and I jumped eagerly at whatever it was she was going to tell me.

“Yes, yes, Miss Hentidge!” I exclaimed. “What was it?”

“The figure of a man, Tom!” she answered. “Going up and down, and round about, on the hill-side, up there!”

I let out the first name I thought of.

“Trawlerson!”

She was well acquainted with all Trawlerson’s doings and characteristics and sinister behaviour, for Trace kept her and her father fully informed, and she nodded at my suggestion.

“Very likely,” she said. “I thought of him. But, of course, I couldn’t see who he was. A man! As I say, going up and down and round about. Do you see those trees up there---those oak trees, a quarter or so up the hill-side? There! All in and around there. As if he were looking for something.”

“What time was it?” I asked.

“Just before twelve o’clock---midnight,” she replied. “There’s a moon now---I could see him clearly. Last night it was that time---the night before, a bit earlier.”

“How long was he there?”

“Perhaps half-an-hour, each time. The first night I saw him, he was there when I looked from the window, going about; last night, I saw him come. He came up through the gorse-bushes across there; he went back the same way.”

“Must be Trawlerson!” I said. “He’s always haunting that hill-side. He’s there every morning and every afternoon; now perhaps he’s taken to going there at night too.”

“Maybe!” she agreed. “But, Tom!---suppose---suppose it was the man who murdered Kest?---whoever it is! That map, Tom?---suppose it refers to some place, to something, on the hill-side there, below the mill, and the murderer’s come back to seek the place out?”

I jumped readily to that, too.

“All right, Miss Hentidge!” I said resolutely. “I’ll know more about it to-night, if he comes again. I’ll be there!”

“You won’t run into any danger?” she asked anxiously. “If it’s the murderer----”

“I’ll take good care he never sees me at all!” said I. “But I’ll see him!---and close enough, too, to know who he is. If he’s anybody I know, all right---I shall know where to find him in the morning. If he’s a stranger---then I shall track him wherever he goes.”

We talked over the matter a little more, and I arranged with her that she was to watch at the window again, and that if I wanted help I was to make a certain signal, on which she was to send her farm-men to my assistance. And leaving her, I went up the hill-side---on which Trawlerson, for a wonder, was not to be seen just then---and took a glance at the part she had indicated. There was a sort of plateau there with a lot of dwarf oak on it, and a great deal of gorse and bramble---a wild bit altogether, but favourable for my purpose as having plenty of cover. And, there being nobody about, I made my dispositions for the coming night, fixing on a spot whereat I could hide myself in such a fashion that while I could see whoever came prowling around there, it would be an almost impossible thing for any such prowler to see me.

I said nothing to Trace’s old housekeeper about my intentions. She went to bed at her usual hour, and I dare say she thought I went to my bed too. Certainly I went to my room, but before midnight I was out of it again, through the window. Nor did I go unaccompanied, for I had one of Trace’s two service pistols with me, loaded and ready in the right-hand pocket of my coat. I thought that a wise precaution---who knew what dangerous situation might not lie before me?

I had timed my excursion so as to gain my cover on the hill-side before the moon rose, and everything went very well. I was safely hidden away amongst the gorse-bushes---and anybody who knows Sussex gorse knows what splendid cover it makes---before even the moon showed over the ridge on my left hand. Everything was very still there, and very lonely; there was not a sign of life anywhere about except the very faint gleam of a night-light in old Hentidge’s bedroom far beneath the place in which I had ensconced myself. I heard a clock in the stables of the big house strike twelve; some time passed after that, and still nothing happened. And it must have been getting on towards one o’clock, and the moon was rising steadily to a fair height, when I heard footsteps in the scrub, somewhere down the hill. They came nearer and nearer. At last a man emerged from the thick growth immediately in front of me and came out boldly, and with no apparent attempt at secrecy, on the plateau. He turned a little in my direction, and the moon falling full on his face, I recognised him at once.

Chissick!

I don’t know whether I was surprised, or whether I wasn’t. I believe that I merely wondered---leaving the Kest case clean aside---whatever Chissick, who could have come there whenever he liked in broad daylight, should be doing there at that hour of the night. I don’t think I felt any surprise about Chissick; I was merely curious as to what he was after. I even wondered if he was poaching, and had got some snares set for rabbits. And then I settled down to watch him.

Chissick’s proceedings were odd, to say the least of it. He began by striding distances between trees. I heard him counting his paces. Then he measured off some of the ground, also by pacing it. He walked round and round some of the trees. Finally, he paced off a parallelogram which took in most of the trees—all dwarf oak—and a good deal of the gorse. When he had done that he went away. And he went away so decisively, his very action showing that his job was done for that night, that after a time I went away too, and straight home to bed.

I told Chrissie Hentidge all about that in the morning. She seemed relieved, and her eyes looked as if she had found the solution of a problem.

“Chissick, was it?” she said. “Well, now, that perhaps explains it. Chissick---you know he’s a speculating builder?---builds houses on the chance of selling them. He bought a great piece of that hill-side some time ago---perhaps a year back. To build on, of course. But so far he’s never built anything. Perhaps he’s going to begin building.”

“Why does he do his measuring in the middle of the night?” I asked. “He isn’t killed with work, as far as I’ve seen. He’s always lounging about.”

“That certainly seems queer,” she admitted. “Perhaps he doesn’t want anybody to know what’s in his mind. But----”

But just then, as if to answer our questions, we saw Chissick himself. He was coming up the lane. He had workmen with him: some carried tools; one led a horse and wagon in which was stacked a quantity of building material. And twenty or thirty yards behind this small procession, and as if dogging it, came the sinister figure of Trawlerson.

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