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Chapter 12: The Dead Man's Safe

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« on: May 27, 2023, 06:46:12 am »

I WAS out of bed and bundling into my clothes before I found words with which to reply to Trace. In the end I only found one, and my voice sounded queer and thick as I stuttered it out.

“Murdered!”

“So Preece says, Tom! Found murdered in his own house, not an hour ago. And, by the look of him, dead for some little time,” replied Trace. “When did you see him last?---Friday afternoon, wasn’t it?”

“Friday afternoon, about five o’clock,” I answered. “He was all right then.”

“No doubt!” said Trace dryly. “Well---that’s where it is! Come on---Preece is waiting for us; he wants our help.”

We hurried downstairs, to find the sergeant, himself half dressed, pacing up and down at the garden gate. Without a word he turned off towards Chissick’s house, which stood two or three hundred yards away, at the end of the village, in a lonely place at the foot of the hill. But before we had gone many yards, he began to talk.

“Whether this is all of a piece with the other affair or not, I don’t know, Captain!” he said, with the air of a man who finds himself up against a bewildering problem. “But it’s murder, right enough! No possible doubt of it!”

“You haven’t told me much about it yet, you know,” remarked Trace.

“Don’t know much myself,” answered Preece. “Only sufficient to know that it’s murder! How was it found out? Well, you know Stephens, the gamekeeper? He and one of his watchers have been out all night in the preserves. Early this morning they were coming home, and their way brought them past Chissick’s garden gate. They heard that little black spaniel of his whimpering at his front door. So they went in and looked through the windows. They saw nothing from the front---the blinds and curtains were drawn there. But through the kitchen window they saw Chissick lying on the floor, half in, half out of a passage-way communicating between kitchen and parlour. And---they saw blood! So Stephens forced the scullery door and they went in and found Chissick was dead, and, as Stephens said, cold as ice---been dead some time. Then they fetched me, and I ran back there and just had a look. Then I came for you.”

He paused for a minute, shaking his head as if in dislike of the recollection of what he’d seen; then he went on.

“You see, anybody who knows about Chissick and his mode of life, as I do, can get a ready idea of how this has been done. To start with, Chissick was a bachelor---lived alone too. He couldn’t have a maid-servant in his house; he’d a charwoman, Mrs. Watson, who went there of a morning. Sundays she never went at all, because Chissick always spent his week-ends away, usually at Brighton, where he had a brother living. He generally went off of a Saturday afternoon to Brighton. And I think he was probably going to Brighton this week-end, for I did just notice on glancing at him that he’d his best suit of clothes on, and that there was a small suit-case lying on the kitchen table. That looks, of course, as if he’d been murdered on Saturday. Nice, black job! And also, of course, what one wants to know now is---has this anything to do with the last affair?”

Trace offered no opinion on that point; we were close to Chissick’s house by that time, and I think he and I were nerving ourselves for our unpleasant task. I know I hated the whole thing. It was a beautiful morning; the sun was just rising, and the birds were singing gaily in the orchards and coppices. Chissick’s garden was bright and smiling with flowers. Yet here was this awful sense of fell murder; at the house-door stood Stephens and his man, grave-faced and silent, and somewhere in an outhouse close by, where they had shut it up, we heard the spaniel crying for its dead master.

We went in very quietly and looked at Chissick. He lay, as Preece had said, half in, half out of a narrow passage; it seemed as if he had been struck down in coming from the parlour to the kitchen. And presently, when Preece made a closer examination, we saw how he had been murdered---by a savage blow, perhaps more than one blow, on the head with some heavy weapon; probably, said Preece, a bar of iron. No doubt he had been struck down from behind, by some man following him---a man whom he had admitted to his house and was most likely conducting to the door again. Indeed, as Preece said, it didn’t seem difficult to understand what had happened from the fact that Chissick was in his best suit and that his suit-case lay on a table close by and an overcoat and umbrella on a chair near the door. He had been about to leave home; a man had come to the house; he had let him in; they had talked; Chissick was showing his caller out again and preceding him to the door; the caller had beaten the life out of him. And that was in all probability on Saturday afternoon; perhaps on Saturday morning, and nearly forty-eight hours had elapsed.

Preece went out to the two men at the door and sent one of them for the nearest doctor and the other to telephone to the police authorities. Standing at the door as they hurried off, he drew our attention to the situation of the house.

“Not another house near it!” he said. “At least, not within a hundred yards. And there, at the end of the garden, the woods come right up! The murderer had nothing to do but slip through the garden and into the woods and make off. But---what was his object in murdering Chissick? We’d best have a look round, Captain.”

We went carefully over the house, leaving the dead man where he lay until the doctor could examine him. There was no sign of any fight or struggle. It was not a big house---an affair of some seven or eight rooms. Everything was in spick-and-span order. It was easy to see that Chissick had been one of those naturally orderly and methodical men who cannot bear to have things out of place: the most exacting old maid could not have found fault with anything there. And there was no sign that the murderer had searched for anything.

Preece looked at his watch and turned to me.

“The morning’s getting on,” he observed. “Mrs. Watson’ll be up now. Just step along to her cottage, my lad, and ask her to come here at once. Don’t tell her what’s happened---I’ll do that.”

Mrs. Watson’s cottage stood down an adjacent lane; I found her lighting her fire. She knew, of course, that something was wrong as soon as I gave her my message, but she asked no questions, and presently followed me in silence to Chissick’s garden, where Preece and Trace were awaiting us. Preece told her the news, briefly. She was a phlegmatic woman, and, beyond an exclamation of horror, took it without any show of emotion.

“Well, of course, he lived alone, did Mr. Chissick, and he kept money in the house,” she observed. “Many’s the time I’ve said to him that there was danger in living like that! People gets to know of it.”

“How do you know he kept money in the house?” asked Preece.

“Well, Mr. Preece, because I’ve seen him a-counting of it,” replied Mrs. Watson. “Frequent I’ve seen him, for a many years. Fridays it was when he gen’rally had a lot of money about---used to count it on the table in his parlour, and didn’t care about me seeing it, nor anybody else, neither, as happened to come in.”

“Pooh!” said Preece. “That would be money for his men’s wages! He’d have got rid of it by Friday night. It’s not been for that, I think. Now, when did you see him last, Mrs. Watson?”

“Saturday morning, Mr. Preece. About eleven o’clock it would be. He was in the house all that morning; never went out. He’d his breakfast later than usual. Then he dressed himself up in his best clothes and packed his portmantle, and when he gave me my money for the week he said he was going to Brighton for the week-end, as was his custom, and I needn’t come on Monday or Tuesday morning, for he was going on Monday from Brighton to London.”

“To London, eh?” said Preece. “Did he give any reason---say what he was going for?”

“No, sir---he said no more than that,” replied Mrs. Watson. “Except that he’d let me know when he got home---he might be home Tuesday, he said, or it might be Wednesday.”

“And you left him in the house---alone?”

“Oh yes, Mr. Preece! There was nobody with him when I left. He was putting on his boots in the kitchen. That ’ud be about twenty minutes after eleven.”

“You haven’t heard of anybody being seen about the house, Mrs. Watson?”

“No, sir---I haven’t heard anything. I’ve never been up this way, either, since Saturday morning.”

There was nothing more to be got out of Mrs. Watson, and nothing to be done until the doctor arrived. Preece, evidently, was resolved not to move the dead man until he had been seen by a medical authority. But we had not long to wait; the doctor---the same man who had been fetched to Kest---was with us before eight o’clock, and close on his heels came a police-inspector and a couple of constables.

The doctor gave it as his opinion that Chissick had been dead since, at any rate, Saturday afternoon. Preece, hearing this, pointed out that he already had evidence that Chissick was going to Brighton, and that there was a train to Brighton from the nearest station at twelve-forty; it would take Chissick, he said, half an hour to walk to that station, and therefore the probability was that his intention was to leave his house about twelve o’clock. Mrs. Watson had left him at eleven-twenty; the murderer must have called between eleven-twenty and twelve. Did the doctor think the murder had taken place between these times? The doctor said it was possible; anyway, he was sure that Chissick had been dead for at least forty to forty-two hours. And he had been dealt two terrible blows at the back of the head, either of which was sufficient to kill him instantly. One blow, declared the doctor, had been dealt as he lay on the floor---to make certain.

The next thing was to examine Chissick’s clothing. There was nothing unusual or remarkable there. There were a few business letters in a case in his inside pocket, and a considerable sum of money in his purse---considerable, that is, for a man to carry about him---and that and his handsome gold watch and chain had been left untouched. In fact, the murderer, it seemed, had never laid finger on his victim after striking him down, and it was difficult to think of him as thief as well as murderer. Everything that Chissick had on him appeared to have been left unhandled---it looked as if the murderer had done his work and gone straight away.

There was a small bunch of keys amongst the articles turned out of the dead man’s pockets, and the inspector and Preece, accompanied by Trace and myself, went into the parlour to see if they fitted a roll-top desk and drawers that stood there. It was while they were examining this desk, in which they found nothing but account books and papers relating to Chissick’s business affairs, that Trace noticed a small safe which stood under an occasional table in a recess: a safe so small that it might have been taken as a miniature specimen rather than an article for use. He suggested that they might try that, and Preece presently found a key on the bunch that fitted the lock.

“Very ordinary lock this, for a safe,” he remarked, as he pulled open the tiny door, “and not much of a safe either. Not likely to find much here, I think.”

The safe was comparatively empty. There were some ledgers and account books in it, and some bundles of papers, which, on examination, proved to be leases, conveyances, and the like. But on pulling open a small drawer, which lay beneath the shelf on which the books and papers rested, we saw two objects that instantly arrested my attention and made me start with eagerness to handle them; indeed, I half thrust out a hand to get hold of them. Preece, of course, was before me at that game; he had the things out in a trice and turned to the rest of us with them in his hand---a little packet of bank-notes and . . . a map.

I think that Trace as well as myself had an instinctive notion of what we were going to see. I know I held my breath as Preece unfolded the map. But I found my tongue quick enough when he had unfolded it.

“That’s the map that Kest had in the mill!” I exclaimed. “I know it!”

The police-inspector eyed me closely.

“Sure of it, my lad?” he asked.

“Dead certain!” said I. “That’s Kest’s map! There’s the black spot I told you of, and there are the lines. Oh, that’s it!”

The three men---Preece, Trace, the inspector---looked at each other. I knew what they were thinking. How came Kest’s map in Chissick’s safe?

“Look at those notes, Preece,” said the inspector suddenly. “They are notes, aren’t they?”

There was an india-rubber band round the notes. Preece slipped it off and turned each note over.

“Two notes of ten pounds apiece, four notes of five,” said Preece. “Bank of England notes---new ones.”

Both Preece and the inspector had been present at the inquest on Kest. And now they looked at each other---a world of suspicion in their eyes.

“Didn’t that bank-clerk who gave evidence about Kest say that Kest drew some money in notes and gold from the bank the Monday before he was murdered?” asked the inspector. “Runs in my mind he did.”

“He did!” replied Preece promptly. “A hundred pounds. Forty pounds in notes, sixty in gold. He said they’d the numbers of the notes at the bank.”

The inspector nodded and began to examine the map again. Suddenly he turned on me with a sharp question.

“No mistake?” he said. “You’re certain about this map?”

“I can swear to it!” said I. “There’s no mistake. That’s the map I saw Kest examining in the old mill.”

“Well, this is a nice state of things!” he exclaimed, looking at Trace and the sergeant. “Here we find Chissick murdered, and in possession of this map and these bank-notes which appear to have belonged to Kest, already murdered! This young fellow swears to the map; the question of the bank-notes we can soon settle by telephoning to the bank. But---how come these things in Chissick’s possession? Seems to me, Captain Trace, this is a bigger mystery than the other! And are they both one?”

We went away from the house soon after that, Trace and I. I think we were both full of the same wondering thought---was Chissick, now murdered himself, the murderer of Kest?

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