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Chapter 15: Black Mill Bottom

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« on: May 27, 2023, 08:35:32 am »

I KNEW at once that Andrew Macpherson had come to stop. He had a certain old brown leather portmanteau in his left hand and a bunched-up umbrella, equally ancient, in his right; they were familiar to me as being articles that he dug out of his boxroom whenever he was going to stay more than a night from home; for a mere one-night stay he carried his luggage in his pocket---a collar, a handkerchief, a comb, and a tooth-brush. Preece and the grocer-man leaving us as Andrew came up, we took him in, and he told us at once that, his holiday being due, he had come to help in the solution of these problems.

“For there’s no denying that it’s an uncommon and interesting case,” said he, “and’ll tax the brains and the ingenuity of as many folk as can give their time and attention to it. And Tom there being mixed up in it---losh, man, ye’ve fallen full length and head over ears into a wealth of those adventures you were longing after!---it becomes a sort of family affair. And so, if ye’ll give me bed and board for a few days, Captain----”

“Both---and delighted!” responded Trace. “Two heads are better than one, and three than two, you know!”

“I’m no so sure about that, as a proposition,” said Macpherson. “It’s like a lot o’ those old saws---there’s a flaw in it. But, man, ye’ve been through strange experiences! And what body was that, going away with the policeman? A detective, likely?”

“No---a man in your line of business,” replied Trace. “Came with what he thought might be some information. But you’ll want posting up, Macpherson. Wait till we’ve had dinner, and we’ll put you wise, as they say across the water. There’s a lot for you to ruminate over.”

“Aweel, I ha’ read all the newspapers,” said Macpherson. “Very pretty reading it makes, and gives rise to some strange reflections! But I’ll not be the worse for hearing it all at first hand.”

We told him all we knew, either at dinner, or as he and Trace smoked their pipes in the window-place when dinner was over. He was a good and a shrewd listener, Macpherson, only interrupting a story to ask some very pertinent question, and he took in all we had to tell him on this occasion with unusual attention. And at the end he knocked the ashes from his pipe with a firmness of gesture which showed me, who well knew his various tricks, that he had formed some opinion.

“Captain!” he asked, giving Trace an earnest look. “Is there an ancient man or woman in this place, in full possession of what you might call his or her intellectual faculties, that’s thoroughly acquaint with its history for years past?”

“I should think there is!” replied Trace, with a confident laugh. “Old Hentidge!”

“And who may old Hentidge be?” asked Macpherson.

“Farmer---one of the last of the old sort,” said Trace. “Well over eighty---fine old fellow. He’s in full possession of his faculties, if you like!---clear-headed as ever they make ’em. Eyes, ears, teeth, all sound---nothing amiss with the old chap except that he’s lost the use of his legs and has to go about in a wheel-chair. But as to his memory---wonderful!”

Macpherson rose and picked up his hat. He beckoned us to rise too.

“Take me to that man!” he commanded solemnly. “We’ll ha’ speech together!”

We led him up the village to Hentidge’s farm. As we came near the garden gate we saw the old man sitting in his wheel-chair in the sunlight amongst the apple-trees. Chrissie sat near him, busied, as usual, with some woman’s job of knitting or sewing.

“Is the old gentleman well acquaint with these recent happenings?” enquired Macpherson, as we went in. “Posted up to date in them, eh?”

“Oh, he’ll know all about things!” asserted Trace. “We haven’t been to see him for some days, but his daughter reads the papers to him, and he reads them himself, and he gets all the news of the place---he’ll know. And you needn’t be afraid of talking, Macpherson---the old man likes it.”

“It’s him I’m wanting to talk,” said Macpherson. “I’ll do the listening.” He sat silently regarding old Hentidge for some minutes after Trace had presented him to father and daughter. “Ye were no born yesterday, Mr. Hentidge, I’m thinking!” he blurted out suddenly. “No, nor the day before that, neither, eh?”

“No---no---no!” chuckled Hentidge. “Eighty-five!---according to the family Bible.”

“Aye, just so---not that you look it,” said Macpherson. “Still, you’re an ancient man. And, like some of ’em, I’ll warrant ye’ve a good memory for past events?”

Hentidge chuckled again.

“Remember things of my young days better than things that happened last year!” he answered. “More clearly!”

“Ye will---it’s an infirmity of nature,” remarked Macpherson. “And a highly useful one, whiles. Well, now, Mr. Hentidge, can you no recall anything that happened in this village that in your opinion bears on these recent tragedies? I’m thinking it’s very likely you can, Mr. Hentidge.”

Hentidge smiled, and lifting the ash-plant stick which he always carried across the rug laid over his knees, pointed it first at Trace and then at me.

“I was going to say something to those two boys about that the other day,” he said. “Going to tell them a story. But they ran off---after that man Trawlerson. So it never got told. May have something to do with these recent affairs, Mr. Macpherson---and it mayn’t. I don’t know. Perhaps it has---if so, it wants careful thinking.”

“Man, I’m a born genius at that!” exclaimed Macpherson. “In a business like mine, there’s opportunities for cultivating the science o’ pure reflection. If you’ll tell us your tale, now, I’ll reflect and meditate on it till I’ve reduced the component parts to a congruous whole. Ye’ll no doubt have it at your tongue’s end, Mr. Hentidge?”

“Oh, I can remember, I can remember!” said Hentidge, with one of his dry chuckles. “Dates and all, Mr. Macpherson---I’ve a fine memory for dates. Well, now, look this way.” He raised his ash-plant and pointed up the hill-side to where a fringe of woodland rose on the sky-line. “You see that coppice up yonder?” he went on. “If you go up there, and through those trees, you’ll see, just below you, on the far slope of the hill, a farmstead---Highmeadow Farm. Man named Mellin has it now, Tom Mellin, but fifty years ago it belonged to a family called Welgrave, and it had been in their hands for a couple of centuries at least. However, fifty years ago, that family was on its last legs. They were a queer lot, those Welgraves; some said, a bad lot. I don’t know about that, but as far back as I can recollect, they were steadily going to ruin.”

“That ’ud be the drink, Mr. Hentidge?” suggested Macpherson. “It’s a catching thing, that, for folk living in solitudes!”

“Drink for one thing,” assented Hentidge. “Gambling for another---they were great horse-racing folk---always off at some race-meeting or other. And card-playing too. A loose, fast-living, rackety lot---all of ’em. There was a father, two grown-up sons, and a grown-up girl or two---the mother was dead. They were all tarred with the same brush---loose-lived! And when the father died suddenly---he fell off his horse, dead, out hunting one day---the whole thing came to the smash-up that we’d all foreseen. He left nothing---but debts. The two lads went off somewhere; the girls, somewhere else; all disappeared. That was in the year 1868.”

“Forty-four years ago!” remarked Macpherson. “Ye’d be a man o’ middle age yourself at that time, Mr. Hentidge.”

“In my prime!” said Hentidge, nodding. “And living here, of course---we’ve been on this land longer than those Welgraves had been on theirs. We’re here still!” he chuckled. “But they!---as I say, they all disappeared. Nothing’s ever been heard of them since they left the parish---with one exception. That was in the case of Daniel Welgrave---young Dan, as he was always called; his father was known as old Dan. Three years after they’d all left, young Dan Welgrave came back---for one night. And it’s about what happened on that night that I want to tell you.”

“Three years?” remarked Macpherson. “That would be in 1871, Mr. Hentidge?”

“1871 it was---the date’s important, as I’ll show you,” asserted Hentidge. “1871 the year, and the month was November. One November afternoon, late, young Dan Welgrave walked into the inn down yonder. Up to recently there were men in the village who’d have remembered it, and who saw him, but they’re dead. I didn’t see him, but I heard all about his coming and his doings. They said he was dressed like a gentleman and sported a gold watch and chain and had rings on his fingers. He soon got a crowd of them round him and treated them all to drink---it was said they nearly finished all the best liquor the landlord had in his cellar. Young Dan himself, they told me, was foremost of the lot in that sort of thing, and the more he drank, the more he talked. He told them he’d been out to South Africa, to the diamond-fields---I said the date was important, and so it is, because I’m given to understand that it was just about that time that the great rush to those South African diamond-fields took place, so that seems to prove that young Dan was telling the truth---and that he’d made his fortune. Money in plenty he had on him, they said---he was throwing sovereigns about like ha’pence, and showing rolls of bank-notes whenever he paid for anything. He boasted that he was going to buy the old place and turn it into a gentleman’s residence. And so on, and so on---you can guess, Mr. Macpherson, what sort of a riotous evening it was down yonder at the inn. And about ten o’clock young Dan left it, to walk over the shoulder of the hill to see an old friend with whom he proposed to stay that night. He went off alone---and nobody heard any more of him until next day, when, late in the afternoon, a man found him lying in a lonely place in Black Mill Bottom, dead. And---murdered!”

“Aye!” murmured Macpherson, with a sage nod. “Aye, I was thinking that would be the next news! Murdered! Aye---that would be the way of it!”

“Murdered!” repeated old Hentidge. “He’d been struck down---battered to his death. And of course, robbed. The fine gold watch and chain, the rings, the money in his pockets---all gone. They made out the exact spot where it had happened: near a stile that he had to climb over. They traced the line through the grass over which his body had been dragged into the cover of the undergrowth. But they got no clue to the actual murderer. Perhaps they weren’t as clever in those days as they are now, sometimes, but there’s the fact---the police never made any arrest. It was like a good many other things that happen in the country---talked about for nine days, you know, Mr. Macpherson, and then . . . dropped.”

“Was there nobody that you’d call suspect, then?” asked Macpherson.

“Well, you’ll see the difficulty of suspecting anybody,” answered Hentidge. “There’d been a crowd of some twenty or thirty men down there at the inn, all drinking and carousing at young Dan Welgrave’s expense. Some of them lived in the village, some on the hill-sides, some in the valleys. When they separated they went their various ways. Most of them, you may be sure, had had more than enough liquor; none had over-clear ideas of anything next morning. But in addition to these roysterers, gathered about Dan in the parlour, there were other men, of a lower sort, in the place, who were well aware of what was going on and heard Dan’s boasting of his wealth and doubtless saw enough to assure them that he’d a lot of money on him. And we had some black sheep in the parish in those days. The thing was to get evidence against anybody, and the police couldn’t get any evidence---none whatever. But, amongst the village folk, one man was suspected.”

“Aye, and who would he be, now?” asked Macpherson.

“A young fellow named Flinch, Kit Flinch,” replied Hentidge. “He came of a bad lot and he was a bad lot himself---he’d been in trouble for poaching several times. Whispers went round that Kit Flinch was the man, but they couldn’t get a scrap of evidence against him, and though he knew people were talking he took no heed, and showed himself in his usual haunts as impudently as you like, as if daring the police and the public. But---all of a sudden he disappeared!”

“Aye!” muttered Macpherson. “Aye, he would! Aye, he would, indeed! Losh---it’s wonderful, fair wonderful, how things join together! To be sure, he would disappear! That would be the way of it. Aye, it fits in---amazingly!”

I don’t think old Hentidge had the least idea of what Macpherson was muttering about; it was easy to see that the story he was telling was chiefly interesting to him as a story.

“Yes,” he continued, “he disappeared, Kit Flinch. Suddenly and completely too---he was drinking and smoking at the inn one night with certain cronies of his own sort, and next morning he wasn’t to be found. Of course, he’d gone off in the night, but nobody knew where. He never came back---never!”

“That’ll be as far as you’re aware, Mr. Hentidge,” remarked Macpherson, with a sly glance at me and Trace, which I, for my part, couldn’t comprehend. “As far as you’re aware, that’ll be. For, you see, I’ve a notion of my own about it---and a man that can run away from a place unperceived can come back to it without anybody knowing!”

“Well, he was never known to come back,” said Hentidge. “And nobody ever heard a word of him again. And what might your notion be, now?”

But Macpherson was not going to be drawn. He shook his head and looked wiser than ever.

“It’s a shapeless and inchoate and nebulous thing, my notion, Mr. Hentidge,” he answered, “and’ll need a deal o’ reflection and perpending before I can put it in such poor words as I have at my command. But yon’s a grand story, and as entertaining as any I ever read in the books---man! ye’d never think such deeds o’ blood and blackness could be done in the midst o’ this beautiful scenery---eh, it’s a sad, sad world that ye’ve been spared so many days in, Mr. Hentidge!”

Presently we went away, and, once outside the garden gate, Macpherson clapped Trace’s shoulder.

“Captain!” he said in a low voice. “I don’t know what ye think, but, eh man, in my opinion I ha’ learnt the secret o’ these murders!”

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