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Chapter 17: The China Seas

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« on: May 27, 2023, 09:55:44 am »

I WAS getting pretty quick of perception by that time, having had my wits sharpened a good deal by the recent happenings, and I saw at once that this new-comer had some message to deliver and that it was probably of a confidential nature. He looked at me with a sort of shy doubt, as if wondering who I was, and having thus inspected me, his eyes shifted to either side, peering into the hall beyond as though in search of something.

“Well?” I said, curtly enough. “What is it?”

He was standing on the step, but at this he summoned up courage and put a foot on the mat inside, taking off his cap as he did so. And he sank his voice to a whisper.

“Captain Trace?” he said. “Is this where he lives?”

“This is Captain Trace’s,” I answered. “What do you want with him?”

“And he’s in?” he asked. “To be seen?”

“That depends,” I said, “on the business! What’s yours?”

Turning his cap over and over in his hands, he gave me a look that, I am sure, was meant to carry an impression of great delicacy and secrecy.

“If so be as he’s in---and to be seen---and’ll see me,” he whispered, “say as how it’s a man from Jim Swaddle’s, of Bosham. You might say, a relation of Jim’s. Cousin---on the mother’s side.”

I let him in then, further. I knew Jim Swaddle---by name, at any rate; he was the man who looked after Trace’s small yacht. I beckoned the stranger to follow me into the parlour.

“Here’s a man who says he comes from Jim Swaddle, at Bosham, Captain Trace,” I announced. “He’s Jim Swaddle’s cousin.”

“On the mother’s side,” added the visitor, as if anxious to be correct in detail. “Servant, gentlemen! Which my name is Pyker---John Pyker. Of Brixham, in Devonshire. But now holidaying, as it were---come to see Cousin Jim a bit.”

“Glad to see you, Pyker!” said Trace. “Any relation of Jim’s is welcome. Sit down---and have a drink after your walk. Tom!---the spirit-case.”

I got out the spirit-case, and, at his own request, obliged Pyker with a drop of gin.

He took a swallow of it, prefaced by a polite expression of his best respects to all present, and, having set his glass down at his elbow, folded his hands and looked at Trace in the way in which I have often seen preachers look at their congregations---as if he had a lot to say, but scarcely knew how to begin saying it.

“Something to tell us, Pyker?” suggested Trace.

Pyker swallowed two or three times, nodding his head at each swallow.

“Which I told it all, first, to Cousin Jim Swaddle,” he said, suddenly making a violent effort at speech. “Ah!---from start to finish. Cousin Jim Swaddle, he said---go straight away and tell all that to Captain Trace! Which I now do so!”

“Glad to hear it, Pyker, whatever it is,” said Trace. “Take your time.”

Pyker took his time. He seemed to reflect for a moment or two; then bending forward and looking from one to the other of us, he rapped out these words:

“This here Trawlerson!”

“Just so!” said Trace. “What about him, Pyker?”

Pyker prepared himself for a longer effort.

“When I come into these parts, three days gone by, to Bosham, to see Cousin Jim Swaddle,” he said, “what do I find him, and all his mates, and all the people I meets, in street and in public-house, a-talking of? Murders!---these here murders! What do I read in the newspapers, day by day, me being a fair scholard, fair? Murders!---these here murders, in this here village! And what else? Trawlerson! ‘Where is Trawlerson?’ says everybody you talks to. ‘Where can Trawlerson be?’ says the newspapers! Very well! For, mark me, I know Trawlerson! Or, to speak correct, did know him! See?”

“When?” asked Trace.

“Years ago! I think seven. It might be eight. I can’t swear. But---knew him well enough, whenever it was.”

“Where was that, Pyker?”

“China seas, knocked about a deal in them quarters, I have. And, I should say, Trawlerson too. But that time, when I knew him---and it’s the same christened name, which is Hosea, and a mighty bad-sounding name, somehow, is that, I reckon, and seems to fit in with Trawlerson, as was a bad ’un hisself----”

“Oh, you thought him so, did you, Pyker?” interrupted Trace. “Bad lot, eh?”

“Terb’le bad lot, in my opinion. Howsumever, that time I knew him, I shipped with Trawlerson at Hong-Kong, on a crazy old wind-jammer, name of the Martha Marshall, bound from Hong-Kong to Nagasaki. Scratch crew, you understand---queer lot, too. Various colours. Come to grief, the Martha Marshall did---and no wonder!”

“How did she come to grief?” enquired Trace.

“Shipwrecked we were! Bad ship---bad weather. Struck a reef, or a rock---something, anyways---some days out from Hong-Kong. Went down. There was two boats loads of us got away. One of ’em---captain was in her---I don’t know what became of it---went down, like the old wind-jammer, I reckon. Never see or hear of it again, anyway. The one I was in, she made one of those small islands, north of the Loo-Choos, as they call ’em, in the Tung Hai sea. Trawlerson was in my boat. And also another fellow. Which, because of what’s being said in all these papers, and amongst folk hereabouts, is what I wanted to tell you.”

“Yes?” said Trace. “About---another fellow, eh? Who was he, now?”

“Never knew his proper name,” replied Pyker. “Lor’ bless you!---that crew on the Martha Marshall, it was of that sort that names didn’t matter or count! Reckon they stuck down anything on the ship’s books, if they stuck anything at all. This fellow, they called him Smarto. He was a sort of better stuff, d’ye see---looked like he’d been, well, a bit of a decent-bred chap. Bad ’un, though---bold, dare-devil sort! Looked it---a black-haired, black-eyed man---queer-tempered.”

“Black-haired, black-eyed,” said Trace, glancing at Macpherson. “We’ll make a note of that! What else was he like, Pyker? Tall---short---what?”

“Tall, slim fellow---all muscle and sinew,” answered Pyker. “He could do things---strongest man we had; though, to be sure, he was getting on a bit in years. And him and Trawlerson, they was chums. Always together. I made out they came from about the same part, here at home---south country. Kept themselves a good deal to themselves, those two. That is, until we was cast on that island---which, to be sure, was little better than a reef. They were a bit more companionable, like, after that. And Smarto, he used to talk more. And now and then, when he was feeling it more than usual, he’d say that he only wished he was back in England, for he’d something put there in a safe place that ’ud be enough to bring him roast beef and sound ale every day for the rest of his life, and didn’t he wish he’d the handling of it then!”

“Did he say what it was?” asked Trace.

“He did not! But I made out---for he talked often of it in the last days on that island, and would ha’ talked more if Trawlerson hadn’t checked him---that it was something he’d put away, hidden, buried, or something of that sort. I know what I thought---and what other of my mates thought!”

“Aye, and what did you think, man?” asked Macpherson, suddenly showing great interest. “What were your impressions, now?”

“We thought Smarto had been one of these here burglars and had placed something,” replied Pyker. “He wasn’t a real sailor-man, Smarto, though he could do his job. He hadn’t been trained to the sea, you understand---he was just a landsman that had picked it up.”

“Well, and how long were you on that island?” asked Trace.

“Not so long, but long enough to make us thankful to get off it! Of course, there never was any great danger of being left there---it was in the way of ships. We could ha’ got away in our own boat, only it got smashed through careless handling just after we struck land. We was took off by a vessel that carried us to Shanghai.”

“And---there?” enquired Trace.

“There?---oh, there we all parted. Some got a job here, and another there. I don’t know where Trawlerson and Smarto went---whether separate or in company. Never saw either of ’em again. Didn’t want, neither.”

“Never seen them again at all, eh?” said Trace. “Nor heard of them?”

“Not till I heard all this about Trawlerson---no! I come home, d’ye see, after that do. And to home I’ve stopped---down there at Brixham. Didn’t want no more high-seas life! Took up wi’ fishing---peaceful.”

“Did you ever know a man named Kest?” asked Trace.

“No---never!” replied Pyker. “Not by that name, anyway. I’ve read about him, though, in the newspapers, along of his being murdered hereabouts. Can’t say as I can reckernise him from the descriptions. Know a many men as would fall in with the description o’ Kest as given in the papers---sharp-faced, red-haired, goatee-bearded man. Lots on ’em like that, in my time. Goatee beards is fashernable.”

“Did you ever see the man you call Smarto show anything like a map to Trawlerson?” enquired Trace. “Think, now!”

“Not a map---no! I’ve read about that map. I never see it, nor hear of it. But I do rekerlect this here---Smarto, he had a pocket-book, a leather-bound affair, what he kept in a hip-pocket. I seen him showing that book, opened at a certain page, to Trawlerson. Looked to me as if there was a list o’ something in it, where it was opened.”

“A list? What sort of a list?”

“Well---words, and figures. Like---like a bill. Leastways, when he had his pocket-book open once, near me, a-showing of it to Trawlerson, I see words in one column, and figures in another. Like you see in bills.”

That was the sum-total of what we got out of John Pyker. Macpherson and Trace seemed to think it a decided step to have seen him. Macpherson said that light was beginning to be thrown on several dark places all at once. And next day, when he and Trace and I were up at Hentidge’s again, discussing things, he asked old Hentidge a sudden question.

“Mr. Hentidge, it’ll be no great effort o’ that grand memory o’ yours to tell me this---what like was yon Kit Flinch ye’ve told us of?”

Hentidge chuckled, as he always did when any question about the past was put to him.

“I can see him now!” he said. “He was a tall, spare, black fellow! I should say he’d gipsy blood in him: he’d that look.”

I could see that Macpherson was highly delighted at this discovery. He wanted to identify Flinch with the man called Smarto. But a moment later his face fell.

“And what like was yon Charlesworth, now?” he asked. “You’ll remember him too?”

“Well enough!” replied old Hentidge. “He was of a similar sort---tall, thin, black. He might have had gipsy blood, as well. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, Mr. Macpherson, but there’s evidences of mixture with that blood all the way along this country, from Kent through Sussex into Hampshire---black hair, black eyes, the gipsy look. You’ll have seen it?”

But Macpherson only grunted an uninterested affirmative. He was disappointed---as he always was when he wanted to fit things together and encountered a difficulty.

“That’s unfortunate!” he said grumblingly, when we went away from Hentidge’s. “Both those young fellows, according to old Hentidge, were much alike! Now, as sure as my name’s what it is, that Smarto was one of ’em! But---which? Both disappeared from here about the same time. Both, I’m convinced, knew a lot about the Dan Welgrave affair, and about what he had on him and was robbed of. Was Smarto Kit Flinch, or was he Ralph Charlesworth? And is Smarto alive?”

“He’d be getting on when Pyker knew him,” remarked Trace. “And now, if he was a young man of twenty-three or four at the time of the Welgrave murder---that is, if Smarto was either Flinch or Charlesworth---he’ll be well over sixty.”

“That makes no difference to what I’m thinking about,” said Macpherson.

I don’t think either Trace or myself had any clear notion of what Macpherson was thinking about. But he was always busy. He passed a good deal of his time with Preece; whether he communicated his ideas to Preece, I don’t know. But he and Preece spent hours in examining various places on the hill-side---I believe they went over Blackponds from garret to cellar. And Macpherson, at great trouble to himself, managed to rake up and copy out of old files the contemporary newspaper accounts of the Welgrave affair, and he devoted his evenings to studying his copies. He was certain, he said, that the secret of the recent murders lay in that of the one of forty years before.

I don’t think Preece cared much about these researches. Preece had got it into his head that Trawlerson murdered Chissick, and that Trawlerson had disappeared in such clever fashion that he would never be traced. The local police had done everything in their power to trace him, and nothing had resulted. Preece, talking to us one night when he dropped in about something or other, said that, in his opinion, Trawlerson, whom he regarded as a past-master in craft, was already beyond the seas, and would never come back again---never!

“That I don’t believe!” said Trace. “Trawlerson, according to his own account, owns a house at Fareham, with, you’ll remember, a mast in the front garden and a bit of glass at the back. He insisted on the mast and the glass---which was his way of showing himself proud of his bit of property. I don’t think Trawlerson is going to lose his property! Moreover, if I read Trawlerson’s character, I don’t think Trawlerson was the sort of man who’d risk his neck by murdering anybody, or his liberty by robbing anybody. I’m off the Trawlerson notion!”

“What’s Trawlerson disappeared for, then?” demanded Preece. “He’s advertised for outside every police-station in England! Where is he?”

Nobody could answer that, of course. Macpherson, who was fond of airing his knowledge of languages, said we were in a cul-de-sac. So we were---but just then Silvermore appeared again.

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