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Chapter 20: The Thatched Roof

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« on: May 27, 2023, 10:39:22 am »

THERE was an air of jaunty confidence about Parkapple when he said this that made us all regard him with wonder. I suppose that what we all had in our minds was the fact that the local police and the previous detectives from London had done everything in their power to detect Chissick’s murderer, and so far had failed. For the moment nobody spoke. But presently Macpherson found his tongue.

“Ye think that’ll be an easy job, Mr. Parkapple?” he suggested.

“Don’t know whether it’ll be easy or difficult, Mr. Macpherson,” answered the detective, with a laugh. “Difficult, I imagine! But it’s what I’m here for.”

“My opinion,” remarked Macpherson, “is that this case needs a deal o’ research. Whoever tackles it should go far back into the past, Mr. Parkapple!”

“Very likely, Mr. Macpherson, but I’m a man of the present! I can’t---just now, at any rate---go raking up things of two-and-forty years ago. I want to find out who killed Chissick---perhaps we’ll find out why later on.”

“You’re not concerned with the question of what Chissick dug out----”

“May have dug out, you mean,” interrupted Parkapple good-humouredly. “I’ve no proof that he dug out anything!”

“Dug out, or may have dug out, o’ yon cavity in the corner of his new shed,” continued Macpherson imperturbably. “Do you tell me you attach no importance to that, now?”

“I’ll attach no end of importance to it, Mr. Macpherson, if I find that it bears on the case,” replied Parkapple. “You do, don’t you?”

“My considered and deliberate opinion,” said Macpherson solemnly, “is that the man Chissick dug up out o’ that hole a parcel o’ diamonds, contained in a tin box, which tin box, emptied of its contents, was discovered by Sergeant Preece in Chissick’s waste-bin only recently, and that whoever murdered Chissick perpetrated that deed in order to rob him of those diamonds! Man!---we have the facts before us!”

“Well, let’s see if we can spot the guilty man,” said Parkapple. “When we’ve got him, we can find out what his motive was.” He turned to Preece. “First of all,” he continued, “there’s the question of this man Trawlerson. You’ve failed to get any news whatever of him?”

“Absolutely!” replied Preece. “We’ve scoured the whole country-side for him! No good---none whatever! We’ve enquired at the place where he lives. It’s quite true he’s a nice little property there, at Fareham. He’s known there as a quiet, respectable man. But the woman who acts as day-servant to him says he’s never been home for some time; at least, if he has been, it must have been in the night, for she’s never seen him. She says, indeed, she’s never set eyes on him since a date that fits in with the time when all these things began. We’ve found out that he has a banking account at Portsmouth---well, he’s never been at his bank for weeks, nor have they heard anything of him there, nor had any cheques of his presented, though they say that it had been his custom to get a small cheque cashed once a week at a tradesman’s in Fareham. No!---we’ve heard nothing whatever of Trawlerson since Halkin saw him and heard him speak that Saturday evening at the garden gate of Chissick’s house---nothing at all! He’s clean vanished.”

Parkapple took his papers out of his bag again and referred to something.

“Halkin, now?” he said presently. “Is he a dependable man?”

“Oh yes!” replied Preece. “Bit of a talker---I call him a humbug, myself---but you can depend on him. He’s a village gossip, you understand---a sort of Nosey Parker---but in a matter of this sort I should believe his word.”

“Well,” said Parkapple, referring to his papers, “Halkin said that he saw and heard Trawlerson at Chissick’s garden gate at dusk that Saturday evening, and evidently he thought, or wished it to be thought, that Trawlerson had been in Chissick’s house. Now, according to the doctors, Chissick at that time had been dead some hours. That was what they said at the inquest, wasn’t it?”

“They say so still,” replied Preece. “I told them, of course, what Halkin said. They paid no attention to it. At least, what they said was this---Halkin may have heard and seen Trawlerson at Chissick’s garden gate on that Saturday evening, but that makes no difference to their opinion. There were three doctors examined Chissick within an hour of the discovery of his dead body. They’re all dead certain that when Chissick was found dead, he’d been dead not less than forty to forty-two hours. That shows that he was murdered Saturday noon.”

Parkapple made no comment on this; he paid no attention to Macpherson’s muttered remark that doctors were no more to be reckoned infallible than the Man of Rome. He put away his papers again, and turned to Preece.

“Well, I suppose nobody’s interfered with that house of Chissick’s?” he asked. “That is, nobody but yourselves?”

“No,” replied Preece. “We’ve examined it pretty thoroughly, though. I don’t think there’s much likelihood of anything being discovered there.”

“Perhaps not---but I’m going to examine it,” said Parkapple. “I’ll have a thorough look round it, this afternoon. You can all come and help, if you like,” he continued, turning to the rest of us. “And,” he added, addressing himself to Preece, “you must get me a carpenter---a man that you can trust to hold his tongue---and he must bring some tools with him. Knowing what I do know of Chissick, or, as he really was, Creswick, I’m going to know all I can about his house and what there is in it. We’ll meet there at, say, two o’clock.”

I was so excited at the prospect of actively engaging in real detective work that I could scarcely eat any dinner that day, and I was impatient enough to get off to Chissick’s cottage when dinner was over. We encountered Parkapple and Preece as we went along the lane; they had Will Maddick with them, a young carpenter who had been employed by the dead man. Chissick’s garden gate was secured by a padlock, of which Preece had the key; at Parkapple’s instructions, he locked it again after we had all passed through. Preece had the keys of the house too; although summer was close at hand, it was cold and cheerless inside, and the silence that met us as we walked about was intensely depressing. Parkapple, however, was full of activity. He took a glance into every room in the place, upstairs and down; walked round the garden; examined the orchard and the yard at the back; and, having acquainted himself with the general aspect of the property, set to work on a more detailed inspection. He wanted a complete overhauling of everything, he said---just to satisfy himself about certain things. And having set Macpherson to one job, and Preece to another, and Trace to a third, and Maddick to a fourth, he tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me to follow him outside to the back garden.

There was an old draw-well in a corner of that back garden; an ancient affair with a windlass and a bucket, and with a wooden covering over the top of the well-shaft. Parkapple led me straight to this, and himself lifted the cover. He peered down into the depths beneath. Standing beside him and peering down too, I could see the water shining far below.

“I wonder what the depth of that water is?” he said musingly. “Look in that outhouse, my boy, and see if you can find a rope and something heavy to fasten at the end of it.”

I found a rope---which, to be exact, was an old clothes-line---easily enough, and a bit of old iron to act as a plummet, and went back to the well with them. Parkapple let the line down into the water until the weight touched bottom.

“Not much water in there,” he remarked, drawing up the rope and showing me that no more than two or three feet of its length was wet. “Very poor supply, I should call that!---a dribbling sort of spring, if it is a spring. I should say it’s nothing but drainings of surface water. Anyway, my lad, there’s your bit of a job! You set to work and draw all that water out. There’s the bucket---chuck the water away, anywhere, as you draw it.”

This was not my idea of high-class detective work, but I didn’t say so; instead, I took off my coat and waistcoat and rolled up my shirt-sleeves.

“What’s the idea, Mr. Parkapple?” I ventured to enquire as I seized the handle of the windlass and pushed the bucket over the edge. “Do you think there’s something down there, under the water?”

“Ah!” he answered, with a laugh. “Who knows? There’s an old saying, my boy---truth lies at the bottom of a well! You clear all that water out, and when that’s done, let me know, and we’ll see about getting a ladder and going down to see if anything’s lying in the mud.”

He went off to the others in the house, and I set to work at my task. If I had read as much in those days as I have read since, I might have quoted something to Parkapple about:

   “the toil
    Of dropping buckets into empty wells,
    And growing old in drawing nothing up.”


However, though there was but some two or three feet of water in it, that well was not empty, and I had to wind and unwind that old windlass a lot of times before the surface began to shrink appreciably. It was a hot afternoon, and a hot job. I had not only to hoist up each bucketful, but to unhook the bucket from the chain of the windlass and carry it---and it was heavy---across the orchard to a ditch that ran just within the hedgerow. Stiff work---but, after all, I was assisting in the detection, or attempted detection, of a crime.

We had had salted beef for dinner that day, at Trace’s, and what with that, and the labour of drawing up and carrying that iron-bound bucket, I grew thirsty. So I went across to the back door of the cottage to get a cup or a mug, anything to dip into the next bucketful of water. And as I went, crossing patches of vegetables, and with no idea whatever of looking for anything, or seeing anything, or discovering anything, I suddenly saw---something!

Chissick’s house, like a great many houses in that part of the country, was thatched---with straw. Thatching is a fine art thereabouts; a first-class roof of thatch will last you for two or three generations, perhaps longer. This house had been beautifully thatched. I was admiring the thatching as I walked across the garden, between the beds of onions and beets. It was in two parts, that house. One, the principal wing, was tall, with a high, sloping roof; the other, the kitchen part, was low; you could touch the eaves of the thatch there with your hand. And at a corner of that part, just behind a thick holly-bush, I saw, slightly protruding from the thatch, something which I knew at once had nothing to do with it and had no place there, and looked like steel---it shone, though dully, in the sun. And I went up, and crowding in between the holly-bush and the wall, reached above me, and drew out from the thatch a length of steel, a sort of pick, or small crow-bar, on one end of which there were dark, thick stains, still sticky, and on them fragments of what I was sure was human hair.

I must have stood motionless for several minutes, staring at the thing in my hand. But I knew, all the time, that I was handling the weapon with which the life had been beaten out of Chissick. That was Chissick’s hair!---Chissick’s blood! It was as if the murder was being re-enacted.

A thrush suddenly perched in an apple-tree close by, and set up a loud song, and I started into activity at that and made for the house. There was no one in the kitchen. I heard Macpherson and Trace talking somewhere upstairs. I saw Preece examining a cupboard in the little hall. But I went straight into the parlour, where the detective and the carpenter were---literally---pulling to pieces an old bureau. I think my face must have gone pale, for they started as they stared at me.

“Mr. Parkapple!” said I, in a voice which I scarcely recognised as my own. “Look at this!”

He started afresh then, for he saw the stains and the bits of hair. But while he kept silent, staring, Maddick let out a cry:

“That’s Mr. Fewster’s! I know it! I’ve used it many a time when I’ve been working there!”

“What’s Fewster’s?” demanded Parkapple sharply. “That piece of steel?”

“Sure enough, sir! That’s his---Fewster’s! I’ve worked with it. More by token, look there---his initials stamped on it! He’s a good lot of tools---a shed full of ’em, back of his house.”

The other men had heard something unusual going on by that time, and they came crowding into the room in time to hear Maddick’s last declaration. Parkapple took the piece of steel out of my hand gingerly.

“Where did you find this, my lad?” he asked.

“Thrust into the thatch, back of the house,” I answered. “I saw it by accident---I think it had slipped down a bit from where it had been pushed in.”

He turned to the other men, pointing.

“Look at that---and that!” he said, in a low voice. And Maddick says he recognises this bar as the property of that man you spoke of---Fewster!”

“No doubt about that, sir!” affirmed Maddick. “I tell you, I’ve used it many a time when I’ve been working there.”

“Where does this Fewster live?” enquired Parkapple. “Just along here?” He hesitated a moment and then turned to Maddick. “Just run round there; see if he’s at home. If he is, ask him to step along here to meet Sergeant Preece. But---not a word of this, you understand?”

Maddick nodded his complete comprehension, and hurried off. Parkapple laid the steel bar within a drawer and put a sheet of paper over it. He didn’t seem inclined to talk, and the rest of us kept silence. And within a few minutes Maddick was back, with another nod at Parkapple. He had been running, and he panted out just one word:

“Coming!”

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