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Chapter 22: The Light in the Mill

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Author Topic: Chapter 22: The Light in the Mill  (Read 22 times)
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« on: May 27, 2023, 11:24:10 am »

WE had plenty of food for thought and subjects for discussion over our tea in Trace’s parlour that afternoon. The uppermost---being the last---was the disappearance of Halkin. Had it anything to do with the rest of things?---with the more important matter of Chissick’s murder? Macpherson was quick to start a theory. It was his belief that Trawlerson was still in the neighbourhood, lurking about, and probably in a position to get news of what was going on. Supposing Trawlerson had heard what Halkin had said about him---that he, Trawlerson, had been seen leaving Chissick’s garden on the evening of the murder? Supposing Trawlerson, prowling about the woods at night, and coming across Halkin, engaged in his poaching work, had gone for him---silenced him, as a man who knew a secret?

“I misdoubt we shall be hearing of a third murder!” he concluded lugubriously. “I misdoubt it!”

But Trace shook his head. He had never had any good opinion of Halkin, whom he had always regarded as a sly, canting rogue. His idea about Halkin’s disappearance was that the man had cleared out to get away from his wife, who was well known to be a shrew. Halkin didn’t interest him; he was wondering about the events of the afternoon, and if Parkapple and Preece would come back to us that evening with more news. But neither Preece nor Parkapple came; nobody came, until, long after dark, a timid tap at the back door summoned me to find Mrs. Halkin standing there, alone.

Mrs. Halkin had a big shawl about her head and shoulders, closely gathered around her sharp-featured face; her entire attitude suggested secrecy and mystery, and when she addressed me, it was in a whisper.

“Young man!” she said wheedlingly. “That housekeeper of the Captain’s, now---is she in?”

“No!” said I. “She’s out---it’s her day out.”

She came a bit nearer at that.

“Because,” she went on, still whispering, “I don’t want no women to hear what I’ve got to say---women, they talk! I don’t mind you and the other gentleman. But it’s the Captain I want to see. Confidential!”

Trace had overheard the whispering, and just then came to see what it was all about. I motioned Mrs. Halkin to come in.

“She wants to tell you something, I think,” I said, turning to Trace. “Private!”

“Which I don’t know anybody else in the village that I could tell it to, Captain Trace,” said Mrs. Halkin. “I know a gentleman when I see one, and I was housemaid in an officer’s family before I wed Halkin, and----”

Trace stopped her flood of talk by asking her into the parlour. I don’t think he felt any pleasure at seeing her, and though he gave her a chair politely enough, his tone was curt.

“Well?” he said. “What is it, Mrs. Halkin?”

Mrs. Halkin showed more of her sharp features and inspected the three of us, especially Macpherson, who, stolidly smoking his pipe, took stock of her in return.

“Feeling as how I couldn’t stop in that cottage up yonder one mortal hour longer,” she said, “and there being neither sign nor sound of Halkin, I’ve brought the children down to my mother’s in the village, and there they are and will be, and me too. And I came here, knowing as I do that here’s a gentleman as a deserted woman can speak to, free! Not minding this here young man, nor the gentleman across there, busy with his bit of tobacco----”

“What is it you want to say, Mrs. Halkin?” asked Trace. “Out with it, now?”

“Which I wasn’t going to say anything this afternoon, Captain Trace,” she announced. “Not before that Mrs. Preece, though, to be sure, I want Preece to find Halkin---if he can, which I doubt. But this here is not for Preece, but for you, as can give better advice than what Preece can.” She paused for a second or two, looking from one to the other of us as if in preface to some momentous announcement. “Captain!” she said, in a low, meaning voice. “Halkin!---he has money!”

We all stared at each other. I don’t think any of us had the ghost of an idea as to what she meant. None of us spoke.

“Money!” she repeated. “And---them above alone knows where he got it from! I don’t---and me his lawful wedded!”

“What do you mean about his having money, Mrs. Halkin?” asked Trace. “Do you mean he’s got some large sum lately, or---what?”

She nodded her shawled head slowly two or three times.

“Halkin,” she announced. “Halkin---he said to me, not so many days ago, that he’d come into a bit of the ready, and maybe we’d leave these parts altogether and go to a new country, across the sea. No more than that---and I didn’t dare to ask questions, for Halkin, though he’s as meek as a whipped dog when he’s at that chapel, is not pleasant to deal with under his own roof, being of a strange temper. But one night I watched him, through a crack in the wall, when he thought I’d gone to bed, and I saw him count money. A fortune!”

“And how much might ye reckon that would be, my good woman?” asked Macpherson. “There’d be gold in it, no doubt?”

“There was gold money and there was bank-notes, mister,” replied Mrs. Halkin. “I couldn’t say how much there was, but it was more money than I’d ever set eyes on in my life, or Halkin either, I’ll warrant! I say---a fortune!”

“Perhaps he’s had a legacy left to him?” suggested Trace.

“I never heard of nobody as could leave him such, Captain,” said Mrs. Halkin. “On no side at all!---neither father’s nor mother’s, nor uncles’ nor aunts’. However, there it is! As I say, Halkin has money!”

“What did he do with it, mistress, when you watched him?” enquired Macpherson.

“He put it all in a belt---a new belt it was too---and fastened it round his waist, mister, next to his shirt, if I may mention such a garment to gentlemen,” replied Mrs. Halkin. “And from that time to the time of his disappearance he never had that belt off of him! No!”

There was a moment’s silence. Then Trace spoke.

“Mrs. Halkin! What do you think yourself?”

The woman fingered her shawl for a while before she replied.

“I think it likely that Halkin’s run away and left me and those children, Captain Trace,” she said at last. “Halkin!---he’s none the man he professed to be down here in the village! He’s an oily tongue and a black heart. He hasn’t treated me well. I think he’s run away with that money. And I wanted to ask you, for I’m sure you’ll know---isn’t there some way of tracing people through them bank-notes? He’ll have to change them----”

“You don’t know the numbers of the notes, Mrs. Halkin,” said Trace. “But if Halkin had all this money on him when he went away, you ought to let the police know. He may have come to some harm. Now come, Mrs. Halkin, look here!---it’s no use keeping things back. Is it true that Halkin used to go poaching?”

She made no reply at first, but eventually she nodded.

“He went out at nights a deal, Captain,” she admitted. “I dare say----”

“You’ll know, now,” said Trace. “He couldn’t keep it from you.”

“Well, of course, he’d bring a thing or two home, now and again,” she said. “He was, as I say, out o’ nights. And---it was night when he went off.”

“You’ll have to tell everything to the police,” said Trace. “He may have been murdered for that money. Come with me, now, Mrs. Halkin. I’ll go down to Preece’s with you. It’s the only thing to do.”

He took her away there and then, but he was soon back with me and Macpherson, saying that Preece and Parkapple had not yet returned, and that he had sent Mrs. Halkin along to her mother’s. Macpherson was already considering what we had just heard.

“Where did yon man Halkin live?” he asked.

“In a lonely cottage, up the hill-side,” said I.

“Anywhere in the neighbourhood o’ yon old mill?” he suggested.

“Half a mile from it---to the west,” I replied.

Macpherson puffed slowly at his pipe for some time---in silence.

“Aye!” he remarked at last. “A man that’s evidently double-dealing in his nature and actions, and that goes out o’ nights, and lives in the neighbourhood o’ yon awesome old ruin on top o’ the hill---Captain!---it would no surprise me if Halkin hasn’t been mixed up in these crimes! It would not!”

It was just what I had been thinking myself, ever since Mrs. Halkin had told us about the money and her husband’s habit of night-strolling. Halkin, I thought, might, after all, be the man who ran away in the mist. But, to my surprise, Trace shook his head.

“In some indefinite, chance way---accessory after the facts---he might have been, Macpherson,” he replied. “But actively, no! The man’s an arrant coward! I know his sort---he hasn’t the spunk to be a courageous criminal. If he thought of murdering anybody, the shadow of the gallows would fall heavy across his vision, and he’d slink and run.”

“Aye, well, and I’m no so sure o’ that,” said Macpherson. “Meet a man in a straight fight for life---no, I’m not saying he’d do that. But yon Chissick was felled from behind---a coward’s blow! And that---aye, I think Halkin would be the man to hit when ’twas sure he couldn’t be hit back. Captain!---yon man has something more to do with all this than’s been reckoned on!”

“It’s all queer, and all suspicious,” agreed Trace. “And this detective, Parkapple, should know. Tom,” he went on, turning to me, “go down to Preece’s after a while and see if he and Parkapple have come back, and get them to come up here, if they have. Parkapple must be posted up.”

I went along to Preece’s cottage at ten o’clock that evening. He had not returned; his wife had heard nothing of him since his going out with the detective early in the afternoon. Still, she felt sure that he wouldn’t be long. Instead of telling her what I wanted---for I was becoming wonderfully close and cautious amidst all these doings---I said I would look in again, later, and went away; not to return to Trace’s house, but to wander up the village, in the darkness, wondering what the secrets were which, so far, seemed as impenetrable as the sea-fog into which Kest’s murderer had vanished.

It had been a hot day, that, one of the first really hot days we had that summer, and the cool night air that swept about the foot of the hill was grateful and refreshing. I went wandering aimlessly up the hill-side, past the shed that Chissick had built; past the oak trees. I was scarcely thinking about where I went; anyway, I went higher up than I had meant to, and eventually to the place where Kest had fallen before the unknown man’s knife. The recognition of that spot pulled me up short. I stood there in the darkness, reconstructing the crime, living over again the thrilling moments in which I had stared from the mill window, horror-struck, at the struggling men. That made me glance at the mill itself, standing black and gaunt against sky and stars, and as I glanced I saw, somewhere within it, a moving light.

There were cracks in the timbers of that mill; it was through them that I saw the light---a mere spark. But it moved. As I stood there, I saw it move from one side of the lower part of the structure to another; after it had wavered there a while, it disappeared. But I caught it again, higher up. Evidently, whoever held it had climbed the stair to the upper chamber from which, through the hole in the floor, I had watched Kest eat his bread and meat, and sup at his gin-and-water, and examine his map. And after a time it went still higher, and I remembered then that from that upper chamber a ladder rose to the dome at the extreme top of the mill. Plainly this explorer was climbing it.

My first instinct was to go boldly forward, nearer, and to wait until whoever it was that was in the mill came out by the half-ruinous doorway—the only means of egress. But I suddenly realised that it would be a foolish, and probably a highly risky, thing to do. It was more than likely that the man inside would have a confederate outside, watching. If there was such a confederate, he might already be watching me. Still . . .

I dropped on hands and knees at last, curiosity getting the better of me, and, with infinite caution, began to wriggle my way across the intervening space, taking advantage of any available cover. And very soon I came to the conclusion that the man in the mill, whatever he was after, was doing his job alone, and had no confederate, either inside or outside. Once hearing the scream of a rabbit, chased, no doubt, by stoat or weasel, in some adjacent warren, I paused, wondering if it really was a rabbit’s cry, or some skilful imitation of it by human lips, a signal to the light-carrier from a companion who had detected me. But it came again, once, sharply, and I knew it for what it was, and went on, crawling on my belly like a snake, and so I came up to where there was thick heather around the lower walls of the mill, and amongst that I lay still as a mouse when there are cats around, and waited, watching.

That spot was immediately in front of the ragged aperture in which the door had once been. I knew the man was still in the mill, for as I had wriggled along I had paused from time to time and watched the light. It was still in the slatted dome, high above, when I took up my position in the thick heather. And the holder of it must either have considered himself very safe from interruption or been prepared to take risks, for he was up there for a considerable time, fifteen or twenty minutes, I reckoned, before the light moved downwards. But---it moved at last, and presently, straining my ears, I heard steps, cautious but heavy, coming down the stair to the lower floor. I saw no more of the light, however. The next thing was a man, his figure silhouetted against the night and the stars, moving away from the mill in the direction of the woods.

The man was not Halkin: I knew that as soon as I clapped eyes on him. Nor was he Trawlerson: I knew that too. Halkin and Trawlerson were much alike in build and figure: men of medium height, and squarely built. But this---I saw his figure clearly enough, sharply outlined against the sky---was a tall man, of spare build; a fellow of long legs. Those legs carried him swiftly away. I had no sooner taken a good look at him than he was vanishing in the gloom; a second or two, and he was gone. And presently I heard the crackle of dry leaves, and the sound of a creaking branch as he set foot within the adjacent wood.

Presently, too, I sprang to my feet and raced down the hill-side, wondering and excited. But instead of bursting in on Trace and Macpherson with this latest news, I called again at Preece’s cottage. All was dark there; Mrs. Preece put her head out of the bedroom window and told me that the sergeant had not returned. I went home then, and for the next ten minutes had Macpherson and Trace listening open-mouthed. Macpherson shook his head knowingly when I had done.

“Aye!” he said ruminatively. “All of a piece with the rest of it---mysteries to the end!---wherever that may be. Man about?---aye! Something’ll have to be done, Captain, that’s no been attempted so far!”

We did nothing that night---except talk a bit before going to bed. We were all disappointed, I think, that Preece didn’t come knocking at the door, and I know that it was a long time before I went to sleep. I was awake before my time next morning too, and at half-past five I got up, and, going downstairs, lighted the kitchen fire and put on the kettle in preparation for an early cup of tea. And the kettle was just beginning to sing, and I was measuring the tea into its pot, when I heard a click of the garden gate, and, looking out of the window, saw Preece, half dressed, coming up the path.

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