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Chapter 27: The Billiard-Room

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« on: May 27, 2023, 01:18:40 pm »

MACPHERSON threw up his hands---in dismay, or in admiration, or in sheer surprise; perhaps in a mixture of all three.

“Man, that’s a powerful sight of money!” he exclaimed in awestruck accents. “But maybe I didn’t hear you aright? Did you say----”

“I said twenty-five thousand pounds!” repeated Parkapple. “At least! And, as the gentleman said he’d give that for them just then, cash down, if they were for sale, I reckon they’re worth more---probably considerably more. For---as most of those chaps who deal in that sort of thing are---the gentleman was of the Jewish persuasion, and, accordingly, sure to know a bargain when he saw one.”

“Aye, no doubt!” agreed Macpherson. “But twenty-five thousand pounds! To think of all that amount of wealth lying there in the ground doing nothing for two-and-forty years! If it had been realised and put out at five per cent., it would ha’ brought in---aye, now, what would it ha’ brought in? I’m no so quick at the mental arithmetic as I was when I was a mere callant back there at Jedburgh----”

“It would have brought in £52,500, Mr. Macpherson,” said I. “Just that!”

“Good lad!” said he. “Aye!---I ga’ed ye a good schooling, Tom, and I’m thankful to see ye can still cast figures in your headpiece wi’out the vain adjuncts o’ pencil and paper! But that’s neither here nor there---what did you do with these valuables, Mr. Parkapple, if one may be so bold?”

“Put them all back in the original package, Mr. Macpherson, which had been very skilfully opened and was just as skilfully closed up again,” answered Parkapple. “And there it is, all safe at the post office, till called for. I’m a bit puzzled,” he went on, “that nobody’s called for it to-day. For I haven’t changed my opinion one whit---somebody stole that receipt from Fewster last night! And I think that somebody would have a pretty good idea what the receipt referred to.”

“That’s arguing that whoever stole it knew that Fewster was in possession of the diamonds,” remarked Trace.

“Oh, undoubtedly!” agreed the detective. “I think Halkin certainly knew, and it may be that Trawlerson knew. I think that, all unsuspected by you people on the spot, there’s been a certain amount of collusion between Halkin and Trawlerson for some time. Possibly Trawlerson, during his wanderings and excursions, nocturnal and otherwise, came across Halkin and got to know so much of his doings that Halkin had to take him into his confidence.”

“Well, there’s no doubt that Halkin settled Trawlerson in the end,” said Preece. “This neckerchief’s a proof of that!”

“Aye, well, it’s a certain amount of evidence,” said Parkapple. “Only a certain amount, though. Halkin, for instance, can easily say that it was stolen from him; his wife, if she finds that it’s being used against him, can easily swear that somebody filched it from her clothes-line on washing-day. However,” he added, seeing Preece’s countenance fall at these throwings of cold water, “it is evidence, and if we catch Halkin, we’ll make the most of it. But what I’d like to know at present---how long had this man Trawlerson been dead when Tom there found him this evening?”

“Kilham said some time, Mr. Parkapple,” I told him. “He thought, from what he saw, several days.”

“And Halkin posted a letter in London yesterday morning, did he?” continued Parkapple musingly. “You made sure about the postmark, Captain Trace?”

“Quite sure!” replied Trace. “There was no address beyond the word ‘London’ in the letter itself---a mere scrawl of a few lines in pencil on a sheet of unusually poor quality paper---the sort of stuff you’d pick up in a poor shop in a poor district. The postmark was ‘London 8 a.m.’; the date, yesterday.”

“Posted at the head office, then, if there were no qualifying district letters,” remarked Parkapple. “Well, Halkin could have been in London yesterday morning before eight o’clock, aye, and right well into the afternoon for that matter, and still have been at Fewster’s last night! It’s only two hours’ run from either London Bridge or Victoria to your district. I think Halkin is the man we want---now that Trawlerson’s out of it. I’m going on the supposition that Halkin called on Fewster last night for some purpose of his own, not clear to me, found him dead, saw that receipt lying around, guessed what it referred to, appropriated it, and cleared out with the intention of calling at Brighton post office to collect any correspondence awaiting demand in the name of J. Foster. I think Halkin would come on to Brighton last night---probably by the last train---and I’m a bit uneasy and surprised that he’s not called at the post office. But according to your accounts of him, Halkin’s a sly sort of man, eh?”

“Sly!” exclaimed Preece. “Deep as they make ’em! He’d circumvent the devil! I should think he is sly! Cunning!---that’s what Halkin is.”

“Then he’ll be cunning to the last,” said Parkapple. “He’s no doubt working on some plan of his own, cleverly conceived. And----” He paused, and then, shaking his head, left his sentence unfinished. Macpherson spoke.

“You said just now---if we catch him?” he suggested anxiously. “Surely you’ve no fear o’ that---if your theory’s right? He’ll be bound to call at yon post office, sooner or later! You’ll ha’ made arrangements?”

“Oh, we’ve made arrangements, Mr. Macpherson!” assented Parkapple, smiling. “Good and thorough ones, I can assure you! From just before eight to-morrow morning, when the post office opens until it closes at night, there’ll never be a moment that would be a safe one for Halkin if he turns up there. And that reminds me---as he knows the whole lot of you, and would have his suspicions aroused if he saw you here in Brighton, what about you? Going to stay here the night, and see what comes of to-morrow?”

Trace replied that we should have to; there were no more trains our way at that late hour of the evening.

“Very good---you may be useful, one way or another,” said Parkapple. “But---you’ll have to lie low in the morning until you get the word from me. Halkin will never suspect the Brighton police, and he’ll have no chance of seeing me here, even if he ever saw me over there. But if he saw as much as the nose-end of any one of you four---all up! So mind that! Doggo!---that’s your game till I give you the office.”

We soon arranged all that. There was plenty of room in the hotel in which we were talking. Trace presently booked accommodation for all four of us, and presently I, at any rate, went to bed. I had gone through some exciting adventures that day and seen things that I could never forget, however long I lived, but I hadn’t a single dream about them. I was asleep within a minute of putting my head on the pillow, and still asleep when Macpherson came into my room, which adjoined his own, and shook my shoulder.

“Past eight o’clock, Tom, my man!” he said. “And the table-doty breakfast is at the half-hour. I’d ha’ wakened you before, but you were sleeping that sound. It’s a braw morning, Tom---losh! I wonder what we’ll see or hear before it’s night again!”

“Halkin!---with the handcuffs on, Mr. Macpherson!” said I, bloodthirstily. “That’s what I want to see. Did you say ’twas past eight?---they may have got him! Likely he’d go to the post office first thing this morning.”

“Aweel, I canna say!” he answered. “Parkapple’s been gone about his business a good hour---he took his breakfast at seven o’clock, by arrangement wi’ the hotel folk. But as for us---we must just bide till we hear from him.”

It was my idea---due, no doubt, to the impatience of youth---that we should hear from Parkapple, if not immediately after breakfast, at least before noon. But the morning wore on, and we heard nothing. It began to seem dull work. We could not go out, lest Halkin should catch sight of us. For the same reason Preece warned me not to stand at the hall door nor look out of the windows. I got bored with the whole thing; so too, I think, did Macpherson. And it had passed noon and nothing had happened when Parkapple came in and found us, the three elder men reading newspapers, myself with my hands in my pockets, loafing around.

“It’s odd!” he said, when we had gathered round him. “Deuced odd!---but up to twelve o’clock nobody’s called about that packet! And yet---somebody’s got the receipt!”

“Are ye so sure o’ that, now?” asked Macpherson. “Ye jumped to that conclusion, Mr. Parkapple, but if ye’ll just cast your mind back to day before yesterday, which, owing to the remarkable nature of intervening events, seems a long way off, ye’ll remember that I said then that you might be mistaken. Fewster may have destroyed that receipt.”

“Why should he destroy it?” demanded Parkapple. “A receipt for a packet containing twenty-five thousand pounds’ worth of diamonds! Come!”

“I’ll grant ye that in the ordinary way o’ business it would ha’ been a foolish thing to do,” said Macpherson, “and one that no business man would ha’ done. But you’ll admit that the circumstances were peculiar. Although you and Preece professed yourselves satisfied with Fewster’s explanations at Chissick’s garden gate, and left him to go his ways to his own home, he may ha’ felt, probably did feel, that he was by no means safe from another visit from you that afternoon or evening; he didn’t know, indeed, that you mightn’t come and search, not only himself, but his house. I think that what we know he did proves that I’m correct, Mr. Parkapple. For he makes up those diamonds into a package, and he goes to the post office and gets rid of it. He’d never think that you’d go making enquiries at the post office, and maybe you wouldn’t if you hadn’t found those wrappings and the sealing-wax on Fewster’s side-table. But, having sent away his package by registered post, Fewster had the office receipt on him! Now, still thinking that you might yet come, and that you might search him and his belongings, and knowing that if you found a receipt for something, evidently valuable, posted that afternoon, you’d certainly want to know what that something was, what in the name of common sense d’ye suppose Fewster would do with his receipt? Man!---as a whole day and half a day has passed without anybody, Halkin or another, calling at yon post office, I think I know what Fewster did wi’ his receipt. He put it in his fire!”

Somebody---Preece, I think---made a grunt of acquiescence in this view of the case.

But Parkapple shook his head.

“I don’t think so, Mr. Macpherson, with all respect to you, I don’t think so!” he declared stoutly. “You put the matter very clearly, Mr. Macpherson, as clearly as a lawyer could, I’m sure. But I still think somebody stole that receipt---nay, I’m as sure of it as a man can be without being able to put forward absolute proof. A---a feeling, sir!”

“Aye!” assented Macpherson. “Ye’ll not be devoid o’ the intuitive faculty, no doubt, Mr. Parkapple. And so you’ll be for continuing your watch?”

“This day out, anyhow,” replied Parkapple. “And, of course, the post office authorities are aware of the nature of the contents of that packet, and whoever calls for it at any time will be detained till the police are communicated with. No!---I’ve not given up hope yet, Mr. Macpherson!”

Then, saying that he trusted to have some news for us before long, he bustled off again, and we prepared ourselves for more waiting. But hours went by and no news came, and it had got to close on eight o’clock at night, and Trace and Macpherson were talking of taking the train home, when suddenly a young man who was clearly a constable in plain clothes entered the hotel, and, having ascertained that we were the people he wanted, asked us if we’d step round to the police-station to see Detective-Sergeant Parkapple at once.

The police-station was not three minutes’ walk from the hotel, but I think we were there in two minutes; even Macpherson hurried. Our guide led us through various passages to a private office, where we found Parkapple, two or three men who, I presumed, were detectives, and an official or two of evident high standing, grouped around---not Halkin, but a young man who sat in a chair in their midst and who was evidently surprised, puzzled, and---I fancied---just a little amused at finding himself where he was. He was certainly not the sort of person I should have expected to see there in that affair, with its background of murder and robbery. A more ordinary individual you could not have met in the street outside. He looked to me like a clerk of some sort, well and respectably dressed in conventional attire; he had a top-hat on his knee, and a neatly rolled umbrella at his side. And though there were so many pairs of interrogating eyes turned on him, he was by no means abashed, but looked frankly and fearlessly from one man to another---and from them to a small, red-sealed package that lay prominently displayed on the table before which he sat.

“Willing to answer any questions you like, of course!” I heard him saying as we filed in. “Why not? Nothing to do with me!”

Parkapple turned to one of the officials as we entered, and whispered something to him; then he turned to the young man of the top-hat and umbrella.

“What we want to know is---how did you come to ask for this package at Brighton post office this evening, and to be in possession of the receipt for its posting?” he asked. “Tell us in your own way---everything! We’ve already told you that this package contains stolen property. Now---your account!”

“As I said before---why not?” responded the interrogated one. “I’ve nothing to do with the thing! Just what might happen to anybody---anybody who’s good-natured, that is. My name’s James Wellings. I’m a bank-clerk; been nine years in the South-Coast Bank here in the town---best of characters too, if you want to know! I live at Rottingdean, three miles along the coast, with my mother and sisters. Well, sometimes of an evening I go along to the hotel, or to one of the hotels, just for a modest drink and a smoke, sometimes for a game of billiards. Last night I was out that way---in the billiard-room of an hotel. There was an elderly man there, well-spoken chap, respectable and all that; I got talking to him while I was waiting for a game. He told me he’d just come there for a week or two for his health---got run down after an illness, or something. Affable chap!---knew a lot about gardening. That was really what made me talk to him; gardening came up somehow, and we have a garden that I put in some of my spare time at. After I’d played a hundred at billiards, I’d another talk to him---he told me all about growing roses. We walked up the street together---he was lodging near where I live. I’d told him what I was, and before parting he asked me, when I came into Brighton to-day, if I’d call at the general post office and collect any letters for him---name of J. Foster. He said there’d be a registered one, a packet, and, so that I shouldn’t forget the name, he’d give me the receipt for it---which he did---you have it there now. I told him I’d do the errand with pleasure, but it would be unusually late when I got home to-night, because we should be balancing at the bank. He said it didn’t matter---he was in no hurry about his letters; they were of no importance; the registered one only contained some article that had just been registered for safety. And---that’s all there’s in it, as far as I’m concerned! I don’t know the man---know nothing but what I’ve told you.”

“Didn’t you think it rather a curious thing that a man who was expecting a registered letter should be in possession of the receipt issued to the sender?” asked Parkapple. “Didn’t that strike you? As a bank-clerk, you must have sent off hundreds of registered letters in your time to customers. You don’t send the receipts you get at the receiving office to customers!”

“To tell you the truth, I never even thought about it!” answered Wellings frankly. “As it was, I nearly forgot to call at the post office. I’d got half-way to my bus, going home, when I suddenly remembered and went back. Then---but you know.”

“Where were you to meet this man?” asked Parkapple.

“In the billiard-room where I met him last night,” said Wellings. “Nine o’clock.”

Parkapple glanced at a clock on the mantelpiece---twenty past eight. He turned to the official to whom he had previously spoken; together they walked away to a corner of the room and engaged in a whispered conversation; eventually they came back to Wellings. The official took him in hand.

“How do you go back to Rottingdean?” he asked.

“By bus, always,” replied Wellings. “You know the Rottingdean buses.”

“And your next is---what?”

“Twenty to nine.”

“And you are to meet this man on your arrival?”

“We arranged to meet where we met last night---in the billiard-room.”

“That billiard-room’s separate from the hotel, isn’t it?” said the official. “You go up steps to it, don’t you---a building somewhat detached from the hotel itself? Just so!---very well, now listen carefully. You’ll go along by the twenty to nine bus, and you’ll take this package in your pocket. From the instant you step out of this room you’ll be followed shadowed!---by two of my men, plain-clothes men, of course. They’ll go in the same bus with you, but they won’t know you, you know, and you won’t know them, and they’ll take good care to show no interest in you. But---they’ll be there! As soon as the bus gets to Rottingdean---it stops at the hotel, of course---you’ll go straight up to the billiard-room, and if the man’s there, you’ll hand him the packet. You’ll also ask him to have a drink, and send the marker for what you order. His appearance at the foot of the stairs on his way to the bar will be the signal for my men to enter. Do you understand all that? Is it quite clear?”

Wellings made a wry face.

“It’s clear enough!” he said unwillingly. “But---I don’t like it! Supposing this chap’s armed? He’ll see there’s been a trap laid for him, and he’ll turn on me! And, you know, when all’s said and done, it’s no business of mine! Can’t you manage it amongst yourselves?”

The man addressed looked at Parkapple. Parkapple, after hesitating a moment, turned to Wellings.

“We want to take this man with that packet actually in his possession,” he said. “We’ve reasons! There’ll be no danger to you---we shall be on him, if you do what you’ve been asked to do, before he realises anything! See?”

“No, I don’t see!” retorted Wellings doggedly. “I don’t like it at all! If he’s got a revolver, or the like of that, on him, it wouldn’t take him the fraction of a second to draw it, and he’d be quick to see I’d given him away. I won’t do it---so there! But I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll go up to the billiard-room, give him the packet, stay a minute or so with him to have a drink, as you suggest, and as soon as we’ve had it come away. But---mind!---you’re not to go up, any of you, till I come down! I won’t do it otherwise---not for you nor anybody. I’ve got a mother and two sisters partly dependent----”

“That would do!” said Parkapple. “Your coming down from the billiard-room is to be the signal for our entrance? Very good. Now let’s get to work!”

He handed the packet to Wellings, who, still muttering that he didn’t at all like the job and was only doing it to oblige, put it in his inside pocket and went away, followed at once by two very ordinary-looking individuals in plain clothes who had carefully listened to all that had passed. And within a few minutes the rest of us were on our way too, judiciously instructed by Parkapple and the Brighton official, and disposed of in two taxi-cabs, the drivers of which were ordered to convey us to Rottingdean in such wise that each set his load of humanity down at different parts of the village and at about the same time that the bus was due to arrive at the hotel. No detail was left unattended to; it seemed as if we already held Halkin in a halter, and had nothing to do but tighten it at our pleasure. But that, as Macpherson grimly remarked, would come later.

It was dark, quite dark, when stealing upon it from various directions, we gathered in front of the hotel. There were a great many people about---Rottingdean is a favourite resort of Brighton people. We mingled with them; Macpherson and I got a good place opposite the hotel where a crowd awaited an outgoing bus. Behind us, deep down at the foot of the cliffs, I heard the tide roaring as it surged up the shingly beach; in front of us, across the space filled with motor-cars, men, women, children, we saw the lighted windows of the billiard-room. I pictured Halkin sitting there, awaiting the arrival of his cat’s-paw with the packet of diamonds.

The bus came in---a few minutes late. We saw Wellings dismount and go straight up the stairs to the billiard-room. We saw the two plain-clothes men dismount too, and play their parts very well by affecting to lounge and stare about them, close to the foot of the stairs. And near by I saw Parkapple, amongst a group of excursionists, and Trace, and Preece, all carefully disposed.

A boy, carrying a tray, came running down the stairs from the billiard-room and went into the adjacent bar. That, I could see, was crowded with customers; it was five minutes, at least, before he went back again with two glasses of beer on his tray. More minutes elapsed. Wellings ought to have come down at any second. And then . . .

But Wellings did not come. Nobody came. And at the end of ten minutes Parkapple moved towards the two plain-clothes men, so did Preece and Trace; Macpherson and I followed. Before we reached them Parkapple had sent one of the Brighton men upstairs; the next instant the man was calling loudly on all of us to follow him.

The peaceful appearance of that billiard-room was in violent contrast to the emotions which raged in the hearts of us who presently rushed in there. There was not a soul in the place except the boy, who, having nothing else to do, was calmly practising shots on the table; on a stand close by rested his tray with the two glasses of beer on it, untouched. But for any sign of Wellings and Halkin . . .

“Where are those two men who were here just now?” demanded Parkapple. “Quick!”

The boy, without laying down his cue, turned lazily.

“I dunno!” he said. “They sent me for two bottles o’ Bass, and when I come back they was gone! There’s the drinks, a-waiting for ’em.”

“Gone?” snarled Parkapple. “Which---when---how could they go?”

The boy pointed the tip of his cue to a door in the corner of the room.

“There’s a way out through there,” he said unconcernedly. “Down at the back of the bar, and through a yard into the other street. I expect . . .”

---

As far as it concerned Captain Trace, and Andrew Macpherson, and myself, that was the end of this business. True, we had an exciting time for the rest of that evening, trying to find things out. Nobody knew anything of any bank-clerk in Rottingdean named Wellings; the widowed mother and two dependent sisters did not materialise. Nor had the boy in the billiard-room any recollection whatever of having seen the young man and the elderly one in conversation in that room the night before; he had never seen either, he swore, until a quarter before nine that night, when the elderly man came in and loafed about, evidently waiting, and the younger one came some twenty minutes later. But we learned certain facts. The two men---the elder being Halkin, without the shadow of a doubt, and the younger (as the police subsequently ascertained) a nephew of his who had no very good record in London, where he had been employed as a clerk---arrived in Rottingdean by bus from Newhaven during the afternoon of the critical day, and had tea together at the hotel, and were later seen in its smoking-room. Subsequently the younger was seen boarding a bus for Brighton . . . the rest we knew. But nobody knew which way the pair fled when they cleared out of the billiard-room after sending the boy for beer. It was dusk, past mere dusk---and behind Rottingdean lies the solitude of the South Downs.

THE END

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