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Chapter 26: The Silk Neckerchief

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« on: May 27, 2023, 12:45:48 pm »

I TOOK a good and careful look at this man as he went slowly by, and I saw that there was nothing to fear from him. He was a tall, long-legged, elderly man, very alert of movement; a man who, after his day’s work, had cleaned himself up for the evening and changed his working clothes for a decent suit. He had a stout stick under one arm, and an empty sack flung over the other shoulder. Evidently he was going somewhere to fetch something. And he was still singing cheerily:

     “As I was going to Derby
      All on a market day!”


I slipped out of the cave and stopped his melody with a call. No doubt my voice sounded excited, for he turned sharply and, looking at me with wonder in his eyes, came towards me.

“Eh?” he said. “Something wrong, young fellow? You seem----”

I motioned him to the mouth of the cave.

“Look!” I whispered. “There’s a man in there! Dead!”

He made a startled exclamation, dropped the sack from his shoulder, and, walking into the cave, stared at Trawlerson’s dead body.

“Lord ha’ mercy!” he muttered. He stooped, and looked closer; then started and stared at me with a quick catching of his breath. “Why---why!” he exclaimed. “That’s the man as used to wander about!”

“You know him, then?” I asked.

“By sight, young master, yes!” he said. “Seen him a time or two, on the downs and in these woods. Always at a bit of a distance---never close to. But I know him! Never had speech of him, to be sure. Did---did you find him?”

“Just now!” I answered. “I got lost in the woods and wandered down here. And I looked in at this cave and---saw him, just as you see.”

“Do you know him?” he asked.

“I do! He’s a man named Trawlerson, that’s been missing some time---several days, anyhow,” I replied. “The police have been looking for him---everywhere!”

He made no remark on that, but stooped closer and again looked at the dead man.

“Appears to me as if he’d been dead some time,” he observed musingly. “Can’t say, of course, but---I should say so. Well---I never heard anything of any fight, or struggling, and my hut’s not so far off: only just back of the wood there. Of course, it may ha’ taken place in the night, whatever it was, and I’m a good sleeper. However, there ’tis. Dead---right enough! And murdered, too---look at that lump on his forehead---and he’s been strangled as well. Murder!---and close by one! I’ve been up there---oh, two or three weeks. And never heard---nothing!”

I had been sizing him up as he talked, and now I asked a direct question.

“Are you the man that bought a lot of stuff from Scale, the grocer, of Barlaton, a bit since?” I enquired. “Groceries?”

“That’s me, young fellow!” he answered. “Working a steam-roller, I am, up in these hills, and have a hut not a quarter of a mile from this. I’m on my way to Scale’s now,” he went on, indicating the sack. “Stores run out, d’ye see?---or nearly so, and wants replenishing. But this, now---as I say, I’ve seen this here man a time or two. And once I saw him with another man, one night towards dark, near that old mill on the downs.”

“Another man?” I exclaimed. “What was he like?”

“Rather a thick-set chap---about his build,” he replied, indicating the still figure at our feet. “They were talking together, as I say, near that old mill.”

A sudden notion struck me, and I put it into words.

“Was it you that was in the mill last night?” I asked. “With a light?”

He nodded, immediately; it was easy to see that he had nothing to keep back.

“That was me!” he assented. “I often take a walk of an evening round these parts, and I thought I’d like to see what there was in that old place, so I slipped a lantern into my pocket when I came out. Queer old spot, that!---and by what bit I’ve heard, there’s been a good deal of mystery about it of late.”

“Haven’t you heard much, then?” I asked, surprised that anyone in the neighbourhood should be in any way ignorant of the recent happenings. “There’s been plenty of talk, and plenty in the newspapers!”

“Aye, no doubt!” he remarked. “But up there where I’ve been working, I’m not in the way of hearing much talk; and as to newspapers, well, I haven’t set eyes on one for a fortnight.”

“This man was mixed up in it,” I said, “and, as I told you, the police have been searching for him---for him and that other man you mentioned just now. I shall have to hurry down and tell them what I’ve found here. I wish you’d come with me---they’ll want to see you, you know, after what I tell them.”

He nodded and glanced at his sack.

“Aye, that’ll be so,” he agreed. “But---is there a shop, a good shop, in your village, for I want provisions?”

I answered him that there was a shop where he could buy anything he wanted, and he picked up his sack and his stick. But the next instant he put them down again, turning to me with a knowing look.

“This is an out-of-the-way spot!” he said. “But you found it, and others might find it, before the police can get up here. Have---have you looked to see if there’s anything on him?”

He pointed significantly to Trawlerson’s pockets, and I knew what he meant.

“I have!” said I. “There’s nothing! I know for a fact that he carried a fine gold watch and chain, and always had plenty of cash. Well, there isn’t a penny left in his pockets, and the watch and chain are gone!”

“Robbed, as well as murdered, then!” he remarked. “All right!---I’ll go down with you to the police. But first” he paused, pointing to the neckerchief twisted so tightly about the dead man’s throat---“first,” he went on, dropping on his hands and knees at Trawlerson’s side, “we’ll have that off! To take with us!”

“Why?” I demanded.

“Evidence!” he replied. “Evidence! We’ve both seen it---here!---and we can both swear to it. And the police had better have it, at once.”

But it was no easy work to disengage that neckerchief from the dead man’s throat; it had been knotted and double knotted. He worked it loose at last, however, and, putting it in his pocket, signed to me to follow him.

“So you were lost in here?” he remarked as we went away. “Aye, well, I’ve been about here long enough to know that it’s not a difficult matter to get out of your bearings in these woods. You’ve no idea whereabouts we are, then?”

“No very clear idea,” I replied.

“You’ll ha’ been twisting and turning about,” he surmised. “As a matter of fact, we’re within half a mile of that old mill we were talking about---on its west side. But I’ll show you.”

He went ahead, and, presently turning off the narrow path, forced a way through the undergrowth for fifty yards or so, emerging from it on a grass track that I knew well enough as one that cut clean through the woods to a bridle-gate near the mill. In ten minutes we were passing the mill; ten minutes more, and I burst in on Trace and Macpherson with the news. Macpherson hurried away for Preece. The steam-roller man, who gave his name as Kilham, and I, told our story. Kilham produced the neckerchief. Preece took possession of that, and when he had heard all we had to say, he made some remark to Trace and left the house. He was away for half an hour, and we were still discussing the details of my discovery when he returned.

“I’ve soon settled that point!” he said, with an air of triumphant satisfaction. “I’d an idea that it would prove to be his, as soon as I saw it! That silk neckerchief is Halkin’s!”

“You’ve made sure?” asked Trace, almost incredulously.

“Certain!” replied Preece, with a grin. “Mrs. Halkin’s still down in the village, stopping at her mother’s. I took it to her---told her it had been picked up in the woods. She identified it as Halkin’s immediately. Bought it for him herself, she says, at Portsmouth, not so very long ago, and he was wearing it round his neck last time she saw him. So----”

He paused, looking from one to the other of us, either for applause for his cleverness, or for some suggestion as to what was next to be done. But nobody spoke, not even Macpherson, who seemed stricken dumb by the crowding together of these doings, and Preece went on.

“We’d best get to work,” he said. “There’s three of our men in the village now; they’re coming along here as soon as they’ve finished a mouthful of supper. Kilham, you’ll have to show them the way to this cave where you’ve left Trawlerson’s body---they’ll see to everything after that. As for me”---he glanced significantly at Trace and Macpherson---“I’m off to Brighton! We’ve heard no more from Parkapple, but he must know of this at once. There’s just nice time to catch the last train---just time, and no more.”

Within the moment, Trace and Macpherson determined to go with him. They made no objection when I begged not to be left behind---I wanted to be in at the crisis which I felt was coming. And five minutes later Kilham was leading the other three policemen and a couple of labourers with a hand-cart away to the woods, and Preece, Trace, Macpherson, and I were hurrying to the station. It seemed to me as if there was a certain fitness about that hurrying. I had, I suppose, some intuition that everything was tending to a crucial point, and that we, actors in this drama, had just got to move rapidly---were, indeed, being moved rapidly. Of late I had watched Trace and Macpherson playing chess of an evening---something led me to compare that with the game we were now hard at work on. I fancied we were all pawns, being moved by some hand invisible to us. I, for instance, had had no idea when I woke that morning that I was going to find Fewster dead in his parlour, and Trawlerson brutally murdered in that cave; yet I had made both discoveries, and now I was on my way to . . . I scarcely knew what, but I had no doubt it would be no less startling.

It was just half-past ten when we reached Brighton. Preece bundled us all into a cab and told its driver to hasten to the police-station. He hurried inside there as soon as the cab pulled up, and presently emerged again with an official with whom he talked for a while before motioning us to get out.

“Parkapple’s at an hotel close by,” he said as the official turned inside again. “I’ve got the name of it---we’ll go round there. Nobody had called for that packet at the post office up to closing-time,” he went on as we all moved off. “The police here know all about it, of course---Parkapple’s posted them up. Odd---if the receipt really was stolen from Fewster! But we’ll hear more from Parkapple.”

We found Parkapple in a quiet corner of the smoking-room of an hotel on the sea-front, evidently meditating over his pipe. He looked as if all business cares had left him for that day, but he sprang sharply to his feet as he caught sight of us entering the room.

“Something fresh?” he asked quickly. “More news! But you wouldn’t be here----”

“Come back to that corner,” said Preece. “Yes, we’ve news,” he answered as we all seated ourselves round the detective. “That’s why we hurried here. You’d better hear it from the fountain-head,” he continued, nodding at me. “Tell Mr. Parkapple all about it, Tom!”

I told Parkapple the story I had already told the other three. He listened closely, without interrupting me. At the end he only asked a question or two about minor details. Then Preece got in.

“The neckerchief they brought has been identified,” he said triumphantly. “I managed that!---within a few minutes. It’s---Halkin’s!”

Parkapple showed no surprise.

“You’re sure of that?” he asked.

“Positive!” declared Preece. “His wife identified it.” He felt in an inner pocket and drew out the neckerchief. “This is it!” he said. “Mrs. Halkin bought it in Portsmouth---shop in Commercial Road---not so long ago.” Then, as Parkapple took the thing from him, he rubbed his hands, chuckling. “I reckon that’ll hang Halkin!” he went on, nodding at the rest of us. “A settler, that!”

“Ye’ve got to catch him first, man!” muttered Macpherson. “And, so far, Mr. Parkapple there has had no luck, I understand?”

Parkapple handed the neckerchief back to Preece. The news I had given him had evidently roused some new train of thought in him.

“Tell you anything at the police-station?” he asked, glancing at Preece.

“Only that nobody’d called for that registered packet at the post office here up to closing-time,” answered Preece.

“That’s so! There’s been a strict watch ever since I got here,” said Parkapple. “I kept out of the way myself, having been seen at your end, you know. No---no application had been made up to the hour the post office closed. But---an inspector and I have examined the packet.”

“Aye---and what’s inside it, man?” exclaimed Macpherson. “Is it---diamonds?”

“Diamonds, sure enough!” assented Parkapple. “Some cut and polished; most in the rough, like the one picked up this morning. There are seventy-four of them, some a good size. And we did more than examine the packet---when we found what it contained, we got an expert to come round to the postmaster’s private office and look the diamonds over---just to give us a rough idea of what the lot might be worth. A well-known man, you understand---one whose opinion can be trusted. Of course, he only named an approximate figure. But---he said that he’d give it himself.”

“Aye, aye!” said Macpherson eagerly. “And what did he say they were worth, now? A deal o’ money, no doubt?”

“Twenty-five thousand pounds!” replied Parkapple. “At least!”

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