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Chapter Forty-Two

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« on: June 19, 2023, 10:40:34 am »

DETECTIVE Inspector Abbott stood in the dark and listened. He would not have admitted it to anyone else---he barely admitted it to himself---but he was just about as nervous as a cat on hot bricks. Miss Silver’s plan, which had sounded so simple in the cosy atmosphere of the Vicarage morning-room with lamplight and firelight and a modicum of daylight to keep the off chance from pushing in, was now, in the darkness, exposed to every kind of doubt. He ought never to have consented to it. That had been his original standpoint, and he ought to have stuck to it. And so what? If he could stick to a plan, why, so could she. And not only could, but would. He had known his Miss Silver for a good many years now, and he was perfectly well aware that when she had made up her mind to a course of action she would pursue it. All that he could do was to remonstrate, which he had done this afternoon, and remonstrance having failed, take what precautions he could to ensure her safety.

He had done what he could. He hoped that he had done enough. There was a plain-clothes man in the bushes at the bottom of the Vicarage drive. Inspector Bury was on the other side of the splash. He himself stood just inside the lych gate. If anyone came down the yew tunnel, he would have ample warning. The softest-footed creature that ever walked could not come that way without the crack of a twig underfoot or the rustle of a leaf. The old dry droppings of the years were there at the roots of the immemorial yews, and for all the sexton’s sweepings, the wind drifted them across the path again. If anyone came from the Vicarage and turned towards the splash, he himself was here, not half a dozen yards from the water and to all intents and purposes invisible. If anyone came from the village and passed the Vicarage gate, Grey would follow soft-foot.

He glanced at the dial of his luminous watch, and found that the time was a quarter to ten. Only half an hour since they had taken up their positions, and speaking for himself, it might have been half the night. Long enough anyhow to think of a hundred ways in which precaution might fail. The lych gate was very old. The lych gate---the lyke gate---the corpse gate---the German leiche, a dead body. . . . They rested the coffin here before a funeral. . . . The thought came up in his mind, and faded under a flash of sardonic humour. What a superstitious creature man was! Civilized? The veneer was pitifully thin. He had only to be alone in a dark place, and all the old bogies would squeak and gibber from the shadows.

The church clock startled him with its three ringing strokes. He looked at his watch again. A minute past the quarter. Then the church clock was slow by just that minute. The air seemed still to vibrate under the last stroke when, lifting his eyes from the illuminated dial, he thought that something moved. It was one of those impressions without substance. He had just been looking at a bright object. He looked away from it, and his eyes dazzled against the dark. If there had been a movement, he could not have seen it then. Between the lych gate and the entrance to the Vicarage drive the road sloped upwards. It was as black as a black cat’s fur.

He stood leaning forward, every sense at its fullest stretch, and he thought someone breathed in the blackness. The wind blew, and the water ran---a light soft wind, a slowly moving stream. Impossible that he should have heard the sound of human breath. His ears strained towards the sound. His mind strained. And he heard it again. He heard it because it was so near. Someone else’s foot took the wide, shallow step of the lych gate. If he had not been in his stocking feet he would have been heard as he stepped back. But he was not heard. It was the other who had been heard, soft and crafty as that tell-tale foot had been. There was no further movement, only now and again that deep betraying breath. There was no other sound, but there was a growing sense of tension, of urgency, of a purpose from which there would be no turning back.

And then, away up the rise where the Vicarage drive came out, there was a flicker of light. From where he stood it came just within his line of vision before the solid oak of the lych gate cut it off. The flicker showed and was gone, and came wavering into sight again low down upon the ground. He could see what it was now, the small weak ray of a torch whose battery had come near to petering out. The hand which held it hung down and swung loose. It was a woman’s hand. If the torch was meant to light her way it failed wretchedly, since it produced a mere confusion of sliding shadows. If it served any purpose at all, it was to make her visible, or partly visible, to those who were watching the road. She came slowly down the rise, seeming to drift rather than walk, now at one side of the road, and then on a wavering course towards the other. She gave the lych gate a wide berth and passed down beyond it to the watersplash.

Inside the lych gate something stirred. Someone went by. Standing rigidly controlled and still, Frank Abbott was aware that he was alone again. He had hardly dared to draw his natural breath, had hardly even dared to think, lest that someone should discern an alien presence. Now he leaned forward and saw the flicker of light blotted out by a moving shape. With every sense alert, he followed. Cold, damp ground under foot, the wet of it striking through a pair of socks that would probably never be quite the same again---light moving air that went by with a scatter of rain---the lulling flow of the stream---and two shadows ahead of him. There was one of them now, right down at the edge of the splash where the water took the flicker of the torch. The small, weak ray went out across the stream and swung back again, to go sliding to and fro upon wet grass and oozing clay. The second shadow was very close, and Frank no more than a yard behind. It had all been without any sound except the soft going of wind and water. But now there was a human sound, the sound of a voice kept low.

“Annie!”

The figure at the edge of the splash did not turn. The torch shook in her hand, the ray went wide. She said in a whispering way,

“What---is---it?”

“You ought not to be down here by the splash. Why do you come?”

This time Frank caught only the two words,

“William---drowned----”

Then the deep voice again, “What do you know---about his being drowned? What did you see? What have you told?”

There was no audible answer this time, only a slow shaking of the head with its enveloping scarf.

“What did you see?”

The whisper came again.

“I---saw----”

There was movement then, sudden and violent, an upward swing and a sudden flailing blow. The figure at the edge of the splash fell forward. The torch hit the water and went out. Frank battled in the dark with a hard bony strength which was beyond anything he had expected. He shouted, and the plain-clothes man came running. Bury came running from across the splash, sliding off the last stepping-stone and getting wet up to the knees. The three of them grappled in the dark until the whirling, twisting limbs were pinioned and the crazed fury broke up in a hurry of words. The whole thing was a kind of nightmare where time was suspended and the impossible was happening. The harsh voice screamed in the dark.

Frank Abbott emerged from the męlee to find himself calling Miss Silver’s name.

“Where are you? Are you all right? For God’s sake!”

He groped where he had seen her fall, and heard a familiar and most welcome cough.

“I am rather wet, and I shall be glad of your hand. This clay is extremely slippery.”

He helped her to her feet, and stood there with his arm round her, breathing hard.

“I’ll never forgive myself!”

The water dripped from her skirts, but her voice was perfectly composed.

“My dear Frank, there is no need to distress yourself. I heard her arm go up, and I thought it best to drop forward into the water. I think you will find that the weapon was one of those heavy torches, in which case it should be somewhere about here, unless it has rolled. We need some light. Ah---I see Inspector Bury has a torch!”

He said, “So have I, but I was in such a damned flap that I forgot it.”

He had never supposed that he would swear in front of Miss Silver and go unreproved, yet it happened. Her “My dear Frank!” breathed nothing but affection.

They moved on together to where Inspector Bury’s torch had been turned upon the dreadful draggled figure of Mildred Blake.

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