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32: The Contents of the Coffin

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Author Topic: 32: The Contents of the Coffin  (Read 3 times)
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« on: January 20, 2023, 05:05:00 am »

THERE travelled down together to Market Milcaster late that afternoon, Spargo, Breton, the officials from the Home Office, entrusted with the order for the opening of the Chamberlayne grave, and a solicitor acting on behalf of the proprietor of the Watchman. It was late in the evening when they reached the little town, but Spargo, having looked in at the parlour of the “Yellow Dragon” and ascertained that Mr. Quarterpage had only just gone home, took Breton across the street to the old gentleman’s house. Mr. Quarterpage himself came to the door, and recognized Spargo immediately. Nothing would satisfy him but that the two should go in; his family, he said, had just retired, but he himself was going to take a final nightcap and a cigar, and they must share it.

“For a few minutes only then, Mr. Quarterpage,” said Spargo as they followed the old man into his dining-room. “We have to be up at daybreak. And—possibly—you, too, would like to be up just as early.”

Mr. Quarterpage looked an enquiry over the top of a decanter which he was handling.

“At daybreak?” he exclaimed.

“The fact is,” said Spargo, “that grave of Chamberlayne’s is going to be opened at daybreak. We have managed to get an order from the Home Secretary for the exhumation of Chamberlayne’s body: the officials in charge of it have come down in the same train with us; we’re all staying across there at the ‘Dragon.’ The officials have gone to make the proper arrangements with your authorities. It will be at daybreak, or as near it as can conveniently be managed. And I suppose, now that you know of it, you’ll be there?”

“God bless me!” exclaimed Mr. Quarterpage. “You’ve really done that! Well, well, so we shall know the truth at last, after all these years. You’re a very wonderful young man, Mr. Spargo, upon my word. And this other young gentleman?”

Spargo looked at Breton, who had already given him permission to speak. “Mr. Quarterpage,” he said, “this young gentleman is, without doubt, John Maitland’s son. He’s the young barrister, Mr. Ronald Breton, that I told you of, but there’s no doubt about his parentage. And I’m sure you’ll shake hands with him and wish him well.”

Mr. Quarterpage set down decanter and glass and hastened to give Breton his hand.

“My dear young sir!” he exclaimed. “That I will indeed! And as to wishing you well—ah, I never wished anything but well to your poor father. He was led away, sir, led away by Chamberlayne. God bless me, what a night of surprises! Why, Mr. Spargo, supposing that coffin is found empty—what then?”

“Then,” answered Spargo, “then I think we shall be able to put our hands on the man who is supposed to be in it.”

“You think my father was worked upon by this man Chamberlayne, sir?” observed Breton a few minutes later when they had all sat down round Mr. Quarterpage’s hospitable hearth. “You think he was unduly influenced by him?”

Mr. Quarterpage shook his head sadly.

“Chamberlayne, my dear young sir,” he answered. “Chamberlayne was a plausible and a clever fellow. Nobody knew anything about him until he came to this town, and yet before he had been here very long he had contrived to ingratiate himself with everybody—of course, to his own advantage. I firmly believe that he twisted your father round his little finger. As I told Mr. Spargo there when he was making his enquiries of me a short while back, it would never have been any surprise to me to hear—definitely, I mean, young gentlemen—that all this money that was in question went into Chamberlayne’s pockets. Dear me—dear me!—and you really believe that Chamberlayne is actually alive, Mr. Spargo?”

Spargo pulled out his watch. “We shall all know whether he was buried in that grave before another six hours are over, Mr. Quarterpage,” he said.

He might well have spoken of four hours instead of six, for it was then nearly midnight, and before three o’clock Spargo and Breton, with the other men who had accompanied them from London were out of the “Yellow Dragon” and on their way to the cemetery just outside the little town. Over the hills to the eastward the grey dawn was slowly breaking: the long stretch of marshland which lies between Market Milcaster and the sea was white with fog: on the cypresses and acacias of the cemetery hung veils and webs of gossamer: everything around them was quiet as the dead folk who lay beneath their feet. And the people actively concerned went quietly to work, and those who could do nothing but watch stood around in silence.

“In all my long life of over ninety years,” whispered old Quarterpage, who had met them at the cemetery gates, looking fresh and brisk in spite of his shortened rest, “I have never seen this done before. It seems a strange, strange thing to interfere with a dead man’s last resting-place—a dreadful thing.”

“If there is a dead man there,” said Spargo.

He himself was mainly curious about the details of this exhumation; he had no scruples, sentimental or otherwise, about the breaking in upon the dead. He watched all that was done. The men employed by the local authorities, instructed over-night, had fenced in the grave with canvas; the proceedings were accordingly conducted in strict privacy; a man was posted to keep away any very early passersby, who might be attracted by the unusual proceedings. At first there was nothing to do but wait, and Spargo occupied himself by reflecting that every spadeful of earth thrown out of that grave was bringing him nearer to the truth; he had an unconquerable intuition that the truth of at any rate one phase of the Marbury case was going to be revealed to them. If the coffin to which they were digging down contained a body, and that the body of the stockbroker, Chamberlayne, then a good deal of his, Spargo’s, latest theory, would be dissolved to nothingness. But if that coffin contained no body at all, then—”

“They’re down to it!” whispered Breton.

Presently they all went and looked down into the grave. The workmen had uncovered the coffin preparatory to lifting it to the surface; one of them was brushing the earth away from the name-plate. And in the now strong light they could all read the lettering on it.

Born 1852
Died 1891

Spargo turned away as the men began to lift the coffin out of the grave.

“We shall know now!” he whispered to Breton. “And yet—what is it we shall know if——”

“If what?” said Breton. “If—what?”

But Spargo shook his head. This was one of the great moments he had lately been working for, and the issues were tremendous.

“Now for it!” said the Watchman’s solicitor in an undertone. “Come, Mr. Spargo, now we shall see.”

They all gathered round the coffin, set on low trestles at the graveside, as the workmen silently went to work on the screws. The screws were rusted in their sockets; they grated as the men slowly worked them out. It seemed to Spargo that each man grew slower and slower in his movements; he felt that he himself was getting fidgety. Then he heard a voice of authority.

“Lift the lid off!”

A man at the head of the coffin, a man at the foot suddenly and swiftly raised the lid: the men gathered round craned their necks with a quick movement.


The coffin was packed to the brim with sawdust, tightly pressed down. The surface lay smooth, undisturbed, levelled as some hand had levelled it long years before. They were not in the presence of death, but of deceit.

Somebody laughed faintly. The sound of the laughter broke the spell. The chief official present looked round him with a smile.

“It is evident that there were good grounds for suspicion,” he remarked. “Here is no dead body, gentlemen. See if anything lies beneath the sawdust,” he added, turning to the workmen. “Turn it out!”

The workmen began to scoop out the sawdust with their hands; one of them, evidently desirous of making sure that no body was in the coffin, thrust down his fingers at various places along its length. He, too, laughed.

“The coffin’s weighted with lead!” he remarked. “See!”

And tearing the sawdust aside, he showed those around him that at three intervals bars of lead had been tightly wedged into the coffin where the head, the middle, and the feet of a corpse would have rested.

“Done it cleverly,” he remarked, looking round. “You see how these weights have been adjusted. When a body’s laid out in a coffin, you know, all the weight’s in the end where the head and trunk rest. Here you see the heaviest bar of lead is in the middle; the lightest at the feet. Clever!”

“Clear out all the sawdust,” said some one. “Let’s see if there’s anything else.”

There was something else. At the bottom of the coffin two bundles of papers, tied up with pink tape. The legal gentlemen present immediately manifested great interest in these. So did Spargo, who, pulling Breton along with him, forced his way to where the officials from the Home Office and the solicitor sent by the Watchman were hastily examining their discoveries.

The first bundle of papers opened evidently related to transactions at Market Milcaster: Spargo caught glimpses of names that were familiar to him, Mr. Quarterpage’s amongst them. He was not at all astonished to see these things. But he was something more than astonished when, on the second parcel being opened, a quantity of papers relating to Cloudhampton and the Hearth and Home Mutual Benefit Society were revealed. He gave a hasty glance at these and drew Breton aside.

“It strikes me we’ve found a good deal more than we ever bargained for!” he exclaimed. “Didn’t Aylmore say that the real culprit at Cloudhampton was another man—his clerk or something of that sort?”

“He did,” agreed Breton. “He insists on it.”

“Then this fellow Chamberlayne must have been the man,” said Spargo. “He came to Market Milcaster from the north. What’ll be done with those papers?” he asked, turning to the officials.

“We are going to seal them up at once, and take them to London,” replied the principal person in authority. “They will be quite safe, Mr. Spargo; have no fear. We don’t know what they may reveal.”

“You don’t, indeed!” said Spargo. “But I may as well tell you that I have a strong belief that they’ll reveal a good deal that nobody dreams of, so take the greatest care of them.”

Then, without waiting for further talk with any one, Spargo hurried Breton out of the cemetery. At the gate, he seized him by the arm.

“Now, then, Breton!” he commanded. “Out with it!”

“With what?”

“You promised to tell me something—a great deal, you said—if we found that coffin empty. It is empty. Come on—quick!”

“All right. I believe I know where Elphick and Cardlestone can be found. That’s all.”

“All! It’s enough. Where, then, in heaven’s name?”

“Elphick has a queer little place where he and Cardlestone sometimes go fishing—right away up in one of the wildest parts of the Yorkshire moors. I expect they’ve gone there. Nobody knows even their names there—they could go and lie quiet there for—ages.”

“Do you know the way to it?”

“I do—I’ve been there.”

Spargo motioned him to hurry.

“Come on, then,” he said. “We’re going there by the very first train out of this. I know the train, too—we’ve just time to snatch a mouthful of breakfast and to send a wire to the Watchman, and then we’ll be off. Yorkshire!—Gad, Breton, that’s over three hundred miles away!”

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