"He might punish the one first," said I, judicially, "and keep the other—the wicked man—for a worse punishment in the end. A great deal," I added, "might depend on what sort of crime they'd committed. If 'twas a murder, now—"
"Murder?" He caught me up sharply, and his eyes turned from watching me, to throw a quick glance back along the footpath, then fastened themselves on the horizon. "Who's a-talkin' of any such thing?"
"I was putting a case, sir—putting it as bad as possible. 'Murder will out,' they say; but with smaller crimes it may be different."
"Murder?" He sprang up and began to pace to and fro. "How came that in your head, eh?" He threw me a furtive sidelong look, and halted before me mopping his forehead. "I'll tell you what, though: Murder there'll be if you don't help me give that devil the slip."
"But, sir, he never offered to follow you."
"Because he reckoned I couldn' run—or wouldn', as I've never run from him yet. But with you in the secret I must give him leg-bail, no matter what it costs me. And, see here, Brooks: you're clever for your age, an' I want your advice. In the first place, I daren't go home; that's where he'll be watchin' for me sooner or later. Next, our plans ain't laid for startin' straight off—here as we be—an' givin' him the go-by. Third an' last, I daren't go carryin' the secret about with me; he might happen on me any moment, an' I'm not in trainin'. The drink's done for me, boy, whereas he've been farin' hard an' livin' clean." Captain Coffin, with his hands deep in his pockets, stared down at the transport at anchor below, and bent his brows. "I can't turn it over to you, neither," he mused. "That might ha' done well enough if he hadn' seen you in my company; but now we can't trust to it."
He took another dozen paces forth and back, and halted before me again.
"Brooks," he said, "how about your father?"
"The very man, sir," I answered; "that is, if you would trust him."
"Cap'n Branscome tells me he's one in a thousand. I thought first o' Branscome, but there's folks as know about my goin' to him for navigation lessons; an' if Glass got hold o' that, 'twould be a hot scent."
"Glass?" I echoed.
"That's his d—d name, lad—Aaron Glass; though he've passed under others, and plenty of 'em, in his time. Well, now, if I can slip out o' Falmouth unbeknowns to him, an' win to your father—on the Plymouth road, I've heard you say and a little this side of St. Germans—"
"You might walk over to Penryn and pick up the night coach."
Captain Coffin shook his head as he turned out his pockets.
"One shilling, lad, an' two ha'pennies. It won't carry me. An' I daren' go home to refit; an' I daren' send you."
"I could take a message to Captain Branscome," I suggested; "an' he might fetch you the money, if you tell him where to look for it."
"That's an idea," decided Captain Coffin, after a moment's thought. He unbuttoned his waistcoat, dived a hand within the breast of his shirt, and pulled forth a key looped through with a tarry string. This string he severed with his pocket-knife. "Run you down to the cap'n's lodgings," said he, handing me the key, "an' tell him to go straight an' unlock the cupboard in the cornder—the one wi' the toolips painted over the door. You know it? Well, say that on the second shelf he'll find a small bagful o' money—he needn't stay to count it—an' 'pon the same shelf, right back in the cornder, a roll o' papers. Tell him to keep the papers till he hears from me, but the bag he's to give to you, an' you're to bring it along quick— with the key. Mind, you're not to go with him on any account; an' if you should run against this Glass on your way, give him a wide berth—go straight home to Stimcoe's—do anything but lay him on to my trail by comin' back to tell me. Understand? There, now, hark to the town clock chimin' below there! Six o'clock it is—four bells. If you're not back agen by seven I shall know what's happened an' take steps accordin'. An' you'll know that I'm on my way to your father by another tack. 'What tack?' says you. 'Never you mind,' says I. If the worst comes to the worst, old Dan Coffin has a shot left in his locker."
I took the key and ran. The alley where Captain Branscome lodged lay a gunshot on this side of the Market Strand; and while I ran I kept— as the saying is—my eyes skinned for a sight of the enemy. The coast, however, was clear.
But at Captain Branscome's door a wholly unexpected disappointment awaited me. It was locked, and I had not hammered on its shining brass knocker before a neighbouring housewife put forth her head from a window in the gathering dusk, and informed me that the captain was not at home. He had gone out early in the afternoon, and left his doorkey with her, saying that he was off on a visit, and would not return before to-morrow afternoon at earliest. For a moment I was tempted to disobey Captain Danny's injunctions, and fetch the money myself, or at least make a bold attempt for it; but, recollecting how earnestly he had charged me, and how cheerfully at the last he had assured me that he had still a shot in his locker, I turned and mounted the hill again, albeit dejectedly.
The moon was rising as I climbed over the stile into the footpath, and, recognizing my footstep, the old man came forward to meet me, out of the shadow on the western side of the windmill, to which he had shifted his watch.
My ill-success, depressing enough to me, he took very cheerfully.
"I was afraid," said he, "you might be foolin' off for the money on your own account. Gone on a visit, has he? Well, you can hand him the key to-morrow, with my message. An' now I'll tell you my next notion. The St. Mawes packet"—this was the facetious name given to a small cutter which plied in those days between Falmouth and the small village of St. Mawes across the harbour—"the St. Mawes packet is due to start at seven-thirty. I won't risk boardin' her at Market Strand, but pick up a boat at Arwennack, an' row out to hail her as she's crossin'. She'll pick me up easy, wi' this wind; but if she don't, I'll get the waterman to pull me right across. Bogue, the landlord of The Lugger over there, knows me well enough to lend me ten shillin', an' wi' that I can follow the road through Tregony to St. Austell, an' hire a lift maybe."
I could not but applaud the plan. The route he proposed cut off a corner, led straight to Minden Cottage, and was at the same time the one on which he was least likely to be tracked. We descended the hill together, keeping to the dark side of the road. At the foot of the hill we parted, with the understanding that I was to run straight home to Stimcoe's, and explain my absence at locking-up—or, as Mr. Stimcoe preferred to term it, "names-calling"—as best I might.
Thereupon I did an incredibly foolish thing, which, as it proved, defeated all our plans and gave rise to unnumbered woes. I was already late for names-calling; but for this I cared little. Stimcoe had not the courage to flog me; the day had been a holiday, and of a sort to excuse indiscipline; and, anyway, one might as well suffer for a sheep as for a lamb. The St. Mawes packet would be lying alongside the Market Strand. The moon was up—a round, full moon—and directly over St. Mawes, so that her rays fell, as near as might be, in the line of the cutter's course, which, with a steady breeze down the harbour, would be a straight one. From the edge of Market Strand I might be able to spy Captain Coffin's boat as he boarded. Let me, without extenuating, be brief over my act of folly. Instead of making at once for Stimcoe's, I bent my steps towards Market Strand. The St. Mawes packet lay there, and I stood on the edge of the quay, watching her preparations for casting off—the skipper clearing the gangway and politely helping aboard, between the warning notes of his whistle, belated marketers who came running with their bundles.
While I stood there, a man sauntered out and stood for a moment on the threshold of the Plume of Feathers. It was the man Aaron Glass, and, recognizing him, I (that had been standing directly under the light of the quay-lamp) drew back from the edge into the darkness. I had done better, perhaps, to stand where I was. How long he had been observing me—if, indeed, he had observed me—I could not tell. But, as I drew back, he advanced and strolled nonchalantly past me, at five yards distance, down to the quay-steps.
"All aboard for St. Mawes!" called the skipper, drawing in his plank.
"All but one, captain!" answered Glass, and, disdaining it, without removing his hands from his pockets, put a foot upon the bulwark and sprang lightly on to her deck.
CHAOS IN THE CAPTAIN'S LODGINGS.
I leave you to guess what were my feelings as foot by foot the packet's quarter fell away wider of the quay. If, as the skipper thrust off, I had found presence of mind to jump for her, who knows what mischief might have been prevented? I could at least—whatever the consequences—have called a warning to Captain Coffin to give his enemy a wide-berth. But I was unnerved; the impulse came too late; and as the foresail filled and she picked up steerage way, I stood helpless under the lamp at the quay-head—stood and stared after her, alone with the sense of my incredible folly.
Somewhere out yonder Captain Coffin was waiting in his shore-boat. I listened, minute after minute, on the chance of hearing his hail. A heavy bank of cloud had overcast the moon, and the packet melted from sight in a blur of darkness. Worst of all—worse even than the sting of self-reproach—was the prospect of returning to Stimcoe's and wearing through the night, while out there in the darkness the two men would meet, and all that followed their meeting must happen unseen by me.
This ordeal appeared so dreadful to me in prospect that I began to cast about among all manner of impracticable plans for escaping it. Of these the most promising—although I had no money—was to give the Stimcoes leg-bail and run home; the most alluring, too, since it offered to deaden the torment of uncertainty by keeping me employed, mind and body. I must follow the coach-road. In imagination I measured back the distance. If George Goodfellow walked to Plymouth and back once a week, why might not I succeed in walking to Minden Cottage? Home was home. I should get counsel and comfort there; counsel from my father and comfort most assuredly from Plinny. I needed both, and in Falmouth just now there was none of either. Even Captain Branscome, who might have helped me—
At this point a sudden thought fetched me up with a jerk. The enemy, by pursuing after Captain Danny, had at least left me a clear coast. I was safe for a while against his spying, and consequently the embargo was off. I had no need to wait for morning. I could go myself to the old man's lodgings, unlock the corner cupboard, and bring away the roll of papers.
I dived my hand into my breech-pocket for the forgotten key. It was small, and of a curious, intricate pattern. Almost before my fingers closed upon it my mind was made up. Stimcoe's—that is, if I decided to return to Stimcoe's—might wait. I might yet decide to break ship—as Captain Danny would have put it—and make a push for home; but that decision, too, must wait. Meanwhile, here was an urgent errand, and a clear coast for it; here was occupation and inexpressible relief. It's an ill wind that blows nobody some good.
I set off at a run. On my way I met and passed half a dozen gangs of hilarious ex-prisoners and equally hilarious townsmen escorting them to the waterside, where the coxswains of the transport's boats were by this time blowing impatient calls on their whistles. But the upper end of the street was well-nigh deserted. A dingy oil lantern overhung the pavement a few yards from the ope, and above the ope the barber's parrot hung silent, with a shawl flung over its cage. I dived into the dark passage, and, stumbling my way to Captain Danny's door, found that it gave easily to my hand.
For a moment I paused on the threshold, striving to remember where he kept his tinder-box and matches. But the room was small. I knew the geography of it, and could easily—I told myself—grope my way to the corner, find the cupboard, and, feeling for the keyhole, insert the key. I was about to essay this when the thought occurred to me that, as Captain Danny had left the door on the latch, so very likely with equal foresight he had placed his tinder-box handy—on the table, it might be. I put out my hand in the direction where, as I recollected, the table stood. It reached into empty darkness. I took another step and groped for the table with both hands. Still darkness, nothing but darkness! I took yet another step and struck my foot against a hard object on the floor; and, as I bent to examine this, something sharp and exceeding painful thrust itself into my groin—a table-leg, upturned.
Recovering myself, I passed a hand over it. Yes, undoubtedly it was a table-leg and the table lay topsy-turvy. But how came it so? Who had upset it, and why? I took another step, sideways, and my boot struck against something light, and, by its sound, hollow and metallic. Stooping very cautiously—for by this time I had taken alarm and was holding my breath—I passed a hand lightly over the floor. My fingers encountered the object I had kicked aside. It was a tinder-box. I clutched it softly, and as softly drew myself upright again. Could I dare to strike a light? The overturned table: What could be the meaning of it? It could not have been overturned by Captain Coffin? By whom then? Some one must have visited the lodgings in his absence.
Some one, for aught I knew, was in the room at this moment!— Some one, back there against the wall, waiting only for me to strike a light! I declare that at the thought I came near to screaming aloud, casting the tinder-box from me and rushing out blindly into the court.
I dare say that I stood for a couple of minutes, motionless, listening not with my ears only but with every hair of my head. Nevertheless, my wits must have been working somehow; for my first action, when I plucked up nerve enough for it, was an entirely sensible one. I set the tinder-box on the floor between my heels, felt for the table, and righted it; then, picking up the box again, set it on the table and twisted off the lid. I found flint and steel at once, dipped my fingers into the box to make sure of the tinder and the brimstone matches, and so, after another pause to listen, essayed to strike out the spark.
This, for a pair of trembling hands, proved no easy business, and at first promised to be a hopeless one. But the worst moment arrived when, the spark struck, I stooped to blow it upon the tinder, the glow of which must light up my own face while it revealed to me nothing of the surrounding darkness. Still, it had to be done; and, keeping a tight hold on what little remained of my courage, I thrust in the match and ignited it.
While the brimstone caught fire and bubbled I drew myself erect to face the worst. But for what met my eyes as the flame caught hold of the stick, even the overturned table had not prepared me.
The furniture of the room lay pell-mell, as though a cyclone had swept through it. The very pictures hung askew. Of the drawers in the dresser some had been pulled out bodily, others stood half open, and all had been ransacked; while the fragments of china strewn along the shelves or scattered across the floor could only be accounted for by some blind ferocity of destruction—a madman, for instance, let loose upon it, and striking at random with a stick. As the match burned low in my fingers I looked around hastily for a candle, scanning the dresser, the mantel-shelf, the hugger-mugger of linen, crockery, wall-ornaments, lying in a trail along the floor. But no candle could I discover; so I lit a second match from the first and turned towards the sacred cupboard in the corner.
The cupboard was gone!
I held the match aloft, and stared at the angle of the wall; stared stupidly, at first unable to believe. Yes, the cupboard was gone! Nothing remained but the mahogany bracket which had supported it. I gazed around, the match burning lower and lower in my hand till it scorched my fingers. The pain of it awakened me, and, dropping the charred end, I stumbled out into the passage, almost falling on the way as my feet entangled themselves in Captain Coffin's best table-cloth.
A moment later I was rapping at Mr. George Goodfellow's door. I knew that he sometimes sat up late to practice his violin-playing; and in my confusion of terror I heeded neither that the house was silent nor that the window over his doorway showed a blank and unlit face to the night. I knocked and knocked again, pausing to call his name urgently, at first in hoarse whispers, by-and-by desperately, lifting my voice as loudly as I dared.
At length a voice answered; but it came from the end of the passage next, the street, and it was not Mr. Goodfellow's.
"D—n my giblets!" it said, in a kind of muffled scream. "Drunk again! Oh, you nasty image!"
It was the barber's accursed parrot. I could hear it tearing with its beak at the bars of its cage, as if struggling to pull off the cloth which covered it.
A window creaked on its hinges, some way up the court.
"Hallo! Who's there?" demanded a gruff voice.
I took to my heels, and made a dash up the passage for the street. The cage, as I passed under it, swayed violently with the parrot's struggles for free speech.
"Drunk again!" it yelled. "Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me—here's a pretty time o' night to disturb a lady!"
No longer had I any thought of braving the night and the perils of the road, but pressed my elbows tight against my ribs and raced straight for Stimcoe's.
By great good fortune, Mr. Stimcoe had been drinking the health of the returned prisoners until his own was temporarily affected. In fact, as I reached Delamere Terrace, panting and excogitating the likeliest excuse to offer Mrs. Stimcoe, the door of No. 7 opened, and the lady herself emerged upon the night, with a shawl swathed carelessly over her masculine neck and shoulders.
I drew up and ducked aside to avoid recognition, but she halted under the lamp and called to me, in no very severe voice—
"You are late, and I have been needing you. Mr. Stimcoe is suffering from an attack."
"Indeed, ma'am?" said I. "Shall I run for Dr. Spargo?"
She stood for a moment considering. "No," she decided; "I had better fetch Dr. Spargo myself. Being more familiar with the symptoms, I can describe them to him."
More familiar with the symptoms, poor woman, she undoubtedly was, though I was familiar enough; and so, for the matter of that, was the doctor, whose ledger must have registered at least a dozen similar "attacks." But I understood at once her true reason for not entrusting me with the errand. It would require all her courage, all her magnificent impudence, to browbeat Dr. Spargo into coming, for I doubt if the Stimcoes had ever paid him a stiver.
"But you can be very useful," she went on, in a tone unusually gentle. "You will find Mr. Stimcoe in his bedroom—at least, I hope so, for he suffers from a hallucination that some person or persons unknown have incarcerated him in a French war-prison, such being the effect of to-day's—er—proceedings upon his highly strung nature. The illusion being granted, one can hardly be surprised at his resenting it."
I nodded, and promised to do my best.
"You are a very good boy, Harry," said Mrs. Stimcoe—a verdict so different from that which I had arrived expecting, or with any right to expect, that I stood for some twenty seconds gaping after her as she pulled her shawl closer and went on her heroic way.
I found Mr. Stimcoe in deshabille, on the first-floor landing, under the derisive surveillance of Masters Doggy Bates, Bob Pilkington, and Scotty Maclean, whose graceless mirth echoed down to me from the stair-rail immediately overhead. Ignoring my preceptor's invitation to bide a wee and take a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne, I ran up and knocked their heads together, kicked them into the dormitory, turned the key on their reproaches, and—these preliminaries over—descended to grapple with the situation.
Mr. Stimcoe, in night garments, was conducting a dialogue in which he figured alternately as the tyrant and the victim of oppression. In the character of Napoleon Bonaparte he had filled a footbath with cold water, and was commanding the Rev. Philip Stimcoe to strip—as he put it—to the teeth, and immerse himself forthwith. As the Rev. Philip Stimcoe, patriot and martyr, he was obstinately, and with even more passion, refusing to do anything of the kind, and for the equally cogent reasons that he was a Protestant of the Protestants and that the water had cockroaches in it.
"Of course," said Mr. Stimcoe to me, "if you present yourself as Alexander of Russia, there is no more to be said, always provided"— and here he removed his nightcap and made me a profound bow—"that your credentials are satisfactory."
Apparently they were. At any rate, I prevailed on him to return to his room, when he took my arm, and, seating himself on the bedside, recited to me the paradigms of the more anomalous Greek verbs with great volubility for twenty minutes on end—that is to say, until Mrs. Stimcoe returned with the doctor safely tucked under her wing.
At sight of me seated in charge of the patient, Dr. Spargo—a mild little man—lifted his eyebrows.
"Surely, madam—" he began in a scandalized tone.
"This is Harry Brooks." Mrs. Stimcoe introduced me loftily. "If you wish him to retire, be kind enough to say so, and have done with it. Our boarders, I may say, have the run of the house—it is part of Mr. Stimcoe's system. But Harry has too much delicacy to remain where he feels himself de trop. Harry, you have my leave to withdraw."
I obeyed, aware that the doctor—who had pushed his spectacles high upon his forehead—was following my retreat with bewildered gaze. As I expected, no sooner had I regained the dormitory than my fellow-boarders—forgetting their sore heads, or, at any rate, forgiving—began to pester me with a hundred questions. I had to repeat the punishment on Doggy Bates before they suffered me to lie down in quiet.
But the interlude, in itself discomposing, had composed my nerves for the while. I expected no sleep; had, indeed, an hour ago, deemed it impossible I should sleep that night. Yet, in fact, my head was scarcely on the pillow before I slept, and slept like a top.
The town clock awoke me, striking four. To the far louder sound of Scotty Maclean's snoring, in the bed next to mine, I was case-hardened. I lay for a second or two counting the strokes, then sprang out of bed, and, running to the window, drew wide the curtain. The world was awake, the sun already clear above the hills over St. Just pool, and all the harbour twinkling with its rays. My eyes searched the stretch of water between me and St. Mawes, as though for flotsam—anything to give me news, or a hint of news. For many minutes I stood staring—needless to say, in vain—and so, the morning being chilly, crept back to bed with the shivers on me.
Two hours later, in the midst of my dressing, I looked out of the window again, and I saw the St. Mawes packet reaching across towards Falmouth merrily, quite as if nothing had happened. Yet something— I told myself—must have happened.
The Copenhagen Academy enjoyed a holiday that day, for Captain Branscome failed to present himself, and Mr. Stimcoe lay under the influence of sedatives. At eleven in the morning he awoke, and began to discuss the character of Talleyrand at the pitch of his voice. Its echoes reached me where I sat disconsolate in the deserted schoolroom, and I went upstairs to the bedroom door to offer my services. Doggy Bates, Pilkington, and Scotty Maclean had hied them immediately after breakfast to the harbour, to beg, borrow, or steal a boat and fish for mackerel; and Mrs. Stimcoe, worn out with watching, set down my faithful presence to motives of which I was shamefully innocent. In point of fact, I had lurked at home because I could not bear company. I preferred the deserted schoolroom, though Heaven knows what I would not have given for the dull distraction of work—an hour of Rule of Three with Captain Branscome, or Caesar's Commentaries with Mr. Stimcoe. But Mr. Stimcoe lay upstairs chattering, and Captain Branscome appeared to be taking a protracted holiday. It hardly occurred to me to wonder why.
It was borne in upon me later that during this interval of anarchy in the Stimcoe establishment—it lasted two days, and may have lasted longer for aught I know—I wasted little wonder on the continued absence of Captain Branscome. I was indeed kept anxious by my own fears, which did not decrease as the hours dragged by. From the window of Mr. Stimcoe's sickroom I watched the St. Mawes packet plying to and fro. I had a mind to steal down to the Market Strand and interrogate her skipper. I had a mind—and laid more than one plan for it—to follow up my first impulse of bolting for home, to discover if Captain Coffin had arrived there. But Mrs. Stimcoe, misinterpreting my eagerness to be employed, had by this time enlisted me into full service in the sick-room. After the first hint of surprised gratitude, she betrayed no feeling at all, but bound me severely to my task. We took the watching turn and turn about, in spells of three hours' duration. I was held committed, and could not desert without a brand on my conscience. The disgusting feature of this is that I was almost glad of it, at the same time longing to run, and feeling that this, in a way, exonerated me.
At about seven o'clock on the evening of the second day, while I sat by Mr. Stimcoe's bedside, there came a knock at the front door, and, looking out of the window—for Mrs. Stimcoe had gone to bully another sedative out of the doctor, and there was no one in the house to admit a visitor—I saw Captain Branscome below me on the doorstep.
"Hallo!" said I, as cheerfully as I might, for Mr. Stimcoe was awake and listening.
"Is—is that Harry Brooks?" asked Captain Branscome, stepping back and feeling for his gold-rimmed glasses. But by some chance he was not wearing them. After fumbling for a moment, he gazed up towards the window, blinking. Folk who habitually wear glasses look unnatural without them. Captain Branscome's face looked unnatural somehow. It was pale, and for the moment it seemed to me to be almost a face of fright; but a moment later I set down its pallor to weariness.
"Mrs. Stimcoe has gone off to the doctor," said I, "and Mr. Stimcoe is sick, and I am up here nursing him. There is no one to open, but you can give me a message."
"I just came up to make sure you were all right."
"If you mean Stim—Mr. Stimcoe, he's better, though the doctor says he won't be able to leave his bed for days. How did you come to hear about it?"
"I've heard nothing about Mr. Stimcoe," answered Captain Branscome, after a hesitating pause. "I've been away—on a holiday. Nothing wrong with you at all?" he asked.
I could not understand Captain Branscome. Why on earth should he be troubling himself about my state of health?
"Nothing happened to upset you?" he asked.
I looked down at him sharply. As a matter of fact, and as the reader knows, a great deal had happened to upset me, but that any hint of it should have reached Captain Branscome was in the highest degree unlikely, and in any case I could not discuss it with him from an upstairs window and in my patient's hearing. So I contented myself with asking him where he had spent his holiday.
The question appeared to confuse him. He averted his eyes and, gazing out over the harbour, muttered—or seemed to mutter, for I could not catch the answer distinctly—that he had been visiting some friends; and so for a moment or two we waited at a deadlock. Indeed, there is no knowing how long it might have lasted—for Captain Branscome made no sign of turning again and facing me—but, happening just then to glance along the terrace, I caught sight of Mrs. Stimcoe returning with long, masculine strides.
She held an open letter in her hand, and was perusing it as she came.
"It's for you," she announced, coming to a standstill under the window and speaking up to me after a curt nod towards Captain Branscome—"from Miss Plinlimmon; and you'd best come down and hear what it says, for it's serious."
I should here explain that Mr. and Mrs. Stimcoe made a practice of reading all letters received or despatched by us. It was a part of the system.
"I picked it up at the post-office on my way," she explained, as I presented myself at the front door and put out a hand for the letter. "Look here, Harry: I know you to be a brave boy. You must pull yourself together, and be as brave as ever you can. Your father—"
"What about my father?" I asked, taking the letter and staring into her face. "Has anything happened? is he—is he dead?"
Mrs. Stimcoe lifted her hand and lowered it again, at the same moment bowing her head with a meaning I could not mistake. I gazed dizzily at Captain Branscome, and the look on his face told me—I cannot tell you how—that he knew what the letter had to tell, and had been expecting it. The handwriting was indeed Miss Plinlimmon's, although it ran across the paper in an agitated scrawl most unlike her usual neat Italian penmanship.
"My dearest Harry,
"You must come home to me at once, and by the first coach. I cannot tell you what has happened save this—that you must not look to see your father alive. We dwell in the midst of alarms which A. Selkirk preferred to the solitude of Juan Fernandez; but in this I differ from him totally, and so will you when you hear what we have gone through. Come at once, Harry, with the bravest heart you can summon, Such is the earnest prayer of:"
"Your sincere friend in affliction," "Amelia Plinlimmon."
"P.S.—Pray ask Mrs. Stimcoe to be kind enough to advance the fare if your pocket-money will not suffice."
"And I doubt if there's two shillings in the house!" commented Mrs. Stimcoe, candid for once, "and God knows what I can pawn!"
Captain Branscome plunged his hand into his pocket and drew out a guinea. Captain Branscome—who, to the knowledge of both of us, never had a shilling in his pocket—stood there nervously proffering me a guinea!
THE CRIME IN THE SUMMER-HOUSE.
Mrs. Stimcoe, having begged Captain Branscome to take watch for a while over the invalid, and having helped me to pack a few clothes in a handbag, herself accompanied me to the coach-office, where we found the Royal Mail on the point of starting. The outside passengers, four in number, had already taken their seats—two on the box beside the coachman, and two on the seat immediately behind; and by the light of the lamp overhanging the entry I perceived that their heads were together in close conversation, in which the coachman himself from time to time took a share, slewing round to listen or interject a word and anon breaking off to direct the stowage of a parcel or call an order to the stable-boys. Mrs. Stimcoe had stepped into the office to book my place, and while I waited for her, watching the preparations for departure, my curiosity led me forward to take a look at the horses. There, under the lamp, the coachman caught sight of me.
"Whe-ew!" I heard him whistle. "Here's the boy himself! Going along wi' us, sonny?" he asked, looking down on me and speaking down in a voice which seemed to me unnaturally gentle—for I remembered him as a gruff fellow and irascible. The outside passengers at once broke off their talk to lean over and take stock of me; and this again struck me as queer.
"Jim!" called the coachman (Jim was the guard). "Jim!"
"Ay, ay!" answered Jim, from the back of the roof, where he was arranging the mail-bags.
"Here's an outside extry." He lowered his voice, so that I caught only these words: "The youngster . . . Minden Cottage . . . I reckoned they'd be sending—"
Jim the guard bent over for a look at me, and scrambled down by the steps of his dickey, just as Mrs. Stimcoe emerged from the office. She was pale and agitated, and stood for a moment gazing about her distractedly, when Jim blundered against her, whereat she put out a hand and spoke to him. I saw Jim fall back a step and touch his hat. He was listening, with a very serious face. I could not hear what she said.
"Cert'nly, ma'm'," he answered. "Cert'nly, under the circumstances, you may depend on me."
He mounted the coach again, and, climbing forward whispered in the back of the coachman's ear. The passengers bent their heads to listen. They nodded; the coachman nodded too, and stretched down a hand.
"Can you climb, sonny, or shall we fetch the steps for you? There, I reckoned you was more of a man than to need 'em!"
Mrs. Stimcoe detained me for a moment to fold me in a masculine hug. But her bosom might have been encased in an iron corselet for all the tenderness it conveyed. "God bless you, Harry Brooks, and try to be a man!" Her embrace relaxed, and with a dry-sounding sob she let me go as I caught the coachman's hand and was swung up to my seat; and with that we were off and up the cobble-paved street at a rattle.
I do not know the names of my fellow-passengers. Now and then one would bend forward and whisper to his neighbour, who answered with a grunt or a motion of his head; but for the most part, and for mile after mile, we all sat silent, listening only to the horses' gallop, the chime of the swingle-bars, the hum of the night wind in our ears. The motion and the strong breeze together lulled me little by little into a doze. My neighbour on the right wore around his shoulders a woollen shawl, against which after a while I found my cheek resting, and begged his pardon. He entreated me not to mention it, but to make myself comfortable; and thereupon I must have fallen fast asleep. I awoke as the coach came to a standstill. Were we pulling up to change teams? No; we were on the dark high-road, between hedges. Straight ahead of us blazed two carriage-lamps; and a man's voice was hailing. I recognized the voice at once. It belonged to a Mr. Jack Rogers, a rory-tory young squire and justice of the peace of our neighbourhood, and the lamps must be those of his famous light tilbury.
"Hallo!" he was shouting. "Royal Mail, ahoy!"
"Royal Mail it is!" shouted back the coachman and Jim the guard together.
"Got the boy Brooks aboard?"
"Ay, ay Mr. Rogers! D'ye want him?"
"No; you'll take him along quicker. My mare's fagged, and I drove along in case the letter missed fire." He came forward at a foot's pace, and pulled up under the light of our lamps. "Hallo! is that you, Harry Brooks?" He peered up at me out of the night.
"Yes, sir," I answered, my teeth chattering between apprehension and the chill of the night. I longed desperately to ask what had happened at home, but the words would not come.
"Right you are, my lad; and the first thing when you get home, tell Miss Plinlimmon from me to fill you up with vittles and a glass of hot brandy-and-water. Give her that message, with Jack Rogers's compliments, and tell her that I'm on the road making inquiries, and may get so far as Truro. By the way"—he turned to Jim the guard— "you haven't met anything that looked suspicious, eh?"
"Nothing on the road at all," answered Jim.
"Well, so-long! Mustn't delay his Majesty's mails or waste time of my own. Good night, Harry Brooks, and remember to give my message! Good night, gentlemen all!"
He flicked at his mare. Our coachman gathered up his reins, and away we went once more at a gallop towards the dawn. The dawn lay cold about Minden Cottage as we came in sight of it; and at first, noting that all the blinds were drawn, I thought the household must be asleep. Then I remembered, and shivered as I rose from my seat, cramped and stiff from the long journey, and so numb that Jim the guard had to lift me down to the porch. Miss Plinlimmon, red-eyed and tremulous, opened the door to me, embraced me, and led me to the little parlour.
"Is—is my father dead?" I asked, staring vacantly around the room, and upon the table where she had set out a breakfast. She bent over the urn for a moment, and then, coming to me, took my hand and drew me to the sofa.
"You must be brave, Harry."
"But what has happened? And how did it happen? Was—was it sudden? Please tell me, Plinny!"
She stroked my hand and shivered slightly, turning her face away towards the window.
"We found him in the summer-house, dear. He was lying face downward, across the step of the doorway, and at first we supposed he had fallen forward in a fit. Ann made the discovery, and came running to me in the kitchen, when she had only time to cry out the news before she was overtaken with hysterics. I left her to them," went on Miss Plinlimmon, simply, "and ran out to the summer-house, when by-and-by, having pulled herself together, she followed me. By this time it had fallen dusk—nay, it was almost dark, which accounts for one not seeing at once what dreadful thing had happened. Your poor father, Harry—as you know—used often to sit in the summer-house until quite a late hour, but he had never before dallied quite so late, and in the end I had sent Ann out to remind him that supper was waiting. Well, as you may suppose, he was heavy to lift; and we two women being alone in the house, I told Ann to run up to the vicarage or to Miss Belcher's, and get word sent for a doctor, and also to bring a couple of men, if possible, to carry him into the house. I had scarcely bidden her to do this when she cried out, screaming, that her hand was damp, and with blood. 'You silly woman!' said I, though trembling myself from head to foot. But when we fetched a candle, we saw blood running down the step, and your father—my poor Harry!— lying in a pool of it—a veritable pool of it. Ah, Harry, Harry!" exclaimed Miss Plinlimmon, relapsing into that literary manner which was second nature with her, "such a moment occurring in the pages of fiction, may stimulate a sympathetic thrill not entirely disagreeable to the reader, but in real life I wouldn't go through it again if you offered me a fortune."
"Plinny," I cried—"Plinny, what is this you are telling me about blood?"
"Your poor father, Harry—But be sure their sins will find them out! Mr. Rogers is setting the runners on track—he is most kind. Already he has had two hundred handbills printed. We are offering a hundred pounds reward—more if necessary—and the whole country is up—"
"Plinny dear"—I tried to steady my voice as I stood and faced her— "are you trying to tell me that—that my father has been murdered?"
She bowed her head and cast her apron over it, sobbing.
"Excuse me, Harry—but in such moments!—And they have found the cashbox. It had been battered open, presumably by a stone, and flung into the brook a hundred yards below Miss Belcher's lodge-gate."
"The cashbox?" My brain whirled.
"The key was in your father's pocket. He had fetched the box from his room, it appears, about two hours before, and carried it out to the summer-house. I cannot tell you with what purpose he carried it out there, but it was quite contrary to his routine."
She poured out a cup of tea, and passed it to me with shaking hands. She pressed me to eat, and all the time she kept talking, sometimes lucidly, sometimes quite incoherently; and I listened in a kind of dream. My father had been well-nigh a stranger to me, and I divined that I should never sorrow for his loss as those sorrow who have genuinely loved. But his death, and the manner of it, shocked me dreadfully, and from the shock my brain kept harking away to Captain Coffin and his pursuer. Could they have reached Minden Cottage? And, if so, had their visit any connection with this crime? Captain Danny had started for Minden Cottage. . . . Had he arrived? And, if so—
I heard Miss Plinlimmon asking: "Would you care to see him—that is, dear, if you feel strong enough? His expression is wonderfully tranquil."
She led me upstairs and opened the door for me. A sheet covered my father from feet to chin, and above it his head lay back on the pillow, his features, clear-cut and aquiline, keeping that massive repose which, though it might seem to be deeper now in the shade of the darkened room, had always cowed me while he lived. It seemed to me that my father's death, though I ought to feel it more keenly, made strangely little difference to him.
"You will need sleep," said Plinny, who had been waiting for me on the landing.
I told her that she might get my bed ready, but I would first take a turn in the garden. I tiptoed downstairs. The floor of the summer-house had been washed. The vane on its conical roof sparkled in the sunlight. I stood before it, attempting to picture the tragedy of which, here in the clear morning, it told nothing to help me. My thoughts were still running on Captain Coffin and the French prisoner. Plinny—for I had questioned her cautiously—plainly knew nothing of any such man. They might, however, have entered by the side-gate. I stepped back under the apple-tree by the flagstaff, measuring with my eye the distance between this side-gate and the summer-house. As I did so, my foot struck against something in the tall grass under the tree, and I stooped and picked it up—a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses!
THE BLOODSTAIN ON THE STILE.
My father, in erecting a flagstaff before his summer-house, had chosen to plant it on a granite millstone, or rather, had sunk its base through the stone's central hole, which Miss Plinlimmon regularly filled with salt to keep the wood from rotting. Upon this mossed and weather-worn bench I sat myself down to examine my find.
Yet it needed no examination to tell me that the eyeglasses were Captain Branscome's. I recognized the delicate cable pattern of their gold rims, glinting in the sunlight. I recognized the ring and the frayed scrap of black ribbon attached to it. I remembered the guinea with which Captain Branscome had paid my fare on the coach. I remembered Miss Plinlimmon's account of the stolen cashbox.
The more my suspicions grew, the more they were incredible. That Captain Branscome, of all men in the world, should be guilty of such a crime! And yet, with this damning evidence in my hand, I could not but recall a dozen trifles—mere straws, to be sure—all pointing towards him. He had been here in my father's garden: that I might take as proven. With what object? And if that object were an innocent one, why had he not told me of his intention to visit Minden Cottage? I remembered how straitly he had cross-examined me, a while ago, on the topography of the cottage, on my father's household and his habits. Again, if his visit had been an innocent one, why, last evening, had he said nothing of it? Why, when I questioned him about his holiday, had he answered me so confusedly? Yet again, I recalled his demeanour when Mrs. Stimcoe handed me the letter, and the impression it gave me—so puzzling at the moment—that he had foreknowledge of the news. If this incredible thing were true—if Captain Branscome were the criminal—the puzzle ceased to be a puzzle; the guinea and the broken cashbox were only too fatally accounted for.
Nevertheless, and in spite of the guinea, in spite even of the eyeglass there in my hand, I could not bring myself to believe. What? Captain Branscome, the simple-minded, the heroic? Captain Branscome, of the threadbare coat and the sword of honour? Poor he was, no doubt—bitterly poor—poor almost to starvation at times. To what might not a man be driven by poverty in this degree? And here was evidence for judge and jury.
I glanced around me, and, folding the eyeglasses together in a fumbling haste, slipped them into my breeches-pocket. From my seat beneath the flagstaff I looked straight into the doorway of the summer-house; but a creeper obscured its rustic window, dimming the light within; and a terror seized me that some one was concealed there, watching me—a terror not unlike that which had held me in Captain Coffin's lodgings.
While I stood there, summoning up courage to invade the summer-house and make sure, my brain harked back to Captain Coffin and the man Aaron Glass. Captain Coffin had taken leave of me in a fever to reach Minden Cottage. That was close on sixty hours ago—three nights and two days. Why, in that ample time, had he not arrived, and what had become of him? Plinny had seen no such man.
I fetched a tight grip on my courage, walked across to the doorway, and peered into the summer-house. It was empty, and I stepped inside—superstitiously avoiding, as I did so, to tread on the spot where my father's body had lain.
Ann the cook—so Plinny told me—had found his chair overset behind him, but no other sign of a struggle. He had been stabbed in front, high on the left breast and a little below the collar-bone, and must have toppled forward at once across the step, and died where he fell. The chair had been righted and set in place, perhaps by Ann when she washed down the step. A well-defined line across the floor showed where the cleaning had begun, and behind it the scanty furniture of the place had not been disturbed. At the back, in one corner stood an old drum, with dust and droppings of leaf-mould in the wrinkles of its sagged parchment, and dust upon the drumsticks thrust within its frayed strapping; in the corner opposite an old military chest which held the bunting for the flagstaff—a Union flag, a couple of ensigns, and half a dozen odd square-signals and pennants. I stooped over this, and as I did so I observed that there were finger-marks on the dust at the edge of the lid; but, lifting it, found the flags inside neatly rolled and stowed in order. On the table lay my father's Bible and his pocket Virgil, the latter open and laid face downwards. I picked it up, and the next moment came near to dropping it again with a shiver, for a dry smear of blood crossed the two pages.
Here, not to complicate mysteries, let me tell at once what Ann told me later—that she had found the book lying in the blood-dabbled grass before the step, when it must have fallen from my father's hand, and had replaced it upon the table. But for the moment, surmising another clue, I stared at the page—a page of the seventh "Aeneid"—and at the stain which, as if to underline them, started beneath the words—
"Hic domus, haec patria est. Genitor mihi talia namque (Nunc repeto) Anchises fatorum arcana reliquit."
I set down the book as I had found it, stepped forth again into the sunshine. The scouring of the step had left a moist puddle below it, where the ground, no doubt, had been dry and hard on the evening of the murder. At the edge of this puddle the turf twinkled with clean dew—close, well-trimmed turf sloping gently to the stream which formed the real boundary of the garden; but Miss Belcher, the neighbouring land-owner, a person of great wealth and the most eccentric good-nature, had allowed my father to build a wall on the far side, for privacy, and had granted him an entrance through it to her park—a narrow wooden door to which a miniature bridge gave access across the stream.
There were thus three ways of approaching the summer-house; (1) by the path which wound through the garden from the house, (2) across the turf from the side-gate, which opened out of a lane, or woodcutters' road, running at right angles from the turnpike and alongside the garden fence towards the park; and (3) from the park itself, across the little bridge. From the bridge a straight line to the summer-house would lie behind the angle of sight of any one seated within; so that a visitor, stepping with caution, might present himself at the doorway without any warning.
You may say that, my father being blind, it need not have entered into my calculations whether his assailant had approached in full view of the doorway or from the rear. But the assailant—let us suppose for a moment—was some one ignorant of my father's blindness. This granted, as it was at least possible, he would be likeliest to steal upon the summer-house from the rear. I cannot say more than that, standing there by the doorway, I felt the approach from the streamside to be most dangerous, and therefore the likeliest.
In a few minutes, as I well knew, Plinny would be coming in search of me, to persuade me back to the house to breakfast and bed. I stepped down to the streamside, where the beehives stood in a row on the brink, paused for a moment to listen to the hum within them, and note that the bees were making ready to swarm, crossed the bridge, and tried the rusty hasp of the door. It yielded stiffly; but as I pulled the door inwards it brushed aside a mass of spider's web, white and matted, that could not be less than a month old. Also it brushed a clump of ivy overgrowing the lintel, and shook down about half an ounce of powdery dust into my hair and eyes. I scarcely troubled to look through. Clearly, the door had not been opened for many weeks—possibly not since my last holidays.
I recrossed the bridge and inspected the side-gate. This opened, as I have said, upon a lane never used but by the woodmen on Miss Belcher's estate, and by them very seldom. It entered the park by a stone bridge across the stream and by a ruinous gate, the gaps of which had been patched with furze faggots. The roadway itself was carpeted with last year's leaves from a coppice across the lane— leaves which the winter's rains had beaten into a black compost; and almost facing the side-gate was a stile whence a tangled footpath led into the coppice.
I had stepped out into the lane, and was staring over the stile into the green gloom of the coppice, when I heard Plinny's voice calling to me from the house, and I had half turned to hail in answer when my eyes fell on the upper bar of the stile.
Across the edge of it ran a dark brown smear—a smear which I recognized for dried blood.
"Harry! Harry dear!"
"Plinny!" I raced back through the garden, and almost fell into her arms as she came along the path between the currant-bushes in search of me. "Plinny—oh, Plinny!" I gasped.
"My dear child, what has happened?"
Before I could answer there came wafted to our ears from eastward a sound of distant shouting, and almost simultaneously, from the high-road near at hand, the trit-trot of hoofs approaching at great speed from westward, and the "Who-oop!" of a man's voice, lusty on the morning air.
"That will be Mr. Jack Rogers," said Plinny. "He brings us news, for certain! Yes; he is reining up."
We ran through the house together, and reached the front door in time to witness a most extraordinary scene.
Mr. Jack Rogers's tilbury had run past the house and come to a halt a short gunshot beyond, where it stood driverless—for Mr. Jack Rogers had dismounted, and was gesticulating with both arms to stop a man racing down the road to meet him. A moment later, as this runner came on, a second hove in sight over the rise of the road behind him—a short figure, so stout and round that in the distance it resembled not so much a man as a ball rolling in pursuit.
"Hi! Stop, you there!" shouted Mr. Rogers; but the first runner might have been deaf, for all the attention he paid.
"Good Lord!" said I, catching my breath; "it's Mr. George Goodfellow!"
"In the King's name!" Mr. Rogers shouted, making a dash to intercept him. And a moment later the two had collided, and were rolling in the dust together.
I ran towards them, with Plinny—brave soul!—at my heels, and arrived to find Mr. Rogers, hatless and exceedingly dishevelled, kneeling with both hands around the neck of his prostrate antagonist, and holding his face down in the dust.
"You'd best stand up and come along quietly," Mr. Rogers adjured him.
"Gug-gug—how the devil c-can I stand up if you won't lul-lul-let me?" protested Mr. Goodfellow, reasonably enough.
"Very well, then." Mr. Rogers relaxed his grip. "Stand up! But you're my prisoner, so let's have no more nonsense!"
"I'd like to know what's taken ye to pitch into a man like this?" demanded Mr. Goodfellow in a tone of great umbrage, as he shook the dust out of his coat and hair. "A fellow I never seen before, not to my knowledge! Why—hallo!" said he, looking up and catching sight of me.
"Hallo!" said I.
"Hallo!" said Mr. Rogers, in his turn. "Do you two know each other?"
"Why, of course we do!" said Mr. Goodfellow.
"I don't know where 'of course' comes in." Mr. Rogers eyed him with stern suspicion. "Why were you running away from the constable?"
Mr. Goodfellow glanced towards the stout, round man, who by this time had drawn near, mopping, as he came, a face as red as the red waistcoat he wore.
"Him a constable? Why, I took him for a loonatic! They put the loonatics into them coloured weskits, don't they?"
"Nothing of the sort. You're thinking of the warders," Mr. Rogers answered.
"Oh? Then I made a mistake," said Mr. Goodfellow, cheerfully.
"Look here, my friend, if you're thinking to play this off as a joke you'll find it no joking matter. Madam"—he turned to Miss Plinlimmon—"is this the man who called at the cottage two days ago."
"Yes," answered Plinny; "and once before, as I remember."
"And on each occasion did you observe something strange in his manner?"
"Very strange indeed. He kept asking questions about the house and garden, and the position of the rooms and about poor Major Brooks, and what rent he paid, and if he was well-to-do. And he took out a measure from his pocket and began to calculate—"
"Quite so." Mr. Rogers turned next to the constable. "Hosken," he asked, "you have been making inquiries about this man?"
"I have, sir; all along the road, so far as Torpoint Ferry."
"And you learnt enough to justify you in arresting him?"
"Ample, y'r worship. There wasn't a public-house along the road but thought his behaviour highly peculiar. He's a well-known character, an' the questions he asks you would be surprised. He plies between Falmouth and Plymouth, sir, once a week regular. So, actin' on information that he might be expected along early this morning, I concealed myself in the hedge, sir, the best part of two miles back—"
"You didn't," interrupted Mr. Goodfellow. "I saw your red stomach between the bushes thirty yards before ever I came to it, and wondered what mischief you was up to. I'm wondering still."
"At any rate, you are detained, sir, upon suspicion," said Mr. Rogers sharply, "and will come with us to the cottage and submit to be searched."
"Brooks," asked Mr. Goodfellow feebly, "what's wrong with 'em? And what are you doing here?"
"Mr. Rogers," I broke in, "I know this man. His name is Goodfellow; he lives at Falmouth; and you are wrong, quite wrong, in suspecting him. But what is more, Mr. Rogers, you are wasting time. There's blood on the stile down the lane. Whoever broke into the garden must have escaped that way—by the path through the plantation—"
"Eh?" Mr. Rogers jumped at me and caught me by the arm. "Why the devil—you'll excuse me, Miss Plinlimmon—but why on earth, child, if you have news, couldn't you have told it at once? Blood on the stile, you say? What stile?"
"The stile down the lane, sir," I answered, pointing. "And I couldn't tell you before because you didn't give me time."
"Show us the way, quick! And you, Hosken, catch hold of the mare and lead her round to Miss Belcher's stables. Or, stay—she's dead beat. You can help me slip her out of the shafts and tether her by the gate yonder. That's right, man; but don't tie her up too tight. Give her room to bite a bit of grass, and she'll wait here quiet as a lamb."
"What about the prisoner, sir?" asked the stolid Hosken.
"D—n the prisoner!" answered Mr. Rogers, testily, in the act of unharnessing. "Slip the handcuffs on him. And you, Miss Plinlimmon, will return to the cottage, if you please."
"I'd like to come, too, if I may," put in Mr. Goodfellow.
"Eh?" Mr. Rogers, in the act of rolling up one of the traces, stared at him with frank admiration. "Well, you're a sportsman, anyhow. Catch hold of his arm, Hosken, and run him along with us. Yes, sir, though I say it as a justice of the peace, be d—d to you, but I like your spirit. And with the gallows staring you in the face, too!"
"Gallows? What gallows?" panted Mr. Goodfellow in my ear a few moments later, as we tore in a body down the lane. "Hush!" I panted in answer. "It's all a mistake."
"It ought to be." We drew up by the stile, where I pointed to the smear of blood, and Mr. Rogers, calling to Hosken to follow him, dashed into the coppice and down the path into the rank undergrowth. I, too, was lifting a leg to throw it over the bar, when Mr. Goodfellow plucked me by the arm. "Terribly hasty friends you keep in these parts, Brooks," he said plaintively. "What's it all about?"
"Why, murder!" said I. "Haven't you heard, man?"
"Not a syllable! Good Lord, you don't mean—" He passed a shaky hand over his forehead as a cry rang back to us through the coppice.
"Here, Hosken, this way! Oh, by the Almighty, be quick, man!"
I vaulted over the stile, Mr. Goodfellow close after me. For two hundred yards and more—three hundred, maybe—we blundered and crashed through the low-growing hazels, and came suddenly to a horrified stand.
A little to the left of the path, between it and the stream, Mr. Rogers and the constable knelt together over the body of a man half hidden in a tangle of brambles.
The corpse's feet pointed towards the path, and I recognized the shoes, as also the sea-cloth trousers, before Mr. Rogers—cursing in his hurry rather than at the pain of his lacerated hands—tore the brambles aside and revealed its face—the face of Captain Coffin, blue-cold in death and staring up from its pillow of rotted leaves.
I felt myself reeling. But it was Mr. Goodfellow who reeled against me, and would have fallen if Hosken the constable had not sprung upon one knee and caught him.
"If you ask my opinion," I heard Hosken saying as he raised himself and held Mr. Goodfellow upright, steadying him, "'tis a case o' guilty conscience, an' I never in my experience saw a clearer."
CLUES IN A TANGLE.
"Guilty or not," said Mr. Jack Rogers, sharply, "I'll take care he doesn't escape. Run you down to Miss Belcher's kennels, and fetch along a couple of men—any one you can pick up—to help. And don't make a noise as you go past the cottage; the women there are frightened enough already. Come to think of it, I heard some fellows at work as I drove by just now, thinning timber in the plantation under the kennels. Off with you, man, and don't stand gaping like a stuck pig!"
Thus adjured, Constable Hosken ran, leaving us three to watch the body.
"The man's pockets have been rifled, that's plain enough," Mr. Rogers muttered, as he bent over it again, and with that I suppose I must have made some kind of exclamation, for he looked up at me, still with a horrified frown.
"Hallo! You know him?"
"His name's Coffin. He came here from Falmouth."
For a moment Mr. Rogers did not appear to catch the words. His eyes travelled from my face to Mr. Goodfellow's.
"Knew him intimate. Know him? Why, I live but two doors away from him in the same court."
"Look here," said Mr. Rogers, slowly, after a pause, "this is a black business, and a curst mysterious one, and I wasn't born with the gift of seeing daylight through a brick wall. But speaking as a magistrate, Mr. What's-your-name, I ought to warn you against saying what may be used for evidence. As for you, lad, you'd best tell as much as you know. What d'ye say his name was?"
"H'm, he's earned it. The back of his head's smashed all to pieces. Lived in Falmouth, you say? And you knew him there?"
"Then what was he doing in these parts?"
"He started to call on my father, sir."
"Eh? You knew of his coming?"
"Yes, sir. We planned it together."
Mr. Rogers, still on his knees, leaned back and regarded me fixedly.
"You planned it together?" he repeated slowly. "Well, go on. He started to call on your father? Why?"
"He wanted to show my father something," said I, with a glance at Mr. Goodfellow. "Are you sure, sir, there's nothing in his pockets?"
"Not a penny-piece. I'll search 'em again if you insist, though I don't like the job."
"He carried it in his breast-pocket, sir; there, on the left side."
"Then your question's easy to answer." Mr. Rogers turned back the lapel and pointed. The pocket hung inside out. "But what was it he carried?"
I hesitated, with another glance towards Mr. Goodfellow, who at the same moment uttered a cry and sprang for a thicket of brambles directly behind Mr. Rogers's back. Mr. Rogers leapt up, with an oath.
"No, you don't!" he threatened, preparing to spring in pursuit.
But Mr. Goodfellow, not heeding him, plunged a hand among the brambles and drew forth a walking-stick of ebony, carved in rings, ending with a ferrule in an iron spike—Captain Coffin's walking-stick.
"I glimpsed at it, there, lyin' like a snake," he began, and let fall the stick with another sudden, sharp cry. "Ur-rh! There's blood upon it!"
Mr. Rogers picked it up and examined it loathingly. Blood there was—blood mixed with grey hairs upon its heavy ebony knob, and blood again upon its wicked-looking spike.
"This settles all question of the weapon," he said. "The owner of this—"
We cried out, speaking together, that the stick belonged to the murdered man; and just then a voice hailed us, and Constable Hosken came panting up, with two of Miss Belcher's woodmen at his heels.
Mr. Rogers directed them to fetch a hurdle. Then came the question whither to carry the corpse, and after some discussion one of the woodmen suggested that Miss Belcher's cricket pavilion lay handy, a couple of hundred yards beyond the rise of the park, across the stream. "At this time of year the lady wouldn't object—"
Mr. Rogers shuddered.
"And the last time I saw the inside of it 'twas at Lydia's Cricket-Week Ball—and the place all flags and lanterns, and a good third of the men drunk! Well, carry him there if you must, but damme if I'll ever find stomach to dance there again!"
The men lifted their burden and carried it out into the lane, where the rest of us pulled away the furze-bushes stopping he gate into the park, and so followed the body up the green slope towards the rise, over which, as we climbed, the thatched roof of the pavilion slowly hove into sight.
"Hallo!" Mr. Rogers halted and stared at the bearers, who also had halted. "What the devil noise is that?"
The noise was that of a sudden blow or impact upon timber. After about thirty seconds it was repeated, and our senses told us that it came from within the pavilion.
"I reckon, sir," suggested one of the woodmen, "'tis Miss Belcher practising."
"Good Lord! Come with us, Harry—the rest stay where you are," Mr. Rogers commanded, and ran towards the pavilion; and as we started I heard a whizzing and cracking within, as of machinery, followed by a double crack of timber.
"Lydia! Lydia Belcher!"
"Hey! What's the matter now?" I heard Miss Belcher's voice demand, as he burst in through the doorway. "Take care, the catapult's loaded!" A whiz, and again a crack. "There now! Oh, well fielded, indeed! Well fiel—Eh? Caught you on the ankle, did it? Well, and you're lucky it didn't find your skull, blundering in upon a body in this fashion."
The first sight that met me as I reached the doorway was Mr. Jack Rogers holding one foot and hopping around with a face of agony. From him my astonished gaze travelled to Miss Lydia Belcher, whom I must pause to describe.
I have hinted before that Miss Belcher was an eccentric; but I certainly cannot have prepared the reader—as I was certainly unprepared myself—for Miss Belcher as we surprised her.
She wore top-boots, but this is a trifle, for she habitually wore top-boots. Upon them, and beneath the short skirt of a red flannel petticoat, she had indued a pair of cricket-guards. Above the red flannel petticoat came, frank and unashamed, an ample pair of stays; above them, the front of a yet ampler chemise and a yellow bandanna kerchief tied in a sailor's knot; above these, a middle-aged face full of character and not without a touch of moustache on the upper lip; an aquiline nose, grey eyes that apologized to nobody, a broad brow to balance a broad, square jaw, and, on the top of all, a square-topped beaver hat. So stood Miss Belcher, with a cricket-bat under her arm; an Englishwoman, owner of one of England's "stately homes"; a lady amenable to few laws save of her own making, and to no man save—remotely—the King, whose health she drank sometimes in port and sometimes in gin-and-water.
"Good morning, Jack! Sorry to cut you over with that off-drive; but you shouldn't have come in without knocking. Eh? Is that Harry Brooks?" Her face grew grave for a moment before she turned upon Mr. Rogers that smile which, if usually latent and at the best not entirely feminine, was her least dubitable charm. "Now, upon my word. Jack, you have more thoughtfulness than ever I gave you credit for."
Mr. Rogers stared at her.
"An hour's knockabout with me will do the child more good than moping in the house, and I ought to have thought of it myself. Come along, Harry Brooks, and play me a match at single wicket. Help me push away the catapult there into the corner. Will you take first innings, or shall we toss?"
The catapult indicated by Miss Belcher was a formidable-looking engine with an iron arm or rod terminating in a spoon-shaped socket, and worked by a contrivance of crank and chain. You placed your cricket-ball in the socket, and then, having wound up the crank and drawn a pin which released the machinery, had just time to run back and defend your wicket as the iron rod revolved and discharged the ball with a jerk. The rod itself worked on a slide, and could be shortened or extended to vary the trajectory, and the exercise it entailed in one way and another had given Miss Belcher's cheeks a fine healthy glow.
"Whew!" she exclaimed, tucking the bat under her arm and wiping her forehead with a loose end of her yellow bandana. "I'm feelin' like the lady in 'The Vicar of Wakefield'; by which I don't mean the one that stooped to folly, but the one that was all of a muck of sweat."
"My dear Lydia," gasped Mr. Rogers, "we haven't come to play cricket! Put down your bat and listen to me. There's the devil to pay in this parish of yours. To begin with, we've found another body—"
"In the plantation under the slope here—close beside the path, and about two gunshots off the lane."
"What have you done with it?"
"Two of your fellows are fetching it along. I was going to ask you as a favour to let it lie here for the time while we follow up the search."
"Of course you may. But who is it?"
"An old man in sea clothes. Harry knows him; says he hails from Falmouth, and that his name is Coffin. And we've arrested a young fellow on suspicion, though I begin to think he hasn't much to do with it; but, as it happens, he comes from Falmouth too, and knows the deceased."
Miss Belcher hitched an old riding-skirt off a peg and indued it over her red flannel petticoat, fastening it about her waist with a leathern strap and buckle.
"Well, the first thing is to fetch the body along, and then I'll go down with you and have a look."
"I've halted the men about a hundred yards down the hill. I thought perhaps you'd step straight along with me to the house, so as to be out of the way when they—But, anyhow, if you insist on coming, we can fetch across the cricket-field and down to the left, so that you needn't meet it."
"Bless the man!"—Miss Belcher had turned to another peg, taken down a loose weather-stained gardening-jacket, and was slipping an arm into the sleeve—"you don't suppose, do you, that I'm the sort of person to be scared by a dead body? Open the door, please, and lead the way. This is a serious business, Jack, and I doubt if you have the head for it."
Sure enough, the sight of the dead body on the hurdle shook Miss Belcher's nerve not at all, or, at any rate, not discernibly.
"Humph!" she said. "Take him to the pavilion and cover him decently. You'll find a yard or two of clean awning in the left-hand corner of the scoring-box." She eyed Mr. Goodfellow for a couple of seconds and swung round upon Mr. Rogers. "Is that the man you've arrested?"
Mr. Rogers nodded.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Fiddlestick-end! Look at the man's face. And you call yourself a justice of the peace?"
"It was thrust upon me," said Mr. Rogers, modestly. "I don't say he's guilty, mind you; and, of course, if you say he isn't—"
"Look at his face!" repeated Miss Belcher; and, turning, addressed Mr. Goodfellow. "My good man, you hadn't any hand in this—eh?"
"No, ma'am; in course I hadn't," Mr. Goodfellow answered fervently.
"There! You hear what he says?"
"Lydia, Lydia! I've the highest possible respect for your judgment; but isn't this what you might cull a trifle—er—summary?"
"It saves time," said Miss Belcher. "And if you're going to catch the real culprit, time is precious. Now take me to see the spot."
But at this point Mr. Goodfellow's emotions overmastered him, and he broke forth into the language of rhapsody.
"O woman, woman!" exclaimed Mr. Goodfellow, "whatever would the world do without your wondrous instink!"
"Bless the man!"—Miss Belcher drew back a pace—"is he talking of me?"
"No, ma'am; generally, or, as you might say, of the sex as a whole. Mind you, I won't go so far as to deny that the gentleman here—or the constable, for that matter—had some excuse to be suspicious. But to think o' me liftin' a hand against poor old Danny Coffin! Why, ma'am, the times I've a-led him home from the public when incapable is not to be numbered; and only at this very moment in my little shop, home in Falmouth, I've a corner cupboard of his under repair that he wouldn't trust to another living soul! And along comes you an' say, 'That man's innocent! Look at his face!' you says, which it's downright womanly instink, if ever there was such a thing in this world."
"A corner cupboard!" I gasped. "You have the corner cupboard?"
Mr. Goodfellow nodded. "I took it home unbeknowns to the old man. Many a time he'd spoken to me about repairin' it, the upper hinge bein' cracked, as you may remember. But when it came to handin' it over I could never get him. So that afternoon, the coast bein' clear and him sitting drunk in the Plume o' Feathers, as again you will remember—"
But here Miss Belcher shot out a hand and gripped my collar to steady me as I reeled. I dare say that hunger and lack of sleep had much to do with my giddiness; at any rate, the grassy slope had begun all of a sudden to heave and whirl at my feet.
"Drat the boy! He's beginning now!"
"Take me home," I implored her, stammering. "Please, Miss Belcher!"
"Now, I'll lay three to one," said Miss Belcher, holding me off and regarding me, "that no one has thought of giving this child an honest breakfast. And"—she turned on Mr. Jack Rogers—"you call yourself a justice of the peace!"
HOW I BROKE OUT THE BED ENSIGN.
We were seated in council in the little parlour of Minden Cottage— Miss Belcher, Miss Plinlimmon, Mr. Jack Rogers, Mr. Goodfellow, and I. Mr. Goodfellow had been included at Miss Belcher's particular request. Constable Hosken had been despatched to search the plantation thoroughly and to report. Two other constables had arrived, and were coping, in front and rear of the cottage, with a steady if straggling incursion of visitors from the near villages and hamlets of St. Germans, Hessenford, Bake, and Catchfrench, drawn by reports of a second murder to come and stand and gaze at the premises. The report among them (as I learned afterwards) ran that a second body—alleged by some to be mine, by others to be Ann the cook's—had been discovered lying in its own blood in the attic; but the marvel was how the report could have spread at all, since Miss Belcher had sworn the two woodmen to secrecy. Whoever spread it could have known very little, for the sightseers wasted all their curiosity on the house and concerned themselves not at all with the plantation.
From the plantation Miss Belcher had led me straight to the house, and there in the darkened parlour I had told my story, corroborated here and there by Mr. Goodfellow. In the intervals of my narrative Miss Belcher insisted on my swallowing great spoonfuls of hot bread-and-milk, against which—faint though I was and famished—my gorge rose. Also the ordeal of gulping it under four pairs of eyes was not a light one. But Miss Belcher insisted, and Miss Belcher stood no nonsense.
I told them of my acquaintance with Captain Coffin; how he had invited me to his lodgings and promised me wealth; of his studying navigation, of his reference to the island and the treasure hidden on it, and of the one occasion when he vouchsafed me a glimpse of the chart; of the French prisoner, Aaron Glass, and how we escaped from him, and of the plan we arranged together at the old windmill; how Captain Danny had taken boat to board the St. Mawes packet; how the man Glass had followed; how I had visited the lodgings, and of the confusion I found there. I described the ex-prisoner's appearance and clothing in detail, and here I had Mr. Goodfellow to confirm me under cross-examination.
"An' the cap'n," said he, "was afraid of him. I give you my word, ladies and gentlemen, I never saw a man worse scared in my life. Put up his hands, he did, an' fairly screeched, an' bolted out o' the door with his arm linked in the lad's."
Three or four times in the course of my narrative I happened to thrust my hands into my breeches-pocket, and was reminded of the gold eyeglass concealed there. I had managed very artfully to keep Captain Branscome entirely out of the story, but twice under examination I was forced to mention him—and each time, curiously enough, in answer to a question of Miss Belcher's.
"You are sure this Captain Coffin showed the chart to no one but yourself?" she asked.
"I am pretty sure, ma'am."
"There was always a tale about Falmouth that Cap'n Danny had struck a buried treasure," said Mr. Goodfellow. "'Twas a joke in the publics, and with the street boys; but I never heard tell till now that any one took it serious."
"He was learning navigation," mused Miss Belcher. "What was the name of his teacher?"
"A Captain Branscome, ma'am. He's a teacher at Stimcoe's."
"Lives in the house, does he?"
"A Captain Branscome, you say?"
"Yes, ma'am. He's a retired packet captain, and lame of one leg. Every one in Falmouth knows Captain Branscome."
"H'm! Wouldn't this Captain Branscome wonder a little that a man of your friend's age, and (we'll say) a bit wrong in his head, should want to learn navigation?"
"He might, ma'am."
"He certainly would," snapped Miss Belcher. "And wouldn't this Captain Branscome know it was perfectly useless to teach such a man?"
"I dare say he would, ma'am," I answered, guiltily recalling Captain Branscome's own words to me on this subject.
"Then why did he take the man's money, eh? Well, go on with your story."
I breathed more easily for a while, but by-and-by, when I came to tell of the discussion by the old windmill, I felt her eyes upon me again.
"Wait a moment. Captain Coffin gave you a key, and this key was to open the corner cupboard in his lodgings. Wasn't it rather foolish of him to send you, seeing that this Aaron Glass had seen you in his company, and would recognize you if he were watching the premises, which was just what you both feared?"
"He didn't count on me to go," I admitted; "at least, not first along."
"On whom, then?"
"On Captain Branscome, ma'am."
"Oh! Did he send you with that message to Captain Branscome?"
"Then why didn't you tell us so? Well, when you took the message, what did Captain Branscome say? And why didn't he go?"
"He was not at home, ma'am. Mr. Stimcoe had given us a holiday in honour of the prisoners."
"I see. So Captain Branscome was off on an outing? When did he return?"
"I didn't see him that evening, ma'am."
"That's not an answer to my question. I asked, When did he return?"
"Not until yesterday afternoon."
I had to think before giving this answer, so long a stretch of time seemed to lie between me and yesterday afternoon.
"Where had he been spending his holiday meanwhile?"
"He didn't tell me, ma'am."
"At all events, he didn't turn up for school next day, nor the next again, until the afternoon. Queer sort of academy, Stimcoe's. Did Mr. Stimcoe make any remark on his under-teacher's absence?"
"The school went on just as usual?"
"No-o, ma'am "—I hesitated—"not quite just as usual. Mr. Stimcoe was unwell."
"My dear Miss Belcher!" put in the scandalized Plinny. "A scholar, and such a gentleman!"
"Fiddlestick-end!" snapped the unconscionable lady, not removing her eyes from mine. "Was this man Stimcoe drunk, eh? No; I beg your pardon," she corrected herself. "I oughtn't to be asking a boy to tell tales out of school. 'Thou shalt not say anything to get another fellow into trouble'—that's the first and last commandment—eh, Harry Brooks? But, my good soul"—she turned on Plinny—"if 'drunk and incapable' isn't written over the whole of that seminary, you may call me a Dutchwoman!"
"There's a point or so clear enough," she announced, after a pause, when I had finished my story.
"We must placard the whole country with a description of that prisoner chap Glass," said Mr. Jack Rogers; "and I'd best be off to Falmouth and get the bills printed at once."
"Indeed?" said Miss Belcher, dryly. "And pray how are you proposing to describe him?"
"Why, as for that, I should have thought Harry's description here, backed up by Mr. Goodfellow's, was enough to lay a trail upon any man. My dear Lydia, a fellow roaming the country in a red coat, drill trousers, and a japanned hat!"
"It would obviously excite remark: so obviously that the likelihood might even occur to the man himself."
Mr. Rogers looked crestfallen for a moment.
"You suggest that by this time he has changed his rig?"
"I suggest, rather, that he started by changing it, say, as far back as St. Mawes. Some one must ride to St. Mawes at once and make inquiries." Miss Belcher drummed her fingers on the table. "But the man," she said thoughtfully, "will have reached Plymouth long before this."
"You don't think it possible he went back the same way he came?"
"In a world, Jack, where you find yourself a magistrate, all things are possible. But I don't think it at all likely."
"It's a rum story altogether," mused Mr. Rogers. "A couple of murders in this part of the world, and mixed up with an island full of treasure! Why, damme, 'tis almost like Shakespeare!"
"For my part," observed Miss Plinlimmon, with great simplicity, "though sometimes accused of leaning unduly toward the romantic, I should be inclined to set down this story of Captain Coffin's to hallucination, or even to stigmatize it as what I believe is called in nautical parlance 'a yarn.'"
"And small blame to you, my dear!" agreed Miss Belcher; "only, you see, when folks go about killing one another, the hallucination begins to look disastrously as if there were something in it."
"Yet I still fail to see," urged Plinny, "why our dear Major should have fallen a victim."
"It's plain as a pikestaff, if you'll excuse me," Mr. Rogers answered her. "This Coffin carried the chart on him, meaning to deliver it into the Major's keeping. He came here, entered the garden by the side-gate, found the Major in the summer-house, told his story, handed over the chart, and was making his way back to the high-road through the plantation, when he came full on this man Aaron Glass, who had tracked him all the way from St. Mawes. Glass fell on him, murdered him, rifled his pockets, and, finding nothing—but having some hint, perhaps—pursued his way to the garden here. There in the summer-house he found the Major, who meanwhile had fetched his cashbox from the house and locked the chart up in it. What followed, any one can guess."
"Not a bad theory, Jack!" murmured Miss Belcher, still drumming softly on the table. "Indeed, 'tis the only explanation, but for one or two things against it."
"For instance, I don't see why the Major should want to go to the house and bring back his cashbox to the garden. Surely the simple thing was to take the paper, or whatever it was, straight to the house, lock it up, and leave the cashbox in its usual place? I don't see, either, what that box was doing, later on, in the brook below my lodge-gate; for, by every chance that I can reckon, the murderer— supposing him to be this man Glass—would have pushed on in haste for Plymouth, whereas my lodge-gate lies half a mile in the opposite direction."
"Are those all your objections?" asked Mr. Rogers. "Because, if so, I must say they don't amount to much."
"They don't amount to much," Miss Belcher agreed, "but they don't, on the other hand, quite cover all my doubts. However, there's less doubt, luckily, about the next step to be taken. You send Hosken or some one to Torpoint Ferry to inquire what strangers have crossed for Plymouth during these forty-eight hours. You meanwhile borrow my roan filly—your own mare is dead-beat—clap her in the tilbury, and off you go to St. Mawes, and find out how this man Glass got hold of a change of clothes. Take Mr. Goodfellow with you, and while you are playing detective at St. Mawes, he can cross over to Falmouth and fetch along the corner cupboard. Harry has the key, and we'll open it here and read what the captain has to say in this famous roll of paper. It won't do more than tantalize us, I very much fear, seeing that the chart has disappeared, and likely enough for ever."
But it had not.
It so happened that while I stood by my father's bedside that morning I had noticed a flag, rolled in a bundle and laid upon the chest of drawers beside his dressing-table. I concluded at once that Plinny had fetched it from the summer-house to spread over his coffin.
Women know nothing about flags. This one was a red ensign, in those days a purely naval flag, carried (since Trafalgar) by the highest rank of admirals. Ashore, any one could hoist it, but the flag to cover a soldier's body was the flag of Union.
This had crossed my mind when I caught sight of the red ensign on the chest of drawers; and again in the summer-house, as I lifted the lid of the flag-locker and noted the finger-marks in the dust upon it, I guessed that Plinny had visited it with pious purpose, and, woman-like, chosen the first flag handy. I had meant to repair her mistake, and again had forgotten my intention.
Mr. Jack Rogers had driven off for St. Mawes, with Mr. Goodfellow in the tilbury beside him. Constable Hosken was on his way to Torpoint. Miss Belcher had withdrawn to her great house, after insisting that I must be fed once more and packed straight off to bed; and fed I duly was, and tucked between sheets, to sleep, exhausted, very nearly the round of the clock.
Footsteps awoke me—footsteps on the landing outside my bedroom. I sat up, guessing at once that they were the footsteps of the carpenter and his men, arrived in the dawn with the shell of my father's coffin. Almost at once I remembered the red ensign, and, waiting until the footsteps withdrew, stole across, half dressed, to my father's room to change it. The faint rays of dawn drifted in through the closed blinds. The coffin-shell lay the length of the bed, and in it his body. The carpenter's men had left it uncovered. In the dim light, no doubt, they had overlooked the flag, which I felt for and found. Tucking it under my arm, I closed the door and tiptoed downstairs, let myself out at the back, and stole out to the summer-house.
There was light enough within to help me in selecting the Union flag from the half-dozen within the locker. I was about to stow the red ensign in its place when I bethought me that, day being so near, I might as well bend a flag upon the flagstaff halliards and half-mast it.
So, with the Union flag under one arm, I carried out the red ensign, bent it carefully, still in a roll, and hoisted it to the truck. In half-masting a flag, you first hoist it in a bundle to the masthead, break it out there, and thence lower it to the position at which you make fast.
I felt the flag's toggle jam chock-a-block against the truck of the staff, and gave a tug, shaking out the flag to the still morning breeze. A second later something thudded on the turf close at my feet.
I stared at it; but the halliards were in my hand, and before picking it up I must wait and make them fast on the cleat. Still I stared at it, there where it lay on the dim turf.
And still I stared at it. Either I was dreaming yet, or this—this thing that had fallen from heaven—was the oilskin bag that had wrapped Captain Coffin's chart.
I stooped to pick it up. At that instant the side-gate rattled, and with a start I faced, in the half light—Captain Branscome.
CAPTAIN BRANSCOME'S CONFESSION—THE MAN IN THE LANE.
He opened the gate and came across the turf to me. I observed that his hand trembled on his walking-cane, and that he dragged his injured leg with a worse limp than usual; also—but the uncertain light may have had something to do with this—his face seemed of one colour with the grey dust that powdered his shoes.
"Good morning, Harry!"
"Good morning, sir," I answered, crushing the oilskin into my pocket and waiting for his explanation.
"You are surprised to see me? The fact is, I have something to tell you, and could not rest easy till it was off my mind. I have travelled here by Russell's waggon, but have trudged a good part of the way, as you see." He glanced down at his shoes. "The pace was too slow for my impatience. I could get no sleep. Though it brought me here no faster, I had to vent my energies in walking." His sentences followed one another by jerks, in a nervous flurry. "You are surprised to see me?" he repeated.
"Why, as to that, sir, partly I am and partly I am not. It took me aback just now to see you standing there by the gate; and," said I more boldly, "it puzzles me yet how you came there and not to the front door, for you couldn't have expected to find me here in the garden at this time in the morning."
"True, Harry; I did not." He paused for a moment, and went on—"It is truth, lad, that I meant to knock at your front door, by-and-by, and ask for you. But, the hour being over-early for calling, I had a mind, before rousing you out of bed, to walk down the lane and have a look over your garden gate. Nay," he corrected himself, "I do not put it quite honestly, even yet. I came in search of something."
"I can save you the trouble, perhaps," said I, and, diving a hand into my breech-pocket, I pulled out the gold-rimmed eyeglasses.
He made no offer to take them, though I held them out to him on my open palm, but fell back a step, and, after a glance at them, lifted his eyes and met mine honestly, albeit with a trouble in his face.
"You found them?"
"To whom have you shown them?"
"Yet there has been some inquiry?"
"At which you were present?"
I nodded again.
"And you said nothing of this—this piece of evidence? Why?
"Because"—I hesitated for a couple of seconds and then gulped hesitation down—"because I could not believe that you—that you were really—"
"Thank you, Harry."
"All the same, sir, your name was mentioned."
"Eh?" He was plainly astonished. "My name mentioned? But why? How? since no one saw me here, and if, as you say, you hid this only evidence—"
"It came up, sir, when they examined me about Captain Danny. You know—do you not?—that they have found his body, too."
"I heard the news being cried in Truro streets as we came through. Poor old Coffin! It is all mystery to me—mystery on mystery! But how on earth should my name have come up in connection with him?"
"Why, about your teaching him navigation, sir."
Captain Branscome passed a hand over his forehead.
"Navigation? Yes; to be sure, I taught him navigation—or, rather, tried to. But what of that?"
"Well, sir, Miss Belcher seemed to think it suspicious."
He reached out a hand, and, taking the glasses from me, sat down upon the stone base of the flagstaff and began feebly to polish them.