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   Chapter 13 CLUES IN A TANGLE.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13199

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"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?"

I nodded.

"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.

"You, too?"

"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?"

"Coffin, sir."

"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?"

"Yes, sir."

"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 healt

h 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-"

"Eh? Where?"

"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.

"Fiddlestick-end!"

"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!"

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