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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Moon Rock By Arthur J. Rees Characters: 24341

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When Barrant learnt from the trembling lips of Mrs. Pendleton that she had not seen her niece since that morning, his first step was to get Sisily's full description, and call up Dawfield on the hotel telephone with instructions to have all the railway stations between Penzance and London warned to look out for her. That was a necessary precaution, but it did not need Dawfield's hesitating information about time tables to convince him that it was almost futile. The later of the two trains by which Sisily might have fled from Cornwall had reached London and discharged its passengers somewhere about the time that Mr. Peter Portgartha, in the depth of the rumbling wagonette, was paying his tribute to shrinking female modesty as exhibited on Mousehole rocks.

After doing this Barrant returned to the empty lounge, where Mrs. Pendleton sat in partial darkness with tearful face. All the other guests had retired, and a lurking porter yawned longingly in the passage, waiting for an opportunity to put out the last of the lights and get to bed.

In the first shock of Barrant's violent apparition and angry questions, Mrs. Pendleton had tried, in a bewildered way, to insist that her niece had not left her room on the previous night. But now, in her troubled consideration of the new strange turn of events surrounding her brother's death, she saw that she might have been deceived on this point. Barrant, for his part, had not the slightest doubt of it when he heard that her belief rested on no stronger foundation than Sisily's early withdrawal from the dining-room on the plea of fatigue, and the fact that her bedroom door was locked when Mrs. Pendleton returned from her own visit to Flint House. Sisily's subsequent flight eliminated any uncertainty about that, and established beyond reasonable doubt her identity with the silent girl who had entered the returning wagonette at the cross-roads. The coincidence of those two facts had a terrible significance. Barrant had no doubt that Sisily had gone to her own room early in order to find an opportunity to pay a secret visit to her home, for a purpose which now seemed to stand sinisterly revealed by her disappearance. He also thought he saw the motive-that vital factor in murder-looming behind her nocturnal expedition. But that was a question he was not inclined to analyze too closely at that moment. He wanted to know how she had been able to disappear that day without the knowledge of her aunt.

Mrs. Pendleton had a ready explanation of that. She said that after returning from her visit to the police station that morning she had been engaged with her brother Austin until nearly lunch-time, and when she went up to Sisily's room she found it empty. She concluded that her niece had gone out somewhere to be alone with her grief-she was the type of girl that liked to be alone. After lunch Mrs. Pendleton had letters to write, and then she had gone to her bedroom and fallen sound asleep till dinner-time, worn out by the shock of her brother's death, and the sleepless night which had followed it. When Sisily did not appear at dinner she began to grow uneasy, but sought to convince herself that Sisily might have gone on a char-à-banc trip to Falmouth which had been advertised for that day. The incongruity of a sad solitary girl like Sisily nursing her grief in a public vehicle packed with curious chattering trippers did not seem to have occurred to her. But as time passed she grew seriously alarmed, and sent her husband out to make enquiries.

She had sat in the lounge listening with strained ears for the girl's footsteps until Barrant arrived.

"Has your niece any friends in Cornwall or London, or anywhere, for that matter, who would receive her?" Barrant abruptly demanded.

"I really do not know," said Mrs. Pendleton.

She wiped the tears from her eyes with a large white handkerchief. She was overwhelmed by the shock of her niece's disappearance, and the terrible interpretation Barrant evidently placed upon it. But Barrant was in no mood to allow for her confused state of mind.

"You had better try and remember," he said irritably. "It seems to me that I've been kept in the dark. You went to the police to demand an investigation into your brother's death, but you did not say anything of the disclosure he made to you yesterday of his daughter's illegitimacy. Instead of doing so, you only directed suspicion to his man-servant. Meanwhile your niece, who was placed in your care, disappears to heaven knows where, and you took no steps to inform the police. You have acted very indiscreetly, Mrs. Pendleton, to say the least."

"I did not know-I did not think," gasped Mrs. Pendleton. She endeavoured to commence a flurried explanation of the mixed motives and impulses which had swayed her since her brother's death, but Barrant cut it short with an impatient wave of the hand.

"Never mind that now," he said. "I have lost too much time already. Have you no idea where your niece is likely to have sought refuge?"

Mrs. Pendleton shook her head. "Robert had no friends," she said, "and Sisily led a very lonely life. Robert told me that yesterday. That was the reason he wanted me to take charge of her-so as to give her the opportunity of making some girl friends of her own age."

She paused, embarrassed by the recollection that her brother's real intention in placing Sisily in her charge was altogether different. Barrant noted her hesitation, and interpreted it aright.

"No," he said. "The real reason of your brother parting with his daughter provides the motive for her return to his house last night. What happened between them is a matter for conjecture, at present. Apparently she was the last person who saw him alive before he was shot, and now she is not to be found."

There was something so portentously solemn in his manner of speaking these last words that his listener quaked in terror, and gazed at him with widened eyes. Barrant turned abruptly to another phase.

"Are you quite sure that it was the man-servant you saw looking through the door yesterday afternoon?"

It was proof of the fallibility of human testimony that Mrs. Pendleton had sincerely convinced herself that she was quite sure. "Yes," she said.

Barrant looked doubtful. By reason of his calling he was well aware of the human tendency to unintentional mistake in identity. With women especially, the jump from an impression to a conclusion was sometimes as rapid as the thought itself.

"Did you see his face?" he asked.

"Only the eyes. But I am sure that they were Thalassa's eyes."

Barrant did not press the point. He did not doubt the honesty of her belief, but the words in which it was conveyed suggested hasty impression rather than conviction. Such proofs of identity were not to be relied upon.

"Had your brother's servant any reason, so far as you know, to be listening at the door?" he asked.

"All servants are curious," murmured Mrs. Pendleton. She shook her head wisely, as one intimating a wide knowledge of their class.

"All curious servants are not murderers," returned Barrant. "This man has been in your brother's service for a long time, has he not?"

"For a great number of years. Almost ever since Robert returned to England, I think."

"So Mr. Austin Turold informed me. Had he any grudge against his master?"

"Thalassa? I really couldn't tell you, because I do not know. But he has a most truculent and overbearing manner-not at all the kind of manner you expect in a servant, and he seemed to do just what he liked. I disliked him as soon as I saw him. I'm sure he looks more like some dreadful old sea pirate than a gentleman's servant. I would not have him in my household." Mrs. Pendleton set her lips firmly. "No, not for a single moment. But I suppose poor Robert was attached to him from long association."

Barrant nodded in an understanding way. "Then this man Thalassa must have known your niece from childhood," he said in a casual tone. "Was he attached to her, do you think?"

"I know nothing of that."

"That's rather a pity," he said with a gentle shake of the head. He looked at her knowingly.

"I do not understand you," she faltered.

"You had grounds for your suspicions of Thalassa-reasonable grounds. He must have admitted your niece into the house last night, you know. I must get it out of him."

She gave a start, for she saw now where his drift of questions was taking them. With a sickening sense of horror she realized that her slight suspicions were being used by him to help fashion a case against her own flesh and blood.

"What are you suggesting?" she breathed, with a nervous look.

"Nothing at present," he said, with a quick realization of the fact that he was in danger of talking too much. "Can you tell me if your niece is provided with money?"

"My brother gave her twenty-five pounds in bank notes yesterday-he told me."

"That is enough to keep her for some weeks. You are quite sure you cannot form any idea where she has gone?"

"No," said Mrs. Pendleton coldly, with a belated inward resolve not to be so ready in volunteering information to the police in future.

"I should like to see the room your niece occupied last night," he said.

That was a search which brought nothing to light. Barrant left the hotel just as little Mr. Pendleton returned to it with an alarmed face and a feeling of personal guilt at his failure to find Sisily.

Barrant passed him with a side glance, his mind full of the problem of the girl's disappearance. He left the hotel in a state of thoughtfulness, fully realizing the difficulties of the task which lay before him in tracing Sisily's movements on the previous night, and discovering where she had flown. The deeper questions of motive and the inconsequence of some of her actions he preferred to leave till later. Action, and not mental analysis, was the need of the moment. Barrant prided himself on being a man of action, and he was also a detective. The thrill of pursuit stirred in his blood.

His later activities that night and the following day brought to light many things, but not all that he wanted to know. He convinced himself, in the first place, that it was possible for the girl to have left her room and returned to it on the night of her father's death without any of the inmates of the hotel being aware of her absence. That lessened the complexity of the case by absolving Mrs. Pendleton from the suspicion of pretended ignorance. Barrant was also convinced the aunt believed her niece to be in bed and asleep during the time of her own visit to her brother's house. Sisily had to pass the office of the hotel in going out and returning, but she could easily have done so unobserved. There were few guests at that season of the year, and the proprietor's daughter, who looked after the office, was in the dining-room having her dinner at half-past seven. She went to bed shortly after ten, leaving the front entrance in charge of the porter, who had duties to perform in various parts of the house. And it was possible to descend the stairs and leave the hotel without being seen from the lounge or smoking-room.

There was a wagonette to St. Fair from the railway station at half-past-seven. The hotel dinner was at a quarter to seven for the convenience of some permanent guests, and Sisily, who left the table before the meal was concluded-about a quarter-past seven, according to Mrs. Pendleton-had time to catch the wagonette. On the assumption that even a Cornish wagonette would cover the journey of five miles across the moors in less than an hour, Sisily had probably reached her father's house at half-past eight or a little earlier. The stopped clock in the study indicated that he met his death at half-past nine. If so, Sisily must have left Flint House shortly before her aunt's arrival to catch the returning wagonette at the cross-roads where the young woman was seen waiting by Peter Portgartha.

But that plausibly conceived itinerary of events needed the support of proof, and there Barrant found himself in difficulty.

The morning's enqu

iries made it manifest that Sisily had left Penzance by the mid-day train on the previous day. After leaving Mrs. Pendleton, Barrant had gone to the station. The sour and elderly ticket-clerk on duty could give him no information, but let it be understood that there was another clerk selling tickets for the mid-day train, which was unusually crowded by farmers going to Redruth. The other clerk, seen in the morning, had no difficulty in recalling the young lady of Barrant's description. She was pretty and slight and dark, with a pale clear complexion, and she carried a small handbag. She asked for a ticket to London. The clerk understood her to ask for a return ticket, but as she picked it up with the change for the five pound note with which she paid for it, she said that she thought she had asked for a single ticket. He assured her that she had not, but offered to change it. At that moment the departure of the train was signalled, and she ran through the barrier without waiting to change the ticket. The incident caused him to observe her, and his description tallied so completely with Mrs. Pendleton's description that Barrant had not the least doubt that it was Sisily.

On the strength of this information Barrant applied to a local magistrate for a warrant for the girl's arrest. He was well aware that he had not yet gathered sufficient evidence to satisfy the law that she had murdered her father, but his action was justified by her flight and the presumption of her secret visit to her father's house when she was supposed to be in bed and asleep at the hotel.

These things fulfilled, Barrant then applied his mind to the question of Thalassa's complicity. If Sisily's actions on the night of her father's death, and her subsequent flight, simplified matters to the extent of deepening the assumption of murder into a practical certainty, they added to the complexity of the case by giving it the appearance of a carefully planned crime in which Thalassa seemed to be deeply involved.

The insistent necessity of motive which should explain the events of that night with apt presumptions, threw Barrant back on the suggestion, made by Austin Turold, that it was really Sisily whom Mrs. Pendleton had detected looking through the door of the downstairs room when the other members of the family were assembled within listening to Robert Turold. Barrant told himself that Mrs. Pendleton's suspicion of Thalassa rested on nothing more substantial than feminine prejudice, an unreasoning impulse of dislike which would leave few men alive if it always carried capital punishment in its train.

The substitution of Sisily for Thalassa provided a convincing motive for murder. The overheard revelation of her mother's shame and her own precarious condition in the world when she might reasonably have been counting on becoming an heiress of note, were sufficient to account for the nocturnal return and an effort to entreat justice or compel silence-the alternatives depended on the type of girl. From what Mrs. Pendleton had told him of Sisily and her love for her mother-poor Mrs. Pendleton had insisted, all unwittingly, very strongly on that-Barrant had pictured her as a brooding yet passionate type of girl who might have committed the murder in a sudden frenzy of determination to prevent her father making public the unhappy secret of her mother's life. That was an act by no means inconsistent with the temperament of a strongwilled and lonely girl, whose stormy passions had been wrought to the breaking-point by disclosures made on the very day that her loved mother had been buried in a nameless grave. There was, additionally, the motive of self-interest, awakened to the lamentable fact that she had no claim on her father beyond what generosity might dictate. In short, Barrant believed the motive for the murder to be a mixed one, as human motives generally are. At that stage of his reasoning he did not ask himself whether worldly greed was likely to enter into the composition of a girl like Sisily.

This reconstruction of the crime pointed to an accomplice, and that accomplice must have been the man-servant. Nobody but Thalassa could have let the girl into the house; and he could have dropped the key in the room after the door was broken open. That theory not only presupposed strong devotion on Thalassa's part for a girl he had known from childhood, which was a theory reasonable of belief, but it also suggested that he bore a deep grudge against his master on his own account, sufficient to cause him to refrain from doing anything to prevent the accomplishment of the murder, and to risk his own skin afterwards to shield the girl from the consequences. This aspect of the case struck Barrant as very strange and deep, because it failed to account for Sisily's subsequent flight. If Thalassa had jeopardized himself by keeping silence about her visit, and had returned the key to her father's room in order to create the idea of suicide, why had she dispelled the illusion by running away, bringing both her accomplice and herself into danger? Had she been, seized with terror, perhaps due to Mrs. Pendleton's insistence on her belief of murder, or had Thalassa conveyed some warning to her that inquiries were likely to be put afoot?

These were questions to which Barrant felt he could find no answer until he had seen Thalassa and attempted to wrest the truth from him.

He postponed his visit to Flint House until the evening. He wanted to make the journey as Sisily had made it on the previous night, in order to find out, as nearly as possible, the exact moment she had arrived at her father's house. He was not even in a position to prove that she had gone by the wagonette until he had questioned the driver.

He took his way to the station that evening with the feeling that it would be difficult to get anything out of Thalassa, whatever the reasons for his silence. He instinctively recognized that the authority of the law, which strikes such terror into craven hearts, would not help him with this old man whose glance had the lawless fearlessness of an eagle. But he had confidence in his ability to extract the truth, and Thalassa, moreover, was at the disadvantage of having something to hide. It would be strange if he did not succeed in getting the facts out of him.

The St. Fair wagonette was pulled up outside the station. Mr. Crows, master of his destiny and time-tables, reclined in front, regarding with a glazed eye his drooping horse. Inside, some stout women with bundles waited patiently until it suited the autocrat on the box seat to start on his homeward way. Mr. Crows showed no indication of being in a hurry. His head nodded drowsily, and a little saliva trickled down his nether lip. He straightened himself with a sudden jerk as Barrant climbed up beside him.

"What be yewer doin' yare?" he demanded.

"I'm going to St. Fair," said Barrant.

"I doan't allow no passergers to sit alongside o' me."

"You'll have to put up with it for once," returned Barrant curtly, in no way softened by the odour of Mr. Crows' breath.

As this was a reply which no resident of St. Fair would have dared to make, Mr. Crows bent a muddled glance on his fare, and by a concentrated effort recalled the face of the man who had given him ten shillings on the previous night. He decided to pocket the present indignity in the hope of another tip.

"Aw right," he said, with unwonted amiability, "yewer can stay where yew are-for wance."

He applied himself to driving the wagonette. Sobriety was not an essential of the feat. The horse knew the way, drew clear of the town without accident, and jogged into the long winding road which stretched across the moors. The shadows deepened into night, and Mr. Crows lighted a solitary lamp in the front of his vehicle.

"Aren't you going to light up inside?" asked Barrant, when the lamp was flickering faintly.

"No," replied Mr. Crows shortly. "It don't pay. Let 'em set in the dark."

"Not enough passengers, eh?"

"Moren enough fat old wommen on the out journey," declared Mr. Crows passionately. "That's because it's all up-hill. But they walk in downhill to save a shellen. I know them." He brooded darkly. "It's all part of the plan," he went on. Then, as though feeling that this latter statement, in itself, erred on the side of vagueness, he added-"to worrit a man."

"How many passengers did you have on your last journey in, last night?"

"Two on 'em." Mr. Crows, with forefinger and thumb, snuffed his nose as he had previously snuffed the candle in the lamp. "There was Peter Portgartha and a young woman. I happen to know it was a young 'un because she went away at such a rate when she got out. When wommen begins to get up in years they go in the legs, same as harses."

"Would you know her again if you saw her?" asked Barrant eagerly.

"Not if you was to sware me on the Howly Trinity."

"Did this young woman travel up with you by this wagonette last night?"

Mr. Crows couldn't say for that. There were six insides, that was all he knew. He disremembered anything about them.

"Surely you notice the passengers you carry?"

Mr. Crows, with the air of one propounding an insoluble riddle, asked his fare why should he take notice of his passengers? He weren't paid for that-no, not he. What's more, the night was a dark one. He knew there was six insides because six fares was put through the winder, but whether they was put through by men or ma'adens or widder wommen was moren he cud say.

He again called on the Trinity to attest his ignorance.

"Their shellens is nuthin' to me"-the reference was to the passengers. "They wouldn't pay for the harse's feed. I work for the Duchy, I do, which is almost the same as being in Guvverment, ain't it? I remember yew, thow-because yew gave me ten shellens for driving yew to the Central hotel last night." Mr. Crows cast a quick glance at his fare to see how he took this artful reminder of his munificence. "But as for their bobs-" He spat into the night in order to express his contempt for the insignificance of such small sums.

There was a tap at the window behind him. He unfastened the pane, and a spectral hand came through with a coin. Mr. Crows took it, the hand disappeared, to be replaced by another, more dirty than spectral, with a coin in the outstretched palm, like its predecessor.

"You see," said Mr. Crows, when he had collected six shillings in this manner. "What's the need for to look at them? I've learnt them to hand in their fares this way. Saves time and talk for nothing. Why should I look at a lot of fat old wommen? I ain't paid for that. It's quite enough to let them set in my cab, wearing out my cushions with their great fat bodies, without looking at them." He eyed Barrant with some sternness.

"But this was not a fat old woman," said Barrant. "She was a pretty young girl."

"Ma'ad or widder, it's all the same to me," returned the misogynist. "Some holds with the sex and finds them soothing, but I was never took up with them myself. I prefers beer. Every man to his taste."

"Did any of the passengers alight at the crossroads?"

They were nearing the cross-roads as he spoke, and the rude outline of the wayside cross loomed out of the shadows directly ahead.

"I couldn't tell you that, neither. I always stop at the cross-roads, in and out. It's one of my regular stopping-places. Come to think of it, though, somebody did get out at the cross-roads last night."

"A man or woman?" asked Barrant with eagerness.

"A woman. She went off acrass the moors that way." Mr. Crows pointed an indifferent whip into the blackness which rested like a pall between the white road and the distant roaring sea. "She was a wunner to go, too-out of sight in a moment, she was."

"Thank you. I'll get down here, too."

As the wagonette stopped at the cross-roads Barrant jumped down from his seat and disappeared in the indicated direction before Mr. Crows could summon his slow wits to determine the value of the coin which the detective had pressed into his passively expectant palm.

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