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Dead Men's Money(Chapter13)

2006-08-28 23:36

  Chapter XIII. Sir Gilbert Carstairs

  It was probably with a notion of justifying my present course of procedure to myself that during that ride I went over the reasons which had kept my tongue quiet up to that time, and now led me to go to Sir Gilbert Carstairs. Why I had not told the police nor Mr. Lindsey of what I had seen, I have already explained——my own natural caution and reserve made me afraid of saying anything that might cast suspicion on an innocent man; and also I wanted to await developments. I was not concerned much with that feature of the matter. But I had undergone some qualms because I had not told Maisie Dunlop, for ever since the time at which she and I had come to a serious and sober understanding, it had been a settled thing between us that we would never have any secrets from each other. Why, then, had I not told her of this? That took a lot of explaining afterwards, when things so turned out that it would have been the best thing ever I did in my life if I only had confided in her; but this explanation was, after all, to my credit——I did not tell Maisie because I knew that, taking all the circumstances into consideration, she would fill herself with doubts and fears for me, and would for ever be living in an atmosphere of dread lest I, like Phillips, should be found with a knife-thrust in me. So much for that——it was in Maisie's own interest. And why, after keeping silence to everybody, did I decide to break it to Sir Gilbert Carstairs? There, Andrew Dunlop came in——of course, unawares to himself. For in those lecturings that he was so fond of giving us young folk, there was a moral precept of his kept cropping up which he seemed to set great store by——"If you've anything against a man, or reason to mistrust him," he would say, "don't keep it to yourself, or hint it to other people behind his back, but go straight to him and tell him to his face, and have it out with him." He was a wise man, Andrew Dunlop, as all his acquaintance knew, and I felt that I could do no better than take a lesson from him in this matter. So I would go straight to Sir Gilbert Carstairs, and tell him what was in my mind——let the consequences be what they might.

  It was well after sunset, and the gloaming was over the hills and the river, when I turned into the grounds of Hathercleugh and looked round me at a place which, though I had lived close to it ever since I was born, I had never set foot in before. The house stood on a plateau of ground high above Tweed, with a deep shawl of wood behind it and a fringe of plantations on either side; house and pleasure-grounds were enclosed by a high ivied wall on all sides——you could see little of either until you were within the gates. It looked, in that evening light, a romantic and picturesque old spot and one in which you might well expect to see ghosts, or fairies, or the like. The house itself was something between an eighteenth-century mansion and an old Border fortress; its centre part was very high in the roof, and had turrets, with outer stairs to them, at the corners; the parapets were embattled, and in the turrets were arrow-slits. But romantic as the place was, there was nothing gloomy about it, and as I passed to the front, between the grey walls and a sunk balustered garden that lay at the foot of a terrace, I heard through the open windows of one brilliantly lighted room the click of billiard balls and the sound of men's light-hearted laughter, and through another the notes of a piano.

  There was a grand butler man met me at the hall door, and looked sourly at me as I leaned my bicycle against one of the pillars and made up to him. He was sourer still when I asked to see his master, and he shook his head at me, looking me up and down as if I were some undesirable.

  "You can't see Sir Gilbert at this time of the evening," said he. "What do you want?"

  "Will you tell Sir Gilbert that Mr. Moneylaws, clerk to Mr. Lindsey, solicitor, wishes to see him on important business?" I answered, looking him hard in the face. "I think he'll be quick to see me when you give him that message."

  He stared and growled at me a second or two before he went off with an ill grace, leaving me on the steps. But, as I had expected, he was back almost at once, and beckoning me to enter and follow him. And follow him I did, past more flunkeys who stared at me as if I had come to steal the silver, and through soft-carpeted passages, to a room into which he led me with small politeness.

  "You're to sit down and wait," he said gruffly. "Sir Gilbert will attend to you presently."

  He closed the door on me, and I sat down and looked around. I was in a small room that was filled with books from floor to ceiling——big books and little, in fine leather bindings, and the gilt of their letterings and labels shining in the rays of a tall lamp that stood on a big desk in the centre. It was a fine room that, with everything luxurious in the way of furnishing and appointments; you could have sunk your feet in the warmth of the carpets and rugs, and there were things in it for comfort and convenience that I had never heard tell of. I had never been in a rich man's house before, and the grandeur of it, and the idea that it gave one of wealth, made me feel that there's a vast gulf fixed between them that have and them that have not. And in the middle of these philosophies the door suddenly opened, and in walked Sir Gilbert Carstairs, and I stood up and made my politest bow to him. He nodded affably enough, and he laughed as he nodded.

  "Oh!" said he. "Mr. Moneylaws! I've seen you before——at that inquest the other day, I think. Didn't I?"

  "That is so, Sir Gilbert," I answered. "I was there, with Mr. Lindsey."

  "Why, of course, and you gave evidence," he said. "I remember. Well, and what did you want to see me about, Mr. Moneylaws? Will you smoke a cigar?" he went on, picking up a box from the table and holding it out to me. "Help yourself."

  "Thank you, Sir Gilbert," I answered, "but I haven't started that yet."

  "Well, then, I will," he laughed, and he picked out a cigar, lighted it, and flinging himself into an easy chair, motioned me to take another exactly opposite to him. "Now, then, fire away!" he said. "Nobody'll interrupt us, and my time's yours. You've some message for me?"

  I took a good look at him before I spoke. He was a big, fine, handsome man, some five-and-fifty years of age, I should have said, but uncommonly well preserved——a clean-shaven, powerful-faced man, with quick eyes and a very alert glance; maybe, if there was anything struck me particularly about him, it was the rapidity and watchfulness of his glances, the determination in his square jaw, and the extraordinary strength and whiteness of his teeth. He was quick at smiling, and quick, too, in the use of his hands, which were always moving as he spoke, as if to emphasize whatever he said. And he made a very fine and elegant figure as he sat there in his grand evening clothes, and I was puzzled to know which struck me most——the fact that he was what he was, the seventh baronet and head of an old family, or the familiar, easy, good-natured fashion which he treated me, and talked to me, as if I had been a man of his own rank.

  I had determined what to do as I sat waiting him; and now that he had bidden me to speak, I told him the whole story from start to finish, beginning with Gilverthwaite and ending with Crone, and sparing no detail or explanation of my own conduct. He listened in silence, and with more intentness and watchfulness than I had ever seen a man show in my life, and now and then he nodded and sometimes smiled; and when I had made an end he put a sharp question.

  "So——beyond Crone——who, I hear, is dead——you've never told a living soul of this?" he asked, eyeing me closely.

  "Not one, Sir Gilbert," I assured him. "Not even——"

  "Not even——who?" he inquired quickly.

  "Not even my own sweetheart," I said. "And it's the first secret ever I kept from her."

  He smiled at that, and gave me a quick look as if he were trying to get a fuller idea of me.

  "Well," he said, "and you did right. Not that I should care two pins, Mr. Moneylaws, if you'd told all this out at the inquest. But suspicion is easily aroused, and it spreads——aye, like wildfire! And I'm a stranger, as it were, in this country, so far, and there's people might think things that I wouldn't have them think, and——in short, I'm much obliged to you. And I'll tell you frankly, as you've been frank with me, how I came to be at those cross-roads at that particular time and on that particular night. It's a simple explanation, and could be easily corroborated, if need be. I suffer from a disturbing form of insomnia——sleeplessness——it's a custom of mine to go long walks late at night. Since I came here, I've been out that way almost every night, as my servants could assure you. I walk, as a rule, from nine o'clock to twelve——to induce sleep. And on that night I'd been miles and miles out towards Yetholm, and back; and when you saw me with my map and electric torch, I was looking for the nearest turn home——I'm not too well acquainted with the Border yet," he concluded, with a flash of his white teeth, "and I have to carry a map with me. And——that's how it was; and that's all."

  I rose out of my chair at that. He spoke so readily and ingenuously that I had no more doubt of the truth of what he was saying than I had of my own existence.

  "Then it's all for me, too, Sir Gilbert," said I. "I shan't say a word more of the matter to anybody. It's——as if it never existed. I was thinking all the time there'd be an explanation of it. So I'll be bidding you good-night."

  "Sit you down again a minute," said he, pointing to the easy-chair. "No need for hurry. You're a clerk to Mr. Lindsey, the solicitor?"

  "I am that," I answered.

  "Are you articled to him?" he asked.

  "No," said I. "I'm an ordinary clerk——of seven years' standing."

  "Plenty of experience of office work and routine?" he inquired.

  "Aye!" I replied. "No end of that, Sir Gilbert!"

  "Are you good at figures and accounts?" he asked.

  "I've kept all Mr. Lindsey's——and a good many trust accounts——for the last five years," I answered, wondering what all this was about.

  "In fact, you're thoroughly well up in all clerical matters?" he suggested. "Keeping books, writing letters, all that sort of thing?"

  "I can honestly say I'm a past master in everything of that sort," I affirmed.

  He gave me a quick glance, as if he were sizing me up altogether.

  "Well, I'll tell you what, Mr. Moneylaws," he said. "The fact is, I'm wanting a sort of steward, and it strikes me that you're just the man I'm looking for!"

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