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Dead Men's Money(Chapter10)

2006-08-28 23:35

  Chapter X. The Other Witness

  It was with a thumping heart and nerves all a-tingle that I followed Abel Crone out of his front shop into a sort of office that he had at the back of it——a little, dirty hole of a place, in which there was a ramshackle table, a chair or two, a stand-up desk, a cupboard, and a variety of odds and ends that he had picked up in his trade. The man's sudden revelation of knowledge had knocked all the confidence out of me. It had never crossed my mind that any living soul had a notion of my secret——for secret, of course, it was, and one that I would not have trusted to Crone, of all men in the world, knowing him as I did to be such a one for gossip. And he had let this challenge out on me so sharply, catching me unawares that I was alone with him, and, as it were, at his mercy, before I could pull my wits together. Everything in me was confused. I was thinking several things all at a time. How did he come to know? Had I been watched? Had some person followed me out of Berwick that night? Was this part of the general mystery? And what was going to come of it, now that Abel Crone was aware that I knew something which, up to then, I had kept back?

  I stood helplessly staring at him as he turned up the wick of an oil lamp that stood on a mantelpiece littered with a mess of small things, and he caught a sight of my face when there was more light, and as he shut the door on us he laughed——laughed as if he knew that he had me in a trap. And before he spoke again he went over to the cupboard and took out a bottle and glasses.

  "Will you taste?" he asked, leering at me. "A wee drop, now? It'll do you good."

  "No!" said I.

  "Then I'll drink for the two of us," he responded, and poured out a half-tumblerful of whisky, to which he added precious little water. "Here's to you, my lad; and may you have grace to take advantage of your chances!"

  He winked over the rim of his glass as he took a big pull at its contents, and there was something so villainous in the look of him that it did me good in the way of steeling my nerves again. For I now saw that here was an uncommonly bad man to deal with, and that I had best be on my guard.

  "Mr. Crone," said I, gazing straight at him, "what's this you have to say to me?"

  "Sit you down," he answered, pointing at a chair that was shoved under one side of the little table. "Pull that out and sit you down. What we shall have to say to each other'll not be said in five minutes. Let's confer in the proper and comfortable fashion."

  I did what he asked, and he took another chair himself and sat down opposite me, propping his elbow on the table and leaning across it, so that, the table being but narrow, his sharp eyes and questioning lips were closer to mine than I cared for. And while he leaned forward in his chair I sat back in mine, keeping as far from him as I could, and just staring at him——perhaps as if I had been some trapped animal that couldn't get itself away from the eyes of another that meant presently to kill it. Once again I asked him what he wanted.

  "You didn't answer my question," he said. "I'll put it again, and you needn't be afraid that anybody'll overhear us in this place, it's safe! I say once more, what for did you not tell in your evidence at that inquest that you saw Sir Gilbert Carstairs at the cross-roads on the night of the murder! Um?"

  "That's my business!" said I

  "Just so," said he. "And I'll agree with you in that. It is your business. But if by that you mean that it's yours alone, and nobody else's, then I don't agree. Neither would the police."

  We stared at each other across the table for a minute of silence, and then I put the question directly to him that I had been wanting to put ever since he had first spoken. And I put it crudely enough.

  "How did you know?" I asked.

  He laughed at that——sneeringly, of course.

  "Aye, that's plain enough," said he. "No fencing about that! How did I know? Because when you saw Sir Gilbert I wasn't five feet away from you, and what you saw, I saw. I saw you both!"

  "You were there?" I exclaimed.

  "Snug behind the hedge in front of which you planted yourself," he answered. "And if you want to know what I was doing there, I'll tell you. I was doing——or had been doing——a bit of poaching. And, as I say, what you saw, I saw!"

  "Then I'll ask you a question, Mr. Crone," I said. "Why haven't you told, yourself?"

  "Aye!" he said. "You may well ask me that. But I wasn't called as a witness at yon inquest."

  "You could have come forward," I suggested.

  "I didn't choose," he retorted.

  We both looked at each other again, and while we looked he swigged off his drink and helped himself, just as generously, to more. And, as I was getting bolder by that time, I set to work at questioning him.

  "You'll be attaching some importance to what you saw?" said I.

  "Well," he replied slowly, "it's not a pleasant thing——for a man's safety——to be as near as what he was to a place where another man's just been done to his death."

  "You and I were near enough, anyway," I remarked.

  "We know what we were there for," he flung back at me. "We don't know what he was there for."

  "Put your tongue to it, Mr. Crone," I said boldly. "The fact is, you suspicion him?"

  "I suspicion a good deal, maybe," he admitted. "After all, even a man of that degree's only a man, when all's said and done, and there might be reasons that you and me knows nothing about. Let me ask you a question," he went on, edging nearer at me across the table. "Have you mentioned it to a soul?"

  I made a mistake at that, but he was on me so sharp, and his manner was so insistent, that I had the word out of my lips before I thought.

  "No!" I replied. "I haven't."

  "Nor me," he said. "Nor me. So——you and me are the only two folk that know."

  "Well?" I asked.

  He took another pull at his liquor and for a moment or two sat silent, tapping his finger-nails against the rim of the glass.

  "It's a queer business, Moneylaws," he said at last. "Look at it anyway you like, it's a queer business! Here's one man, yon lodger of your mother's, comes into the town and goes round the neighbourhood reading the old parish registers and asking questions at the parson's——aye, and he was at it both sides of the Tweed——I've found that much out for myself! For what purpose? Is there money at the back of it——property——something of that sort, dependent on this Gilverthwaite unearthing some facts or other out of those old books? And then comes another man, a stranger, that's as mysterious in his movements as Gilverthwaite was, and he's to meet Gilverthwaite at a certain lonely spot, and at a very strange hour, and Gilverthwaite can't go, and he gets you to go, and you find the man——murdered! And——close by——you've seen this other man, who, between you and me——though it's no secret——is as much a stranger to the neighbourhood as ever Gilverthwaite was or Phillips was!"

  "I don't follow you at that," I said.

  "No?" said he. "Then I'll make it plainer to you. Do you know that until yon Sir Gilbert Carstairs came here, not so long since, to take up his title and his house and the estate, he'd never set foot in the place, never been near the place, this thirty year? Man! his own father, old Sir Alec, and his own sister, Mrs. Ralston of Craig, had never clapped Eyes on him since he went away from Hathercleugh a youngster of one-and-twenty!"

  "Do you tell me that, Mr. Crone?" I exclaimed, much surprised at his words. "I didn't know so much. Where had he been, then?"

  "God knows!" said he. "And himself. It was said he was a doctor in London, and in foreign parts. Him and his brother——elder brother, you're aware, Mr. Michael——they both quarrelled with the old baronet when they were little more than lads, and out they cleared, going their own ways. And news of Michael's death, and the proofs of it, came home not so long before old Sir Alec died, and as Michael had never married, of course the younger brother succeeded when his father came to his end last winter. And, as I say, who knows anything about his past doings when he was away more than thirty years, nor what company he kept, nor what secrets he has? Do you follow me?"

  "Aye, I'm following you, Mr. Crone," I answered. "It comes to this——you suspect Sir Gilbert?"

  "What I say," he answered, "is this: he may have had something to do with the affair. You cannot tell. But you and me knows he was near the place——coming from its direction——at the time the murder would be in the doing. And——there is nobody knows but you——and me!"

  "What are you going to do about it?" I asked.

  He had another period of reflection before he replied, and when he spoke it was to the accompaniment of a warning look.

  "It's an ill-advised thing to talk about rich men," said he. "Yon man not only has money of his own, in what you might call considerable quantity, but his wife he brought with him is a woman of vast wealth, they tell me. It would be no very wise action on your part to set rumours going, Moneylaws, unless you could substantiate them."

  "What about yourself?" I asked. "You know as much as I do."

  "Aye, and there's one word that sums all up," said he. "And it's a short one. Wait! There'll be more coming out. Keep your counsel a bit. And when the moment comes, and if the moment comes——why, you know there's me behind you to corroborate. And——that's all!"

  He got up then, with a nod, as if to show that the interview was over, and I was that glad to get away from him that I walked off without another word.

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