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Dead Men's Money(Chapter37)

2006-08-28 23:42

  Chapter XXXVII. The Dark Pool

  As I went into that house with the rest of them, I had two sudden impressions. One was that here at my side, in the person of Mr. Gavin Smeaton, was, in all probability, its real owner, the real holder of the ancient title, who was coming to his lawful rights in this strange fashion. The other was of the contrast between my own coming at that moment and the visit which I had paid there, only a few evenings previously, when Hollins had regarded me with some disfavour and the usurper had been so friendly. Now Hollins was lying dead in the old ruin, and the other man was a fugitive——and where was he?

  Murray had brought us there to do something towards settling that point, and he began his work at once by assembling every Jack and Jill in the house and, with the help of the London detective, subjecting them to a searching examination as to the recent doings of their master and mistress and the butler. But Mr. Lindsey motioned Mr. Elphinstone, and Mr. Gavin Smeaton, and myself into a side-room and shut the door on us.

  "We can leave the police to do their own work," he remarked, motioning us to be seated at a convenient table. "My impression is that they'll find little out from the servants. And while that's afoot, I'd like to have that promised story of yours, Mr. Elphinstone——I only got an idea of it, you know, when you and Murray came to my house. And these two would like to hear it——one of them, at any rate, is more interested in this affair than you'd think or than he knew of himself until recently."

  Now that we were in a properly lighted room, I took a more careful look at the former steward of Hathercleugh. He was a well-preserved, shrewd-looking man of between sixty and seventy: quiet and observant, the sort of man that you could see would think a lot without saying much. He smiled a little as he put his hands together on the table and glanced at our expectant faces——it was just the smile of a man who knows what he is talking about.

  "Aye, well, Mr. Lindsey," he responded, "maybe there's not so much mystery in this affair as there seems to be once you've got at an idea. I'll tell you how I got at mine and what's come of it. Of course, you'll not know, for I think you didn't come to Berwick yourself until after I'd left the neighbourhood——but I was connected with the Hathercleugh estate from the time I was a lad until fifteen years ago, when I gave up the steward's job and went to live on a bit of property of my own, near Alnwick. Of course, I knew the two sons——Michael and Gilbert; and I remember well enough when, owing to perpetual quarrelling with their father, he gave them both a good lot of money and they went their several ways. And after that, neither ever came back that I heard of, nor did I ever come across either, except on one occasion——to which I'll refer in due course. In time, as I've just said, I retired; in time, too, Sir Alexander died, and I heard that, Mr. Michael being dead in the West Indies, Sir Gilbert had come into the title and estates. I did think, once or twice, of coming over to see him; but the older a man gets, the fonder he is of his own fireside——and I didn't come here, nor did I ever hear much of him; he certainly made no attempt to see me. And so we come to the beginning of what we'll call the present crisis. That beginning came with the man who turned up in Berwick this spring."

  "You mean Gilverthwaite?" asked Mr. Lindsey.

  "Aye——but I didn't know him by that name!" assented Mr. Elphinstone, with a sly smile. "I didn't know him by any name. What I know is this. It must have been about a week——certainly not more——before Gilverthwaite's death that he——I'm sure of his identity, because of his description——called on me at my house, and with a good deal of hinting and such-like told me that he was a private inquiry agent, and could I tell him something about the late Michael Carstairs?——and that, it turned out, was: Did I know if Michael was married before he left England, and if so, where, and to whom? Of course, I knew nothing about it, and as the man wouldn't give me the least information I packed him off pretty sharply. And the next thing I heard was of the murder of John Phillips. I didn't connect that with the visit of the mysterious man at first; but of course I read the account of the inquest, and Mr. Ridley's evidence, and then I began to see there was some strange business going on, though I couldn't even guess at what it could be. And I did nothing, and said nothing——there seemed nothing, then, that I could do or say, though I meant to come forward later——until I saw the affair of Crone in the newspapers, and I knew then that there was more in the matter than was on the surface. So, when I learnt that a man named Carter had been arrested on the charge of murdering Crone, I came to Berwick, and went to the court to hear what was said when Carter was put before the magistrates. I got a quiet seat in the court——and maybe you didn't see me."

  "I did!" I exclaimed. "I remember you perfectly, Mr. Elphinstone."

  "Aye!" he said with an amused smile. "You're the lad that's had his finger in the pie pretty deep——you're well out of it, my man! Well——there I was, and a man sitting by me that knew everybody, and before ever the case was called this man pointed out Sir Gilbert Carstairs coming in and being given a seat on the bench. And I knew that there was a fine to-do, and perhaps nobody but myself knowing of it, for the man pointed out to me was no Sir Gilbert Carstairs, nor any Carstairs at all——not he! But——I knew him!"

  "You knew him!" exclaimed Mr. Lindsey. "Man!——that's the first direct bit of real illumination we've had! And——who is he, then, Mr. Elphinstone?"

  "Take your time!" answered Mr. Elphinstone. "We'll have to go back a bit: you'll put the police court out of your mind a while. It's about——I forget rightly how long since, but it was just after I gave up the stewardship that I had occasion to go up to London on business of my own. And there, one morning, as I was sauntering down the lower end of Regent Street, I met Gilbert Carstairs, whom I'd never seen since he left home. He'd his arm in mine in a minute, and he would have me go with him to his rooms in Jermyn Street, close by——there was no denying him. I went, and found his rooms full of trunks, and cases, and the like——he and a friend of his, he said, were just off on a sort of hunting-exploration trip to some part of Central America; I don't know what they weren't going to do, but it was to be a big affair, and they were to come back loaded up with natural-history specimens and to make a pile of money out of the venture, too. And he was telling me all about it in his eager, excitable way when the other man came in, and I was introduced to him. And, gentlemen, that's the man I saw——under the name of Sir Gilbert Carstairs——on the bench at Berwick only the other day! He's changed, of course——more than I should have thought he would have done in fifteen years, for that's about the time since I saw him and Gilbert together there in Jermyn Street,——but I knew him as soon as I clapped eyes on him, and whatever doubt I had went as soon as I saw him lift his right hand to his moustache, for there are two fingers missing on that hand——the middle ones——and I remembered that fact about the man Gilbert Carstairs had introduced to me. I knew, I tell you, as I sat in that court, that the fellow there on the bench, listening, was an impostor!"

  We were all bending forward across the table, listening eagerly——and there was a question in all our thoughts, which Mr. Lindsey put into words.

  "The man's name?"

  "It was given to me, in Jermyn Street that morning, as Meekin——Dr. Meekin," answered Mr. Elphinstone. "Gilbert Carstairs, as you're aware, was a medical man himself——he'd qualified, anyway——and this was a friend of his. But that was all I gathered then——they were both up to the eyes in their preparations, for they were off for Southampton that night, and I left them to it——and, of course, never heard of them again. But now to come back to the police court the other day: I tell you, I was——purposely——in a quiet corner, and there I kept till the case was over; but just when everybody was getting away, the man on the bench caught sight of me——"

  "Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Lindsey, looking across at me. "Ah! that's another reason——that supplements the ice-ax one! Aye!——he caught sight of you, Mr. Elphinstone——"

  "And," continued Mr. Elphinstone, "I saw a queer, puzzled look come into his face. He looked again——looked hard. I took no notice of his look, though I continued to watch him, and presently he turned away and went out. But I knew he had recognized me as a man he had seen somewhere. Now remember, when Gilbert Carstairs introduced me to this man, Gilbert did not mention any connection of mine with Hathercleugh——he merely spoke of me as an old friend; so Meekin, when he came into these parts, would have no idea of finding me here. But I saw he was afraid——badly afraid——because of his recognition and doubt about me. And the next question was——what was I to do? I'm not the man to do things in haste, and I could see this was a black, deep business, with maybe two murders in it. I went off and got my lunch——and thought. At the end of it, rather than go to the police, I went to your office, Mr. Lindsey. And your office was locked up, and you were all away for the day. And then an idea struck me: I have a relative——the man outside with Murray——who's a high-placed officer in the Criminal Investigation Department at New Scotland Yard——I would go to him. So——I went straight off to London by the very next South express. Why? To see if he could trace anything about this Meekin."

  "Aye!" nodded Mr. Lindsey admiringly. "You were in the right of it, there——that was a good notion. And——you did?"

  "Not since the Jermyn Street affair," answered Mr. Elphinstone. "We traced him in the medical register all right up to that point. His name is Francis Meekin——he's various medical letters to it. He was in one of the London hospitals with Gilbert Carstairs——he shared those rooms in Jermyn Street with Gilbert Carstairs. We found——easily——a man who'd been their valet, and who remembered their setting off on the hunting expedition. They never came back——to Jermyn Street, anyway. Nothing was ever heard or seen of them in their old haunts about that quarter from that time. And when we'd found all that out, we came straight down, last evening, to the police——and that's all, Mr. Lindsey. And, of course, the thing is plain to me——Gilbert probably died while in this man's company; this man possessed himself of his letters and papers and so on; and in time, hearing how things were, and when the chance came, he presented himself to the family solicitors as Gilbert Carstairs. Could anything be plainer?"

  "Nothing!" exclaimed Mr. Lindsey. "It's a sure case——and simple when you see it in the light of your knowledge; a case of common personation. But I'm wondering what the connection between the Gilverthwaite and Phillips affair and this Meekin has been——if we could get at it?"

  "Shall I give you my theory?" suggested Mr. Elphinstone. "Of course, I've read all there's been in the newspapers, and Murray told me a lot last night before we came to you, and you mentioned Mr. Ridley's discovery,——well, then, I've no doubt whatever that this young gentleman is Michael Carstairs' son, and therefore the real owner of the title and estates! And I'll tell you how I explain the whole thing. Michael Carstairs, as I remember him——and I saw plenty of him as a lad and a young man——was what you'd call violently radical in his ideas. He was a queer, eccentric, dour chap in some ways——kindly enough in others. He'd a most extraordinary objection to titles, for one thing; another, he thought that, given a chance, every man ought to make himself. Now, my opinion is that when he secretly married a girl who was much below him in station, he went off to America, intending to put his principles in practice. He evidently wanted his son to owe nothing to his birth; and though he certainly made ample and generous provision for him, and gave him a fine start, he wanted him to make his own life and fortune. That accounts for Mr. Gavin Smeaton's bringing-up. But now as regards the secret. Michael Carstairs was evidently a rolling stone who came up against some queer characters——Gilverthwaite was one, Phillips——whoever he may have been——another. It's very evident, from what I've heard from you, that the three men were associates at one time. And it may be——it's probably the case——that in some moment of confidence, Michael let out his secret to these two, and that when he was dead they decided to make more inquiries into it——possibly to blackmail the man who had stepped in, and whom they most likely believed to be the genuine Sir Gilbert Carstairs. Put it this way: once they'd found the documentary evidence they wanted, the particulars of Michael's marriage, and so on, what had they to do but go to Sir Gilbert——as they thought him to be——and put it to him that, if he didn't square them to keep silence, they'd reveal the truth to his nephew, whom, it's evident, they'd already got to know of as Mr. Gavin Smeaton. But as regards the actual murder of Phillips——ah, that's a mystery that, in my opinion, is not like to be solved! The probability is that a meeting had been arranged with Sir Gilbert——which means, of course, Meekin——that night, and that Phillips was killed by him. As to Crone——it's my opinion that Crone's murder came out of Crone's own greed and foolishness; he probably caught Meekin unawares, told what he knew, and paid the penalty."

  "There's another possible theory about the Phillips murder," remarked Mr. Gavin Smeaton. "According to what you know, Mr. Elphinstone, this Meekin is a man who has travelled much abroad——so had Phillips. How do we know that when Meekin and Phillips met that night, Meekin wasn't recognized by Phillips as Meekin——and that Meekin accordingly had a double incentive to kill him?"

  "Good!" exclaimed Mr. Lindsey. "Capital theory!——and probably the right one. But," he continued, rising and making for the door, "all the theories in the world won't help us to lay hands on Meekin, and I'm going to see if Murray has made out anything from his search and his questioning."

  Murray had made out nothing. There was nothing whatever in the private rooms of the supposed Sir Gilbert Carstairs and his wife to suggest any clue to their whereabouts: the servants could tell nothing of their movements beyond what the police already knew. Sir Gilbert had never been seen by any of them since the morning on which he went into Berwick to hear the case against Carter: Lady Carstairs had not been seen since her departure from the house secretly, two mornings later. Not one of all the many servants, men or women, could tell anything of their master or mistress, nor of any suspicious doings on the part of Hollins during the past two days, except that he had been away from the house a good deal. Whatever share the butler had taken in these recent events, he had played his part skilfully.

  So——as it seemed——there was nothing for it but to look further away, the impression of the police being that Meekin had escaped in one direction and his wife in another, and that it had been their plan that Hollins should foregather with them somewhere on the Continent; and presently we all left Hathercleugh House to go back to Berwick. As we crossed the threshold, Mr. Lindsey turned to Mr. Gavin Smeaton with a shrewd smile.

  "The next time you step across here, sir, it'll be as Sir Gavin Carstairs!" he said. "And we'll hope that'll not long be delayed!"

  "I'm afraid there's a good deal to do before you'll be seeing that, Mr. Lindsey," answered the prospective owner. "We're not out of the wood yet, you know."

  We certainly were not out of the wood——so far as I was concerned, those last words might have been prophetic, as, a little later, I was inclined to think Maisie's had been before she went off in the car. The rest of them, Mr. Lindsey and his group, Murray and his, had driven up from Berwick in the first conveyances they could get at that time of night, and they now went off to where they had been waiting in a neighbouring shed. They wanted me to go with them——but I was anxious about my bicycle, a nearly new machine. I had stowed it away as securely as I could under some thick undergrowth on the edge of the woods, but the downpour of rain had been so heavy that I knew it must have soaked through the foliage, and that I should have a nice lot of rust to face, let alone a saturated saddle. So I went away across the park to where I had left it, and the others drove off to Berwick——and so both Mr. Lindsey and myself broke our solemn words to Maisie. For now I was alone——and I certainly did not anticipate more danger.

  But not only danger, but the very threatening of death was on me as I went my way. We had stayed some time in Hathercleugh House, and the dawn had broken before we left. The morning came clear and bright after the storm, and the newly-risen sun——it was just four o'clock, and he was nicely above the horizon——was transforming the clustering raindrops on the firs and pines into glistening diamonds as I plunged into the thick of the woods. I had no other thought at that moment but of getting home and changing my clothes before going to Andrew Dunlop's to tell the news——when, as I crossed a narrow cut in the undergrowth, I saw, some distance away, a man's head slowly look out from the trees. I drew back on the instant, watching. Fortunately——or unfortunately——he was not looking in my direction, and did not catch even a momentary glance of me, and when he twisted his neck in my direction I saw that he was the man we had been talking of, and whom I now knew to be Dr. Meekin. And it flashed on me at once that he was hanging about for Hollins——all unconscious that Hollins was lying dead there in the old tower.

  So——it was not he who had driven that murderous knife into Hollins's throat!

  I watched him——myself securely hidden. He came out of his shelter, crossed the cut, went through the belt of wood which I had just passed, and looked out across the park to the house——all this I saw by cautiously edging through the trees and bushes behind me. He was a good forty yards away from me at that time, but I could see the strained, anxious expression on his face. Things had gone wrong——Hollins and the car had not met him where he had expected them——and he was trying to find out what had happened. And once he made a movement as if he would skirt the coppices and make for the tower, which lay right opposite, but with an open space between it and us——and then he as suddenly drew back, and began to go away among the trees.

  I followed him, cautiously. I had always been a bit proud of what I called my woodcraft, having played much at Red Indians as a youngster, and I took care to walk lightly as I stalked him from one brake to another. He went on and on——a long way, right away from Hathercleugh, and in the direction of where Till meets Tweed. And at last he was out of the Hathercleugh grounds, and close to the Till, and in the end he took to a thin belt of trees that ran down the side of the Till, close by the place where Crone's body had been found, and almost opposite the very spot, on the other bank, where I had come across Phillips lying dead; and suddenly I saw what he was after. There, right ahead, was an old boat, tied up to the bank——he was making for it, intending doubtless to put himself across the two rivers, to get the north bank of the Tweed, and so to make for safety in other quarters.

  It was there that things went wrong. I was following cautiously, from tree to tree, close to the river-bank, when my foot caught in a trail of ground bramble, and I went headlong into the brushwood. Before I was well on my feet, he had turned and was running back at me, his face white with rage and alarm, and a revolver in his hand. And when he saw who it was, he had the revolver at the full length of his arm, covering me.

  "Go back!" he said, stopping and steadying himself.

  "No!" said I.

  "If you come a yard further, Moneylaws, I'll shoot you dead!" he declared. "I mean it! Go back!"

  "I'm not coming a foot nearer," I retorted, keeping where I was. "But I'm not going back. And whenever you move forward, I'm following. I'm not losing sight of you again, Mr. Meekin!"

  He fairly started at that——and then he began looking on all sides of me, as if to find out if I was accompanied. And all of a sudden he plumped me with a question.

  "Where is Hollins?" he asked. "I'll be bound you know!"

  "Dead!" I answered him. "Dead, Mr. Meekin! As dead as Phillips, or as Abel Crone. And the police are after you——all round——and you'd better fling that thing into the Till there and come with me. You'll not get away from me as easily now as you did yon time in your yacht."

  It was then that he fired at me——from some twelve or fifteen yards' distance. And whether he meant to kill me, or only to cripple me, I don't know; but the bullet went through my left knee, at the lower edge of the knee-cap, and the next thing I knew I was sprawling on all-fours on the earth, and the next——and it was in the succeeding second, before even I felt a smart——I was staring up from that position to see the vengeance that fell on my would-be murderer in the very instant of his attempt on me. For as he fired and I fell, a woman sprang out of the bushes at his side, and a knife flashed, and then he too fell with a cry that was something between a groan and a scream——and I saw that his assailant was the Irishwoman Nance Maguire, and I knew at once who it was that had killed Hollins.

  But she had not killed Meekin. He rose like a badly wounded thing——half rose, that is, as I have seen crippled animals rise, and he cried like a beast in a trap, fighting with his hands. And the woman struck again with the knife——and again he sank back, and again he rose, and …… I shut my eyes, sick with horror, as she drove the knife into him for the third time.

  But that was nothing to the horror to come. When I looked again, he was still writhing and crying, and fighting blindly for his life, and I cried out on her to leave him alone, for I saw that in a few minutes he would be dead. I even made an effort to crawl to them, that I might drag her away from him, but my knee gave at the movement and I fell back half-fainting. And taking no more notice of me than if I had been one of the stocks and stones close by, she suddenly gripped him, writhing as he was, by the throat, and drawing him over the bank as easily as if he had been a child in her grasp, she plunged knee-deep into the Till and held him down under the water until he was drowned.

  There was a most extraordinary horror came over me as I lay there, powerless to move, propped up on my elbow, watching. The purposeful deliberation with which the woman finished her work; the dead silence about us, broken only by an occasional faint lapping of the river against its bank; the knowledge that this was a deed of revenge——all these things produced a mental state in me which was as near to the awful as ever I approached it. I could only lie and watch——fascinated. But it was over at last, and she let the body go, and stood watching for a moment as it floated into a dark pool beneath the alders; and then, shaking herself like a dog, she came up the bank and looked at me, in silence.

  "That was——in revenge for Crone," I managed to get out.

  "It was them killed Crone," she answered in a queer dry voice. "Let the pollis find this one where they found Crone! You're not greatly hurt yourself——and there's somebody at hand."

  Then she suddenly turned and vanished amongst the trees, and, twisting myself round in the direction to which she had pointed, I saw a gamekeeper coming along. His gun was thrown carelessly in the crook of his arm, and he was whistling, gaily and unconcernedly.

  I have a perpetual memento of that morning in my somewhat crippled knee. And once, two years ago, when I was on business in a certain English town, and in a quarter of it into which few but its own denizens penetrate, I met for one moment, at a slum corner, a great raw-boned Irishwoman who noticed my bit of a limp, and turned her eyes for an instant to give me a sharp look that won as sharp an answer. And there may have been mutual understanding and sympathy in the glance we thus exchanged——certainly, when it had passed between us, we continued on our separate ways, silent.

  THE END

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