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Dead Men's Money(Chapter3)

2006-08-28 23:33

  Chapter III. The Red Stain

  It was just half-past nine by the town clocks when I rode out across the old Border Bridge and turned up the first climb of the road that runs alongside the railway in the direction of Tillmouth Park, which was, of course, my first objective. A hot, close night it was——there had been thunder hanging about all day, and folk had expected it to break at any minute, but up to this it had not come, and the air was thick and oppressive. I was running with sweat before I had ridden two miles along the road, and my head ached with the heaviness of the air, that seemed to press on me till I was like to be stifled. Under ordinary circumstances nothing would have taken me out on such a night. But the circumstances were not ordinary, for it was the first time I had ever had the chance of earning ten pounds by doing what appeared to be a very simple errand; and though I was well enough inclined to be neighbourly to Mr. Gilverthwaite, it was certainly his money that was my chief inducement in going on his business at a time when all decent folk should be in their beds. And for this first part of my journey my thoughts ran on that money, and on what Maisie and I would do with it when it was safely in my pocket. We had already bought the beginnings of our furnishing, and had them stored in an unused warehouse at the back of her father's premises; with Mr. Gilverthwaite's bank-note, lying there snugly in waiting for me, we should be able to make considerable additions to our stock, and the wedding-day would come nearer.

  But from these anticipations I presently began to think about the undertaking on which I was now fairly engaged. When I came to consider it, it seemed a queer affair. As I understood it, it amounted to this:——Here was Mr. Gilverthwaite, a man that was a stranger in Berwick, and who appeared to have plenty of money and no business, suddenly getting a letter which asked him to meet a man, near midnight, and in about as lonely a spot as you could select out of the whole district. Why at such a place, and at such an hour? And why was this meeting of so much importance that Mr. Gilverthwaite, being unable to keep the appointment himself, must pay as much as ten pounds to another person to keep it for him? What I had said to Maisie about Mr. Gilverthwaite having so much money that ten pounds was no more to him than ten pence to me was, of course, all nonsense, said just to quieten her fears and suspicions——I knew well enough, having seen a bit of the world in a solicitor's office for the past six years, that even millionaires don't throw their money about as if pounds were empty peascods. No! Mr. Gilverthwaite was giving me that money because he thought that I, as a lawyer's clerk, would see the thing in its right light as a secret and an important business, and hold my tongue about it. And see it as a secret business I did——for what else could it be that would make two men meet near an old ruin at midnight, when in a town where, at any rate, one of them was a stranger, and the other probably just as much so, they could have met by broad day at a more convenient trysting-place without anybody having the least concern in their doings? There was strange and subtle mystery in all this, and the thinking and pondering it over led me before long to wondering about its first natural consequence——who and what was the man I was now on my way to meet, and where on earth could he be coming from to keep a tryst at a place like that, and at that hour?

  However, before I had covered three parts of that outward journey, I was to meet another man who, all unknown to me, was to come into this truly extraordinary series of events in which I, with no will of my own, was just beginning——all unawares——to be mixed up. Taking it roughly, and as the crow flies, it is a distance of some nine or ten miles from Berwick town to Twizel Bridge on the Till, whereat I was to turn off from the main road and take another, a by-lane, that would lead me down by the old ruin, close by which Till and Tweed meet. Hot as the night was, and unpleasant for riding, I had plenty and to spare of time in hand, and when I came to the cross-ways between Norham and Grindon, I got off my machine and sat down on the bank at the roadside to rest a bit before going further. It was a quiet and a very lonely spot that; for three miles or more I had not met a soul along the road, and there being next to nothing in the way of village or farmstead between me and Cornhill, I did not expect to meet one in the next stages of my journey. But as I sat there on the bank, under a thick hedge, my bicycle lying at my side, I heard steps coming along the road in the gloom——swift, sure steps, as of a man who walks fast, and puts his feet firmly down as with determination to get somewhere as soon as he may. And hearing that——and to this day I have often wondered what made me do it——I off with my cap, and laid it over the bicycle-lamp, and myself sat as still as any of the wee creatures that were doubtless lying behind me in the hedge.

  The steps came from the direction in which I was bound. There was a bit of a dip in the road just there: they came steadily, strongly, up it. And presently——for this was the height of June, when the nights are never really dark——the figure of a man came over the ridge of the dip, and showed itself plain against a piece of grey sky that was framed by the fingers of the pines and firs on either side of the way. A strongly-built figure it was, and, as I said before, the man put his feet, evidently well shod, firmly and swiftly down, and with this alternate sound came the steady and equally swift tapping of an iron-shod stick. Whoever this night-traveller was, it was certain he was making his way somewhere without losing any time in the business.

  The man came close by me and my cover, seeing nothing, and at a few yards' distance stopped dead. I knew why. He had come to the cross-roads, and it was evident from his movements that he was puzzled and uncertain. He went to the corners of each way: it seemed to me that he was seeking for a guide-post. But, as I knew very well, there was no guide-post at any corner, and presently he came to the middle of the roads again and stood, looking this way and that, as if still in a dubious mood. And then I heard a crackling and rustling as of stiff paper——he was never more than a dozen yards from me all the time,——and in another minute there was a spurt up of bluish flame, and I saw that the man had turned on the light of an electric pocket-torch and was shining it on a map which he had unfolded and shaken out, and was holding in his right hand.

  At this point I profited by a lesson which had been dinned into my ears a good many times since boyhood. Andrew Dunlop, Maisie's father, was one of those men who are uncommonly fond of lecturing young folk in season and out of season. He would get a lot of us, boys and girls, together in his parlour at such times as he was not behind the counter and give us admonitions on what he called the practical things of life. And one of his favourite precepts——especially addressed to us boys——was "Cultivate your powers of observation." This advice fitted in very well with the affairs of the career I had mapped out for myself——a solicitor should naturally be an observant man, and I had made steady effort to do as Andrew Dunlop counselled. Therefore it was with a keenly observant eye that I, all unseen, watched the man with his electric torch and his map, and it did not escape my notice that the hand which held the map was short of the two middle fingers. But of the rest of him, except that he was a tallish, well-made man, dressed in——as far as I could see things——a gentlemanlike fashion in grey tweeds, I could see nothing. I never caught one glimpse of his face, for all the time that he stood there it was in shadow.

  He did not stay there long either. The light of the electric torch was suddenly switched off; I heard the crackling of the map again as he folded it up and pocketed it. And just as suddenly he was once more on the move, taking the by-way up to the north, which, as I knew well, led to Norham, and——if he was going far——over the Tweed to Ladykirk. He went away at the same quick pace; but the surface in that by-way was not as hard and ringing as that of the main road, and before long the sound of his steps died away into silence, and the hot, oppressive night became as still as ever.

  I presently mounted my bicycle again and rode forward on my last stage, and having crossed Twizel Bridge, turned down the lane to the old ruin close by where Till runs into Tweed. It was now as dark as ever it would be that night, and the thunderclouds which hung all over the valley deepened the gloom. Gloomy and dark the spot indeed was where I was to meet the man of whom Mr. Gilverthwaite had spoken. By the light of my bicycle lamp I saw that it was just turned eleven when I reached the spot; but so far as I could judge there was no man there to meet anybody. And remembering what I had been bidden to do, I spoke out loud.

  "From James Gilverthwaite, who is sick, and can't come himself," I repeated. And then, getting no immediate response, I spoke the password in just as loud a voice. But there was no response to that either, and for the instant I thought how ridiculous it was to stand there and say Panama to nobody.

  I made it out that the man had not yet come, and I was wheeling my bicycle to the side of the lane, there to place it against the hedge and to sit down myself, when the glancing light of the lamp fell on a great red stain that had spread itself, and was still spreading, over the sandy ground in front of me. And I knew on the instant that this was the stain of blood, and I do not think I was surprised when, advancing a step or two further, I saw, lying in the roadside grass at my feet, the still figure and white face of a man who, I knew with a sure and certain instinct, was not only dead but had been cruelly murdered.

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