Dead Men’s Money - Joseph Smith Fletcher - ebook
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Another fast-paced murder mystery by J.S. Fletcher told in the first person. He wrote about 200 books on a wide variety of subjects, both fiction and non-fiction. He was one of the leading writers of detective fiction in the „Golden Age”. It was first published in 1920, and has just the right stock of truly good characters, balanced by a couple of nasties. A young apprentice solicitor in a rural English town bordering Scotland, is riding his bike through lonely stretches of countryside very late in the evening, to run a strange errand for a mysterious lodger at his mother’s house. He finds a recently murdered body at the end of his ride, and the mysteries keep piling up from there.

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Liczba stron: 377

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Contents

I. THE ONE-EYED MAN

II. THE MIDNIGHT MISSION

III. THE RED STAIN

IV. THE MURDERED MAN

V. THE BRASS-BOUND CHEST

VI. MR. JOHN PHILLIPS

VII. THE INQUEST ON JOHN PHILLIPS

VIII. THE PARISH REGISTERS

IX. THE MARINE-STORE DEALER

X. THE OTHER WITNESS

XI. SIGNATURES TO THE WILL

XII. THE SALMON GAFF

XIII. SIR GILBERT CARSTAIRS

XIV. DEAD MAN'S MONEY

XV. FIVE HUNDRED A YEAR

XVI. THE MAN IN THE CELL

XVII. THE IRISH HOUSEKEEPER

XVIII. THE ICE AX

XIX. MY TURN

XX. THE SAMARITAN SKIPPER

XXI. MR. GAVIN SMEATON

XXII. I READ MY OWN OBITUARY

XXIII. FAMILY HISTORY

XXIV. THE SUIT OF CLOTHES

XXV. THE SECOND DISAPPEARANCE

XXVI. MRS. RALSTON OF CRAIG

XXVII. THE BANK BALANCE

XXVIII. THE HATHERCLEUGH BUTLER

XXIX. ALL IN ORDER

XXX. THE CARSTAIRS MOTTO

XXXI. NO TRACE

XXXII. THE LINK

XXXIII. THE OLD TOWER

XXXIV. THE BARGAIN

XXXV. THE SWAG

XXXVI. GOLD

XXXVII. THE DARK POOL

CHAPTER I

THE ONE-EYED MAN

The very beginning of this affair, which involved me, before I was aware of it, in as much villainy and wickedness as ever man heard of, was, of course, that spring evening, now ten years ago, whereon I looked out of my mother’s front parlour window in the main street of Berwick-upon-Tweed and saw, standing right before the house, a man who had a black patch over his left eye, an old plaid thrown loosely round his shoulders, and in his right hand a stout stick and an old-fashioned carpet-bag. He caught sight of me as I caught sight of him, and he stirred, and made at once for our door. If I had possessed the power of seeing more than the obvious, I should have seen robbery, and murder, and the very devil himself coming in close attendance upon him as he crossed the pavement. But as it was, I saw nothing but a stranger, and I threw open the window and asked the man what he might be wanting.

“Lodgings!” he answered, jerking a thickly made thumb at a paper which my mother had that day set in the transom above the door. “Lodgings! You’ve lodgings to let for a single gentleman. I’m a single gentleman, and I want lodgings. For a month–maybe more. Money no object. Thorough respectability–on my part. Few needs and modest requirements. Not likely to give trouble. Open the door!”

I went into the passage and opened the door to him. He strode in without as much as a word, and, not waiting for my invitation, lurched heavily–he was a big, heavy-moving fellow–into the parlour, where he set down his bag, his plaid, and his stick, and dropping into an easy chair, gave a sort of groan as he looked at me.

“And what’s your name?” he demanded, as if he had all the right in the world to walk into folks’ houses and ask his questions. “Whatever it is, you’re a likely-looking youngster!”

“My name’s Hugh Moneylaws,” I answered, thinking it no harm to humour him. “If you want to know about lodgings you must wait till my mother comes in. Just now she’s away up the street–she’ll be back presently.”

“No hurry, my lad,” he replied. “None whatever. This is a comfortable anchorage. Quiet. Your mother’ll be a widow woman, now?”

“Yes,” said I shortly.

“Any more of you–brothers and sisters?” he asked. “Any–aye, of course!–any young children in the house? Because young children is what I cannot abide–except at a distance.”

“There’s nobody but me and my mother, and a servant lass,” I said. “This is a quiet enough house, if that’s what you mean.”

“Quiet is the word,” said he. “Nice, quiet, respectable lodgings. In this town of Berwick. For a month. If not more. As I say, a comfortable anchorage. And time, too!–when you’ve seen as many queer places as I have in my day, young fellow, you’ll know that peace and quiet is meat and drink to an ageing man.”

It struck me as I looked at him that he was just the sort of man that you would expect to hear of as having been in queer places–a sort of gnarled and stubbly man, with a wealth of seams and wrinkles about his face and what could be seen of his neck, and much grizzled hair, and an eye–only one being visible–that looked as if it had been on the watch ever since he was born. He was a fellow of evident great strength and stout muscle, and his hands, which he had clasped in front of him as he sat talking to me, were big enough to go round another man’s throat, or to fell a bullock. And as for the rest of his appearance, he had gold rings in his ears, and he wore a great, heavy gold chain across his waistcoat, and was dressed in a new suit of blue serge, somewhat large for him, that he had evidently purchased at a ready-made-clothing shop, not so long before.

My mother came quietly in upon us before I could reply to the stranger’s last remark, and I saw at once that he was a man of some politeness and manners, for he got himself up out of his chair and made her a sort of bow, in an old-fashioned way. And without waiting for me, he let his tongue loose on her.

“Servant, ma’am,” said he. “You’ll be the lady of the house–Mrs. Moneylaws. I’m seeking lodgings, Mrs. Moneylaws, and seeing your paper at the door-light, and your son’s face at the window, I came in. Nice, quiet lodgings for a few weeks is what I’m wanting–a bit of plain cooking–no fal-lals. And as for money–no object! Charge me what you like, and I’ll pay beforehand, any hand, whatever’s convenient.”

My mother, a shrewd little woman, who had had a good deal to do since my father died, smiled at the corners of her mouth as she looked the would-be lodger up and down.

“Why, sir,” said she. “I like to know who I’m taking in. You’re a stranger in the place, I’m thinking.”

“Fifty years since I last clapped eyes on it, ma’am,” he answered. “And I was then a youngster of no more than twelve years or so. But as to who and what I am–name of James Gilverthwaite. Late master of as good a ship as ever a man sailed. A quiet, respectable man. No swearer. No drinker–saving in reason and sobriety. And as I say–money no object, and cash down whenever it’s wanted. Look here!”

He plunged one of the big hands into a trousers’ pocket, and pulled it out again running over with gold. And opening his fingers he extended the gold-laden palm towards us. We were poor folk at that time, and it was a strange sight to us, all that money lying in the man’s hand, and he apparently thinking no more of it than if it had been a heap of six-penny pieces.

“Help yourself to whatever’ll pay you for a month,” he exclaimed. “And don’t be afraid–there’s a lot more where that came from.”

But my mother laughed, and motioned him to put up his money.

“Nay, nay, sir!” said she. “There’s no need. And all I’m asking at you is just to know who it is I’m taking in. You’ll be having business in the town for a while?”

“Not business in the ordinary sense, ma’am,” he answered. “But there’s kin of mine lying in more than one graveyard just by, and it’s a fancy of my own to take a look at their resting-places, d’ye see, and to wander round the old quarters where they lived. And while I’m doing that, it’s a quiet, and respectable, and a comfortable lodging I’m wanting.”

I could see that the sentiment in his speech touched my mother, who was fond of visiting graveyards herself, and she turned to Mr. James Gilverthwaite with a nod of acquiescence.

“Well, now, what might you be wanting in the way of accommodation?” she asked, and she began to tell him that he could have that parlour in which they were talking, and the bedchamber immediately above it. I left them arranging their affairs, and went into another room to attend to some of my own, and after a while my mother came there to me. “I’ve let him the rooms, Hugh,” she said, with a note of satisfaction in her voice which told me that the big man was going to pay well for them. “He’s a great bear of a man to look at,” she went on, “but he seems quiet and civil-spoken. And here’s a ticket for a chest of his that he’s left up at the railway station, and as he’s tired, maybe you’ll get somebody yourself to fetch it down for him?”

I went out to a man who lived close by and had a light cart, and sent him up to the station with the ticket for the chest; he was back with it before long, and I had to help him carry it up to Mr. Gilverthwaite’s room. And never had I felt or seen a chest like that before, nor had the man who had fetched it, either. It was made of some very hard and dark wood, and clamped at all the corners with brass, and underneath it there were a couple of bars of iron, and though it was no more than two and a half feet square, it took us all our time to lift it. And when, under Mr. Gilverthwaite’s orders, we set it down on a stout stand at the side of his bed, there it remained until–but to say until when would be anticipating.

Now that he was established in our house, the new lodger proved himself all that he had said. He was a quiet, respectable, sober sort of man, giving no trouble and paying down his money without question or murmur every Saturday morning at his breakfast-time. All his days were passed in pretty much the same fashion. After breakfast he would go out–you might see him on the pier, or on the old town walls, or taking a walk across the Border Bridge; now and then we heard of his longer excursions into the country, one side or other of the Tweed. He took his dinner in the evenings, having made a special arrangement with my mother to that effect, and a very hearty eater he was, and fond of good things, which he provided generously for himself; and when that episode of the day’s events was over, he would spend an hour or two over the newspapers, of which he was a great reader, in company with his cigar and his glass. And I’ll say for him that from first to last he never put anything out, and was always civil and polite, and there was never a Saturday that he did not give the servant-maid a half-crown to buy herself a present.

All the same–we said it to ourselves afterwards, though not at the time–there was an atmosphere of mystery about Mr. Gilverthwaite. He made no acquaintance in the town. He was never seen in even brief conversation with any of the men that hung about the pier, on the walls, or by the shipping. He never visited the inns, nor brought anybody in to drink and smoke with him. And until the last days of his lodging with us he never received a letter.

A letter and the end of things came all at once. His stay had lengthened beyond the month he had first spoken of. It was in the seventh week of his coming that he came home to his dinner one June evening, complaining to my mother of having got a great wetting in a sudden storm that had come on that afternoon while he was away out in the country, and next morning he was in bed with a bad pain in his chest, and not over well able to talk. My mother kept him in his bed and began to doctor him; that day, about noon, came for him the first and only letter he ever had while he was with us–a letter that came in a registered envelope. The servant-maid took it up to him when it was delivered, and she said later that he started a bit when he saw it. But he said nothing about it to my mother during that afternoon, nor indeed to me, specifically, when, later on, he sent for me to go up to his room. All the same, having heard of what he had got, I felt sure that it was because of it that, when I went in to him, he beckoned me first to close the door on us and then to come close to his side as he lay propped on his pillow.

“Private, my lad!” he whispered hoarsely. “There’s a word I have for you in private!”

CHAPTER II

THE MIDNIGHT MISSION

Before he said a word more, I knew that Mr. Gilverthwaite was very ill–much worse, I fancied, than my mother had any notion of. It was evidently hard work for him to get his breath, and the veins in his temples and forehead swelled out, big and black, with the effort of talking. He motioned to me to hand him a bottle of some stuff which he had sent for from the chemist, and he took a swig of its contents from the bottle neck before he spoke again. Then he pointed to a chair at the bed-head, close to his pillow.

“My lungs!” he said, a bit more easily. “Mortal bad! Queer thing, a great man like me, but I was always delicate in that way, ever since I was a nipper–strong as a bull in all else. But this word is private. Look here, you’re a lawyer’s clerk?”

He had known that, of course, for some time–known that I was clerk to a solicitor of the town, and hoping to get my articles, and in due course become a solicitor myself. So there was no need for me to do more than nod in silence.

“And being so,” he went on, “you’ll be a good hand at keeping a secret very well. Can you keep one for me, now?”

He had put out one of his big hands as he spoke, and had gripped my wrist with it–ill as he was, the grip of his fingers was like steel, and yet I could see that he had no idea that he was doing more than laying his hand on me with the appeal of a sick man.

“It depends what it is, Mr. Gilverthwaite,” I answered. “I should like to do anything I can for you.”

“You wouldn’t do it for nothing,” he put in sharply. “I’ll make it well worth your while. See here!”

He took his hand away from my wrist, put it under his pillow, and drew out a bank-note, which he unfolded before me.

“Ten pound!” he said. “It’s yours, if you’ll do a bit of a job for me–in private. Ten pound’ll be useful to you. What do you say, now?”

“That it depends on what it is,” said I. “I’d be as glad of ten pounds as anybody, but I must know first what I’m expected to do for it.”

“It’s an easy enough thing to do,” he replied. “Only it’s got to be done this very night, and I’m laid here, and can’t do it. You can do it, without danger, and at little trouble–only–it must be done private.”

“You want me to do something that nobody’s to know about?” I asked.

“Precisely!” said he. “Nobody! Not even your mother–for even the best of women have tongues.”

I hesitated a little–something warned me that there was more in all this than I saw or understood at the moment.

“I’ll promise this, Mr. Gilverthwaite,” I said presently. “If you’ll tell me now what it is you want, I’ll keep that a dead secret from anybody for ever. Whether I’ll do it or not’ll depend on the nature of your communication.”

“Well spoken, lad!” he answered, with a feeble laugh. “You’ve the makings of a good lawyer, anyway. Well, now, it’s this–do you know this neighbourhood well?”

“I’ve never known any other,” said I.

“Do you know where Till meets Tweed?” he asked.

“As well as I know my own mother’s door!” I answered.

“You know where that old–what do they call it?–chapel, cell, something of that nature, is?” he asked again.

“Aye!–well enough, Mr. Gilverthwaite,” I answered him. “Ever since I was in breeches!”

“Well,” said he, “if I was my own man, I ought to meet another man near there this very night. And–here I am!”

“You want me to meet this other man?” I asked.

“I’m offering you ten pound if you will,” he answered, with a quick look. “Aye, that is what I’m wanting!”

“To do–what?” I inquired.

“Simple enough,” he said. “Nothing to do but to meet him, to give him a word that’ll establish what they term your bony fides, and a message from me that I’ll have you learn by heart before you go. No more!”

“There’s no danger in it?” I asked.

“Not a spice of danger!” he asserted. “Not half as much as you’d find in serving a writ.”

“You seem inclined to pay very handsomely for it, all the same,” I remarked, still feeling a bit suspicious.

“And for a simple reason,” he retorted. “I must have some one to do the job–aye, if it costs twenty pound! Somebody must meet this friend o’ mine, and tonight–and why shouldn’t you have ten pound as well as another?”

“There’s nothing to do but what you say?” I asked.

“Nothing–not a thing!” he affirmed.

“And the time?” I said. “And the word–for surety?”

“Eleven o’clock is the time,” he answered. “Eleven–an hour before midnight. And as for the word–get you to the place and wait about a bit, and if you see nobody there, say out loud, ‘From James Gilverthwaite as is sick and can’t come himself’; and when the man appears, as he will, say–aye!–say ‘Panama,’ my lad, and he’ll understand in a jiffy!”

“Eleven o’clock–Panama,” said I. “And–the message?”

“Aye!” he answered, “the message. Just this, then: ‘James Gilverthwaite is laid by for a day or two, and you’ll bide quiet in the place you know of till you hear from him.’ That’s all. And–how will you get out there, now?–it’s a goodish way.”

“I have a bicycle,” I answered, and at his question a thought struck me. “How did you intend to get out there yourself, Mr. Gilverthwaite?” I asked. “That far–and at that time of night?”

“Aye!” he said. “Just so–but I’d ha’ done it easy enough, my lad–if I hadn’t been laid here. I’d ha’ gone out by the last train to the nighest station, and it being summer I’d ha’ shifted for myself somehow during the rest of the night–I’m used to night work. But–that’s neither here nor there. You’ll go? And–private?”

“I’ll go–and privately,” I answered him. “Make yourself easy.”

“And not a word to your mother?” he asked anxiously.

“Just so,” I replied. “Leave it to me.”

He looked vastly relieved at that, and after assuring him that I had the message by heart I left his chamber and went downstairs. After all, it was no great task that he had put on me. I had often stayed until very late at the office, where I had the privilege of reading law-books at nights, and it was an easy business to mention to my mother that I wouldn’t be in that night so very early. That part of my contract with the sick man upstairs I could keep well enough, in letter and spirit–all the same, I was not going out along Tweed-side at that hour of the night without some safeguard, and though I would tell no one of what my business for Mr. Gilverthwaite precisely amounted to, I would tell one person where it would take me, in case anything untoward happened and I had to be looked for. That person was the proper one for a lad to go to under the circumstances–my sweetheart, Maisie Dunlop.

And here I’ll take you into confidence and say that at that time Maisie and I had been sweethearting a good two years, and were as certain of each other as if the two had been twelve. I doubt if there was such another old-fashioned couple as we were anywhere else in the British Islands, for already we were as much bound up in each other as if we had been married half a lifetime, and there was not an affair of mine that I did not tell her of, nor had she a secret that she did not share with me. But then, to be sure, we had been neighbours all our lives, for her father, Andrew Dunlop, kept a grocer’s shop not fifty yards from our house, and she and I had been playmates ever since our school-days, and had fallen to sober and serious love as soon as we arrived at what we at any rate called years of discretion–which means that I was nineteen, and she seventeen, when we first spoke definitely about getting married. And two years had gone by since then, and one reason why I had no objection to earning Mr. Gilverthwaite’s ten pounds was that Maisie and I meant to wed as soon as my salary was lifted to three pounds a week, as it soon was to be, and we were saving money for our furnishing–and ten pounds, of course, would be a nice help.

So presently I went along the street to Dunlop’s and called Maisie out, and we went down to the walls by the river mouth, which was a regular evening performance of ours. And in a quiet corner, where there was a seat on which we often sat whispering together of our future, I told her that I had to do a piece of business for our lodger that night and that the precise nature of it was a secret which I must not let out even to her.

“But here’s this much in it, Maisie,” I went on, taking care that there was no one near us that could catch a word of what I was saying; “I can tell you where the spot is that I’m to do the business at, for a fine lonely spot it is to be in at the time of night I’m to be there–an hour before midnight, and the place is that old ruin that’s close by where Till meets Tweed–you know it well enough yourself.”

I felt her shiver a bit at that, and I knew what it was that was in her mind, for Maisie was a girl of imagination, and the mention of a lonely place like that, to be visited at such an hour, set it working.

“Yon’s a queer man, that lodger of your mother’s, Hughie,” she said. “And it’s a strange time and place you’re talking of. I hope nothing’ll come to you in the way of mischance.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, nothing at all!” I hastened to say. “If you knew it all, you’d see it’s a very ordinary business that this man can’t do himself, being kept to his bed. But all the same, there’s naught like taking precautions beforehand, and so I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I should be back in town soon after twelve, and I’ll give a tap at your window as I pass it, and then you’ll know all’s right.”

That would be an easy enough thing to manage, for Maisie’s room, where she slept with a younger sister, was on the ground floor of her father’s house in a wing that butted on to the street, and I could knock at the pane as I passed by. Yet still she seemed uneasy, and I hastened to say what–not even then knowing her quite as well as I did later–I thought would comfort her in any fears she had. “It’s a very easy job, Maisie,” I said; “and the ten pounds’ll go a long way in buying that furniture we’re always talking about.”

She started worse than before when I said that and gripped the hand that I had round her waist.

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