Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight ebook

R. Austin Freeman

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Mr. Pottermack, wrongly convicted for forgery of checks, has escaped from jail, made his fortune in the US and come back to England to find his fiance. The only one who is cleverer than Mr. Pottermack is Freeman’s detective, Dr. Thorndyke. In this novel, the sympathetic, engaging and enterprising Mr. Pottermack commits the perfect crime, only to discover that a perfect crime is the last thing in the world he wants. Then Mr. Pottermack comes up against the legendary Dr. John Thorndyke, physician and lawyer, the dean of scientific detection, who seems to know far too much about what Mr. Pottermack did on a night when there was nobody around to see him. Will Dr. Thorndyke celebrate another triumph? Or will Mr. Pottermack avoid detection and finally find happiness?

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Contents

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER I. MR. POTTERMACK MAKES A DISCOVERY

CHAPTER II. THE SECRET VISITOR

CHAPTER III. MR. POTTERMACK GOES A-SUGARING

CHAPTER IV. THE PLACING OF THE SUN-DIAL

CHAPTER V. DR. THORNDYKE LISTENS TO A STRANGE STORY

CHAPTER VI. DR. THORNDYKE BECOMES INQUISITIVE

CHAPTER VII. THE CRIMINAL RECORDS

CHAPTER VIII. MR. POTTERMACK SEEKS ADVENTURE

CHAPTER IX. PROVIDENCE INTERVENES

CHAPTER X. A RETROSPECT

CHAPTER XI. MR. POTTERMACK’S DILEMMA

CHAPTER XII. THE UNDERSTUDY

CHAPTER XIII. THE SETTING OF THE TABLEAU

CHAPTER XIV. THE DISCOVERY

CHAPTER XV. DR. THORNDYKE’S CURIOSITY IS AROUSED

CHAPTER XVI. EXIT KHAMA-HERU

CHAPTER XVII. DR. THORNDYKE RELATES A QUEER CASE

CHAPTER XVIII. THE SUN-DIAL HAS THE LAST WORD

PROLOGUE

THE afternoon of a sultry day near the end of July was beginning to merge into evening. The crimson eye of the declining sun peered out through chinks in a bank of slaty cloud as if taking a last look at the great level of land and water before retiring for the night; while already, in the soft, greenish grey of the eastern sky, the new-risen moon hung like a globe of pearl.

It was a solitary scene; desolate, if you will, or peaceful. On the one hand the quiet waters of a broad estuary; on the other a great stretch of marshes; and between them the sea wall, following faithfully the curves and indentations of the shore and fading away at either end into invisibility.

A great stillness brooded over the place. On the calm water, far out beyond the shallows, one or two coasting craft lay at anchor, and yet farther out a schooner and a couple of barges crept up on the flood tide. On the land side in the marshy meadows a few sheep grazed sedately, and in the ditch that bordered the sea wall the water-voles swam to and fro or sat on the banks and combed their hair. Sound there was none save the half-audible wash of the little waves upon the shore and now and again the querulous call of a sea-gull.

In strange contrast to the peaceful stillness that prevailed around was the aspect of the one human creature that was visible. Tragedy was written in every line of his figure; tragedy and fear and breathless haste. He was running–so far as it was possible to run among the rough stones and the high grass–at the foot of the sea wall on the seaward side; stumbling onward desperately, breathing hard, and constantly brushing away with his hand the sweat that streamed down his forehead into his eyes. At intervals he paused to scramble up the slope of the wall among the thistles and ragwort, and with infinite caution, to avoid even showing his head on the skyline, peered over the top backwards and forwards, but especially backwards where, in the far distance, the grey mass of a town loomed beyond the marshes.

There was no mystery about the man’s movements. A glance at his clothing explained everything. For he was dressed in prison grey, branded with the broad arrow and still bearing the cell number. Obviously, he was an escaped convict.

Criminologists of certain Continental schools are able to give us with remarkable exactness the facial and other characteristics by which the criminal may be infallibly recognized. Possibly these convenient “stigmata” may actually occur in the criminals of those favoured regions. But in this backward country it is otherwise; and we have to admit the regrettable fact that the British criminal inconsiderately persists in being a good deal like other people. Not that the criminal class is, even here, distinguished by personal beauty or fine physique. The criminal is a low-grade man; but he is not markedly different from other low-grade men.

But the fugitive whose flight in the shelter of the sea wall we are watching did not conform even to the more generalized type. On the contrary, he was a definitely good-looking young man rather small and slight yet athletic and well-knit, with a face not only intelligent and refined but, despite his anxious and even terrified expression, suggestive of a courageous, resolute personality. Whatever had brought him to a convict prison, he was not of the rank and file of its inmates.

Presently, as he approached a bluff which concealed a stretch of the sea wall ahead, he slowed down into a quick walk, stooping slightly and peering forward cautiously to get a view of the shore beyond the promontory, until, as he reached the most projecting point of the wall, he paused for a moment and then crept stealthily forward, alert and watchful for any unexpected thing that might be lurking round the promontory.

Suddenly he stopped dead and then drew back a pace, craning up to peer over the high, rushy grass, and casting a glance of intense scrutiny along the stretch of shore that had come into view. After a few moments he again crept forward slowly and silently, still gazing intently along the shore and the face of the sea wall that was now visible for nearly a mile ahead. And still he could see nothing but that which had met his eyes as he crept round the bluff. He drew himself up and looked down at it with eager interest.

A little heap of clothes; evidently the shed raiment of a bather, as the completeness of the outfit testified. And in confirmation, just across the narrow strip of “saltings”, on the smooth expanse of muddy sand the prints of a pair of naked feet extended in a line towards the water. But where was the bather? There was only a single set of footprints, so that he must be still in the water or have come ashore farther down. Yet neither on the calm water nor on the open, solitary shore was any sign of him to be seen.

It was very strange. On that smooth water a man swimming would be a conspicuous object, and a naked man on that low, open shore would be still more conspicuous. The fugitive looked around with growing agitation. From the shore and the water his glance came back to the line of footprints; and now, for the first time, he noticed something very remarkable about them. They did not extend to the water. Starting from the edge of the saltings, they took a straight line across the sand, every footprint deep and distinct, to within twenty yards of the water’s edge; and there they ended abruptly. Between the last footprint and the little waves that broke on the shore was a space of sand perfectly smooth and untouched.

What could be the meaning of this? The fugitive gazed with knitted brows at that space of smooth sand; and even as he gazed, the explanation flashed upon him. The tide was now coming in, as he could see by the anchored vessels. But when these footprints were made, the tide was going out. The spot where the footprints ended was the spot where the bather had entered the water. Then–since the tide had gone out to the low-water mark and had risen again to nearly half-tide–some five hours must have passed since that man had walked down into the water.

All this flashed through the fugitive’s brain in a matter of seconds. In those seconds he realized that the priceless heap of clothing was derelict. As to what had become of the owner, he gave no thought but that in some mysterious way he had apparently vanished for good. Scrambling up the slope of the sea wall, he once more scanned the path on its summit in both directions; and still there was not a living soul in sight. Then he slid down, and breathlessly and with trembling hands stripped off the hated livery of dishonour and, not without a certain incongruous distaste, struggled into the derelict garments.

A good deal has been said–with somewhat obvious truth–about the influence of clothes upon the self-respect of the wearer. But surely there could be no more extreme instance than the present one, which, in less than one brief minute, transformed a manifest convict into a respectable artisan. The change took effect immediately. As the fugitive resumed his flight he still kept off the skyline; but he no longer hugged the base of the wall, he no longer crouched nor did he run. He walked upright out on the more or less level saltings, swinging along at a good pace but without excessive haste. And as he went he explored the pockets of the strange clothes to ascertain what bequests the late owner had made to him, and brought up at the first cast a pipe, a tobacco-pouch, and a box of matches. At the first he looked a little dubiously, but could not resist the temptation; and when he had dipped the mouthpiece in a little salt pool and scrubbed it with a handful of grass, he charged the bowl from the well-filled pouch, lighted it and smoked with an ecstasy of pleasure born of long deprivation.

Next, his eye began to travel over the abundant jetsam that the last spring-tide had strewn upon the saltings. He found a short length of old rope, and then he picked up from time to time a scrap of driftwood. Not that he wanted the fuel, but that a bundle of driftwood seemed a convincing addition to his make-up and would explain his presence on the shore if he should be seen. When he had made up a small bundle with the aid of the rope, he swung it over his shoulder and collected no more.

He still climbed up the wall now and again to keep a look-out for possible pursuers, and at length, in the course of one of these observations, he espied a stout plank set across the ditch and connected with a footpath that meandered away across the marshes. In an instant he decided to follow that path, whithersoever it might lead. With a last glance towards the town, he boldly stepped up to the top of the wall, crossed the path at its summit, descended the landward side, walked across the little bridge and strode away swiftly along the footpath across the marshes.

He was none too soon. At the moment when he stepped off the bridge, three men emerged from the waterside alley that led to the sea wall and began to move rapidly along the rough path. Two of them were prison warders, and the third, who trundled a bicycle, was a police patrol.

“Pity we didn’t get the tip a bit sooner”, grumbled one of the warders. “The daylight’s going fast, and he’s got a devil of a start.”

“Still”, said the constable cheerfully, “it isn’t much of a place to hide in. The wall’s a regular trap; sea one side and a deep ditch the other. We shall get him all right, or else the patrol from Clifton will. I expect he has started by now.”

“What did you tell the sergeant when you spoke to him on the ‘phone?”

“I told him there was a runaway coming along the wall. He said he would send a cyclist patrol along to meet us.”

The warder grunted. “A cyclist might easily miss him if he was hiding in the grass or in the rushes by the ditch. But we must see that we don’t miss him. Two of us had better take the two sides of the wall so as to get a clear view.”

His suggestion was adopted at once. One warder climbed down and marched along the saltings, the other followed a sort of sheep-track by the side of the ditch, while the constable wheeled his bicycle along the top of the wall. In this way they advanced as quickly as was possible to the two men stumbling over the rough ground at the base of the wall, searching the steep sides, with their rank vegetation, for any trace of the lost sheep, and making as little noise as they could. So for over a mile they toiled on, scanning every foot of the rough ground as they passed but uttering no word. Each of the warders could see the constable on the path above, and thus the party was enabled to keep together.

Suddenly the warder on the saltings stopped dead and emitted a shout of triumph. Instantly the constable laid his bicycle on the path and slithered down the bank, while the other warder came scrambling over the wall, twittering with excitement. Then the three men gathered together and looked down at the little heap of clothes, from which the discoverer had already detached the jacket and was inspecting it.

“They’re his duds all right”, said he. “Of course, they couldn’t be anybody else’s. But here’s his number. So that’s that.”

“Yes”, agreed the other, “they’re his clothes right enough. But the question is, Where’s my nabs himself?”

They stepped over to the edge of the saltings and gazed at the line of footprints. By this time the rising tide had covered up the strip of smooth, unmarked sand and was already eating away the footprints, winch now led directly to the water’s edge.

“Rum go”, commented the constable, looking steadily over the waste of smooth water. “He isn’t out there. If he was, you’d see him easily, even in this light. The water’s as smooth as oil.”

“Perhaps he’s landed farther down”, suggested the younger warder.

“What for?” demanded the constable.

“Might mean to cross the ditch and get away over the marshes.”

The constable laughed scornfully. “What, in his birthday suit? I don’t think. No, I reckon he had his reasons for taking to the water, and those reasons would probably be a barge sailing fairly close inshore. They’d have to take him on board, you know; and from my experience of bargees, I should say they’d probably give him a suit of togs and keep their mouths shut.”

The elder warder looked meditatively across the water.

“Maybe you are right”, said he, “but barges don’t usually come in here very close. The fairway is right out the other side. And, for my part, I should be mighty sorry to start on a swim out to a sailing vessel.”

“You might think differently if you’d just hopped out of the jug”, the constable remarked as he lit a cigarette.

“Yes, I suppose I should be ready to take a bit of a risk. Well”, he concluded, “if that was his lay, I hope he got picked up. I shouldn’t like to think of the poor beggar drifting about the bottom of the river. He was a decent, civil little chap.”

There was silence for a minute or two as the three men smoked reflectively. Then the constable proposed, as a matter of form, to cycle along the wall and make sure that the fugitive was not lurking farther down. But before he had time to start, a figure appeared in the distance, apparently mounted on a bicycle and advancing rapidly towards them. In a few minutes he arrived and dismounted on the path above them glancing down curiously at the jacket which the warder still held.

“Those his togs?” he asked.

“Yes”, replied the constable. “I suppose you haven’t seen a gent bathing anywhere along here?”

The newcomer shook his head. “No”, said he. “I have patrolled the whole wall from Clifton to here and I haven’t seen a soul excepting old Barnett, the shepherd.”

The elder warder gathered up the rest of the clothes and handed them to his junior. “Well”, he said, “we must take it that he’s gone to sea. All that we can do is to get the Customs people to give us a passage on their launch to make the round of all the vessels anchored about here. And if we don’t find him on any of them, we shall have to hand the case over to the police.”

The three men climbed to the top of the wall and turned their faces towards the town; and the Clifton patrol, having turned his bicycle about, mounted expertly and pedalled away at a smart pace to get back to his station before the twilight merged into night.

At that very moment, the fugitive was stepping over a stile that gave access from the marshes to a narrow, tree-shaded lane. Here he paused for a few moments to fling away the bundle of driftwood into the hedge and refill and light his pipe. Then, with a springy step, be strode away into the gathering moonlit dusk.

CHAPTER I. MR. POTTERMACK MAKES A DISCOVERY

A CONSCIENTIOUS desire on the part of the present historian to tell his story in a complete and workmanlike fashion from the very beginning raises the inevitable question. What was the beginning? Not always an easy question to answer offhand; for if we reflect upon certain episodes in our lives and try to track them to their beginnings, we are apt, on further cogitation, to discover behind those beginnings antecedents yet more remote which have played an indispensable part in the evolution of events.

As to this present history the whole train of cause and consequence might fairly be supposed to have been started by Mr. Pottermack’s singular discovery in his garden. Yet, when we consider the matter more closely, we may doubt if that discovery would ever have been made if it had not been for the sun-dial. Certainly it would not have been made at that critical point in Mr. Pottermack’s life; and if it had not–but we will not waste our energies on vain speculations. We will take the safe and simple course. We will begin with the sun-dial.

It stood, when Mr. Pottermack’s eyes first beheld it, in a mason’s yard at the outskirts of the town. It was obviously of some age, and therefore could not have been the production of Mr. Gallett, the owner of the yard; and standing amidst the almost garishly new monuments and blocks of freshly hewn stone, it had in its aspect something rather downfallen and forlorn. Now Mr. Pottermack had often had secret hankerings for a sun-dial. His big walled garden seemed to cry out for some central feature: and what more charming ornament could there be than a dial which like the flowers and trees amidst which it would stand lived and had its being solely by virtue of the golden sunshine?

Mr. Pottermack halted at the wide-open gate and looked at the dial (I use the word, for convenience to include the stone support). It was a graceful structure with a twisted shaft like that of a Norman column, a broad base and a square capital. It was nicely lichened and weathered, and yet in quite good condition. Mr. Pottermack found something very prepossessing in its comely antiquity. It had a motto, too, incised on the sides of the capital; and when he had strolled into the yard, and, circumnavigating the sun-dial, had read it, he was more than ever pleased. He liked the motto. It struck a sympathetic chord. Sole orto: spes: decedente pax. It might have been his own personal motto. At the rising of the sun; hope: at the going down thereof, peace. On his life the sun had risen in hope: and peace at eventide was his chief desire. And the motto was discreetly reticent about the intervening period. So, too, were there passages in the past which he was very willing to forget so that the hope of the morning might be crowned by peace when the shadows of life were lengthening.

“Having a look at the old dial, Mr. Pottermack?” said the mason, crossing the yard and disposing himself for conversation. “Nice bit of carving, that, and wonderful well preserved. He’s counted out a good many hours in his time, he has. Seventeen thirty-four. And ready to count out as many again. No wheels to go rusty. All done with a shadder. No wear and tear about a shadder. And never runs down and never wants winding up. There’s points about a sun-dial.”

“Where did it come from?”

“I took it from the garden of Apsley Manor House, what’s being rebuilt and brought up to date. New owner told me to take it away. Hadn’t any use for sun-dials in these days, he said. More hasn’t anybody else. So I’ve got him on my hands. Wouldn’t like him for your garden, I suppose? He’s going cheap.”

It appeared, on enquiry, that he was going ridiculously cheap. So cheap that Mr. Pottermack closed with the offer there and then,

“You will bring it along and fix it for me?” said he.

“I will, sir. Don’t want much fixing. If you will settle where he is to stand, I’ll bring him and set him up. But you’d better prepare the site. Dig well down into the subsoil and make a level surface. Then I can put a brick foundation and there will be no fear of his settling out of the upright.”

That was how it began. And on the knife-edge of such trivial chances is human destiny balanced. From the mason’s yard Mr. Pottermack sped homeward with springy step, visualizing the ground-plan of his garden as he went; and by the time that he let himself into his house by the front door within the rose-embowered porch he was ready to make a bee-line for the site of his proposed excavation.

He did not, however; for, as he opened the door, he became aware of voices in the adjacent room and his housekeeper came forth to inform him that Mrs. Bellard had called to see him, and was waiting within. Apparently the announcement was not unwelcome, for Mr. Pottermack’s cheerfulness was in nowise clouded thereby. We might even go far as to say that his countenance brightened.

Mrs. Bellard was obviously a widow. That is not to say that she was arrayed in the hideous “weeds” with which, a generation ago, women used to make their persons revolting and insult the memory of the deceased. But she was obviously a widow. More obviously than is usual in these latter days. Nevertheless her sombre raiment was well-considered, tasteful and becoming; indeed the severity of her dress seemed rather to enhance her quiet, dignified comeliness. She greeted Mr. Pottermack with a frank smile, and as they shook hands she said in a singularly pleasant, musical voice:

“It is too bad of me to come worrying you like this. But you said I was to.”

“Of course I did”, was the hearty response; and as the lady produced from her basket a small tin box, he enquired: “Snails?”

“Snails”, she replied; and they both laughed.

“I know”, she continued, “it is very silly of me. I quite believe that, as you say, they die instantaneously when you drop them into boiling water. But I really can’t bring myself to do it.”

“Very natural, too”, said Pottermack. “Why should you, when you have a fellow conchologist to do it for you? I will slaughter them this evening and extract them from their shells, and you shall have their empty residences to-morrow. Shall I leave them at your house?”

“You needn’t trouble to do that. Give them to your housekeeper and I will call for them on my way home from the shops. But I really do impose on you most shamefully. You kill the poor little beasts, you clean out the shells, you find out their names and you leave me nothing to do but stick them on card, write their names under them, and put them in the cabinet. I feel a most horrid impostor when I show them at the Naturalists’ Club as my own specimens.”

“But, my dear Mrs. Bellard”, protested Pottermack, “you are forgetting that you collect them, that you discover them in their secret haunts and drag them out to the light of day. That is the really scientific part of conchology. The preparation of the shells and their identification are mere journeyman’s work. The real naturalist’s job is the field work; and you are a positive genius in finding these minute shells–the pupas and cochlicopas and such like.”

The lady rewarded him with a grateful and gratified smile, and, opening the little box, exhibited her “catch” and recounted some of the thrilling incidents of the chase, to which Pottermack listened with eager interest. And as they chatted, but half seriously, an observer would have noted that they were obviously the best of friends, and might have suspected that the natural history researches were, perhaps, somewhat in the nature of a plausible and convenient pretext for their enjoying a good deal of each other’s society. These little precautions are sometimes necessary in a country district where people take an exaggerated interest in one another and tongues are apt to wag rather freely.

But a close observer would have noted certain other facts. For instance, these two persons were curiously alike in one respect: they both looked older to the casual stranger than they appeared on closer inspection. At a first glance, Mr. Pottermack, spectacled, bearded, and grave, seemed not far short of fifty. But a more critical examination showed that first impression to be erroneous. The quick, easy movements and the supple strength that they implied in the rather small figure, as well as the brightness of the alert, attentive eyes behind the spectacles, suggested that the lines upon the face and the white powdering of the hair owed their existence to something other than the mere effluxion of time. So, too, with Mrs. Bollard. On a chance meeting she would have passed for a well-preserved middle-aged woman. But now, as she chatted smilingly with her friend, the years dropped from her until, despite the white hairs that gleamed among the brown and a faint hint of crow’s-feet, she seemed almost girlish.

But there was something else; something really rather odd. Each of the two cronies seemed to have a way of furtively examining the other. There was nothing unfriendly or suspicious in these regards. Quite the contrary, indeed. But they conveyed a queer impression of curiosity and doubt, differently manifested, however, in each. In Mr. Pottermack’s expression there was something expectant. He had the air of waiting for some anticipated word or action; but the expression vanished instantly when his companion looked in his direction. The widow’s manner was different, but it had the same curious furtive quality. When Pottermack’s attention was occupied, she would cast a steady glance at him; and then the lines would come back upon her forehead, her lips would set, and there would steal across her face a look at once sad, anxious, and puzzled. Especially puzzled. And if the direction of her glance had been followed, it would have been traced more particularly to his profile and his right ear. It is true that both these features were a little unusual. The profile was almost the conventional profile of the Greek sculptors–the nose continuing the line of the forehead with no appreciable notch–a character very seldom seen in real persons. As to the ear, it was a perfectly well-shaped, proportionate ear. It would have been of no interest to Lombroso. But it had one remarkable peculiarity: on its lobule was what doctors call a “diffuse naevus” and common folk describe as a “port-wine mark”. It was quite small, but very distinct; as if the lobule had been dipped into damson juice. Still, it hardly seemed to justify such anxious and puzzled consideration.

“What a dreadful pair of gossips we are!” Mrs. Bellard exclaimed, taking her basket up from the table. “I’ve been here half an hour by the clock, and I know I have been hindering you from some important work. You looked full of business as you came up the garden path.”

“I have been full of business ever since–land and fresh-water mollusca. We have had a most instructive talk.”

“So we have”, she agreed, with a smile. “We are always instructive; especially you. But I must really take myself off now and leave you to your other business.”

Mr. Pottermack held the door open for her and followed her down the hall to the garden path, delaying her for a few moments to fill her basket with roses from the porch. When he had let her out at the gate, he lingered to watch her as she walked away towards the village; noting how the dignified, matronly bearing seemed to contrast with the springy tread and youthful lissomness of movement.

As he turned away to re-enter the house he saw the postman approaching; but as he was not expecting any letters, and his mind was still occupied with his late visitor, he did not wait. Nor when, a minute later, he heard the characteristic knock, did he return to inspect the letter-box; which was, just as well in the circumstances. Instead, he made his way out by the back door into the large kitchen garden and orchard and followed the long, central path which brought him at length to a high red brick wall, in which was a door furnished with a knocker and flanked by an electric bell. This he opened with a latchkey of the Yale pattern, and, having passed through, carefully shut it behind him.

He was now in what had probably been originally the orchard and kitchen garden of the old house in which he lived, but which had since been converted into a flower garden, though many of the old fruit trees still remained. It was a large oblong space, more than a quarter of an acre in extent, and enclosed on all sides by a massive old wall nearly seven feet high, in which were only two openings: the door by which he had just entered and another door at one side, also fitted with a Yale lock and guarded, in addition, by two bolts.

It was a pleasant place if quiet and seclusion were the chief desire of the occupant–as they apparently were, to judge by Mr. Pottermack’s arrangements. The central space was occupied by a large, smooth grass plot, surrounded by well-made paths, between which and the wall were wide flower borders. In one corner was a brick-built summer-house; quite a commodious affair, with a good tiled roof, a boarded floor, and space enough inside for a couple of armchairs and a fair-sized table. Against the wall opposite to the summer-house was a long shed or outhouse with glass lights in the roof, evidently a recently built structure and just a little unsightly–but that would be remedied when the yew hedge that had been planted before it grew high enough to screen it from view. This was the workshop, or rather a range of workshops; for Mr. Pottermack was a man of many occupations, and, being also a tidy, methodical man, he liked to keep the premises appertaining to those occupations separate.

On the present occasion he made his way to the end compartment, in which were kept the gardening tools and appliances, and having provided himself with a spade, a mallet, a long length of cord, and a half-dozen pointed stakes, walked out to the grass plot and looked about him. He was quite clear in his mind as to where the sun-dial was to stand, but it was necessary to fix the spot with precision. Hence the stakes and the measuring-line, which came into use when he had paced out the distances approximately and enabled him, at length, to drive a stake into the ground and thereby mark the exact spot which would be occupied by the centre of the dial.

From this centre, with the aid of the cord, he drew a circle some four yards in diameter and began at once to take up the turf, rolling it up tidily and setting it apart ready for relaying. And now he came to the real job. He had to dig right down to the subsoil. Well, how far down was that? He took off his coat, and, grasping the spade with a resolute air, gave a vigorous drive into the soil at the edge of the circle. That carried him through the garden mould down into a fine, yellowish, sandy loam, a small quantity of which came up on the spade. He noted its appearance with some interest but went on digging, opening up a shallow trench round the circumference of the circle.

By the time that he had made a second complete circuit and carried his trench to a depth of some eight inches, the circle was surrounded by a ring of the yellow loam, surprisingly bulky in proportion to the shallow cavity from which it had been derived. And once more his attention was attracted by its appearance. For Mr. Pottermack amongst his various occupations included occasionally that of sand-casting. Hitherto he had been in the habit of buying his casting-sand by the bag. But this loam, judging by the sharp impressions of his feet where he had trodden in it, was a perfect casting-sand, and to be had for the taking at his very door. By way of testing its cohesiveness, he took up a large handful and squeezed it tightly. When he opened his hand the mass remained hard and firm and showed the impressions of his fingers perfectly to the very creases of the skin.

Very pleased with his discovery, and resolving to secure a supply of the loam for his workshop, he resumed his digging, and presently came down to a stratum where the loam was quite dense and solid and came up on the spade in definite coherent lumps like pieces of a soft rock. This, he decided, was the true subsoil and was as deep as he need go; and having decided this, he proceeded to dig out the ret of the circle to the same depth.

The work was hard and, after a time, extremely monotonous. Still Mr. Pottermack laboured steadily with no tendency to slacking. But the monotony exhausted his attention, and while he worked on mechanically with unabated vigour his thoughts wandered away from his task; now in the direction of the sun-dial, and now–at, perhaps, rather more length–in that of his pretty neighbour and her spoils, which were still awaiting his attentions in the tin box.

He was getting near the centre of the circle when his spade cut through and brought up a piece of spongy, fungus-eaten wood. He glanced at it absently, and having flung it outside the circle, entered his spade at the same spot and gave a vigorous drive. As the spade met with more than usual resistance, he threw a little extra weight on it. And then, suddenly, the resistance gave way; the spade drove through, apparently into vacant space. Mr. Pottermack uttered a startled cry, and after an instant’s precarious balancing saved himself by a hair’s breadth from going through after it.

For a moment he was quite shaken–and no wonder. He had staggered back a pace or two and now stood, still grasping the spade, and gazing with horror at the black, yawning hole that had so nearly swallowed him up. But as, after all, it had not, he presently pulled himself together and began cautiously to investigate. A very little tentative probing with the spade made everything clear. The hole which he had uncovered was the mouth of an old well: one of those pernicious wells which have no protective coping but of which the opening, flush with the surface of the ground, is ordinarily closed by a hinged flap. The rotten timber that he had struck was part of this flap, and he could now see the rusty remains of the hinges. When the well had gone out of use, some one, with incredible folly, had simply covered it up by heaping earth on the closed flap.

Mr. Pottermack, having made these observations, proceeded methodically to clear away the soil until the entire mouth of the well was exposed. Then, going down on hands and knees, he approached, and cautiously advancing his head over the edge, peered down into the dark cavity. It was not quite dark, however, for though the slimy brick cylinder faded after a few feet into profound gloom, Mr. Pottermack could see, far down, as it seemed in the very bowels of the earth, a little circular spot of light on which was the dark silhouette of a tiny head. He picked up a pebble, and, holding it at the centre of the opening, let it drop. After a brief interval the bright spot grew suddenly dim and the little head vanished: and after another brief interval there came up to his ear a hollow “plop” followed by a faint, sepulchral splash.

There was, then, water in the well; not that it mattered to him, as he was going to cover it up again. But he was a man with a healthy curiosity and he felt that he would like to know all about this well before he once more consigned it to oblivion. Walking across to the workshop, he entered the metalwork section and cast his eye around for a suitable sinker. Presently, in the “oddments” drawer, he found a big iron clock-weight. It was heavier than was necessary, but he took it in default of anything more suitable, and going back to the well, he tied it to one end of the measuring-cord. The latter, being already marked in fathoms by means of a series of knots, required no further preparation. Lying full-length by the brink of the well, Mr. Pottermack dropped the weight over and let the cord slip through his hands, counting the knots as it ran out and moving it up and down as the weight neared the water.

The hollow splash for which he was listening came to his ear when the hand that grasped the cord was between the fourth and fifth knots. The depth, therefore, of the well to the surface of the water was about twenty-seven feet. He made a mental note of the number and then let the cord slip more rapidly through his hands. It was just after the seventh knot had passed that the tension of the cord suddenly relaxed, telling him that the weight now rested on the bottom. This gave a depth of sixteen feet of water and a total depth of about forty-three feet. And to think that, but for the merest chance, he would now have been down there where the clock-weight was resting!

With a slight shudder he rose, and, hauling up the cord, coiled it neatly and laid it down, with the weight still attached, a few feet away on the cleared ground. The question that he now had to settle was how far the existence of the well would interfere with the placing of the sun-dial. It did not seem to him that it interfered at all. On the contrary; the well had to be securely covered up in any case, and the sun-dial on top of the covering would make it safe for ever. For it happened that the position of the well coincided within a foot with the chosen site of the dial; which seemed quite an odd coincidence until one remembered that the position of both had probably been determined by identical sets of measurements, based on the ground-plan of the garden.

One thing, however, was obvious. Mr. Gallett would have to be informed of the discovery without delay, for something different from me proposed brickwork foundation would be required. Accordingly, Mr. Pottermack slipped on his coat, and, having sought out a hurdle and laid it over the well–for you can’t be too careful in such a case–set off without delay for the mason’s yard. As he opened the front door, he observed the letter still lying in the wire basket under the letter-slit. But he did not take it out. It could wait until he came back.

Mr. Gallett was deeply interested, but he was also a little regretful. The altered arrangements would cause delay and increase the cost of the job. He would want two biggish slabs of stone, which would take some time to prepare.

“But why cover the well at all?” said he. “A good well with sixteen feet of water in it is not to be sneezed at if you gets a hard frost and all the pipes is bunged up and busted.”

But Mr. Pottermack shook his head. Like most town-bred men, he had rather a dislike to wells, and his own recent narrow escape had done nothing to diminish his prejudice. He would have no open well in his garden.

“The only question is”, he concluded, “whether the sun-dial will be safe right over the well. Will a stone slab bear the weight?”

“Lor’ bless you”, replied Gallett, “a good thick slab of flagstone would bear St. Paul’s Cathedral. And we are going to put two, one on top of the other to form a step; and the base of the dial itself a good two foot wide. It will be as strong as a house.”

“And when do you think you’ll be able to fix it?”

Mr. Gallett reflected. “Let’s see. To-day’s Toos-day. It will take a full day to get them two slabs sawn off the block and trimmed to shape. Shall we say Friday?”

“Friday will do perfectly. There is really no hurry, though I shall be glad to get the well covered and made safe. But don’t put yourself out.”

Mr. Gallett promised that he would not, and Pottermack then departed homeward to resume his labours.

As he re-entered his house, he picked the letter out of the letter-cage, and, holding it unopened in his hand, walked through to the garden. Emerging into the open air, he turned the letter over and glanced at the address; and in an instant a most remarkable change came over him. The quiet gaiety faded from his face and he stopped dead, gazing at the superscription with a frown of angry apprehension. Tearing open the envelope, he drew out the letter, unfolded it and glanced quickly through the contents. Apparently it was quite short, for, almost immediately, he refolded it, returned it to its envelope and slipped the latter into his pocket.

Passing through into the walled garden, he took off his coat, laid it down in the summer-house and fell to work on the excavation, extending the circle into a square and levelling the space around the well to make a bed for the stone slab. But all his enthusiasm had evaporated. He worked steadily and with care; but his usually cheerful face was gloomy and stern, and a certain faraway look in his eyes hinted that his thoughts were not on what he was doing but on something suggested by the ill-omened missive.

When the light failed, he replaced the hurdle, cleaned and put away the spade, and then went indoors with his coat on his arm to wash and take his solitary supper; of which he made short work, eating and drinking mechanically and gazing before him with gloomy preoccupation. Supper being finished and cleared away, he called for a kettle of boiling water and a basin, and, taking from a cupboard a handled needle, a pair of fine forceps, and a sheet of blotting-paper, laid them on the table with Mrs. Bellard’s tin box. The latter he opened and very carefully transferred the imprisoned snails to the basin, which he then filled with boiling water; whereupon the unfortunate molluscs each emitted a stream of bubbles and shrank instantly into the recesses of its shell.

Having deposited the kettle in the fireplace, Mr. Pottermack drew a chair up to the table and seated himself with the basin before him and the blotting-paper at his right hand. But before beginning his work he drew forth the letter, straightened it out and, laying it on the table, read it through slowly. It bore no address and no signature; and though the envelope was addressed to Marcus Pottermack, Esq., it began, oddly enough, “Dear Jeff.”

“I send you this little billy doo”, it ran on, “with deep regret, which I know you will share. But it can’t be helped. I had hoped that the last one would be in fact, the last one, whereas it turns out to have been the last but one. This is positively my final effort, so keep up your pecker. And it is only a small affair this time. A hundred–in notes, of course. Fivers are safest. I shall call at the usual place on Wednesday at 8 p.m. (‘in the gloaming, O! my darling!’) This will give you time to hop up to town in the morning to collect the rhino. And mind I’ve got to have it. No need to dwell on unpleasant alternatives. Necessity knows no law. I am in a devil of a tight corner and you have got to help me out. So adieu until Wednesday evening.”

Mr. Pottermack turned from the letter, and, taking up the mounted needle, with the other hand picked out of the basin a snail with a delicate yellow shell (Helix hortensis, var. arenicola) and, regarding it reflectively, proceeded with expert care to extract the shrivelled body of the mollusc. But though his attention seemed to be concentrated on his task, his thoughts were far away, and his eyes strayed now and again to the letter at his side.

“I am in a devil of a tight corner”. Of course he was. The incurable plunger is always getting into tight corners. “And you have got to help me out”. Exactly. In effect, the money that you have earned by unstinted labour and saved by self-denial has got to be handed to me that I may drop it into the bottomless pit that swallows up the gambler’s losings. “This is positively my final effort”. Yes. So was the last one, and the one before that; and so would be the next, and the one that would follow it, and so on without end. Mr. Pottermack saw it all clearly; realized, as so many other sufferers have realized, that there is about a blackmailer something hopelessly elusive. No transaction with him has any finality. He has something to sell, and he sells it; but behold! even as the money passes the thing sold is back in the hand of the vendor, to be sold again and yet again. No covenant with him is binding; no agreement can be enforced. There can be no question of cutting a loss, for, no matter how drastic the sacrifice, it is no sooner made than the status quo ante reappears.

On these truths Mr. Pottermack cogitated gloomily and asked himself, as such victims often do, whether it would not have been better in the first place to tell this ruffian to go to the devil and do his worst. Yet that had hardly seemed practicable. For the fellow would probably have done his worst:-and his worst was so extremely bad. On the other hand, it was impossible that this state of affairs should be allowed to go on indefinitely. He was not by any means a rich man, though this parasite persisted in assuming that he was. At the present rate he would soon be sucked dry–reduced to stark poverty. And even then he would be no safer.

The intensity of his revolt against his intolerable position was emphasized by his very occupation. The woman for whom he was preparing these specimens was very dear to him. In any pictures that his fancy painted of the hoped-for future, hers was the principal figure. His fondest wish was to ask her to be his wife, and he felt a modest confidence that she would not say him nay. But how could he ask any woman to marry him while this vampire clung to his body? Marriage was not for him–a slave to-day, a pauper to-morrow, at the best; and at the worst–

The evening had lapsed into night by the time that all the specimens had been made presentable for the cabinet. It remained to write a little name-ticket for each with the aid, when necessary, of a handbook of the British Mollusca, and then to wrap each separate shell, with its ticket, in tissue paper and pack it tenderly in the small tin box. Thus was he occupied when his housekeeper, Mrs. Gadby, “reported off duty” and retired; and the clock in the hall was striking eleven when, having packed the last of the shells, he made the tin box into a neat little parcel with the consignee’s name legibly written on the cover.

The house was profoundly quiet. Usually Mr. Pottermack was deeply appreciative of the restful silence that settles down upon the haunts of men when darkness has fallen upon field and hedgerow and the village has gone to sleep. Very pleasant it was then to reach down from the bookshelves some trusty companion and draw the big easy-chair up to the fireplace, even though, as to-night, the night was warm and the grate empty. The force of habit did, indeed, even now, lead him to the bookshelves. But no book was taken down. He had no inclination for reading to-night. Neither had he any inclination for sleep. Instead, he lit a pipe and walked softly up and down the room, stem and gloomy of face, yet with a look of concentration as if he were considering a difficult problem.

Up and down, up and down he paced, hardly making a sound. And as the time passed, the expression of his face underwent a subtle change. It lost none of its sternness, but yet it seemed to clear, as if a solution of the problem were coming into sight.

The striking of the clock in the hall, proclaiming the end of the day, brought him to a halt. He glanced at his watch, knocked out his empty pipe, lit a candle and blew out the lamp. As he turned to pass out to the stairs, something in his expression seemed to hint at a conclusion reached. All the anxiety and bewilderment had passed out of his face. Stern it was still; but there had come into it a certain resolute calm; the calm of a man who has made up his mind.

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