Who murdered the man found roped to the gibbet on Gallows Tree Point? Who stole Miss Ellingham’s famous Kang-He Vase? What was Uncle Joseph doing at Middlebourne? From the date that old scoundrel turned up, trouble began—murder, robbery, and abduction; trouble in which Ben Heckitt and Pepita played prominent and perilous parts.
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Title: The Kang-He Vase
Date of first publication: 1924
Author: J. S. (Joseph Smith) Fletcher (1863-1935)
Date first posted: Feb. 1, 2017
Date last updated: Feb. 1, 2017
Faded Page eBook #20170201
This is the Story
www Mystery Vase www
J. S. FLETCHER
FOOTSTEPS AT MIDNIGHT
UNCLE JOSEPH KREVIN
THE LADY OF THE GRANGE
THE C.I.D. MAN
THE CRAB AND LOBSTER INN
THE KANG-HE VASE
ODD JOB MAN
THE FISH BAG
THE PINK AND MAUVE PYJAMAS
THE RESULT OF VAINGLORY
THE BROWN HAND
THE STOVE-IN BOAT
THIS TIME, THE KNIFE!
THE SOFT-HEARTED MARINER
I HEAR STRANGE THINGS
THE SCARLET PATCH
I suppose the first thing to be set down in this history of black crime (into which a good deal of mystery, and some amount of love-making, will have to be duly chronicled) is the fact that at about four o’clock of a certain Spring afternoon some ten years ago, Nellie Apps, who carried out the meagre mail of our neighbourhood, came to the garden gate of our house with something that we very rarely received—a telegram. I was sitting in the porch when she came, being downstairs that day for either the first or second time after an illness that had attacked me just before leaving school, and had put off the start of my career as articled clerk to Lawyer Philbrick in Kingshaven, and it was I who took the buff envelope from her. But it was no sooner in my hand than out of it; my sister Keziah, senior to me by twenty years, had heard the click of the latch and seen Nellie Apps from the parlour window, and she was through the hall and the front door and had the flimsy thing from my fingers before you could have counted two. And on the instant she was tearing open the envelope—but she spoke, quickly, before that business was finished.
“Ben!” she exclaimed, in her sharp, decisive fashion, “I shouldn’t wonder if Mrs. Hozier is taken bad!”
Mrs. Hozier was Keziah’s great friend; a fellow-villager, who had lately married and gone to live in Kingshaven. At my age—eighteen—I was supposed—by Keziah—not to know much of such matters, but I had an idea that Mr. and Mrs. Hozier were expecting the advent of what might be a son and heir, and failing that, at least a daughter, and a shrewd suspicion that this event had transpired, or was about to transpire, came over me as Keziah smoothed out the sheet which she drew from its cover. But Keziah gave me no precise information; her hawk eyes had read the message, and her long fingers had crumpled up the paper and thrust it into her pocket, all in a second. She turned swiftly on Nellie Apps, who stood amongst the hollyhocks, staring at her.
“You needn’t wait!” she said peremptorily. “There’s no answer.” Then, as Nellie went away down the path, Keziah turned again, in more leisurely fashion, on me in my easy chair.
“Ben!” she went on. “I’ll have to go to Kingshaven! And at once! I promised I’d go, and go I must! And I shall have to be away for the night, and maybe for some of to-morrow,” she continued. “I can trust you, Ben?”
“Trust me, Keziah?” I inquired, wonderingly. “What about?”
She looked round, as if afraid that the thrushes and blackbirds might hear us, and she dropped her voice to a whisper—a reverential whisper.
“The family silver!” she said. “Never have I left it before! And if anything should happen to it——”
She paused, and I looked up at her tall, gaunt figure, amazed, even at my age, that a grown woman could be so wholly infatuated. The family silver was Keziah’s Old Man of the Sea: I doubt if ever a night of her life passed by which did not find her agitated with fear for the family silver’s safety: more than once, seeing her examination of locks, bolts, and bars, I had wished the family silver at the bottom of the creek. She talked of it as if its value were colossal; in sober truth it consisted of a silver teapot, a cream jug, and a sugar basin; six large and six small forks, six large and six small spoons, a dozen teaspoons and a couple of soup ladles. True, it had belonged to our great, or great-great grandmother, and Keziah affirmed that it had been made in the reign of Queen Anne; but even granting these facts, I saw no reason why our lives should be perpetually shadowed by the remembrance of its presence under our old roof. And I daresay I replied to Keziah rather drily and a little sneeringly.
“Not much chance of anything happening to it, I should think, Keziah!” said I. “You’ve taken good care of that!”
I referred to Keziah’s elaborate precautions for the safety of the family silver. It lay, swathed in multitudinous folds of soft paper and rolls of wash-leather, in an oak box, iron-cornered and double-locked, which was clamped down to the floor in Keziah’s bedroom, underneath her bed. The devil himself would have been hard put to it to get at that silver while Keziah was anywhere about, and up to now she always had been about, being one of those women who never take a holiday and would be utterly miserable if they did.
“I know—I know!” she agreed hastily. “Of course, one has to take great care when one’s in possession of family heirlooms like ours! But promise me, Ben, that you’ll not cross this threshold till I get back, and that you’ll keep both doors locked!”
“I can promise all that easy enough, Keziah,” said I, glancing at my wasted legs. “I don’t think I could walk to the end of the garden!”
“Oh, but you soon will do, Ben!” she answered, reassuringly. “You’re improving wonderfully, and this fine Spring weather’ll do you no end of good. You’re a deal stronger to-day than you were yesterday—I wouldn’t leave you if you weren’t, even for Mrs. Hozier. And you’ll manage, easy enough—you can get your own supper to-night and breakfast in the morning; you could even make shift to get your dinner to-morrow, if I’m not back in time. But—you’ll not leave the house, Ben?”
“You can bet on that, Keziah!” I assured her. “I shan’t!”
“Then we’ll have our tea, and I’ll put things to rights, and then I’ll make ready and catch the six o’clock train,” she said. “I don’t like going, Ben: I’m not one for leaving home at any time. But when you’ve promised a friend that you’ll stand by at a time of trouble——”
“Is Mrs. Hozier in trouble, then?” I inquired.
“Well, you’ll hear more about it when I’m back,” replied Keziah. “Maybe it’ll end up in rejoicing, but anyway, I’ve got to go. But tea first.”
We had our tea, and Keziah, punctilious about such matters, washed up the tea-things and put them in their place, before attiring herself in her best clothes, in which, as she scarcely ever wore them, she looked strangely out of place. She fussed about a great deal before setting off, seeing to the fastenings of doors and windows, and giving me a pile of instructions and admonitions, from counsel as to what to do in case burglars came, to the importance of taking my medicine at the exact minute and in the precise quantity, and I was thankful when at last, with an umbrella in one hand and an old-fashioned reticule in the other, she finally marched off, in a great hurry, to catch the train to Mrs. Hozier. She was a good woman, my sister Keziah, but she had a lot more of Martha than of Mary in her composition, and the house seemed delightfully quiet when her queer bonnet had disappeared behind the garden hedge. That was a beautiful Spring evening, and I continued to sit in my easy chair in the jasmine-covered porch. I had books by me, and newspapers, but I looked at neither; there were things far better worth looking at in front of me. Our old house, in which, according to Keziah, at least nine generations of our family of Heckitt had been born and had died, stood, a quaint survival of other days, in the very centre of a semicircle of coast line that turned inward from high cliffs on the West to a long, shelving promontory on the East. The sea came up to within fifty yards of our garden; a mile out lay the bar, marked all day long by its line of white surf, indicated all night by a signal-light; beyond the bar stretched the wide expanse of the English Channel. Our village, Middlebourne, lay behind the house; a collection of straggling farmsteads and cottages, through which ran the great high-road from London to Kingshaven; as far as we were concerned there might not have been any village there at all, for we were well out of it; from our windows and our garden we could only see three objects which had any relation to human life, and as regards two of them, it was a relation of the far past. Almost before our gate there stretched out into the shining waters of the creek a spit of sand, at the seaward extremity of which was a group of black, smooth-topped rocks—on them stood a stout post or pillar of dark wood, clamped about with heavy iron bands, and riveted firmly to the rock by iron supports; it had an arm projecting from it at its head, and from that swung an old lantern, which occasionally was lighted. But in the old days men had been hanged from that bar; pirates, smugglers, murderers, and then their bodies had swung in chains until the flesh dropped off on the surf-swept rocks beneath; hence the local name of the spit of sand and group of rocks—Gallowstree Point. A grisly, grim spot that, especially on moonlit nights!—and there was another, close by, scarcely less eerie, in the shape of the ruin of a tide-mill, long since disused, and now given over to the ravages of the rushing waters which had once turned its wheel. These things were of the dead, but there was a house of the living at the further end of the semicircular sweep of the creek. This was a solitary, ancient place, once a farmstead but now modernised into a private residence, known as Middlebourne Grange. It had the sea on one side, and a wide moat on the other three, and there was a high, solidly-built wall on all four sides, and within the wall a double line of high elms, fencing in and shading the house, and the only way into the place was by a bridge over the moat and through a door in the wall. It wore an air of seclusion and mystery, this moated and guarded house, and of its tenant at that time, a new-comer, none of us knew anything, except that she was a middle-aged woman named Miss Ellingham, who came from London, kept men-servants and three or four maids, and had staying with her a nephew, who was just about my own age, and of whom I was madly jealous at that time because I suspected him of casting sheep’s eyes on my girl, Pepita.
Pepita was the daughter—and only child—of Captain Lucas Marigold, a retired mariner who lived in a smart little box of a place in the village. He had a nice, shady garden, with a tall mast in it, from which he flew flags, and an arbour, in the shelter of which he sipped his grog, smoked his pipe, and told sea-tales: a brown-faced, gnarled old chap, who, I think, had married late in life—anyway, he must have been getting on when Pepita came into the world. For Pepita, at the time of which I am writing, was only seventeen—and a very sweet seventeen, too. Her mother being a Spaniard, and Pepita having taken after her more than after Marigold, though he, no doubt, had been a good-looking man in his better time, Pepita was a beauty of the dark order—dark hair, dark eyes, rich colouring. And whoever says that boys of eighteen cannot fall in love lies in his throat!—I was eighteen just then, and I was madly in love with Pepita, and properly miserable about it. For Pepita was one of those damsels who was happiest when not one but half-a-dozen swains are silly about them, and there was scarce a youngster of our neighbourhood who had not begun being particular about his necktie and his socks, and the cut of his best clothes, and the proper parting of his hair, all because Pepita Marigold looked as if you could eat her and die in sheer ravishment of ecstacy at the first mouthful. Pepita came along as I sat there in the porch. She had been to see me two or three times during the last stage of my illness, but her last visit had taken place a good week previously, and I had tormented myself every day since in wondering what she was after—if she was boating with the parson’s son, or birds’ nesting with the squire’s, or if Miss Ellingham’s nephew, Bryce, had inveigled her into going a-fishing with him. But there were no signs of mental disquietude on Pepita’s face: she looked as unconcerned and heart-whole as ever when, catching sight of me, she pushed open the garden gate and came up the path.
“Hello, Ben!” she exclaimed. “Out and about again?—hurrah!”
“Not much about, Pepita,” I answered. “I haven’t walked twenty yards so far—not been outside that hedge yet.”
“Come, now!” she said. “Come down to the Point!—it’ll do you good.”
“Can’t!” I replied. And I told her why—not forgetting Keziah’s admonitions about the family silver. Pepita’s big black eyes opened.
“Sakes!” she exclaimed. “You got to stop in that rambling old house all night through by just yourself, Ben? I’d be frightened to death!”
“Oh, that’s nothing!” said I. “I don’t mind. If I did hear anything, it would only be rats.”
“Bad enough, too,” she remarked. “What would you do, though, if robbers came? You ought to have a gun, like my old dad’s. I reckon that would blow half-a-dozen robbers into mincemeat, once you let it off!”
“And me, too!” I said, visualising a certain blunderbuss which Captain Marigold kept hung on a rafter of his parlour. “No, I think I’d rather do without, Pepita. And there aren’t any robbers round here, anyway.”
“Well, ghosts, then, Ben,” she insisted. “Ghosts! Seems to me this is just the place where you’d see a tidy lot.” She craned her neck and looked up at the ivy-covered front of the old house. “Which is your room?” she went on. “That one, isn’t it, over the porch? Well, now, I guess if you look out from your window, you can see Gallowstree Point and that old gibbet! Fancy that, now, on a moonlight night! If I saw it, I’d let out a scream that would lick any syren or fog-horn that ever sounded in the Channel!”
“You’re a baby, Pepita!” said I, indulgently. “You forget that I’m a man!”
Instead of laughing at me, she studied me closely, with a sidelong glance from under her big hat.
“You’ve grown, Ben!” she said, suddenly. “You look like as if you were going to be a young man now instead of a boy! Sakes!—I guess you’ll take to wearing a tailed coat Sundays!”
“Ordered!” said I, proudly. “Members of the legal profession always wear tailed coats—it’s etiquette. And silk hats. Mine’s ordered, too. You wait till I’m better, and start going to the office at Kingshaven every morning!—guess you won’t know me!”
“Oh, yes, I shall, Ben, my boy!” she retorted, with the brutal candour of seventeen. “You haven’t got a snub nose or a heap of freckles and sandy hair for nothing! But I’m no end glad you’re better, old chap, and I’ll come and take you out—look out for me to-morrow, Ben, and we’ll have a nice walk.”
And then, with one of her ravishing smiles, Pepita was gone. The light of the day went with her—and I turned regretfully into the house, and after locking the front door, in religious observance of Keziah’s behests, lighted the lamp in the parlour. It was then, I think, that I began to realise that the house, as Pepita had been kind enough to remark, really was rambling and old, and that there was a certain amount of queerness about being left absolutely alone in it.
However, there were things to be done, and occupation of any sort is a relief in circumstances like these. I prepared my own supper, and having been brought up from infancy by Keziah (my mother had died before I left the cradle) I washed up cups, plates, and dishes after using them, and replaced each in its proper niche in the kitchen dresser—Keziah, a veritable martinet in all domestic matters, never allowed dirty things to be about, and she would never have slept if as much as a teaspoon had been left uncleaned overnight. All that done, I took my medicine, and sat down by what was left of the parlour fire to read. And the old house got quieter and quieter and quieter—you could feel the quiet. If Keziah had come home unexpectedly, I wouldn’t have minded if she’d talked for a solid hour about the family silver, and its hall-marks, and its history.
I got sick of that stillness by nine o’clock, and I went to bed. And being still weak after my illness, I soon fell asleep—dropping off suddenly. But I woke more suddenly—to hear two separate sounds. One was the sound of our old grandfather clock—it was striking midnight—twelve long, dull strokes. I didn’t mind that. But I did mind the other sound—the sound of footsteps, stealthy, but unmistakable. I sat up in bed, listening, and, I’m not ashamed to say, sweating with fear. And I sweated more than ever, and was more than ever afraid, when the footsteps stopped, at our porch.
When you come to consider all the circumstances, you will not wonder that I was afraid. To begin with, I was weak, physically weak, from a long illness: there was not sufficient strength in me to grapple with a child. I was alone in a house which, despite all its bolts, bars, and window fastenings, could be broken into. It was an isolated house, too; the nearest cottage was a couple of hundred yards away. And who should come to it, at that time o’ night, but some evil-disposed person? It was not Keziah, returning unexpectedly; Keziah would have thrown pebbles at my window and raised her voice. It wasn’t Veller, the local policeman—the tramp of Veller’s feet could have been heard a mile away. Whoever this man was, he had a soft tread, not as quiet as a cat’s, to be sure, and yet velvety. And who was he, and what was he after? I had heard the footsteps distinctly on the last stretch of the path which led from the garden gate to the shelter of the porch. Now there was silence again; no doubt the man was examining the fastenings of the front door: I pictured him—having a vivid imagination in those days—bending down to the lock in the moonlight, fingering the handle, perhaps, considering what he might do to get in. But suddenly I heard him going away again. There was no doubt of it—he was retreating down the path. And at that I sprang out of my warm bed and, hurrying to the window, drew aside the blind and peered out into the night. There was a three-quarter moon in the sky, right over the creek, but owing, perhaps, to the heat of the previous afternoon and evening, there was a heavy white mist on the shore and the land, at its edge, and it circled about the trees and bushes in our garden. Still, I saw my midnight visitor; at least, I got a glimpse of him as he disappeared at the gate. He seemed to be a big man, broad of shoulder; maybe the mist made him look bigger than he was. And he went into the mist and was presently swallowed up in it, as he moved, slowly, in the direction of the spit of sand that ran down to Gallowstree Point.
I had some thought, then, of lighting a lamp, and setting it near the window of an upstairs room, so that this man, whoever he was, might know that the house was tenanted. But upon reflection I decided that he would probably take that as an invitation to come back. I did not want him back; before full daylight, at any rate. So I returned to my bed, and, of course, lay there wide awake and listening for a long time. I heard nothing save the faint lap of the waves on the beach and the occasional cry of a sea-bird. And at last I slept, and slept soundly, and when I woke, and went half-way down the stair to glance at the grandfather’s clock, it was close on seven and the blessed sun was high in the heavens and smiling cheerily over shore and sea.
There was no reason why I should get up; I could have lain in bed till noon if I had liked. But my strength and my spirits were coming back to me, and there was that in the fresh Spring morning which impelled me to action. So I got into some clothes, and lighted the kitchen fire, and put on the kettle, and as it wore towards eight undid the ponderous fastenings of the front door and looked out into the garden. And at once I had a surprise which was almost a shock. For there, on the left hand side of the bench which ran round the porch, lay a bag—a queer-looking, travel-worn bag, old-fashioned in make, the leather sorely rubbed, the metal clasps battered and rusted; altogether, a bag that had seen much service. It was the sort of bag that you could carry easily in your hand, and it was roughly tied about with a bit of common cord, in a fashion which suggested that the bag itself contained nothing that was valuable, and that anything was good enough as a fastening.
That my midnight visitor had set down this odd piece of luggage in the porch I had no more doubt than that it lay there before my eyes. I made no attempt to touch it, but I went into the porch and looked more closely at its exterior. There had been some initials painted on its side, in black, at one time, but they were now almost obliterated. And it had in past times borne many labels; there were traces of them all over it, back and front. But there was no recent label; nothing to show to whom it belonged, nor whence or by what route its owner had come there. Come he had, however, and straight to our door, as I made things out, and there had set down his bit of gear and gone away.
I was speculating with various whys and whats and whos when I heard a heavy and unmistakable tread on the pebbly road outside the garden. That was Veller, passing along to his cottage; he passed every morning. Presently he stuck his big round red face over the hedge and saw me and grinned—he was one of those men who smile perpetually.
“Morning, Master Ben!” said he. “Glad to see you out and around again!”
“Much obliged to you,” I answered. “But come here, Veller.”
He opened the garden gate and came up the path, his small eyes inquisitive. I silently pointed to the thing on the bench.
“Ah!” he exclaimed. “Just so! I sees it—a bag! And what might it signify, now, Master Ben?”
“Veller!” said I. “You listen to me. My sister’s away; she had to go away last night to Kingshaven, to see Mrs. Hozier——”
He nodded understandingly, grinning more widely than ever, as if with great satisfaction.
“Ah!” he said, interrupting me. “Just so—exactly! I see Mr. Robinson last night as he come home on the last train from Kingshaven. Mrs. Hozier, now—her presented her good man with twinses yesterday. Afternoon it was, said Mr. Robinson—five o’clock. Which, when he called there, was doing well—all of ’em. Twinses!—a boy and a gel.”
“Oh!” said I. “Well, anyway, that’s where my sister went, so I was all alone in the house, all night, d’ye see, Veller? And about twelve o’clock I heard footsteps come up the path there. They paused here, in the porch. Then they went off. I jumped out of bed and saw a man leave the garden and go away towards Gallowstree Point. And this morning—just now, in fact—I found this bag here, where you see it. What d’you make of that, Veller?”
He scratched the lobe of his red right ear thoughtfully. “Well, to be sure, that’s a main queer thing, Master Ben!” he answered. “You wasn’t expecting anybody—a visitor, now?”
“No!” said I. “Nobody!”
“Seems like as if whoever this here bag belongs to knew his way about in these parts,” he remarked ruminatively. “Here he comes, straight to the spot, puts down his luggage, and goes away! Whither?—and for what purpose? Ah!”
“That’s just it!” I said “Where’s he gone? Will he come back? What would you do, now, if you were me, Veller?”
He consulted his ear again, and presently smiled as with a great inspiration.
“Just so!—exactly!” he answered “Ah!—if it was me, Master Ben, I should get my braikfast! Let things bide till that was done with, so to speak. Leaving that there article where it is. ’Cause you never know what may be inside luggage of that complexion. Maybe this chap is a seafaring man. And—I’ve knowed seafaring men as carried queer goods in their gear! Snakes! I wouldn’t open that there bag not for nothing—might be a rattle-sarpent in it! You get your braikfast, Master Ben, and if so be as this here mysterious mortal do turn up, and there’s cause for what they call invoking the presence of the law—well, you knows where to find me!”
He became portentously solemn and dignified in pronouncing the last word, and we parted without spoiling its effect; he to his cottage, and I into the kitchen, to cook my breakfast. As was our custom, I left the front door wide open, and I had just got the bacon nicely sizzling in one pan, and the water for a couple of eggs near boiling point in another, when I heard steps advancing along the garden path. I popped my head out of the kitchen and looked down the hall . . . There was a man in the porch. He did not see me, for he was looking at the bag. So I took a good look at him. He was, I felt sure, the man I had seen from my window, at midnight: the set of his shoulders seemed familiar. He was a big man, some five feet ten inches, I should say, in height, and broadly built, and his girth was accentuated by his loosely made suit of blue cloth. He wore a big slouch hat, and carried a queer-looking, un-English stick in his hand; there was a heavy gold cable chain across his waistcoat, and a gold pin in his neck-cloth; somehow, he gave the impression of being a solid, substantial man, financially. As for his face, which he presently turned in my direction, it was as big as his body, clean-shaven, pale-complexioned, flabby. There was a small nose in the middle of it, and two small, sly grey eyes, and a small, pursed-up mouth, but a big chin, and big jowl—my budding-lawyer instincts warned me that this was a man in dealing with whom it would be well to have all your wits about you.
I went towards him, and at sight of me he started. It was either a well-affected gesture, intended to deceive, or it was a genuine start of surprise; I found it difficult to decide which. And in making it he let out a little, indefinite sound—a sort of almost affectionate murmur. But I was short and sharp enough.
“Well?” I demanded. “What do you want?”
His answer was as remarkable as it was unpleasant. He suddenly shot out a big, flabby hand and grasped my chin and jaw, turning my face this way and that. It was all done in a second, and he spoke just as quickly.
“Aye!” he said, in a fat, unctuous voice. “To be sure! It will be. Unmistakably a Heckitt! Known him anywheres!”
“I am a Heckitt!” I declared, edging away from him. “Who are you?”
He nodded at me solemnly, three times, and, when he answered my question, his voice was fatter than ever.
“Your uncle, Joseph Krevin, my lad, that’s who I am!” he replied. “Your poor mother’s only brother Joe, what she was so fond of. You’ll have heard of me, no doubt?—from your sister Keziah.”
“Never!” protested I. “Never heard Keziah speak of you at any time!”
He looked highly pained at that. But a certain holy meekness spread itself as a cloak across the look of pain.
“Well, well!” he said. “Rellytives is—not always what they should be. But look you here, my lad—and this’ll show you that I know what I’m talking about. Inside the parlour there, on the left hand side as you go in, there’s an ancient bureau, and on top of that bureau there’s two family Bibles—one’s bound in black morocco, and t’other in red calf. And the black one is the Heckitt family Bible, and the red one is the Krevin. And in the Krevin you’ll find me—Joseph Krevin, and in both you’ll find your mother, Hannah Krevin as was, what married a Heckitt. Your father, Charles Heckitt. Uncle Joseph Krevin, I am—you can call me Uncle Joe for short, if you like—and well Keziah knows me, whether she mentions me or not. And where is Keziah?—my Niece Keziah. What I ain’t set eyes on for more years nor I can remember—a fine young woman, Keziah, and the handsomest in these parts when I was last hereabouts!”
He raised his voice considerably in the last sentence, as if hoping that Keziah would overhear this tribute to her charms, and his small eyes looked beyond me into the shadows of the hall. But I damped his ardour—or affectation of it.
“Keziah is not in at present,” I said, still keeping in the doorway. “I’m not quite sure when she will be in, either.”
“But you’re in, my lad!” he retorted sharply. “And I smells bacon—and coffee! Ain’t you going to welcome your Uncle Joe, what was your poor mother’s fav’rite? The Heckitts, as I remember them, was always given to hospitality, and——”
“Keziah doesn’t allow me to ask anybody in when she’s out,” I said. “But since you’re a relation——”
“Aye, there’s no doubt of that!” he interrupted quickly. “And, my lad,” he added, with a significant grimace, “not a poor one, neither!—as you may find, to your profit, some of these days. And what may your name be, now, for ’tis so long since I was this way that there are matters I’ve forgotten.”
I told him my name, asked him in, and put more bacon in the pan and added more eggs to those I was boiling for myself. He sat down near the kitchen fire and watched me, making remarks about his surroundings from time to time which showed me that he was familiar enough with them.
“There’s little changed in this old house, Nephew Ben,” he said, as he drew his chair to the table. “I says to myself as soon as ever I cast eyes on it that it was just the same as ever was!”
“That would be when you came to the porch last night?” I remarked, already curious about his movements. “I heard you!—and saw you, too!”
But the words were no sooner out of my lips than I realised that I was a bit too cocksure in my assertions. He put down his knife and fork with a gesture of surprise.
“Me?” he exclaimed. “No, my lad! You didn’t see me, nor hear me, neither, last night, at your porch! ’Cause why? I wasn’t there!”
“Isn’t that your bag outside in the porch?” I asked. “Surely!”
“My bag it is, and no other’s,” he asserted, gravely. “But not brought there by me, my lad. You see, I’d a bit of business with a man hereabouts. And when I come along from London and got out at the station, I gives that there bit of a bag to a man what had come along of me in the train for the last few miles and said he knew this part, to leave for me at Heckitt’s. That ’ud be the man you see.”
“Queer time for a man to come!” I said. “It was midnight!”
“Aye, well, it ’ud be past ten o’clock when I give him the bag,” he replied. “Late train, you see. No!—I wasn’t nowheres about here last night, Ben, my boy!—miles off! In the country. Seeing—ah!—an old friend o’ mine. And what may you be thinking of doing with yourself, my lad?—finished your schooling, no doubt, and ekally, no doubt, you’ll be a fine scholard?”
I gave him as much family news as I considered good for him, and then tried to extract some personal information about himself. But beyond ascertaining that he had knocked about the world a good deal and was for the present living somewhere in London, I learned very little of Uncle Joseph Krevin and his doings. He made a very good breakfast, and seemed to enjoy it, and when he had finally pushed aside his plate, drained his cup, and lighted his pipe, he went back to the chimney corner and became reminiscent. But all his reminiscences were of the family sort; he seemed to have the pedigrees of Krevins and Heckitts at his finger-ends, and if I tried to switch him off and to turn him into tracks more intimately concerned with his personal affairs he adroitly eluded me and went back. About himself and his adventures during the many years which had elapsed since his last visit to Middlebourne I squeezed nothing out of him.
Keziah came back from Kingshaven before dinner-time. She walked in on us unexpectedly, and she knew Uncle Joe Krevin at once, and at sight of him she looked as if somebody had just given her something very sour to bite at.
“So it’s you, is it?” she said. “After all these years?”
“Better late than never, Keziah,” he answered, almost humbly. “You see, I’d a bit of business in these parts, and I thought I’d look in. And no doubt you’ll give me a bed to-night, Keziah?—and you’ll be glad to hear I’ve made my fortune since them other days?”
Keziah did not say whether she would be glad to hear that or not—she said nothing, except to reply drily that she’d no doubt there would be a bed for our visitor, and a bite, too. And I noticed that she held very little converse with Uncle Joe: what talk they had was of the nature of his talk to me after breakfast. He was out, by himself, that afternoon, and again, for a couple of hours, late in the evening: when he came in after that second excursion he went straight to bed. And when he had gone, and his chamber door was shut, Keziah came close to my chair, and with a look of caution whispered.
“Ben!” she said. “Flesh and blood of ours he be!—but that’s the deepest and wickedest old scamp you ever saw!”
Uncle Joseph Krevin had been put in the best sleeping chamber, right over our heads, and though there was a good solid floor between him and us, I glanced at the ceiling, involuntarily, as if afraid that he might overhear his Niece Keziah’s denunciation of him. And Keziah saw my gesture and dropped her tones still lower.
“Never heard word or seen sign of that man since you were born, Ben!” she went on. “And before that never heard a good word of him! He talks about our poor mother, and him being her fav’rite!—Lord save us! He was her fav’rite to this extent that she was the only one that stood by him! He was a bad ’un at all times; sly, deceitful, dishonest; he was in trouble with the coastguardsmen hereabouts, for he was mixed up in smuggling when but a lad—many’s the time I’ve heard my mother talk of it. And his own father turned him out when he came to be a man grown, and after that he’d come back to these parts now and again, and never could one find out how he made his living, nor where he’d been, nor what he did, but I reckon whatever he did was black work, and done in dark places. And ’tis nineteen years, Ben, since I set eyes on him, and now he’s back, and I’d like to know why! No good, I’ll be bound!”
“He said he’d business hereabouts, Keziah,” I remarked. “Business with some old friend of his.”
“Business!” she exclaimed, with one of her characteristic sniffs. “Aye, I’ll warrant him! Devil’s business, if any! And what friends has he about here, I’d like to know? There isn’t a Krevin left alive but him—your mother was the last. I can’t think of a soul hereabouts that ’ud be glad to see him or would have anything to do with him!—Joe Krevin was far too well known all across the countryside in his younger days for them that knew him then to want to have truck with him now. He’s come down here for no good, Ben, and I’ll be truly thankful to see his big back turn out of that gate!”
“You wouldn’t ask him to go away, Keziah?” I suggested.
Keziah smoothed out the folds of the black silk apron which she always wore of an evening, regarding them with her head on one side.
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