I think my first notion was that this was the cry of some animal, trapped close by, or seized by another. But on the instant it came again, and I knew it then for the cry, desperate, terrorised, of a man in deadly fear and peril. I had sprung to my elbow at the first sound: at the second I looked sharply through the opening of the chains into the ground floor beneath me. The man of the map had gone; there, plainly outlined in the bracken, was the place where he had slept, but he and his bottle and his knapsack had vanished. And at that I jumped for the gap in the outer wall and looked out on a morning thick with milk-white mist. A great Sea Fog had rolled up from the coast and enveloped the plain and the hills, and from where I stood all the land was wrapped in its curling vapours. At first I saw nothing; then, a stifled cry coming again ...
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J. S. (Joseph Smith) Fletcher
The Man who asked his Way
The Second Man
The Captain and the Sergeant
Name of Kest
The Clamped Chest
The Lock-up Shed
The Dead Man’s Safe
The Man who Bought Food
Black Mill Bottom
The China Seas
Ditty-box and ’Bacca-box
The Thatched Roof
The Light in the Mill
I’ll say at once that Mr. Andrew Macpherson, the Scotch grocer of Horsham, from whose shop I walked out to a glorious and unexpected wildness of liberty and adventure the morning on which this story properly begins, was a man in a thousand, for it was he who, at his own suggestion, threw wide the door of what I had come to consider a prison-house, and cheered me on my way with a word and a smile, instead of helping me across its threshold with a hearty kick.
Most other men would have considered me deserving of that kick; five out of six might have given it. For Mr. Macpherson had been a fine friend to me; he took me to his hearth when I was left a defenceless orphan lad of ten years old; he gave me a good schooling; he tried to teach me his own business. I picked up the schooling readily enough, but not the grocery trade; the buying and selling of that stuff made no appeal to my nature. And on the particular morning I speak of, Mr. Macpherson himself reluctantly arrived at the same conclusion. I forget what I had been doing; maybe I had mixed green with black in undue proportions, or sent the parcels to the wrong places; but anyway, the good man looked at me with a sorrowful shake of his head, and let out a heavy sigh.
“Man Tom,” said he, “I’m thinking ye’ll never do any good at the grocery! It’s a peety, but ye’ve no intellectual inclination to it!”
“I’ve been thinking that a long time myself, Mr. Macpherson,” I answered him. “It’s not my line; I don’t like it. And I’d have said so before, but for the fear of hurting your feelings.”
“Aweel!” he said, with another sigh. “Ye’re eighteen years of age, my lad, and I’m not the sort to stand in any young fellow’s way. What is it ye want to do, Tom?”
“Mr. Macpherson,” said I boldly, “I don’t want to be fastened up in a shop! There’s times when I can’t breathe! I want space!”
“Ye’ll be for going out and seeing the world?” he suggested. “Aye!—it’s in yer blood, my man! And where would you be for setting your face, now?”
“Anywhere there’s ships and sailors, and the sight and smell of the sea, Mr. Macpherson,” I told him. “Portsmouth—Southampton—Plymouth—any place the like of them! I want adventure!”
There was more said between us, much more; all kindly and sympathetic on his part. And the end of it was that within an hour I was in my best clothes, a bag in my hand, and ten pounds in my pockets, standing in the street—free! There was Macpherson’s blessing in my ear, and the grip of his big hand was warm on mine, but I never as much as looked back at the shop. That life was over.
It was a beautiful May morning. There was the sharp zest of the new springtide in the air and the smell of flowers in the streets; above the old roofs and chimneys there was a wondrous blue sky, and for one who had just emerged from the gloom of an ill-lighted shop the blaze of the sun was like an illumination from heaven. It was the sunlight more than anything that made me suddenly change my direction. I had taken my first steps of liberty towards the railway, intending to travel in that fashion to Portsmouth. But the sun, and the spring air, and the smell of growing things, reminded me that I owned an unusually strong pair of legs—why ride in a stinking railway carriage when I could foot it, at my own pace, across the hills and downs of Sussex?
I turned sharp in Carfax, and instead of going north, went away across the stream by the old church, and, choosing footpaths rather than highways, made boldly for the open country to the south.
Already I had a very definite notion of what I was going to do. I would strike for Portsmouth, by way of the South Downs, taking my time and looking about me. If I found nothing that appealed to me at Portsmouth, I would go on to Southampton by way of the coast. I was well prepared for a journey of that sort. Eight of the sovereigns with which Mr. Macpherson had presented me (for this was in the days when we were as familiar with gold as we now are with paper) were safely stowed away in a leather belt worn under my shirt; another was hidden in a waistcoat pocket; the tenth, changed into silver in the shop as I left it, lay in my trousers. And I had not lived with and been brought up by Mr. Andrew Macpherson all these years for nothing!—it was my intention to look well at and think long over every sixpence of my silver before parting with it. I had no fear of travelling expenses; Macpherson himself had shoved into my bag enough eatables to last me all that day and most of the next, and I was one of those lads who have no taste for cheap cigarettes or for drink. I reckoned as I walked along that I should have made small inroad on my silver by the time I reached Portsmouth; as for breaking into the gold in my belt, I took that to be a necessity which I meant never to acknowledge. It was my ambition, or, rather, my firm resolve, to present myself in a year or two to Mr. Macpherson once more, in the proud position of being able to show him that his one-time mouse had been metamorphosed into a man.
I went along all that day, my bag slung over my shoulders, through the Sussex villages, taking my time, rejoicing in my liberty, breathing the good air that increased in savour and quality the nearer I drew to the downs and to what I knew lay beyond their swelling outlines—the bright waters of the English Channel. But I was not to see those waters that day. By the end of the afternoon I had come to Petworth, at a distance of fifteen miles from Horsham, and, stout as my legs were, I was beginning, as they say, to know that I had feet at the end of them. That place, Petworth, had its charm, and, chancing on a little shop kept by a widow-woman whereat you could get a cup of tea, I turned in, and, finding the owner a motherly and come-at-able person, bargained with her for my supper and my bed and my breakfast next morning, all for two shillings.
It was still but the middle of the evening when I had eaten my supper, and the light being good, I went out to see the place, and it was while I hung around the old church, wondering at its queerness, and, as I thought, its ugliness, all the stranger because of the picturesqueness and charm of its surroundings, that a man came up and asked me, without preface, if I was well acquainted with that quarter of the country.
Having acquired a good deal of caution during my tutelage under Andrew Macpherson, I took a precise observation of this man before replying to him. He was a middle-aged man by appearance; a good fifty, no doubt, and already grizzled in hair and beard; a man, I fancied, who had lived much under strong winds and fierce suns. What with his brown skin and his blue cloth, and a rolling gait that he showed as he made up to me, I set him down as a seafarer. That inclined me to him, and I spoke, though, to be sure, it was but one word.
“Stranger, then—like me?” he asked.
I nodded. Mr. Macpherson had taught me never to waste tongue-power when a gesture would serve the purpose. But the man persisted.
“Just so!” said he. “And which way are you from, now—did you come in here from north or south or east or west, young fellow?” Then, seeing my distaste, he went on hurriedly: “No offence, my lad, and no foolish curiosity!—I’ve a reason for asking. The fact is, I’m searching for something, and, d’ye see, you may ha’ seen it, in which case——”
“What are you looking for?” I asked abruptly.
Before answering, he drew out a brass tobacco-box, on the lid of which I noticed a curious design, and, taking a plug of tobacco from it, cut himself a quid with a clasp-knife, and stowed it away in his left cheek. It was not until he had put box and knife away again that he answered my question.
“To be sure!” said he. “That’s nat’ral! You couldn’t tell me anything if I didn’t tell you something. Very well!”—here he paused and looked about him, suspiciously, as if there might be listeners amongst the old tombs and yew-trees around us—“very well, I’ll tell you! A mill!”
I dare say I looked at him as if I suspected his sanity, for he shook his head.
“Queer, no doubt, young fellow,” he said hastily. “Queer you think it, and maybe queer it is! But—a mill! Not one of these here new-fangled mills, all steam and machinery; nor yet a water-mill. A windmill, d’ye see?—that’s my object!”
“There are a good many windmills in Sussex,” I remarked. “I’ve seen a fair lot myself, here and there.”
“That’s the devil of it!” said he eagerly. “It’s which of ’em is which! However, this here is like that game the children play, when one hides some little thing, a thimble or what not, and t’others seek for it, and him what’s hid it tells ’em if they’re hot or cold, according as they get nearer or farther. I reckon I’m getting hotter, for you say you’ve seen many mills hereabouts—windmills! Now, have you ever seen, do you know of, a windmill, very old, unused, what stands, all by itself, on top of a lonely down?”
“No!” said I.
He let out a heavy sigh, as if very seriously disappointed; but in the next moment his face became brighter again, and the old, eager look came back.
“Just so—exactly—you haven’t!” he said. “But, to be sure, you admit you’re a stranger, and what you mean is that you know such mills in your parts, and there ain’t such a mill as that I’m a-describing of. Now, without offence, what might your part be?”
“Horsham!” I answered.
He shook his head with a gesture of satisfaction.
“Ah!” he remarked. “Horsham? That’s all right!—wherever else it was, it wasn’t Horsham! Horsham isn’t in the down country—no! I’m thankful, truly, to hear you say you come from Horsham. I was afraid you was from the southward.”
“What do you want to find this mill for?” I made bold to ask.
He had very small eyes, this man, and they seemed to grow smaller when I asked him this question. Once more he shook his head, but this time in different fashion.
“Ah!” he replied. “And you may ask! But for a good reason, young fellow. ’Tis a sort o’ landmark, d’ye see? A—well, a thing to steer by!” He took off his cap and scratched the top of his head with his stubbly fingers. “Ah!” he went on, “I ha’ used the sea a deal in my time, and I ha’ known hours when I’d ha’ given much to see a sail, or a light, or a star in the night-sky; but I’d give as much now to see that there mill as we’ve talked about, and I’m getting uncertain as to where it lies, for blame me if I can hear tell of it!”
“Are you sure it’s in Sussex?” I asked.
But even as I spoke the man was off, and, whether he heard me or not, he never looked round. I watched him curiously as he made his way out of the churchyard, and I fancied that he talked to himself. At that I came to the conclusion that he was probably a little mad, and had got his deserted windmill on the brain, and the affair being none of my business, I put it out of mind and attended to my own, which was to go back to the little shop and to bed, where I slept so soundly that it was nearly eight o’clock next morning before I woke, and by that time I had forgotten windmill and man.
But I had the man brought up again before noon; to be exact, I saw him again. By noon, wandering across-country in the same fashion as before, but, the day being very hot, not making such progress as at first, I had come to the very foot of the downs, which now rose up in front like a great green rampart. My precise location at this hour was the village called Graffham, right beneath the vast woods that stretch from Heyshott to Lavington. There I sat down on the roadside in the middle of the village, under the shade of a tree, to eat my lunch of bread-and-cheese, and while I was eating I saw, coming along the road which I had already traversed, the man of Petworth churchyard. He had his hands in his pockets and his head down, and once more he was talking to himself.
There was an inn nearly opposite to where I sat; the man caught sight of it, and straight-way turned into its open door. He was in there half an hour; when he came out again, a couple of rustics came with him, evidently to direct him. They pointed him to the south-west, and when he left them he went in that direction, taking a narrow lane, and presently I saw him no more. I had no doubt that he had now heard of his windmill, or of a windmill, and was making for it. He passed within twenty yards of me as he left the village, but he never saw me, and I had no mind to hail him, and when he turned his corner the only thought I had of him, if I had one at all, was that he and I had now definitely parted. For while he was making for the south-west, and so keeping to the land, I was intent on a due south course, that being a straight one for the sea.
I made up through the overhanging woods after my rest, and over the crest of Graffham Down, and again into the woods on the other side of the tableland. These woods were thick, deep, far-stretching. I got lost in them, and I spent most of the afternoon in endeavouring to right myself. When at last I got out of them, it was only to entangle myself in others still farther ahead. Evening had come on, and twilight was gathering, when, after much casting about (for I had somehow lost any real path), I emerged on an open space of moorland. And the first thing I then saw was the open sea, shining faintly far ahead of me, miles away, but clearly discernible in the glimmering light. The second, outlined against the shimmer of sea and sky, was a black, gaunt shape, suggestive of vague mystery, perched in strange isolation on the bowlike surface of an arching down.
This, whatever it was, was still a long way from where I stood. But as it was in my direct line to the sea, I made for it. I dipped down into a valley and lost sight of it. I climbed the other side of the valley and saw it again. But then came more deep woodland, and by the time I had traversed that the twilight was rapidly merging into darkness. I got out of the wood at last; there was the thing right above me, clearly outlined against the sky. I thought as I climbed the hill-side towards it that it was a tower, but as I drew nearer and nearer I knew it for what it was—an ancient windmill. And I knew, too, that I had found what the stranger-man was looking for; this was his mill, the thing he wanted. But he wasn’t there; nobody was there. It seemed to me just then that beyond the mill and myself there was nothing in the world.
It would have been strange if this impression of utter solitude had not forced itself upon me, for—at that time of advanced evening and under those circumstances—my situation was one of entire loneliness. There were the deep and silent woods through which I had passed; here was the bleak plateau on which I stood. At first I saw nothing near by, nor in the distance, to indicate life, and the silence was profound. But as I gazed about me this way and that I became aware of two or three twinkling lights at perhaps a mile’s distance, deep down in the low country which lay between me and the coast; they, of course, suggested the presence of some village or solitary farmstead. And after a while, as I stood looking seaward, I saw a trail of flame coming along rapidly from west to east, not far away from where I judged the coast to be; that I knew for a railway train, speeding along the line that ran parallel with the coast itself. So there was life near at hand. Yet, none there; that place was the loneliest, and most curiously suggestive of loneliness, that I had ever been in. But even then, as I realised this, there came companionship; a nightjar went by, uttering its strange note, and as that died away amongst the neighbouring woods a nightingale suddenly burst into song in some coppice down the hill-side.
While I had stood near the mill, staring about me, a full moon had been steadily rising, and had now got to a fair height in the south-east sky. I went closer and looked at the mill. It was a great, massive structure, and so high that I saw at once that it must form a landmark for miles around, and probably far out to sea; I saw, too, that it had evidently not been in use for many a long year. There were gaps in its masonry, the doorway gaped wider than it should have done; the remnants of the long, raking sails hung desolate. A shaft of moonlight lay within the wide gap of the door, and I went inside and looked about me in the gloom, and saw then that the interior was still pretty much as it had been in working days; there was machinery there, rusty and useless, no doubt, but still in place, and there was a wooden stairway that led to upper regions. I saw, too, that somebody had turned the place to account as a shelter; there was a quantity of dried bracken stored on the ground floor, together with other things which I knew to be used by shepherds in charge of flocks. Here, perhaps, the shepherds kept house while their charges browsed the hill-sides; it was a convenient place for that. And it suddenly struck me that it would make quite a good lodging for me for that night, and save me the necessity of exploring the village or hamlet in which I had seen the lights. I might not find anything there, and the next likely place might be a long way off. Here, at any rate, I was certain of shelter, and I had still enough food in my bag to serve for supper.
It was just as I had made up my mind to stay where I was that I heard footsteps. They were still some little distance away—perhaps fifty yards—but the turf was hard and dry and crisp on the top of that hill, and I heard their slow, regular fall quite plainly, and I sprang to the door and cautiously looked out. There, plainly seen in the moonlight, was the figure of a man coming towards the mill. He came from something of the direction in which I myself had come, but rather more, a point or two, from the north-west, and that fact immediately suggested to me that this was the stranger-man of Petworth churchyard, who, after I had seen him at Graffham, had wandered round until he hit on what he was seeking. Certainly the figure resembled his. . . .
I had to think with uncommon rapidity during the next few seconds. Did I want to meet this man again, and especially in that old mill? I knew nothing of him; I was not sure that I liked what I had seen of him. He had said that he would give much to find that mill; perhaps he would resent finding me in occupancy of it. Again, I had formed the idea that he was, or might be, somewhat cracked; if so, and he happened to carry a revolver or pistol on him, which was quite likely, he might take it into his head to rid me of his presence in unpleasant fashion.
The end of that brief spell of thinking was that while the man was still twenty or thirty yards away from the door, I sped up the stair, as noiselessly as possible. There was an open trap-door at the top; I passed through it into a wooden-floored chamber the interior of which I could make out quite well, there being a great gap in the outer wall there on the side from which the moon shone. And, standing well back in the shadow, I kept as quiet as a mouse and looked down through the trap, watching for the man to enter. There was some delay in that; evidently, having reached the place he wanted, he paused a few minutes to take a look at it and its surroundings; indeed, I heard him pacing about outside for awhile. But at last he came in through the ruinous doorway, and the moonlight falling full on his face, I saw at once that he was not the man with whom I had exchanged talk at Petworth.
Within another minute, whatever ground I might have had for uncertainty on this point was swept clean away. The man had no sooner entered the ground floor of the mill than he lighted a small but powerful lantern, and in turning it about here and there as if to examine his surroundings, he twice gave me a full view of his face; his figure I could see well enough in the moonlight. That was somewhat similar to the figure of the first man; both were solid, thick-set, shortish of height. But while the man of Petworth churchyard was bearded, the man of the mill was clean-shaven, save for a goatee beard which I took to be violently red in colour. He had the face of a rat, or a weasel, or a fox, or perhaps a mixture of all three; anyhow, he was an evil-looking customer, and I wished myself anywhere else than where I was, and cursed my own stupid foolishness for running up that stair.
Another moment and I cursed myself more than ever. For it became, nay, at once was evident that, like me, the man had made up his mind to make the old mill his quarters for the night. He set down his lantern on a ledge of the machinery that stood in the centre of the floor, and, unstringing a sort of knapsack from his shoulders, produced from it a parcel of food and a big bottle filled to the neck with some colourless liquid which looked like water, and was, of course, gin, with perhaps an admixture of water. Very fortunately for me, who stood in a somewhat cramped position at the trap-door, some idea occurred to him before he began his supper, and he hurried outside—I suppose to assure himself that there was nobody about. The instant he had vanished I sprang to some sacking, a pile of which I had noticed on coming into the loft, and hastily made a couch for myself, close to an opening in the floor through which a couple of great chains passed from above to below; thenceforward I was able to look down on my undesirable fellow-tenant from immediately above his head. And at the same time I made up my mind that if he put his head through the trap-door I would give it a crack with my oak staff—a present from Andrew Macpherson—which would make him see even more stars than the thousands which were already challenging the moonlight.
He came back after prowling around outside for awhile, and, settling himself comfortably on the piled-up bracken, he proceeded to eat and drink. He had cold meat and buttered bread, in generous slices, in his parcel, and he made great play with both by means of as ugly a knife as ever I saw, and one which he used with great dexterity. Also, he every now and then took a generous draught from his innocent-looking bottle; altogether, he struck me as being a man of good appetite. Not a wolfing man, though; he ate and drank leisurely enough, and left meat and bread in his parcel, carefully wrapping it up again and restoring it to his knapsack. Then followed exactly what I expected to see: he produced pipe, tobacco, and matches, and proceeded to smoke. I gathered from this that he anticipated complete freedom from any interruption of his tenancy, and that he considered himself as much alone as Robinson Crusoe on his island before he chanced on the footsteps.
I was by that time anxious about two things, and two things only—the first, that this goatee-bearded fellow wouldn’t take it into his ugly head to climb the stair with his lantern; the second, that he would finish his pipe and bottle and go to sleep, so that I also might. But he showed no sign of falling in with my wishes. For awhile he sat with folded arms, smoking, and—I presumed—thinking. Now that he had eaten his fill, the bottle did not seem to have any great attraction for him. But after some time, his roving eye chancing to fall on it, he drew it to him, took out the cork, and treated himself to a hearty swig, afterwards measuring the remaining quantity with an appraising glance, as if he were either reflecting on the amount he had drunk, or were thinking that it would be well to leave the rest for his next morning’s refreshment. I hoped he would knock the ashes out of his pipe then, and compose himself to sleep; instead, after putting the bottle away from him, he turned his lantern so that its full flare fell on the level surface of the machinery which he had used as a table, and, putting his hand into some inner pocket of his clothes, drew out a square packet of whity-brown paper.
I had been inquisitive about this man from the first moment of his appearance, but the sight of that packet roused feelings of curiosity to which my first speculations became as nothing. There was mystery in that, and I watched for all I was worth while its owner proceeded to unwrap it. There were many wrappings: first, the whity-brown paper aforesaid, with the appearance of which I was familiar enough, having wrapped up some thousands of small parcels in its like; then, a sheet of a better sort of paper; then, a piece of what undoubtedly was canvas; finally, a square of oiled silk. Out of the oiled silk he carefully took a folded paper, and, spreading it out very gingerly, laid it on the flat surface at his side, immediately in the glare of his lantern. I saw then that what he had before him was undoubtedly a map.
But it was not a map of the sort with which I had been familiar at school—an affair of careful engraving and colouring. It was what I then called a map; what it really was, I suppose, was a rough plan, or chart. From my overhead perch, I could not, of course, make it out; all I could see was a certain very conspicuous black dot in the very middle of the paper (which was about eight or nine inches square), some lines and marks, and, in one place, a cross, as conspicuous as the dot. These I saw, but there was more that I could not see, or, rather, could not make out—lettering, I felt certain.
The man remained poring over this chart for some little time; eventually he restored it to its wrappings as carefully as he had taken it from them, and put the packet back in its secret receptacle, which, I think, was in the lining of his waistcoat. That done, he knocked out the ashes of his tobacco, taking heed to see that no spark remained alive on the floor of the mill, and, having taken another pull at his bottle, he extinguished his light and curled himself up in the dry bracken. I could see him in the moonlight, all bundled together, his head on his arm, and before five minutes had gone I heard him snoring contentedly.
I did not go to sleep just then, but I went to sleep after a time. Until I dropped off, my brain was actively busy in wondering about what I had just seen, and in speculating on various matters connected with the man of Petworth churchyard and the man who now slept in the basement of the mill. Was there any connection between the two? What did the man of Petworth churchyard want with the mill? Why had this goatee-bearded, hatchet-faced chap come there? What was his much-treasured map about? What would he do if he found me there? Should I wake him if I stole down the stair and fled? I thought of fleeing for a time, but I was curious, and more than curious—I wanted to know what it was all about. The morning would bring light in more ways than one; I would wait till morning. And I went to sleep on my sacks and slept like a top—until I sprang into instant, keen-witted wakefulness at the sound of a scream.
I think my first notion was that this was the cry of some animal, trapped close by, or seized by another. But on the instant it came again, and I knew it then for the cry, desperate, terrorised, of a man in deadly fear and peril. I had sprung to my elbow at the first sound: at the second I looked sharply through the opening of the chains into the ground floor beneath me. The man of the map had gone; there, plainly outlined in the bracken, was the place where he had slept, but he and his bottle and his knapsack had vanished. And at that I jumped for the gap in the outer wall and looked out on a morning thick with milk-white mist. A great sea fog had rolled up from the coast and enveloped the plain and the hills, and from where I stood all the land was wrapped in its curling vapours. At first I saw nothing; then, a stifled cry coming again, I looked to my right, and there, some twenty yards away on the plateau, their figures strangely magnified and distorted in the mist, I saw two men struggling.
Two men!—but it was impossible for me to tell which of the two was my man, though I knew he was there. It seemed to me that one of the two had the other by the throat, and was endeavouring to force him to the ground. I could hear their pantings and groanings as they swayed this way and that. They were like two wrestlers, straining every muscle and sinew to throw each other, and for a time neither seemed to gain any advantage. They drew farther and farther away from me in their struggles; sometimes a curling of the mist wrapped them altogether; sometimes, as a strong shaft of sunlight hit their bending and twisting bodies, I saw them more plainly. It was in one of these sharp gleams of the sun that one suddenly mastered the other and forced him groaning to the ground, and in the same gleam that I saw the flash of something that shone and brightened as it caught the sun. There was a deep, horrible sound after that, and the next instant the man who had fallen was lying still, and the other was vanishing in the morning mist.
I suppose I stood there at the gap in the wall for several minutes, staring—just staring. But my brain was busy. Who was the second man? Was he the man whom I had seen at Petworth and again at Graffham? Had he come to the mill in the night, or in the early morning, found the other man there, and quarrelled with or attacked him? And which of the two men was it that was lying there, so awfully motionless? And would the man who had run away come back? Was he, perhaps, only a few yards away, hidden in the sea fog?
I waited awhile in the profound silence—then, unable to bear it any longer, and grasping my oak staff firmly in my right hand, I crept down the stair and out of the mill, and across the dew-besprinkled turf to the fallen man. It was he of the goatee beard, and he lay there with his arms thrown wide and his eyes glazed, and red blood was still running from the gash in his throat.
I took to my heels on making this discovery, running down the hill-side, through the mist, in the direction of where, from my remembrance of the lights of the previous evening, I supposed the village, hamlet, or farmstead to lie. I don’t think I stayed a second by the dead man; certainly—a matter that became of serious moment to me before long—I never made any examination of him or his clothing. He was dead!—dead as man can be—and my instinct was to run, possibly to get away from the sight of him, a truly horrible object, possibly to find somebody to whom I could tell what I had seen. The thing is that I ran harder than I had ever run before in my life. And as I ran, going in great bounds down the slopes, I heard, not very far below me, a clock strike six.
I ran, suddenly, out of the mist, upon level ground to find, in front of me, the house and outbuildings of an old farmstead, ringed about with tall trees. It was a fine old place, and at any other moment I should have paused to admire its quaint architecture, and the effect of the morning sun, now dispersing the sea fog, on its red-brick walls mellowed in tint by age, and here and there half covered by a wealth of ivy. But I was looking for human life—and in another moment, rounding a corner of the outbuildings, I saw it. There was an orchard there, at the foot of an old-world garden, and over its low wall a man and woman were talking; she on one side, he on the other. I took a hurried glance at both as I made for them. They were not young people. She, who had a basket balanced on top of the wall, from which she was throwing corn to the fowls on the stretch of grass beneath, was a tall, buxom, handsome woman of something near forty; the man, a big, loose-limbed, athletic-looking fellow, with the unmistakable air and bearing of the soldier about his bronzed face, keen eyes, and grizzled moustache, was still older. But even if these two were of middle age, or approaching it, I remember that I saw, in that quick inspection of them, that they were lovers.
The man was on my side of the orchard wall, and I hurried straight to him, and he heard me coming, and turned sharply, and I saw his eyes widen at the sight of me.
“Hullo!” he exclaimed. “What’s this? What’s the matter, my lad?——”
I realised then that my breath was spent by that headlong rush down the hill. But I managed to choke out a few words.
“There’s a man been murdered!” I gasped. “Up there—the hill-top. Knifed! I saw it! The—the other man’s run away.”
The woman made an inarticulate sound of surprise and horror; the man gave me a good searching look.
“When was this, my lad?” he asked. “How did you come to see it?”
I told them as briefly as I could; they listened intently, staring at me. The man turned to the woman.
“Send one of your men down to the Sergeant,” he said. “Tell him to come up to the old mill at once and bring help with him.” He turned to me as she hurried away towards the house. “I’ll go back there with you,” he went on. “What’s your name, my lad, and how did you come to be on the hill-top?”
“My name’s Crowe,” said I. “Tom Crowe. I’ve been in the employ of Mr. Andrew Macpherson, grocer, of Horsham——”
“Aye!” he interrupted. “I know Andrew Macpherson—I’ve served on a jury with him once or twice at Quarter Sessions. Well?”
“The grocery trade didn’t suit me,” I continued. “Mr. Macpherson and I agreed it would be more in my line to try a sea-life. So I set off for Portsmouth or Southampton, day before yesterday. The first night I lodged at Petworth; last night I came to this old mill, above here, at dusk, and I decided to sleep in it. Then this man came. I’ve told you the rest.”
“You didn’t hear the second man come?” he enquired.
“I heard nothing after I went to sleep until I heard the scream,” said I. “When I looked out, they were fighting—struggling together.”
“And you didn’t get any clear view of the second man?” he asked.
“I didn’t—the mist was too thick,” I replied. “And he was off, clean lost in it, as soon as he’d struck the other man down. He seemed to be a man of about the same size; a thick-set man.”
He made no further remark just then, and we went steadily up the hill-side until we came to where the dead man lay. The fog had cleared a great deal by that time; the plateau around the old mill was quite free of it, though it still lingered amongst the fringes of the woods on the northern side. And beyond the dead man there was nothing to be seen; he lay still enough, and, as far as I could see, just as I had left him. The man I had fetched stood gazing thoughtfully at him for awhile, but he made no offer to lay hands on the body.
“A seafaring man, this, by the looks of him,” he said at last. “And in a new rig-out, eh? New clothes, new boots, fresh linen—I suppose there’ll be some clue on him, but we’ll wait till the policeman comes up. Show me where you saw him sleeping.”
I took him inside the mill, and pointed out everything relative to the doings of last night. He looked curiously at the place where the man had slept in the bracken, and presently picked up a crumpled newspaper which lay near, whereon there were grease-marks. I remembered then that this had been thrown away by the dead man when he unpacked the meat and bread from his knapsack.
“Evening News of last night,” said my companion, pointing to the date. “That looks as if he’d come to these parts by train. Some strange mystery in it, my lad——”
Just then we heard voices, and, hurrying out of the mill, saw men coming up the hill-side. Two, obviously, were farm-labourers, agog with excitement; the third was a burly, round-faced man, half dressed, but with the unmistakable cut of the drilled and trained policeman about him. He was already stooping over the body when we joined him and his wondering companions.
“Strange affair this, Captain!” he remarked, with a salute to the man who had come up with me. “Pretty savage thrust that’s been!” Then he turned and gave me a look that seemed to take me all in. “This the lad who gave the information? Just so!—Um!” He bent down again to the body and began examining the clothing. His fingers, deft enough, went from pocket to pocket. “There’s nothing on him!” he announced, glancing up at us. “That is—this is all!”
He threw out on the turf a handful of loose silver and copper, a handkerchief, and the knife with which I had seen the dead man cut up his bread and meat. And at that I let out a sharp exclamation.
“Then he’s been robbed!” I said. “He’d more than that! He’d a packet, inside that waistcoat—an inner pocket. Look!”
He unbuttoned the waistcoat still more; he had already had his fingers inside it at his first examination, and he found the pocket I spoke of, but there was nothing in it. Gingerly, he drew off the man’s knapsack, which lay crushed half under his shoulders and side; there was nothing in it but some remaining bread and meat and the bottle, of which one-third the contents still remained. And at that the sergeant got up, brushed his knees, and gave me another searching look.
“A packet, eh, young fellow?” he said. “And how do you know that?”
“Because I saw it, last night,” said I. “He took a map out of it!”
“A map, eh? And of what?” he asked. “This part?”
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