The Shadow of the Wolf - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

The Shadow of the Wolf ebook

R. Austin Freeman

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This novel is an excellent example of the inverted detective story, a modern form that R. Austin Freeman is credited with inventing. You know from the beginning who the guilty party is, but watching Dr. Thorndyke figure it out is amazing. And watching the perpetrator think that he is getting away with his crime, while watching Dr. Thorndyke close in on him is well-done literary irony. The fun comes not from being baffled, but from watching Thorndyke’s mind at work and observing his scientific methods – which include, in this case, geology, petrology, psychology, marine biology, handwriting analysis, and chemical analysis. The crime takes place in a yacht off the coast of Penzance in Cornwall, where a circle of friends are vacationing. The victim is a boorish, overbearing, dishonest brute with money. The murderer is a likable, gentlemanly, talented artist of modest means. Every one likes the murderer, including Dr. Thorndyke.

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Contents

I. IN WHICH TWO MEN GO FORTH AND ONE ARRIVES

II. IN WHICH MARGARET PURCELL RECEIVES A LETTER

III. IN WHICH MARGARET PURCELL CONSULTS MR. PENFIELD

IV. IN WHICH MARGARET CONFERS WITH DR. THORNDYKE

V. IN WHICH THORNDYKE MAKES A FEW INQUIRIES

VI. IN WHICH MR. VARNEY PREPARES A DECEPTION

VII. THE FLASH NOTE FACTORY

VIII. IN WHICH THORNDYKE TRIES OVER THE MOVES

IX. IN WHICH MR. PENFIELD RECEIVES A SHOCK

X. IN WHICH THORNDYKE SEES A NEW LIGHT

XI. IN WHICH VARNEY HAS AN INSPIRATION

XII. IN WHICH VARNEY ONCE MORE PULLS THE STRINGS

XIII. IN WHICH THE MEDICO-LEGAL WORM ARRIVES

XIV. IN WHICH MR. VARNEY IS DISILLUSIONED

XV. IN WHICH THORNDYKE OPENS THE ATTACK

XVI. IN WHICH JOHN RODNEY IS CONVINCED

XVII. IN WHICH THERE IS A MEETING AND A FAREWELL

I. IN WHICH TWO MEN GO FORTH AND ONE ARRIVES

ABOUT half-past eight on a fine, sunny June morning a small yacht crept out of Sennen Cove, near the Land’s End, and headed for the open sea. On the shelving beach of the Cove two women and a man, evidently visitors (or “foreigners,” to use the local term), stood watching her departure with valedictory waving of cap or handkerchief; and the boatman who had put the crew on board, aided by two of his comrades, was hauling his boat up above the tide-mark.

A light northerly breeze filled the yacht’s sails and drew her gradually seaward. The figures of her crew dwindled to the size of a doll’s, shrank with the increasing distance to the magnitude of insects, and at last, losing all individuality, became mere specks merged in the form of the fabric that bore them. At this point the visitors turned their faces inland and walked away up the beach, and the boatman, having opined that “she be fetchin’ a tidy offing,” dismissed the yacht from his mind and reverted to the consideration of a heap of netting and some invalid lobster-pots.

On board the receding craft two men sat in the little cockpit. They formed the entire crew, for the Sandhopper was only a ship’s lifeboat, timber and decked, of light draught, and, in the matter of spars and canvas, what the art critics would call “reticent.”

Both men, despite the fineness of the weather, wore yellow oilskins and sou’westers, and that was about all they had in common. In other respects they made a curious contrast: the one small, slender, sharp-featured, dark almost to swarthiness, and restless and quick in his movements; the other large, massive, red-faced, blue-eyed, with the rounded outlines suggestive of ponderous strength–a great ox of a man, heavy, stolid, but much less unwieldy than he looked.

The conversation incidental to getting the yacht under way had ceased, and silence had fallen on the occupants of the cockpit. The big man grasped the tiller and looked sulky, which was probably his usual aspect, and the small man watched him furtively. The land was nearly two miles distant when the latter broke the silence with a remark very similar to that of the boatman on the beach.

“You’re not going to take the shore on board, Purcell. Where are we supposed to be going to?”

“I am going outside the Longships,” was the stolid answer.

“So I see,” rejoined the other. “It’s hardly the shortest course for Penzance, though.”

“I like to keep an offing on this coast,” said Purcell; and once more the conversation languished.

Presently the smaller man spoke again, this time in a more cheerful and friendly tone.

“Joan Haygarth has come on wonderfully the last few months; getting quite a fine-looking girl. Don’t you think so?”

“Yes,” answered Purcell, “and so does Phil Rodney.”

“You’re right,” agreed the other. “But she isn’t a patch on her sister, though, and never will be. I was looking at Maggie as we came down the beach this morning and thinking what a handsome girl she is. Don’t you agree with me?”

Purcell stooped to look under the boom, and answered without turning his head:

“Yes, she’s all right.”

“All right!” exclaimed the other. “Is that the way?”

“Look here, Varney,” interrupted Purcell, “I don’t want to discuss my wife’s looks with you or any other man. She’ll do for me, or I shouldn’t have married her.”

A deep coppery flush stole into Varney’s cheeks. But he had brought the rather brutal snub on himself, and apparently had the fairness to recognize the fact, for he mumbled an apology and relapsed into silence.

When he next spoke he did so with a manner diffident and uneasy, as though approaching a disagreeable or difficult subject.

“There’s a little matter, Dan, that I’ve been wanting to speak to you about when we got a chance of a private talk.” He glanced a little anxiously at his stolid companion, who grunted, and then, without removing his gaze from the horizon ahead, replied: “You’ve a pretty fair chance now, seeing that we shall be bottled up together for another five or six hours. And it’s private enough, unless you bawl loud enough to be heard at the Longships.”

It was not a gracious invitation. But that Varney had hardly expected; and if he resented the rebuff he showed no signs of annoyance, for reasons which appeared when he opened his subject.

“What I wanted to say,” he resumed, “was this. We’re both doing pretty well now on the square. You must be positively piling up the shekels, and I can earn a decent living, which is all I want. Why shouldn’t we drop this flash note business?”

Purcell kept his blue eye fixed on the horizon, and appeared to ignore the question; but after an interval, and without moving a muscle, he said gruffly, “Go on,” and Varney continued:

“The lay isn’t what it was, you know. At first it was all plain sailing. The notes were first-class copies, and not a soul suspected anything until they were presented at the bank. Then the murder was out, and the next little trip that I made was a very different affair. Two or three of the notes were suspected quite soon after I had changed them, and I had to be precious fly, I can tell you, to avoid complications. And now that the second batch has come into the bank, the planting of fresh specimens is no sinecure. There isn’t a money changer on the Continent of Europe that isn’t keeping his weather eyeball peeled, to say nothing of the detectives that the bank people have sent abroad.”

He paused and looked appealingly at his companion. But Purcell, still minding his helm, only growled: “Well?”

“Well, I want to chuck it, Dan. When you’ve had a run of luck and pocketed your winnings is the time to stop play.”

“You’ve come into some money then, I take it,” said Purcell.

“No, I haven’t. But I can make a living now by safe and respectable means, and I’m sick of all this scheming and dodging with the gaol everlastingly under my lee.”

“The reason I asked,” said Purcell, “is that there is a trifle outstanding. You hadn’t forgotten that, I suppose?”

“No, I hadn’t forgotten it, but I thought that perhaps you might be willing to let me down a bit easily.”

The other man pursed up his thick lips, but continued to gaze stonily over the bow.

“Oh, that’s what you thought, hey?” he said; and then, after a pause, he continued: “I fancy you must have lost sight of some of the facts when you thought that. Let me just remind you how the case stands. To begin with, you start your career with a little playful forgery and embezzlement; you blue the proceeds, and you are mug enough to be found out. Then I come in. I compound the affair with old Marston for a couple of thousand, and practically clean myself out of every penny I possess, and he consents to regard your temporary absence in the light of a holiday.

“Now why do I do this? Am I a philanthropist? Devil a bit. I’m a man of business. Before I ladle out that two thousand, I make a business contract with you. I happen to possess the means of making and the skill to make a passable imitation of the Bank of England paper; you are a skilled engraver and a plausible scamp. I am to supply you with paper blanks; you are to engrave plates, print the notes, and get them changed. I am to take two-thirds of the proceeds, and, although I have done the most difficult part of the work, I agree to regard my share of the profits as constituting repayment of the loan. Our contract amounts to this: I lend you two thousand without security–with an infernal amount of insecurity, in fact–you ‘promise, covenant, and agree,’ as the lawyers say, to hand me back ten thousand in instalments, being the products of our joint industry. It is a verbal contract which I have no means of enforcing; but I trust you to keep your word, and up to the present you have kept it. You have paid me a little over four thousand. Now you want to cry off and leave the balance unpaid. Isn’t that the position?”

“Not exactly,” said Varney. “I’m not crying off the debt; I only want time. Look here, Dan: I’m making about five-fifty a year now. That isn’t much, but I’ll manage to let you have a hundred a year out of it. What do you say to that?”

Purcell laughed scornfully. “A hundred a year to pay off six thousand! That’ll take just sixty years, and as I’m now forty-three, I shall be exactly a hundred and three years of age when the last instalment is paid. I think, Varney, you’ll admit that a man of a hundred and three is getting a bit past his prime.”

“Well, I’ll pay you something down to start. I’ve saved about eighteen hundred pounds out of the note business. You can have that now, and I’ll pay off as much as I can at a time until I’m clear. Remember that if I should happen to get clapped in chokee for twenty years or so you won’t get anything. And, I tell you, it’s getting a risky business.”

“I’m willing to take the risk,” said Purcell.

“I dare say you are!” Varney retorted passionately, “because it’s my risk. If I am grabbed, it’s my racket. You sit out. It’s I who passed the notes, and I’m known to be a skilled engraver. That’ll be good enough for them. They won’t trouble about who made the paper.”

“I hope not,” said Purcell.

“Of course they wouldn’t, and you know I shouldn’t give you away.”

“Naturally. Why should you? Wouldn’t do you any good.”

“Well, give me a chance, Dan,” Varney pleaded. “This business is getting on my nerves. I want to be quit of it. You’ve had four thousand; that’s a hundred per cent. You haven’t done so badly.”

“I didn’t expect to do badly. I took a big risk. I gambled two thousand for ten.”

“Yes, and you got me out of the way while you put the screw on to poor old Haygarth to make his daughter marry you.”

It was an indiscreet thing to say, but Purcell’s stolid indifference to his danger and distress had ruffled Varney’s temper somewhat.

Purcell, however, was unmoved. “I don’t know,” he said, “what you mean by getting you out of the way. You were never in the way. You were always hankering after Maggie, but I could never see that she wanted you.”

“Well, she certainly didn’t want you,” Varney retorted, “and, for that matter, I don’t much think she wants you now.”

For the first time Purcell withdrew his eye from the horizon to turn it on his companion. And an evil eye it was, set in the great sensual face, now purple with anger.

“What the devil do you mean?” he exclaimed furiously, “you infernal sallow-faced little whipper snapper! If you mention my wife’s name again I’ll knock you on the head and pitch you over board.”

Varney’s face flushed darkly, and for a moment he was inclined to try the wager of battle. But the odds were impossible, and if Varney was not a coward, neither was he a fool. But the discussion was at an end. Nothing was to be hoped for now. Those indiscreet words of provocation had rendered further pleading impossible; and as Varney relapsed into sullen silence, it was with the knowledge that, for weary years to come, he was doomed, at best, to tread the perilous path of crime, or, more probably, to waste the brightest years of his life in a convict prison. For it is a strange fact, and a curious commentary on our current ethical notions, that neither of these rascals even contemplated as a possibility the breach of a merely verbal covenant. A promise had been given. That was enough. Without a specific release, the terms of that promise must be fulfilled to the letter. How many righteous men–prim lawyers or strait-laced, church-going men of business–would have looked at the matter in the same way?

The silence that settled down on the yacht and the aloofness that encompassed the two men were conducive to reflection. Each of the men ignored the presence of the other. When the course was altered southerly, Purcell slacked out the sheets with his own hand as he put up the helm. He might have been sailing single-handed. And Varney watched him askance, but made no move, sitting hunched up on the locker, nursing a slowly matured hatred and thinking his thoughts.

Very queer thoughts they were, rambling, but yet connected and very vivid. He was following out the train of events that might have happened, pursuing them to their possible consequences. Supposing Purcell had carried out his threat? Well, there would have been a pretty tough struggle, for Varney was no weakling. But a struggle with that solid fifteen stone of flesh could end only in one way. He glanced at the great purple, shiny hand that grasped the knob of the tiller. Not the sort of hand that you would want at your throat! No, there was no doubt; he would have gone overboard.

And what then? Would Purcell have gone back to Sennen Cove, or sailed alone into Penzance? In either case, he would have had to make up some sort of story, and no one could have contradicted him, whether the story was believed or not. But it would have been awkward for Purcell.

Then there was the body: That would have washed up sooner or later, as much of it as the lobsters had left. Well, lobsters don’t eat clothes or bones, and a dent in the skull might take some accounting for. Very awkward, this, for Purcell. He would probably have had to clear out–to make a bolt for it, in short.

The mental picture of this great bully fleeing in terror from the vengeance of the law gave Varney appreciable pleasure. Most of his life he had been borne down by the moral and physical weight of this domineering brute. At school Purcell had fagged him; he had even bullied him up at Cambridge; and now he had fastened on for ever like the Old Man of the Sea. And Purcell always got the best of it. When he, Varney, had come back from Italy after that unfortunate little affair, behold! the girl whom they had both wanted (and who had wanted neither of them) had changed from Maggie Haygarth into Maggie Purcell. And so it was even unto this day. Purcell, once a book-keeper in a paper-mill, now a prosperous “financier”–a money-lender, as Varney more than suspected–spent a part of his secret leisure making, in absolute safety, those paper blanks, which he, Varney, must risk his liberty to change into money. Yes, it was quite pleasant to think of Purcell sneaking from town to town, from country to country, with the police at his heels.

But in these days of telegraphs and extradition there isn’t much chance for a fugitive. Purcell would have been caught to a certainty, and he would have been hanged; no doubt of it. And, passing lightly over less attractive details, Varney considered luxuriously the circumstances of the execution. What a figure he would have made, that great human ox, turning round and round at the end of a taut rope, like a baron of beef on a colossal roasting-jack! Varney looked gloatingly at his companion, considered his large sullen face, and thought how it would swell and grow purple as the rope tightened round the thick crimson neck.

A disagreeable picture, perhaps, but not to Varney, who saw it through the distorting medium of years of accumulated dislike. Then, too, there was the consideration that in the very moment that those brawny limbs had ceased to twitch Maggie would have been free–would have been a widow. Not that that would have concerned him, Varney: he would have been in some Cornish churchyard, with a dent in his skull. Still, it was a pleasant reflection.

The imagined picture of the execution gave him quite a lengthy entertainment. Then his errant thoughts began to spread out in search of other possibilities. For, after all, it was not an absolute certainty that Purcell could have got him overboard. There was just the chance that he might have gone overboard himself. That would have been a very different affair.

Varney settled himself composedly to consider the new and interesting train of consequences that would thus have been set going. They were more agreeable to contemplate than the others, because they did not include his own demise. The execution scene made no appearance in this version. The salient fact was that his oppressor would have vanished; that the intolerable burden of his servitude would have been lifted for ever; that he would have been free.

The thought of his regained freedom set him dreaming of the future–the future that might have been if he could have been rid of this monstrous parasite; the future that might even have held a place for Maggie–for she would have been free, too. It was all very pleasant to think about, though rather tantalizing. He almost wished he had let Purcell try to put him over.

Of course, some explanation would have to be given, some sort of story told, and people might not have believed him. Well, they could have pleased themselves about that. To be sure, there would have been the body; but if there were no marks of violence, what of it? Besides, it really need never have washed ashore: that could easily have been prevented, and if the body had never been found, who was to say that the man had gone overboard at all?

This, again, was a new view of the case, and it set his thoughts revolving afresh. He found himself roughly sketching out the conditions under which the body might have vanished for ever. It was mere idle speculation to while away a dull hour with an uncongenial companion, and he let his thoughts ramble at large. Now he was away in the imagined future, a future of peace and prosperity and honourable effort; and now his thoughts came back unbidden to fill in some forgotten detail. One moment he was dreamily wondering whether Maggie would ever have listened to him, ever have come to care for him; the next, he was back in the yacht’s cabin, where hung from a hook on the bulkhead the revolver that the Rodneys used to practise at floating bottles. It was usually loaded, he knew, but if not, there was a canvas bag full of cartridges in the starboard locker. Again he found himself dreaming of the home that he would have had, a home very different from the cheerless lodgings in which he moped at present; and then his thoughts had flitted back to the yacht’s hold, and were busying them selves with the row, of half-hundredweights that rested on the on either side of the kelson.

It was a curious mental state, rambling, seemingly incoherent, yet quite purposeful, the attention oscillating between the great general idea and its various component details. He was like a painter roughing the preliminary sketch of a picture, at first carelessly smearing in the general effect, then pausing from time to time to sharpen an edge, to touch in a crisp light, to define the shape of a shadow, but never losing sight of the central motive. And as in the sketch definable shapes begin to grow out of the formless expanse, and a vague suggestion crystallizes into an intelligible composition, so in Varney’s mind a process of gradual integration turned a vague and general idea into a clear picture, sharp, vivid, complete.

When Varney had thus brought his mental picture, so to speak, to a finish, its completeness surprised him. It was so simple, so secure. He had actually planned out the scheme of a murder; and behold! there was nothing in it. Anyone could have done it, and no one could have been any the wiser. Here he found himself wondering whether many murders passed undetected. They well might if murders were as easy and as safe as this. A dangerous reflection for an injured and angry man. And at this critical point his meditations were broken in on by Purcell, continuing the conversation as if there had been no pause.

“So you can take it from me, Varney, that I expect you to stick to your bargain. I paid down my money, and I’m going to have my pound of flesh.”

“You won’t agree to any sort of compromise?”

“No. There are six thousand pounds owing. If you’ve got the money you can hand it over. If you haven’t, you’ll have to go on the lay and get it. That’s all I’ve got to say. So now you know.”

It was a brutal thing to say, and it was brutally said. But more than that: it was inopportune–or opportune, as you will. For it came as a sort of infernal doxology to the devil’s anthem that had been, all unknown, ringing in Varney’s soul.

Purcell had spoken without looking round. That was his unpleasant habit. Had he looked at his companion, he might have been startled. A change in Varney’s face might have given him pause: a warm flush, a sparkle of the eye, a look of elation, of settled purpose, deadly, inexorable. The look of a man who has made a fateful resolution. But he never looked, and the warning of the uplifted axe passed him by.

It was so simple, so secure! That was the burden of the song that echoed in Varney’s brain. So safe! And there abroad were the watchful money-changers waiting for the clever forger to come once too often. There were the detectives lurking in ambush for him. No safety there! Rather the certainty of swift disaster, with the sequel of judge and jury, the clang of an iron door, and thereafter the dreary prison eating up the years of his life.

He glanced over the sea. They had opened the South Coast now, and he could see, afar off, a fleet of black-sailed luggers heading east. They wouldn’t be in his way. Nor would the big four-master that was creeping away to the west, for she was hull down already; and other ships there were none. There was one hindrance, though. Dead ahead the Wolf Rock lighthouse rose from the blue water, its red-and-white-ringed tower looking like some gaudily painted toy. The keepers of lonely light houses have a natural habit of watching the passing shipping through their glasses, and it was possible that one of their telescopes might be pointed at the yacht at this very moment. That was a complication.

Suddenly there came down the wind a sharp report like the firing of a gun, quickly followed by a second. Both men recognized the duplicate report and both looked round. It was the explosive signal from the Longships lighthouse; but when they looked there was no lighthouse to be seen, and the dark blue heaving water faded away at the foot of an advancing wall of vapour.

Purcell cursed volubly. A pretty place, this, to be caught in a fog! And then, as his eye lighted on his companion, he demanded angrily: “What the devil are you grinning at?” For Varney, drunk with suppressed excitement, snapped his fingers at rocks and shoals; he was thinking only of the light-keeper’s telescope and of the revolver that hung on the bulkhead. He must make some excuse presently to go below and secure that revolver.

But no excuse was necessary. The opportunity came of itself. After a hasty glance at the vanishing land and another at the compass, Purcell put up the helm to jibe the yacht round on to an easterly course. As she came round, the single headsail that she carried in place of jib and foresail shivered for a few seconds and then filled suddenly on the opposite tack. And at this moment the halyard parted with a loud snap, the end of the rope flew through the blocks, and, in an instant, the sail was down and its upper half trailing in the water alongside.

Purcell swore furiously, but kept an eye to business. “Run below, Varney,” said he, “and fetch up that coil of new rope out of the starboard locker while I haul the sail on board. And look alive. We don’t want to drift down on to the Wolf.”

Varney obeyed with silent alacrity and a curious feeling of elation. It was going to be even easier and safer than he had thought. He slipped through the hatch into the cabin, and, as he heard Purcell scrambling along the side-deck overhead, he quietly took the revolver from its hook and examined the chambers. Finding them all loaded, he cocked the hammer and slipped the weapon carefully into the inside breast-pocket of his oilskin coat. Then he took the coil of rope from the locker and went on deck.

As he emerged from the hatch he perceived that the yacht was already enveloped in fog, which drifted past in steamy clouds and swirling streamers, and that she had come up head to wind. Purcell was kneeling on the forecastle, tugging at the sail, which had caught under the forefoot, and punctuating his efforts with deep-voiced curses.

Varney stole silently along the deck, steadying himself by mast and shroud, softly laid down the coil of rope, and approached. Purcell was quite engrossed with his task; his back was towards Varney, his face over the side, intent on the entangled sail. It was a chance in a thousand.

With scarcely a moment’s hesitation Varney stooped forward, steadying himself with a hand on the little windlass, and, softly drawing forth the revolver, pointed it at the back of Purcell’s head, at the spot where the back seam of his sou’wester met the brim. The report rang out, but weak and flat in that open space, and a cloud of smoke mingled with the fog; but it blew away immediately, and showed Purcell almost unchanged in posture, crouching on the sail with his chin resting on the little rim of bulwark, while behind him his murderer, as if turned into bronze, still stood stooping forward, one hand grasping the windlass, the other still pointing the revolver.

Thus the two figures remained for some seconds motionless like some horrible waxworks, until the little yacht, lifting to the swell, gave a more than usually lively curvet, when Purcell rolled over on to his back, and Varney relaxed the rigidity of his posture like a golf player who has watched his ball drop. He bent over the prostrate figure with no emotion but curiosity. Looked into the wide-open, clear blue eyes, noted how the great red face had faded to a pallid mauve, against which the blood on lips and chin stood out like the painted patches on a clown’s face; but he felt not a single twinge of compunction.

Purcell was dead. That was the salient fact. The head wagged to and fro as the yacht pitched and rolled, the limp arms and legs seemed to twitch, the limp body to writhe uneasily. But Varney was not disturbed. Lifeless things will move on an unsteady deck. He was only interested to notice how the passive movements produced the illusion of life. But it was only illusion. Purcell was dead. There was no doubt of that.

The double report from the Longships came down the wind, and then, as if in answer, a prolonged deep bellow. That was the fog-horn of the lighthouse on the Wolf Rock, and it sounded surprisingly near. But, of course, these signals were meant to be heard at a distance. Then a stream of hot sunshine, pouring down on deck, startled him and made him hurry. The body must be got overboard before the fog lifted. With an uneasy glance at the clear sky over head, he hastily cast off the broken halyard from its cleat and cut off a couple of fathoms. Then he hurried below and, lifting the trap in the cabin floor, hoisted out one of the iron half-hundredweights with which the yacht was ballasted. As he stepped on deck with the weight in his hand the sun was shining overhead; but the fog was still thick below, and the horn sounded once more from the Wolf. And again it struck him as surprisingly near. He passed the length of rope that he had cut off twice round Purcell’s body, hauled it tight, and secured it with a knot. Then he made the ends fast to the handle of the iron weight.

Not much fear of Purcell drifting ashore now! That weight would hold him as long as there was anything to hold. But it had taken some time to do, and the warning bellow from the Wolf seemed to draw nearer and nearer. He was about to heave the body over when his eye fell on the dead man’s sou’ wester, which had fallen off when the body rolled over. That hat must be got rid of, for Purcell’s name was worked in silk on the lining, and there was an unmistakable bullet-hole through the back. It must be destroyed, or, which would be simpler and quicker, lashed securely on the dead man’s head.

Hurriedly, Varney ran aft and descended to the cabin. He had noticed a new ball of spun-yarn in the locker when he had fetched the rope. This would be the very thing.

He was back again in a few moments with the ball in his hand, unwinding it as he came, and without wasting time he knelt down by the body and fell to work. There was a curious absence of repugnance in his manner, horrible as his task would have seemed. He had to raise the dead man’s head to fit on the hat, and in so doing covered his left hand with blood. But he appeared to mind no more than if he had been handling a seal that he had shot or a large and dirty fish. Quite composedly, and with that deftness in the handling of cordage that marks the sailor-man, whether amateur or professional, he proceeded with his task, intent only on making the lashing secure and getting it done quickly.

And every half minute the deep-voiced growl of the Wolf came to him out of the fog, and each time it sounded nearer and yet nearer.

By the time he had made the sou’wester secure, the dead man’s face and chin were encaged in a web of spun-yarn that made him look like some old-time, grotesque-vizored Samurai warrior. But the hat was now immovable. Long after that burly corpse had dwindled to a mere skeleton it would hold, would still cling to the dead head when the face that looked through the lacing of cords was the face of a bare and grinning skull.

Varney rose to his feet. But his task was not finished yet. There was Purcell’s suitcase. That must be sunk, too; and there was something in it that had figured in the detailed picture that his imagination had drawn. He ran to the cockpit, where the suitcase lay, and having tried its fastenings and found it unlocked, he opened it and took out with his right hand–the clean one–a letter that lay on top of the other contents. This he tossed through the hatch into the cabin. Then his eye caught Purcell’s fountain-pen, slipped neatly through a loop in the lid. It was filled, he knew, with the peculiar black ink that Purcell always used. The thought passed swiftly through his mind that perchance it might be of use to him. In a moment he had drawn it from its loop and slipped it into his pocket. Then, having closed and fastened the suit case, he carried it forward and made it fast to the iron weight with a half-dozen turns of spun-yarn.

That was really all, and, indeed, it was time. As he rose, once more, to his feet, the growl of the fog horn burst out, as it seemed, right over the stern of the yacht, and she was drifting stern foremost, who could say how fast? Now, too, he caught a more ominous sound, which he might have heard sooner had he listened–the wash of water, the boom of breakers bursting on a rock.

A revulsion came over him. He burst into a wild sardonic laugh. And had it come to this, after all? Had he schemed and laboured only to leave himself alone on an unmanageable craft drifting down to shipwreck and certain death? Had he taken all this thought and care to secure Purcell’s body, when his own might be resting beside it on the sea bottom within an hour?

But his reverie was brief. Suddenly from the white void over his very head, as it seemed, there issued a stunning, thunderous roar that shook the very deck-under his feet. The water around him boiled into a foamy chaos, the din of bursting waves was in his ears, the yacht plunged and wallowed amidst clouds of spray, and, for an instant, a dim; gigantic shadow loomed through the fog and was gone.

In that moment his nerve had come back. Holding on, with one hand, to the windlass, he dragged the body to the edge of the forecastle, hoisted the weight out-board, and then, taking advantage of a heavy lurch, gave the corpse a vigorous shove. There was a rattle and a hollow splash, and corpse and weight and suitcase had vanished into the seething water.

He clung to the swinging mast and waited. Breathlessly he told out the allotted seconds until, once again, the invisible Titan belched forth his thunderous warning. But this time the roar came over the yacht’s bow. She had drifted past the Rock, then. The danger was over, and Purcell would have to go down to Davy Jones’s Locker companionless after all.

Very soon the water around ceased to boil and tumble, and as the yacht’s wild plunging settled down once more into the normal rise and fall on the long swell, Varney turned his attention to the refitting of the halyard. But what was this on the creamy duck sail? A pool of blood and a gory imprint of his own hand! That wouldn’t do at all. He would have to clear that away before he could hoist the sail, which was annoying, as the yacht was helpless without her head-sail and was evidently drifting out to sea.

He fetched a bucket, a swab, and a scrubbing brush, and set to work. The bulk of the large blood stain cleared off pretty completely after he had drenched the sail with a bucketful or two and given it a good scrubbing. But the edge of the stain, where the heat of the deck had dried it, remained like the painted boundary on a map; and the hand-print, which had also dried, though it faded to a pale buff, continued clearly visible.

Varney began to grow uneasy. If those stains would not come out, especially the hand-print, it would be very awkward; they would take such a deal of explaining. He decided to try the effect of marine soap, and fetched a cake from the cabin; but even this did not obliterate the stains completely, though it turned them a faint greenish brown, very unlike the colour of blood. Still he scrubbed on, until at last the hand-print faded away entirely and the large stain was reduced to a faint green wavy line, and that was the best he could do; and quite good enough, for if that faint line should ever be noticed, no one would ever suspect its origin.

He put away the bucket and proceeded with the refitting. The sea had disengaged the sail from the forefoot, and he hauled it on board without difficulty. Then there was the reeving of the new halyard–a troublesome business, involving the necessity of his going aloft, where his weight, small man as he was, made the yacht roll most infernally, and set him swinging to and fro like the bob of a metronome. But he was a smart yachtsman and active, though not powerful, and a few minutes’ strenuous exertion ended in his sliding down the shrouds with the new halyard running fairly through the upper block. A vigorous haul or two at the new hairy rope sent the head of the dripping sail aloft, and the yacht was once more under control.

The rig of the Sandhopper was not smart, but it was handy. She carried a short bowsprit to accommodate the single head-sail and a relatively large mizzen, of which the advantage was that by judicious management of the mizzen-sheet the yacht would sail with very little attention to the helm. Of this advantage Varney was keenly appreciative just now, for he had several things to do before entering port. The excitement of the last hour and the bodily exertions had left him shaky and faint. He wanted refreshment, he wanted a wash, and the various traces of recent events had to be removed. Also, there was that letter to be attended to. So that it was convenient to be able to leave the helm in charge of a lashing for a minute now and again.

When he had washed he put the kettle on the spirit-stove, and, while it was heating, busied himself in cleaning the revolver, flinging the empty cartridge-case overboard, and replacing it with a cartridge from the bag in the locker. Then he picked up the letter that he had taken from Purcell’s suitcase and examined it. It was addressed to “Joseph Penfield, Esq., George Yard, Lombard Street,” and was unstamped, though the envelope was fastened up. He affixed a stamp from his pocket-book, and, when the kettle began to boil, he held the envelope in the steam that issued from spout. Very soon the flap of the envelope loosened and curled back, when he laid it aside to mix himself a mug of hot grog, which, together with the letter and a biscuit-tin, he took out into the cockpit. The fog was still dense, and the hoot of a steamer’s whistle from somewhere to the westward caused him to reach the fog-horn out of the locker and blow a long blast on it. As if in answer to his treble squeak came the deep bass note from the Wolf, and, unconsciously, he looked round. He turned automatically, as one does towards a sudden noise, not expecting to see anything but fog, and what he did see startled him not a little.

For there was the lighthouse–or half of it, rather–standing up above the fogbank, clear, distinct, and hardly a mile away. The gilded vane, the sparkling lantern, the gallery, and the upper half of the red-and-white-ringed tower, stood sharp against the pallid sky, but the lower half was invisible. It was a strange apparition–like half a lighthouse suspended in mid-air–and uncommonly disturbing, too. It raised a very awkward question. If he could see the lantern the light-keepers could see him. But how long had the lantern been clear of the fog? That was the question, and the answer to it might come in a highly disagreeable form.

Thus he meditated as, with one hand on the tiller, he munched his biscuit and sipped his grog. Presently he picked up the stamped envelope and drew from it a letter, which he tore into fragments and dropped overboard. Then, from his pocket-book, he took a similar but unaddressed envelope, from which he drew out its contents, and very curious those contents were. There was a letter, brief and laconic, which he read thoughtfully. “These,” it ran, “are all I have by me, but they will do for the present, and when you have planted them I will let you have a fresh supply.” There was no date and no signature, but the rather peculiar handwriting, in jet-black ink, was similar to that on the envelope addressed to Joseph Penfield, Esq.

The other contents consisted of a dozen sheets of blank paper, each of the size of a Bank of England note. But they were not quite blank, for each bore an elaborate water-mark, identical with that of a twenty-pound banknote. They were, in fact, the “paper blanks” of which Purcell had spoken. The envelope with its contents had been slipped into his hand by Purcell, without remark, only three days ago.

Varney refolded the “blanks,” enclosed them within the letter, and slipped letter and “blanks” together into the stamped envelope, the flap of which he licked and reclosed.

“I should like to see old Penfield’s face when he opens that envelope,” was his reflection as, with a grim smile, he put it away in his pocket-book “And I wonder what he will do,” he added mentally; “however, I shall see before many days are over.”

Varney looked at his watch. He was to meet Jack Rodney on Penzance Pier at a quarter to three. He would never do it at this rate, for when he opened Mount’s Bay, Penzance would be right in the wind’s eye. That would mean a long beat to windward. Then Rodney would be there first, waiting for him. Deuced awkward, this. He would have to account for his being alone on board, would have to invent some lie about having put Purcell ashore at Mousehole or Newlyn. But a lie is a very pernicious thing. Its effects are cumulative. You never know when you have done with it. Apart from moral considerations, lies should be avoided at all cost of present inconvenience; that is, unless they are absolutely unavoidable, and then they should be as probable as can be managed, and not calculated to provoke inquiry. Now, if he had reached Penzance before Rodney, he need have said nothing about Purcell–for the present, at any rate, and that would have been so much safer.

When the yacht was about abreast of Lamorna Cove, though some seven miles to the south, the breeze began to draw ahead, and the fog cleared off quite suddenly. The change of wind was unfavourable for the moment, but when it veered round yet a little more until it blew from east-north-east, Varney brightened up considerably. There was still a chance of reaching Penzance before Rodney arrived; for now, as soon as he had fairly opened Mount’s Bay, he could head straight for his destination and make it on a single board.

Between two and three hours later the Sandhopper entered Penzance Harbour, and, threading her way among an assemblage of luggers and small coasters, brought up alongside the Albert Pier, at the foot of a vacant ladder.

Having made the yacht fast to a couple of rings, Varney divested himself of his oilskins, locked the cabin scuttle, and climbed the ladder. The change of wind had saved him after all, and as he strode away along the pier he glanced complacently at his watch. He still had nearly half an hour to the good.

He seemed to know the place well and to have a definite objective, for he struck out briskly from the foot of the pier into Market Jew Street, and from thence, by a somewhat zigzag route, to a road which eventually brought him out about the middle of the esplanade. Continuing westward, he entered the Newlyn Road, along which he walked rapidly for about a third of a mile, when he drew up opposite a small letter-box, which was let into a wall. Here he stopped to read the tablet, on which was printed the hours of collection, and then, having glanced at his watch, he walked on again, but at a less rapid pace.

When he reached the outskirts of Newlyn, he turned and began slowly to retrace his steps, looking at his watch from time to time with a certain air of impatience. Presently a quick step behind him caused him to look round. The newcomer was a postman, striding along, bag on shoulder, with the noisy tread of a heavily shod man and evidently collecting letters. Varney let him pass, watched him halt at the little letter-box, unlock the door, gather up the letters, and stow them in his bag, heard the clang of the iron door, and finally saw the man set forth again on his pilgrimage. Then he brought forth his pocket-book, and drawing from it the letter addressed to Joseph Penfield, Esq., stepped up to the letter-box. The tablet now announced that the next collection would be at 8.30 p.m. Varney read the announcement with a faint smile, glanced again at his watch, which stood at two minutes past four, and dropped the letter into the box.

As he walked up the pier with a large paper bag under his arm, he became aware of a tall man who was doing sentry-go before a Gladstone bag that stood on the coping opposite the ladder, and who, observing his approach, came forward to meet him.

“Here you are, then, Rodney,” was Varney’s rather unoriginal greeting.

“Yes,” replied Rodney, “and here I’ve been for nearly half an hour. Purcell gone?”

“Bless you! yes, long ago,” answered Varney.

“I didn’t see him at the station. What train was he going by?”

“I don’t know. He said something about taking Falmouth on the way; had some business or other there. But I expect he’s gone to have a feed at one of the hotels. We got hung up in a fog; that’s why I’m so late. I’ve been up to buy some grog.”

“Well,” said Rodney, “bring it on board. It’s time we were under way. As soon as we are outside I’ll take charge, and you can go below and stoke up at your ease.”

The two men descended the ladder and proceeded at once to hoist the sails and cast off the shore ropes. A few strokes of an oar sent them clear of the lee of the pier, and in a few minutes the yacht Sandhopper was once more outside, heading south with a steady breeze from east-north-east.

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