The Uttermost Farthing by R. Austin Freeman
IV. The Gifts of Chance
The testamentary arrangements of eccentric people must, from time to time, have put their legatees in possession of some very queer property. I call to mind an old gentleman who bequeathed to a distant relative the products of a lifetime of indiscrimate collecting; which products included an obsolete field gun, a stuffed camel, a collection of bottled tapeworms, a fire engine, a church pulpit and the internal fittings of a public-house bar. And other instances could be quoted. But surely no legatee ever found himself in possession of a queerer legacy than that which my poor friend Challoner had bequeathed to me when he made over to me the mortal remains of some two dozen deceased criminals.
The bequest would have been an odd one under any circumstances, but what made it much more so was the strange intimacy that became established between me and the deceased. To the ordinary observer a skeleton in a museum case or in an art school conveys no vivid sense of humanity. That this bony shape was once an actual person, a Me, that walked abroad and wore clothes, that loved and hated, sorrowed and rejoiced, that had friends and lovers, parents and perhaps children; that was, in short, a living man or woman, occurs to him but vaguely. The thing is an osteological specimen; a mere anatomical abstraction.
Now these skeletons of Challoner's were quite different. Walking down the long room and looking into the great wall-case, I was confronted with actual individuals. Number One was Jimmy Archer, who had tried to steal the "blimy teapot." Number Three was the burglar Fred; I could tell him by the notch on his fifth rib that his comrade's bullet had made. Number Two was the man who had fired that shot, and Number Four was Joe, who was "done in in the dark." I knew them all. The weird "Museum Archives" had told me all about them; and as to the rest of that grisly company, strangers to me as yet, the neatly written, Russia-bound volume that Challoner had left would give me their histories too.
It was some days before I was able to resume my reading of the uncanny little book, but an unoccupied evening at length gave me the opportunity. As ten o'clock struck, I put on my slippers, adjusted the light, drew an armchair up to my study fire and opened the volume at the place marked by the envelope that I had inserted at the end of the last reading. The page was headed "Circumstances attending the acquirement of Numbers Five and Six," and the account ran as follows:
"The most carefully conceived plans, when put into practice, are apt to discover unforeseen defects. My elaborate plan for the capture of burglars was no exception to the rule. The idea of employing palpably dishonest servants to act as decoy ducks to lure the burglars on to the premises was an excellent one and had fully answered my expectations. But it had a defect which I had overlooked. The burglars themselves, when reduced to a condition suitable for exhibition in a show-case, were entirely innocuous. There was no danger of their making any indiscreet statements. But with the servants--female servants, too--it was quite otherwise. From the shelter of my roof they had gone forth to sow distrust and suspicion in quarters where perfect confidence and trustfulness should prevail. It was a most unfortunate oversight. Now, when it was too late, I saw clearly that they ought never to have left me. I ought to have added them to the collection, too.
"The evil results of the mistake soon became apparent. I had replaced the late cook and housemaid by two women of quite unimpeachable dishonesty, of whom I had, naturally, great hopes. But nothing happened. I let them handle the plate freely, I gave them the key of the safe from time to time, I brushed the sham diamond pendants and bracelets under their very noses, and still there was no result. It is true that the silver spoons dwindled in number and that a stray candlestick or salt-cellar would now and again 'report absent'; that the tradesmen's bills were preposterous and that the tea consumed in a week would have impaired the digestion of a Lodge of Good Templars. But that was all. No aspirant for museum honors made his appearance. The concussor became dusty with disuse; the safe in the dining-room remained neglected and untouched, and as for the burglar alarm, I had to stand on it myself at stated intervals to keep it in working order.
"I had already resolved to get rid of those two women when they saved me the trouble. I directed them to accompany me to the laboratory to clean out the furnace, whereat they both turned pale and flatly refused; and I saw them half an hour later secretly handing their boxes up the area steps to a man with a barrow. Obviously someone had told them something of my methods.
"The cook and housemaid who succeeded them were jail-birds pure and simple. They were dirty, dishonest, lazy and occasionally drunk. But for their actual function they were quite useless. They drank my whiskey, they devoured and distributed my provisions, they stole my portable property, and once, when I had incautiously left the door unfastened, I caught them browsing round the museum; but they brought no grist to my mill.
"It is true that during their reign I had one visitor, a scurvy little wry-faced knave who sneaked in through the scullery window; but I think he had no connection with them or he would have entered by some more convenient route and have used a false key instead of a jimmy to open the safe. He was a wretched little creature and his capture quite uninteresting; for, when he had bitten me twice, he crumpled up like a rag doll and I carried him to the tank as if he had been a monkey.
"Yet I ought not to disparage him unduly, for he was the one specimen in my collection, up to that time, who presented the orthodox 'stigmata of degeneration.' His hair was bushy, his face strikingly asymmetrical, and his ears were like a pair of Lombroso's selected examples; outstanding, with enormous Darwinian tubercles and almost devoid of lobules.
"Still, whatever his points of interest, he was but a stray catch. Chance had brought him as it might bring others of the same kind in the course of years. But this would not answer my purpose. Numbers were what I wanted and what I had arranged for; and it was with deep disappointment that I recognized that my plan had failed. The supply of anthropological material had come to an end. In a word, the criminal class had 'smoked' me.
"This was not mere surmise on my part. I had direct and very quaint evidence of it soon after I had completed the preparation of Number Five. I was returning home one evening and was approaching the vicinity of my house when I became aware of a small man of seedy aspect who appeared to be following me. I slackened my pace somewhat to let him overtake or pass me, and when nearly opposite my side door (the museum entrance) he edged alongside and addressed me in a hoarse whisper.
"I halted and looked at him attentively; a proceeding that caused him evident discomfort. 'Did you speak to me?' I asked.
"He edged up closer, but still did not meet my eye, and, looking first over one shoulder and then over the other, replied, 'Yus, I did, guv'nor.'
"'What do you want?' I demanded.
"He edged up yet closer and said in a hoarse undertone, 'I want to know what you've been and done with my cousin Bill.'
"'Your cousin Bill,' I repeated. 'Do I know him?'
"'I dunno whether you know 'im,' was the reply, 'but I see 'im go into your house and I never see 'im come out agin, and I want to know what you've been and done with 'im.'
"Now here was an interesting circumstance. I had already noted something familiar in the man's face. His question explained it. Cousin Bill was clearly Number Five in the Anthropological Series. In fact, the resemblance was quite remarkable. The present example, like the late Bill, was an undergrown creature, and had the same curiously-twisted nose, the same asymmetrical face and similar ears--large, flat ears that stood out from his head like the handles of an amphora, that had strongly marked Darwinian tubercles, unformed helices and undeveloped lobules. Lombroso would have loved him. He would have made a delightful photograph for purposes of illustration, and--it suddenly occurred to me--he would make a most interesting companion preparation to Number Five.
"'Your Cousin Bill,' I said, with this new idea in my mind. 'Was he the son of your mother's sister?' (A few details as to heredity add materially to the value and instructiveness of a specimen.)
"'And supposin' he was. What about it? I want to know what you've been and done with 'im.'
"'What makes you think I have done anything with him?' I asked.
"'Why, I see 'im go into your 'ouse and I never see 'im come out.'
"'But, my good man,' I protested, 'that is exceedingly bad logic. If you saw him go in, there is a fair presumption that he went in--'
"'I see 'im with my own eyes,' my friend interrupted, as though there were other alternative means of vision.
"'But,' I continued, 'the fact that you did not see him come out establishes no presumption that he did not come out. He may have come out unobserved.'
"'No, he didn't. He never come out. I see 'im go in--'
"'So you have mentioned. May I ask what his business was?'
"'His business,' my acquaintance replied with some hesitation, 'was of a private nature.'
"'I see. Did he go in by the front door?'
"'No, 'e didn't. 'E went in by the scullery window.'
"'In the evening, no doubt?'
"'Two hay hem,' was the reply.
"'Ah!' said I. 'He went in by the scullery window at two A.M. on private business. Quite so! Well, you see, the common sense of the position is that if he went into the house and never came out, he must be in the house still."
"'That's just what I think,' my friend agreed.
"'Very well. Then in that case perhaps you would like to step in and look round to see if you can find him.' I took out my latch-key and motioned invitingly towards the museum door.
"'No yer don't,' exclaimed the man, backing away hastily down the street. 'Yer don't git me in there, so I tell yer straight.'
"'What do you want me to do, then?'
"'I want to know,' he reiterated, 'what you've been and done with my cousin Bill. I see 'im go into--'
"'I know,' I interrupted impatiently. 'You said that before.'
"'And look 'ere, guv'nor,' he added. 'Where did you git all them skillintons from?' Evidently somebody had been talking to this little rascal.
"'I can't go into questions of that kind, you know,' I replied.
"'No, I don't suppose yer can,' he retorted; 'but I'll tell yer what I think you've been and done with Bill. You got 'im in there and you done 'im in. That's what I think. And I tell yer it ain't the cheese. When a cove goes into an 'ouse for to do an 'armless crack he stands for to be lagged if so be as he 'appens to git copped. But 'e don't stand for to be done in. 'Tain't playin' the game, and I ain't a-goin' to 'ave it.'
"'Then what do you propose to do?' I asked with some curiosity.
"'I perpose,' the little wastrel replied haughtily, 'for to 'ave the loar on yer. I'm a-goin' to put the coppers on to this 'ere job.'
"With this he turned somewhat hastily and shambled away up the street at the quick shuffle characteristic of his class. I let myself in at the side door and proceeded to the museum to examine Number Five with renewed interest. The resemblance was remarkable. It was plainly traceable even in the skull and in the proportions of the skeleton generally, while in the small, dry preparation of the head the likeness was ridiculous. It was most regrettable that he should have refused my invitation to come in. As a companion preparation, illustrating the physical resemblances in degenerate families, he would have been invaluable.
"His conversation and his ludicrous threat of legal proceedings gave me much matter for reflection. To him burglary presented itself as a legitimate sporting pursuit governed by certain rules. The players were respectively the burglar and the householder, of whom the latter staked his property and the former a certain period of personal liberty; and the rules of the game were equally binding on both. It was a conception worthy of comic opera; and yet, incredible as it may seem, it is the very view of crime that is today accepted and acted upon by society.
"The threat uttered by my diminutive acquaintance had the sound of broad farce, and so, I may confess, I regarded it. The idea of a burglar proceeding against a householder for hindering him in the execution of his private business might have emanated from the whimsical brain of the late W.S. Gilbert. The quaint topsy-turveydom of it caused me many a chuckle of amusement when I recalled the interview during the next few days; but, of course, I never dreamed of any actual attempt to carry out the threat.
"Imagine, therefore, my astonishment when I realized that not only had the complaint been made, but the law had actually been set--at least tentatively--in motion.
"The stunning discovery descended on me with the force of a concussor three days after the interview with Number Five's cousin. I was sitting in my study reading Chevers' 'Crime against the Person' when the housemaid entered with a visiting card. 'A gentleman wished to see me to discuss certain scientific matters with me.'
"I looked at the card. It bore the name of 'Mr. James Ramchild,' a name quite unknown to me. It was very odd. A scientific colleague would surely have written for an appointment and stated the object of his visit. I looked at the card again. It was printed from script type instead of the usual engraved plate and it bore an address in Kennington Park Road. These were weighty facts and a trifle suspicious. I seemed to scent a traveler from beyond the Atlantic; a traveler of commercial leanings.
"'Show Mr. Ramchild up here,' I said, and the housemaid departed, to return anon accompanied by a tall, massive man of a somewhat military aspect.
"I could have laughed aloud, but I did not. It would not have been politic and it would certainly not have been polite. But I chuckled inwardly as I offered my visitor a chair. 'Experientia docet!' I had seen quite a number of plain-clothes police officers in the last few months and the present specimen would have been typical even without his boots. I prepared to enjoy myself.
"'I have taken the liberty of calling on you, Mr. Challoner,' my visitor began, 'to make a few enquiries concerning--er--skeletons.'
"'I nodded gravely and smothered a giggle. He was a simple soul, this Ramchild. 'Concerning skeletons!' What an expression for a man of science to use! An artless creature indeed! A veritable Ramchild of nature, so to speak.
"'I understand,' he continued, 'that you have a famous collection of--er--skeletons.' I nodded again. Of course I had not anything of the kind. Mine was only a little private collection. But it was of no consequence. 'So,' he concluded, 'I have called to ask if you would be so kind as to let me see them.'
"'From whom did you hear of my collection?' I asked.
"'It was mentioned to me by my friend Mr.--er--Mr. Winterbottom, of Cambridge.'
"'Ah,' said I, 'I remember Winterbottom very well. How is he?'
"'He's very well, thank you,' replied the detective, looking mightily surprised; and not without reason, seeing that he had undoubtedly invented the name Winterbottom on the spur of the moment.
"'Is there any branch of the subject that you are especially interested in?' I asked, purposely avoiding giving him a lead.
"'No,' he replied. 'No, not particularly. The fact is that I thought of starting a collection myself if it wouldn't be too expensive. But you have a regular museum, haven't you?'
"'Yes. Come and have a look at it.'
"He rose with alacrity and I led him through the dining-room to the museum wing, and I noticed that, if he did not know much about osteology, he was uncommonly observant of the details of house-construction. He looked very hard at the safe, the mahogany casing of which failed to disguise its nature from the professional eye, and noted the massive door that gave entrance to the museum wing and the Yale lock that secured it. In the museum his eye riveted itself on the five human skeletons in the great wall-case, but I perversely led him to the case containing my curious collection of abnormal and deformed skeletons of the lower animals.
"'There,' I said complacently, 'that is my little hoard. Is there any specimen that you would like to take out and examine?'
"He gazed vaguely into the case and murmured that 'they were all very interesting,' and again I caught his eye wandering to the great case opposite. I was in the act of reaching out a porcupine with an ankylosed knee-joint, when he plucked up courage to say frankly, 'The fact is, I am principally interested in human skeletons.'
"I replaced the porcupine and walked across to the great wall-case. 'I am sorry I have not more to show you,' I said apologetically. 'This is only the beginning of a collection, you see; but still, the specimens are of considerable interest. Don't you find them so?'
"Apparently he did, for he scrutinized the dates on the dwarf-pedestals with the deepest attention and finally remarked, 'I see you have written a date on each of these. What does that signify?'
"'The dates are those on which I acquired the respective specimens,' I answered.
"'Oh, indeed.' He reflected, with a profoundly speculative eye on Number Five. I judged that he was trying to recall a date furnished by Number Five's cousin and that he would have liked to consult his note-book.
"'The particulars,' I said, 'are too lengthy to put on the labels, but they are set out in detail in the catalogue.'
"'Can I see the catalogue?' he asked eagerly.
"'Certainly.' I produced a small manuscript volume--not the catalogue which is attached to the 'Archives,' but a dummy that I had prepared for such a contingency as had arisen--and handed it to him. He opened it with avidity, and, turning at once to Number Five, began, with manifest disappointment, to read the description aloud.
"'5. Male skeleton of Teutonic type exhibiting well-marked characters of degeneration. The skull is asymmetrical, subdolichocephalic.' (He pronounced this word subdolichocolophalic' and paused abruptly, turning rather red. It is an awkward word.) 'Yes,' he said, closing the catalogue, 'very interesting, very remarkable. Exceedingly so. I should very much like to possess a skeleton like that.'
"'You are much better off with the one you have got,' I remarked.
"'Oh, I don't mean that,' he rejoined hastily. 'I mean that I should like to acquire a specimen like this Number Five for my proposed collection. Now how could I get one?'
"'Well,' I said reflectively, 'there are several ways.' I paused and he gazed at me expectantly. 'You could, for instance,' I continued slowly, 'provide yourself with a lasso and take a walk down Whitechapel High Street.'
"'Good gracious!' he exclaimed excitedly; 'do you really mean to say that--'
"'Certainly,' I interrupted. 'You would find an abundance of material. For my own part, not being gifted with your exceptionally fine physique, I have to adopt the more prosaic and expensive plan of buying my specimens from the dealers.'
"'Quite so, quite so,' he agreed. He was deeply disappointed and inclined to be huffy. 'Of course you were joking about the lasso. But would you mind giving me the address of the dealer from whom you obtained this specimen?' And once more he pointed to Cousin Bill.
"He thought he had cornered me; and so he would have done if I had been less cautious. I congratulated myself on the wisdom and foresight that had led me to provide myself with those dummy skeletons. For now I held him in the hollow of my hand.
"'That specimen?' I said, scanning the date on the pedestal; 'I fancy I got it from Hammerstein. You know his place in the Seven Dials, no doubt. A very useful man. I get most of my human osteology from him.' I fetched my receipt file and turned over the papers in leisurely fashion while he gnawed his lips with impatience. At last I found the receipted invoice and he read it aloud with a ludicrous expression of disappointment.
"'Complete set superfine human osteology strongly articulated with best brass wire and screw-bolts, with springs to mandible and stout iron supporting rod. All bones guaranteed to be derived from the same subject. L5.3.4.'
"The invoice was headed, Oscar Hammerstein, Dealer in Osteology, Great St. Andrew Street, London, W.C.,' and was dated 4th February, 1891.
"The detective entered the name and address in a black-bound note-book of official aspect, compared the date with that on Cousin Bill's pedestal and prepared to depart.
"'There is one thing I must point out to you,' I said, anticipating an early visit on my friend's part to Mr. Hammerstein; 'the skeletons as you get them from the dealers are not always up to museum style in point of finish. They are often of a bad color and may be stained with grease. If they are, you will have to disarticulate them, clean them with benzol and, if necessary, remacerate and bleach; but whatever you do,' I concluded solemnly, 'be careful with the chlorinated soda or you will spoil the appearance of the bones and make them brittle. Good bye!' I shook his hand effusively and he took his departure very glum and crestfallen.
"As long as he had been with me, something of the old buoyant spirit of playfulness--that was my ordinary mood until my great trouble befell--had been revived by the absurdity of the situation. But his departure left me rather depressed, for his visit marked the final collapse of my scheme. Even if the criminal classes had been willing to continue the supply of anthropological material, my methods could not have been carried out under the watchful and disapproving eyes of the police.
"What then was to be done? This was the question that I asked myself again and again. As to abandoning my activities, of course, such an idea never occurred to me. I remained alive for a definite purpose: to search for the man who had murdered my wife and to exact from him payment of his debt. Of this purpose, the collection had been, at first, a mere by-product; and though it was gradually taking such hold of me as to become a purpose in itself, it was but a minor purpose. The discovery of that unknown wretch was the Mecca of my earthly pilgrimage, from which no difficulties or obstacles should divert me.
"The hint that ultimately guided me into new fields of research came to me by the merest chance. A few days after the visit of the detective I received a letter from one of my few remaining friends, a Dr. Grayson, who had formerly practiced in London as a physician, but who, owing to age and infirmity, had retired to his native place, the village of Shome, near Rochester. Grayson asked me to spend a day with him, that we might talk over some matters in which we were both interested; and, being now rather at a loose end, I accepted the invitation, but declined to sleep away from home and my collection.
"It is significant of my state of mind at this time that, before starting, I considered what weapon I should take with me. Formerly I should no more have thought of arming myself for a simple railway journey than of putting on a coat of mail; but now a train suggested a train robber--a Lefroy, with a very unsubmissive Mr. Gold--and the long tunnel near Strood was but the setting of a railway tragedy. My ultimate choice of weapon, too, is interesting. The familiar revolver I rejected utterly. There must be no noise. My quarrel with the criminal was a personal one in which no outsiders must be allowed to meddle. I should have preferred the concussor, which I now handled with skill, but it was hardly a portable tool, and my choice ultimately fell on a very fine swordstick, supplemented by a knuckle-duster which had been bequeathed to me by one of my clients after trial on my own countenance.
And after all, nothing happened. I got into an empty first-class compartment and when, just as the train was starting, a burly fellow dashed in and slammed the door, I eyed him suspiciously and waited for developments. But there were none. The fellow sat huddled in a corner, watching me and keeping an eye on the handle of the alarm over his head; but he made no sign. When we emerged from the long tunnel he was as white as a ghost and he hopped out on to Strood platform almost before the train had begun to slow down.
"I reached my bag down from the rack and got out after him, smiling at my own folly. The criminal was becoming an obsession of which I must beware if I would not end my days in an asylum; a fact which was further impressed on me when I saw my late fellow-passenger, who had just caught sight of me, 'legging it' down the station approach like a professional pedestrian and looking back nervously over his shoulder. Resolving firmly to put the subject out of my mind, I walked slowly into the town and betook myself to the London Road; and though, as I passed the Falstaff Inn and crossed Gad's Hill, fleeting reminiscences of Prince Henry and the men in buckram came unsought, with later suggestions of a stagecoach struggling up the hill in the dark and masked figures creeping down the banks into the sunken road, I kept to my good resolution. The bag was a little cumbersome--it contained a large parcel of bulbs from Covent Garden that Grayson had asked me to bring--and yet it was pleasant to break off from the high road and stray by well-remembered tracks and footpaths across the fields. It was all familiar ground; for in years gone by, when Grayson was in practice, we would come down together for weekends to his little demesne, and often I would stay on alone for a week or so and ramble about the country by myself. So I knew every inch of the country side and was so much interested in renewing my acquaintance with it that I was twenty minutes late for lunch.
"I had a most agreeable day with Grayson (who was working at the historical aspects of disease), and would have stayed later than I did. But at about half-past eight--we had dined at seven--Grayson began to be restless and fidgetty and at last said apologetically:
"'Don't think me inhospitable, Challoner, but if you aren't going to stay the night you had better be going. And don't go by Gad's Hill. Take the road down to Higham and catch the train there.'
"'Why, what is the matter with Gad's Hill?' I asked.
"'Nothing much by daylight, but a great deal at night. It has always been an unsafe spot and is especially just now. There has been quite an epidemic of highway robberies lately. They began when the hoppers were here last autumn, but some of those East-end ruffians seem to have settled in the neighborhood. I have seen some very queer-looking characters even in this village; aliens, apparently, of the kind that you see about Stepney and Whitechapel.
"'Now, you get down to Higham, like a good fellow, before the country settles down for the night.'
"Needless to say, the prowling alien had no terrors for me, but as Grayson was really uneasy, I made no demur and took my leave almost immediately. But I did not make directly for Higham. The moon was up and the village looked very inviting. Tree and chimney-stack, thatched roof and gable-end cut pleasant shapes of black against the clear sky, and patches of silvery light fell athwart the road on wooden palings and weather-boarded fronts. I strolled along the little street, carrying the now light and empty bag and exchanging greetings with scattered villagers, until I came to the lane that turns down towards the London Road. Here, by a triangular patch of green, I halted and mechanically looked at my watch, holding it up in the moonlight. I was about to replace it when a voice asked:
"'What's the right time, mister?'
"I looked up sharply. The man who had spoken was sitting on the bank under the hedge and in such deep shadow that I had not noticed him. Nor could I see much of him now, though I observed that he seemed to be taking some kind of refreshment; but the voice was not a Kentish voice, nor even an English one; it seemed to engraft an unfamiliar, guttural accent on the dialect of East London.
"I told the man the time and asked him if the road--pointing to the ridgway--would take me to Higham. Of course I knew it would not and I have no very distinct idea why I asked. But he answered promptly enough, 'Yus. Straight down the road. Was you wantin' to get to the station?'
"I replied that I was, and he added, 'You go straight down the road a mile and a half and you'll see the station right in front of you.'
"Now, here was a palpable misdirection. Obviously intentional, too, for the circumstantiality excluded the idea of a mistake. He was deliberately sending me--an ostensible stranger--along a solitary side-road that led into the heart of the country. With what object? I had very little doubt, and that doubt should soon be set at rest.
"I thanked him for his information and set out along the road at an easy pace; but when I had gone a little way, I lengthened my stride so as to increase my speed without altering the rhythm of my footfalls. As I went, I speculated on the intentions of my friend and noted with interest and a little surprise that I was quite without fear of him. I suspected him of being a footpad, one of the gang of which Grayson had spoken, and I had set forth along this unfrequented road in a spirit of mere curiosity to see if it were really so.
"Presently I came to a gate at the entrance of a cart-track and here I halted to listen. From the road behind me came the sound of footsteps; quick steps but not sharp and crisp; rather of a shuffling, stealthy quality. I climbed quietly over the gate and took up a position behind the trunk of an elm that grew in the hedgerow. The footsteps came on apace. Soon round a bend of the moon-lighted road a figure appeared moving forward rapidly and keeping in what shadow there was. I watched it through the thick hedge as it approached and resolved itself into a seedy-looking man carrying a thick knobbed stick.
"Opposite the gate the man halted and, as I could see by his shadow, looked across the silvery fields that stretched away down to the valley and listened, but only for a few moments. Then he started forward again at something between a quick walk and a slow trot.
"As soon as he had gone I came out and began to walk down the cart-track. My figure must have stood out conspicuously on the bare field and must have been plainly visible from the ridge-way. I did not hurry. Pursuing my way quietly down the gentle slope, I went on for some three hundred yards until the ground fell away more steeply; and here, before descending, I looked over my shoulder.
"A man was getting over the gate.
"I walked on more quickly now until I topped a second rise and then I again looked back. The figure of the man stood out on the brow of the hill, black against the moonlit sky. And now he was hurrying forward in undisguised pursuit.
"I quickened my pace and looked about me. The night was calm and lovely, the fields bathed in silvery light and the wooded uplands shrouded in a soft, gray shadow, from the heart of which a single lighted window gleamed forth, a spot of rosy warmth. The bark of a watch-dog came softened by distance from some solitary farmstead, and far away below, the hoot of a steamer, creeping up the river to the twinkling anchorage.
"Presently I came to a spot where the rough road divided. One well-worn track led down towards the footpath that ultimately enters the London Road; a fainter track led, as I knew, to an old chalk-pit where, in mysterious caverns, the farm carts rested through the winter months. Here I halted for a moment as if in doubt. The man was now less than a hundred yards behind me and walking as fast as he could. I turned round and looked at him, he appeared once more to hesitate, and then started at a run along the track to the chalk-pit.
"There was no disguise about the man's intentions. As I started off, he broke into a run and followed, but he did not hail me to stop. I suppose he knew whither the path led. But if his purpose was definite, so was mine. And again I noted with faint surprise that I had no feeling of nervousness. My contact with the criminal class had left me with nothing but a sentiment of hostile contempt. That a criminal might kill me never presented itself as a practical possibility. I was only concerned in inducing him to give me a fair pretext for killing him. So I ran on, wondering if my pursuer had ringed hair; if it were possible that, in this remote place and by this chance meeting, I might find the object of my quest; and conscious of that fierce, playful delight that always came over me when I was hunting the enemies of my race. For, of course, I was now hunting the fellow behind me, although the poor devil supposed he was hunting me.
"When the track approached the chalk-pit, it descended rather suddenly. I ran down between two clumps of bushes, into the weed-grown area at the bottom, past the row of caverns wherein the wagons were even now lurking unseen, and on until the track ended among a range of mole-hills in a sort of bay encompassed by the time-stained cliff. Here I wheeled about, putting down my bag, and faced my pursuer.
"'Stand off!' I said sharply. 'What are you following me for?'
"The man stopped and then approached more slowly. 'Look 'ere, mister,' said he, 'I don't want to hurt yer. You needn't be afeared of me.'
"'Well,' said I, 'What do you want?'
"'I'll tell yer,' he said confidentially. 'I'm a pore man, I am; I ain't got no watch, I ain't got no money and I can't get no work. Now you're a rich man. You've got a very 'andsome watch--I see it--and lots more at 'ome, I dessay. Well, you makes me a present o' that watch, that's what you do; and any small change that you've got about yer. You do that and I'll let yer go peaceable.'
"'And supposing I don't?'
"'Then some o' them farm blokes 'ill find a dead man in a chalk-pit. And it ain't no good for you to holler. There ain't no one within a mile of this place. So you pass over that watch and turn out yer bloomin' pockets.'
"'Do I understand--' I began; but he interrupted me savagely:
"'Oh, shut yer face and hand over! D'yer hear?' He advanced threateningly, grasping his bludgeon by the smaller end, but when he had approached within a couple of paces I made a sudden lunge with my stick, introducing its ferrule to his abdomen about the region of the solar plexus. He sprang back with an astonished yelp--which sounded like 'Ow--er!'--and stood gasping and rubbing his abdomen. As he recovered, he broke out into absurd and disgusting speech and began cautiously to circle round me, balancing his club in readiness for a smashing blow.
"'You wait till I done with yer,' said he, watching for a chance. 'I'll make yer pay for that. I'm a-goin' to do yer in, I am. You'll look ugly when I've finished--Ow--er!' The concluding exclamation was occasioned by the ferrule of my stick impinging on the fleshy part of his chest, and as he uttered it he sprang back out of range.
"After this he kept a greater distance, but continued to circle round and pour out an unceasing torrent of foul words. But he had not the faintest idea how to use a stick, whereas my practice with the foils at the gymnasium had made me quite skilful. From time to time he raised his bludgeon and ran in at me, but a sharp prod under the upraised arm always sent him leaping back out of reach with the inevitable 'Ow--er!'
"His lack of skill deprived the encounter of much of its interest. I think he felt this himself, for I saw him looking about furtively as if in search of something. Then he espied a large and knobbly flint and would have picked it up; but as he was stooping I plied the point of my stick so vigorously that he staggered back with yelps of pain.
"And now it was suddenly borne in upon me that he had had enough. I realized it just in time to plant myself on the track between him and the entrance to the chalk-pit. He was still as savage and murderous as ever, but his nerve was gone. He shrank away from me and as I followed closely he tried again and again to dodge past towards the opening.
"'Look 'ere, mister,' he said at length, 'you chuck it and I'll let yer go peaceable.'
"Let me go! I laughed scornfully, but stood my ground. And yet it was unpleasant. One cannot go on hammering a beaten man and it is difficult to refuse a surrender. On the other hand, it was out of the question to let this fellow go. He had come here prepared to murder me for a paltry watch and a handful of loose change. Common justice and my duty to my fellow men demanded his elimination. Besides, if I let him escape into the open, what would happen? The fields were sprinkled with big flints. It was practically certain that I should never leave the neighborhood alive.
"Even as I stood hesitating, he furnished an illustrative commentary on my thoughts. Springing back from me, he suddenly stooped and caught up a great flint nodule; and though I ducked quickly as he flung it and so avoided its full force, I caught such a buffet as it glanced off the side of my head as convinced me that a settlement must be speedily arrived at. Rushing in on him, I bore him backwards until he was penned up in the entrance of one of the caverns against the shafts of a wagon. Then suddenly he changed his tactics. Realizing at last that a clumsily-wielded bludgeon is powerless against a stick expertly handled rapier-wise, he dropped his club, and the next moment the moonbeams flashed from the broad blade of a knife. This was quite a different affair. He now stood on guard with the knife poised and his left hand outspread ready to snatch at my stick. It was a much more effective plan; only he did not know that inside my stout malacca reposed a keen Toledo sword-blade.
"I slipped my thumb on the press-button of the sword-stick and watched him. From time to time he made a dash at me with his knife, and when I prodded him back, he snatched at the stick. Again and again he nearly caught it, but I was just a little too quick for him, and he fell back, gasping and cursing, on the wagon-shafts. And then the end came with inevitable suddenness. He rushed out on me with upraised knife. I stopped him with a vigorous poke in the chest; but before I could whisk away the stick he had clutched it with a howl of joy. I gave a final drive, pressed the button and sprang back, leaving the scabbard-end in his hand. Before he had realized what had happened, he darted out, brandishing the knife, and came fairly on the point of the sword-blade. At the same moment I must have lunged, though I was not aware of it, for when he staggered back the handle was against his breast.
"It was over, and I had hardly realized that the final stage had begun. In an instant, as it seemed, that yelping, murderous wretch had subsided into a huddled, inert heap. It was a quick and merciful dispatch. By the time I had cleaned the blade and replaced it in its scabbard, the last twitchings had ceased. As I stood and looked down at him, I felt something of the chill of an anticlimax. It had all gone off so easily.
"Now that it was finished, my thoughts went back to the final purpose of my quest. Was this man, by any chance, the wretch whom I was seeking? It did not seem likely, and yet the possibility must be considered. The first question was as to his hair. Stooping down, with my pocket scissors I cut off a good-sized lock and secured it in an envelope for future examination. Then, taking out my pocket-book, I pressed his fingers on some of the blank leaves. The natural surface of his hands offered a passable substitute for ink and the finger-prints could be further developed at home.
"Then arose a more difficult question. I naturally wished to add him to my collection; but the thing seemed impossible. I certainly could not take him away with me. But if I left him exposed, he would undoubtedly be found and buried and thus an excellent specimen would be lost to science. There was only one thing to be done. The middle of the chalk-pit was occupied by a large area covered with nettles and other large weeds. Probably no human being trod on that space from one year's end to another, for the stinging-nettles, four or five feet high, were enough to keep off stray children. Even now the spring vegetation was coming up apace. If I placed the body inconspicuously in the middle of the weedy area it would soon be overgrown and hidden. Then the natural agencies would do the rougher part of my work. Necrophagous insects and other vermin would come to the aid of air, moisture and bacteria, and I could return in the autumn and gather up the bones all ready for the museum.
"This rather makeshift plan I proceeded to execute. Transporting the material to the middle of the weed-grown space, I covered it lightly with twigs and various articles of loose rubbish. It was now quite invisible, and I was turning away to go when suddenly I bethought me of the dry preparation of the head that ought to accompany the skeleton. Without that, the specimen would be incomplete; and an incomplete specimen would spoil the series. I reflected awhile. It seemed a pity to spoil the completeness of the series for the sake of a little trouble. I had a good-sized bag with me and a quantity of stout brown paper in it in which the bulbs had been wrapped. Why not?
"In the end, I decided that the series should not be spoilt. I need not describe the obvious details of the simple procedure. When I came up out of the chalk-pit a quarter of an hour later, my bag contained the material for the required preparation of a mummified head.
"I soon struck the familiar footpath and set forth at a brisk pace to catch the late train from Gravesend. It was a long walk and a pleasant one, though the bag was uncomfortably heavy. I thought, with grim amusement, of Grayson's gang of footpads. It would be a quaint situation if I encountered some of them and was robbed of my bag. The possibilities that the idea opened out were highly diverting and kept me entertained until I at last reached Gravesend Station and was bundled by the guard into a first-class compartment just as the train was starting. I should have preferred an empty compartment, but there was no choice; and as three of the corners were occupied, I took possession of the fourth. The rack over my seat was occupied by a bag about the size of my own, apparently the property of a clergyman who sat in the opposite corner, so I had to place my bag in the rack over his head.
"I watched him during the journey as he sat opposite me reading the Church Times and wondered how he would feel if he knew what was in the bag above him. Probably he would have been quite disturbed; for many of these clerics entertain the quaintest of old-world ideas. And he was mighty near to knowing, too; for when the train had stopped at Hither Green and was just about to move off, he suddenly sprang up, exclaiming, 'God bless my soul!' and snatching my bag from the rack, darted out on the platform. I immediately grabbed his bag from my rack and rushed out after him as the train started, hailing him to stop. 'Hi! My good sir! You've taken my bag.'
"'Not at all,' he replied indignantly. 'You're quite mistaken.' And then, as I held out his own bag, he looked from one to the other, and, to my horror, pressed the clasp of my bag and pulled it wide open.
"On what small chances do great events turn! But for the brown paper in my bag, there would have been a catastrophe. As it was, when his eye lighted on that rough, globular paper parcel he handed me my bag with an apologetic smirk and received his own in exchange. But after that, I kept my property in my hand until I was safe within the precincts of my laboratory.
"The usual disappointment awaited me when I came to examine the hair and finger-prints. He was not the man whom I sought. But he made an acceptable addition to the Series of Criminal Anthropology in my museum, for I duly collected the bones from the great nettle-bed in the chalk-pit early in the following September, and set them, properly bleached and riveted together, in the large wall-case. But this specimen had a further, though indirect, value. From him I gathered a useful hint by which I was subsequently guided into a new and fruitful field of research.
"(See Catalogue, Numbers 6A and 6B.)"