Chapter XXVIII. The Footprints
 

The man was lying face downwards in the grass and weeds which clustered thickly at the foot of the hedgerow, and on the line of rough, weatherbeaten neck which showed between his fur cap and his turned-up collar there was a patch of dried blood. Very still and apparently lifeless he looked, but Vickers suddenly bent down, laid strong hands on him and turned him over.

"He's not dead!" he exclaimed. "Only unconscious from a crack on his skull. Gilling!--where's that brandy you brought?--hand me the flask."

Zachary Spurge watched in silence as Vickers and Gilling busied themselves in reviving the stricken man. Then he quickly pulled Copplestone's sleeve and motioned him away from the group.

"Guv'nor!" he muttered. "There's been foul play here--and all along of them nine boxes--that I'll warrant. Look you here, guv'nor--Jim's been dragged to where we found him--dragged through this here gap in the hedge and flung where he's lying. See--there's the plain marks, all through the grass and stuff. Come on, guv'nor--let's see where they lead."

The marks of a heavy, inanimate body having been dragged through the wet grass were evidence enough, and Copplestone and Spurge followed them to a corner of the old tower where they ceased. Spurge glanced round that corner and uttered a sharp exclamation.

"Just what I expected!" he said. "Leastways, what I expected as soon as I see Jim a-lying there. Guv'nor, the stuff's gone!"

He drew Copplestone after him and pointed to a corner of the weed-grown courtyard where a cavity had been made in the mass of fallen masonry and the stones taken from it lay about just as they had been displaced and thrown aside.

"That's where the nine boxes were," he continued. "Well, there ain't one of 'em there now! Naught but the hole where they was! Well--this must ha' been during the early morning--after I left Jim to go into Norcaster. And of course him as put the stuff there must be him as fetched it away--Chatfield. Let's see if there's footmarks about, guv'nor."

"Wait a bit," said Copplestone. "We must be careful about that. Move warily. We 'd better do it systematically. There'd have to be some sort of a trap, a vehicle, to carry away those chests. Where's the nearest point of that road you spoke of?"

"Up there," replied Spurge, pointing to a flanking bank of heather. "But they--or him--wasn't forced to come that way, guv'nor. He--or them--could come up from that cove down yonder. It wouldn't surprise me if that there yacht--the Pike, you know--had turned on her tracks and come in here during the night. It's not more than a mile from this tower down to the shore, and--"

At that moment Vickers called to them, and they went back to find Jim Spurge slowly opening his eyes and looking round him with consciousness of his company. His one eye lightened a little as he caught sight of Zachary, and the poacher bent down to him.

"Jim, old man!" he said soothingly. "How are yer, Jim? Yer been hit by somebody. Who was it, Jim?"

"Give him a drop more brandy and lift him up a bit," counselled Gilling. "He's improving."

But it needed more than a mere drop of brandy, more than cousinly words of adjuration, to bring the wounded man back to a state of speech. And when at last he managed to make a feeble response, it was only to mutter some incoherent and disjointed sentences about and being struck down from behind--after which he again relapsed into semi-unconsciousness.

"That's it guv'nor," muttered Spurge, nudging Copplestone. "That's the ticket! Struck down from behind--that's what happened to him. Unawares, so to speak, I can reckon of it up--easy. They comes in the darkness--after I'd left him here. He hears of 'em, as he says, a-moving about. Then he no doubt Starts moving about--watching 'em, as far as he can see. Then one of 'em gives him this crack on the skull--life-preserver if you ask me--and down he goes! And then--they drag him in here and leaves him. Don't care whether he's a goner or not--not they! Well, an' what does it prove? That there's been more than one of 'em, guv'nor. And in my opinion, where they've come from is--down there!"

He pointed down the glen in the direction of the sea, and the three young men who were considerably exercised by this sudden turn of events and the disappearance of the chests, looked after his out-stretched hand and then at each other.

"Well, we can't stand here doing nothing," said Gilling at last. "Look here, we'd better divide forces. This chap'll have to be removed and got to some hospital. Vickers!--I guess you're the quickest-footed of the lot--will you run back to High Nick and tell that chauffeur to bring his car round here? If Sir Cresswell and the police are there, tell them what's happened. Spurge--you go down the glen there, and see if you can see anything of any suspicious-looking craft in that bay you told us of. Copplestone, we can't do any more for this man just now--let's look round. This is a queer business," he went on when they had all departed, and he and Copplestone were walking towards the tower. "The gold's gone, of course?"

"No sign of it here, anyway," answered Copplestone, leading him into the ruinous courtyard and pointing to the cavity in the fallen masonry. "That's where it was placed by Chatfield, according to Zachary Spurge."

"And of course Chatfield's removed it during the night," remarked Gilling. "That message which Sir Cresswell read us must have been all wrong--the Pike's come south and she's been somewhere about--maybe been in that cove at the end of the glen--though she'll have cleared out of it hours ago!" he concluded disappointedly. "We're too late!"

"That theory's not necessarily correct," replied Copplestone. "Sir Cresswell's message may have been quite right. For all we know the folks on the Pike had confederates on shore. Go carefully, Gilling--let's see if we can make out anything in the way of footprints."

The ground in the courtyard was grassless, a flooring of grit and loose stone, on which no impression could well be made by human foot. But Copplestone, carefully prospecting around and going a little way up the bank which lay between the tower and the moorland road, suddenly saw something in the black, peat-like earth which attracted his attention and he called to his companion.

"I say!" he exclaimed. "Look at this! There!--that's unmistakable enough. And fresh, too!"

Gilling bent down, looked, and stared at Copplestone with a question in his eyes.

"By Gad!" he said. "A woman!"

"And one who wears good and shapely footwear, too," remarked Copplestone. "That's what you'd call a slender and elegant foot. Here it is again--going up the bank. Come on!"

There were more traces of this wearer of elegant foot-gear on the soft earth of the bank which ran between the moorland and the stone-strewn courtyard--more again on the edges of the road itself. There, too, were plain signs that a motor-car of some sort had recently been pulled up opposite the tower--Gilling pointed to the indentations made by the studded wheels and to droppings of oil and petrol on the gravelly soil.

"That's evident enough," he said. "Those chests have been fetched away during the night, by motor, and a woman's been in at it! Confederates, of course. Now then, the next thing is, which way did that motor go with its contents?"

They followed the tracks for a short distance along the road, until, coming to a place where it widened at a gateway leading into the wood, they saw that the car had there been backed and turned. Gilling carefully examined the marks.

"That car came from Norcaster and it's gone back to Norcaster," he affirmed presently. "Look here!--they came up the hill at the side of the wood--here they backed the car towards that gate, and then ran it backwards till they were abreast of the tower--then, when they'd loaded up with those chests they went straight off by the way they'd come. Look at the tracks--plain enough."

"Then we'd better get down towards Norcaster ourselves," said Copplestone. "Call Spurge back--he'll find nothing in that cove. This job has been done from land. And we ought to be on the track of these people--they've had several hours start already."

By this time Zachary Spurge had been recalled, Vickers had brought the car round from High Nick, and the injured man was carefully lifted into it and driven away. But at High Nick itself they met another car, hurrying up from Norcaster, and bringing Sir Cresswell Oliver and three other men who bore the unmistakable stamp of the police force. In one of them Copplestone recognized the inspector from Scarhaven.

The two cars met and stopped alongside each other, and Sir Cresswell, with one sharp glance at the rough bandage which Vickers had fastened round Jim Spurge's head, rapped out a question.

"Gone!" replied Gilling, with equal brusqueness. "Came in a motor, during the night, soon after Zachary Spurge left Jim. They hit him pretty hard over his head and left him unconscious. Of course they've carried off the boxes. Car appears to have gone to Norcaster. Hadn't you better turn?"

Sir Cresswell pointed to the Scarhaven police inspector.

"Here's news from Scarhaven," he said, bending forward to the other car, "The inspector's just brought it. The Squire--whoever he was--is dead. They found his body this morning, lying at the foot of a cliff near the Keep. Foul play?--that's what you don't know, eh, inspector?"

"Can't say at all, sir," answered the inspector. "He might have been thrown down, he might have fallen down--it's a bad place. Anyway, what the doctor said, just before I hurried in here to tell Mrs. Greyle, as the next relative that we know of, is that he'd been dead some days--the body, you see, was lying in a thicket at the foot of the cliff."

"Some days!" exclaimed Copplestone, with a look at Gilling. "Days?"

"Four or five days at least, sir," replied the inspector. "So the doctor thinks. The place is a cliff between the high road from Northborough and the house itself. There's a short cut across the park to the house from that road. It looks as if--"

"Ah!" interrupted Gilling. "It's clear how that happened, then. He took that short cut, when he came from Northborough that night! But--if he's dead, who's engineering all this? There's the fact, those chests of gold have been removed from that old tower since Zachary Spurge left his cousin in charge there early this morning. Everything looks as if they'd been carried to Norcaster. Therefore--"

"Turn this car round," commanded Sir Cresswell. "Of course, we must get back to Norcaster. But what's to be done there?"

The two cars went scurrying back to the old shipping town. When at last they had 'deposited the injured man at a neighbouring hospital and came to a stop near the "Angel," Zachary Spurge pulled Copplestone's sleeve, and with a look full of significance, motioned him aside to a quiet place.