Chapter IX. Hobkin's Hole
 

Copplestone carried the queer-looking missive into his private sitting-room and carefully examined it, back and front, before slitting it open. The envelope was of the cheapest kind, the big splotch of red wax at the flap had been pressed into flatness by the summary method of forcing a coarse-grained thumb upon it; the address was inscribed in ill-formed characters only too evidently made with difficulty by a bad pen, which seemed to have been dipped into watery ink at every third or fourth letter. And it read thus:--

"THE YOUNG GENTLEMAN STAYING AT 'THE ADMIRAL '--PRIVATE"

The envelope contained nothing but a scrap of paper obviously torn from a penny cash book. No ink had been used in transcribing the two or three lines which were scrawled across this scrap--the vehicle this time was an indelible pencil, which the writer appeared to have moistened with his tongue every now and then, some letters being thicker and darker than others. The message, if mysterious, was straightforward enough. "Sir," it ran, "if so be as you'd like to have a bit of news from one as has it, take a walk through Hobkin's Hole tomorrow morning and look out for Yours truly--Him as writes this."

Like most very young men Copplestone on arriving at what he called manhood (by which he meant the age of twenty-one years), had drawn up for himself a code of ethics, wherein he had mentally scheduled certain things to be done and certain things not to be done. One of the things which he had firmly resolved never to do was to take any notice of an anonymous letter. Here was an anonymous letter, and with it a conflict between his principles and his inclinations. In five minutes he learnt that cut-and-dried codes are no good when the hard facts of every-day life have to be faced and that expediency is a factor in human existence which has its moral values. In plain English, he made up his mind to visit Hobkin's Hole next morning and find out who the unknown correspondent was.

He was half tempted to go round to the cottage and show the queer scrawl to Audrey Greyle, of whom, having passed six delightful hours in her company--he was beginning to think much more than was good for him, unless he intended to begin thinking of her always. But he was still young enough to have a spice of bashfulness about him, and he did not want to seem too pushing or forward. Again, it seemed to him that the anonymous letter conveyed, in some subtle fashion, a hint that it was to be regarded as sacred and secret, and Copplestone had a strong sense of honour. He knew that Mrs. Wooler was femininely curious to hear all about that letter, but he took care not to mention it to her. Instead he quietly consulted an ordnance map of the district which hung framed and glazed in the hall of the inn, and discovering that Hobkin's Hole was marked on it as being something or other a mile or two out of Scarhaven on the inland side, he set out in its direction next morning after breakfast, without a word to anyone as to where he was going. And that he might not be entirely defenceless he carried Peter Chatfield's oaken staff with him--that would certainly serve to crack any ordinary skull, if need arose for measure of defence.

The road which Copplestone followed out of the village soon turned off into the heart of the moorlands that lay, rising and falling in irregular undulations, between the sea and the hills. He was quickly out of sight of Scarhaven, and in the midst of a solitude. All round him stretched wide expanses of heather and gorse, broken up by great masses of rock: from a rise in the road he looked about him and saw no sign of a human habitation and heard nothing but the rush of the wind across the moors and the plaintive cry of the sea-birds flapping their way to the cultivated land beyond the barrier of hills. And from that point he saw no sign of any fall or depression in the landscape to suggest the place which he sought. But at the next turn he found himself at the mouth of a narrow ravine, which cut deep into the heart of the hill, and was dark and sombre enough to seem a likely place for secret meetings, if for nothing more serious and sinister. It wound away from a little bridge which carried the road over a brawling stream; along the side of that stream were faint indications of a path which might have been made by human feet, but was more likely to have been trodden out by the mountain sheep. This path was quickly obscured by dwarf oaks and alder bushes, which completely roofed in the narrow valley, and about everything hung a suggestion of solitude that would have caused any timid or suspicious soul to have turned back. But Copplestone was neither timid nor suspicious, and he was already intensely curious about this adventure; wherefore, grasping Peter Chatfield's oaken cudgel firmly in his right hand, he jumped over the bridge and followed the narrow path into the gloom of the trees.

He soon found that the valley resolved itself into a narrow and rocky defile. The stream, level at first, soon came tumbling down amongst huge boulders; the path disappeared; out of the oaks and alder high cliffs of limestones began to lift themselves. The morning was unusually dark and grey, even for October, and as leaves, brown and sere though they were, still clustered thickly on the trees, Copplestone quickly found himself in a gloom that would have made a nervous person frightened. He also found that his forward progress became increasingly difficult. At the foot of a tall cliff which suddenly rose up before him he was obliged to pause; on that side of the stream it seemed impossible to go further. But as he hesitated, peering here and there under the branches of the dwarf oaks, he heard a voice, so suddenly, that he started in spite of himself.

"Guv'nor!"

Copplestone looked around and saw nothing. Then came a low laugh, as if the unseen person was enjoying his perplexity.

"Look overhead, guv'nor," said the voice. "Look aloft!"

Copplestone glanced upward, and saw a man's head and face, framed in a screen of bushes which grew on a shelf of the limestone cliff. The head was crowned by a much worn fur cap; the face, very brown and seamed and wrinkled, was ornamented by a short, well-blackened clay pipe, from the bowl of which a wisp of blue smoke curled upward. And as he grew accustomed to the gloom he was aware of a pair of shrewd, twinkling eyes, and a set of very white teeth which gleamed like an animal's.

"Hullo!" said Copplestone. "Come out of that!"

The white teeth showed themselves still more; their owner laughed again.

"You come up, guv'nor," he said. "There's a natural staircase round the corner. Come up and make yourself at home. I've a nice little parlour here, and a matter of refreshment in it, too."

"Not till you show yourself," answered Copplestone. "I want to see what I'm dealing with. Come out, now!"

The unseen laughed again, moved away from his screen, and presently showed himself on the edge of the shelf of rock. And Copplestone found himself staring at a queer figure of a man--an under-sized, quaint-looking fellow, clad in dirty velveteens, a once red waistcoat, and leather breeches and gaiters, a sort of compound between a poacher, a game-keeper, and an ostler. But quainter than figure or garments was the man's face--a gnarled, weather-beaten, sea-and-wind stained face, which, in Copplestone's opinion, was holiest enough and not without abundant traces of a sense of humour.

Copplestone at once trusted that face. He swung himself up by the nooks and crannies of the rock, and joined the man on his ledge.

"Well?" he said. "You're the chap who sent me that letter? Why?"

"Come this way, guv'nor," replied the brown-faced one. "Well talk more comfortable, like, in my parlour. Here you are!"

He led Copplestone along the ridge behind the bushes, and presently revealed a cave in the face of the overhanging limestone, mostly natural, but partly due to artifice, wherein were rude seats, covered over with old sacking, a box or two which evidently served for pantry and larder, and a shelf on which stood a wicker-covered bottle in company with a row of bottles of ale.

The lord of this retreat waved a hospitable hand towards his cellar.

"You'll not refuse a poor man's hospitality, guv'nor?" he said politely. "I can give you a clean glass, and if you'll try a drop of rum, there's fresh water from the stream to mix it with--good as you'll find in England. Or, maybe, it being the forepart of the day, you'd prefer ale, now? Say the word!"

"A bottle of ale, then, thank you," responded Copplestone, who saw that he had to deal with an original, and did not wish to appear stand-offish. "And whom am I going to drink with, may I ask?"

The man carefully drew the cork of a bottle, poured out its contents with the discrimination of a bartender, handed the glass to his visitor with a bow, helped himself to a measure of rum, and bowed again as he drank.

"My best respects to you, guv'nor," he said. "Glad to see you in Hobkin's Hole Castle--that's here. Queer place for gentlemen to meet in, ain't it? Who are you talking to, says you? My name, guv'-nor--well-known hereabouts--is Zachary Spurge!"

"You sent me that note last night?" asked Copplestone, taking a seat and filling his pipe. "How did you get it there--unseen?"

"Got a cousin as is odd-job man at the 'Admiral's Arms,'" replied Spurge. "He slipped it in for me. You may ha' seen him there, guv'nor--chap with one eye, and queer-looking, but to be trusted. As I am!--down to the ground."

"And what do you want to see me about?" inquired Copplestone. "What's this bit of news you've got to tell?"

Zachary Spurge thrust a hand inside his velveteen jacket and drew out a much folded and creased paper, which, on being unwrapped, proved to be the bill which offered a reward for the finding of Bassett Oliver. He held it up before his visitor.

"This!" he said. "A thousand pound is a vast lot o' money, guv'nor! Now, if I was to tell something as I knows of, what chances should I have of getting that there money?"

"That depends," replied Copplestone. "The reward is to be given to--but you see the plain wording of it. Can you give information of that sort?"

"I can give a certain piece of information, guv'nor," said Spurge. "Whether it'll lead to the finding of that there gentleman or not I can't say. But something I do know--certain sure!"

Copplestone reflected awhile.

"Ill tell you what, Spurge," he said. "I'll promise you this much. If you can give any information I'll give you my word that--whether what you can tell is worth much or little--you shall be well paid. That do?"

"That'll do, guv'nor," responded Spurge. "I take your word as between gentlemen! Well, now, it's this here--you see me as I am, here in a cave, like one o' them old eremites that used to be in the ancient days. Why am I here! 'Cause just now it ain't quite convenient for me to show my face in Scarhaven. I'm wanted for poaching, guv'nor--that's the fact! This here is a safe retreat. If I was tracked here, I could make my way out at the back of this hole--there's a passage here--before anybody could climb that rock. However, nobody suspects I'm here. They think--that is, that old devil Chatfield and the police--they think I'm off to sea. However, here I am--and last Sunday afternoon as ever was, I was in Scarhaven! In the wood I was, guv'nor, at the back of the Keep. Never mind what for--I was there. And at precisely ten minutes to three o'clock I saw Bassett Oliver."

"How did you know him?" demanded Copplestone.

"Cause I've had many a sixpenn'orth of him at both Northborough and Norcaster," answered Spurge. "Seen him a dozen times, I have, and knew him well enough, even if I'd only viewed him from the the-ayter gallery. Well, he come along up the path from the south quay. He passed within a dozen yards of me, and went up to the door in the wall of the ruins, right opposite where I was lying doggo amongst some bushes. He poked the door with the point of his stick--it was ajar, that door, and it went open. And so he walks in--and disappears. Guv'nor!--I reckon that'ud be the last time as he was seen alive!--unless--unless--"

"Unless--what?" asked Copplestone eagerly.

"Unless one other man saw him," replied Spurge solemnly. "For there was another man there, guv'nor. Squire Greyle!"

Copplestone looked hard at Spurge; Spurge returned the stare, and nodded two or three times.

"Gospel truth!" he said. "I kept where I was--I'd reasons of my own. May be eight minutes or so--certainly not ten--after Bassett Oliver walked in there, Squire Greyle walked out. In a hurry, guv'nor. He come out quick. He looked a bit queer. Dazed, like. You know how quick a man can think, guv'nor, under certain circumstances? I thought quicker'n lightning. I says to myself 'Squire's seen somebody or something he hadn't no taste for!' Why, you could read it on his face! plain as print. It was there!"

"Well?" said Copplestone. "And then?"

"Then," continued Spurge. "Then he stood for just a second or two, looking right and left, up and down. There wasn't a soul in sight--nobody! But--he slunk off--sneaked off--same as a fox sneaks away from a farm-yard. He went down the side of the curtain-wall that shuts in the ruins, taking as much cover as ever he could find--at the end of the wall, he popped into the wood that stands between the ruins and his house. And then, of course, I lost all sight of him."

"And--Mr. Oliver?" said Copplestone. "Did you see him again?"

Spurge took a pull at his rum and water, and relighted his pipe.

"I did not," he answered. "I was there until a quarter-past three--then I went away. And no Oliver had come out o' that door when I left."