Chapter XI. The Scarred Man
 

It was towards the hour of seven in the evening that I reached the Abbey Inn at Upper Crossleys, itself among the most hoary buildings of the ancient village. It belonged to the days when white-clad brethren from the once great monastery of Croix-de-lis had labored in the abbey meadows and fished in the little stream which ran slowly through a neighboring valley. Time had scarred it deeply and the balcony overhanging the coachyard sagged in a rather alarming fashion as though about to drop down from sheer old age.

The surrounding country had impressed me at first sight. There were long billowing hills and vales, much of their surface densely wooded, but with wide spaces under cultivation and even greater tracts of a sort of heath-land very wild in aspect and conjuring up pictures of outlaws' camps and the clash of battling feudal days. Hard by had resided of old a warden of the marches, and the ruins of his stronghold might still be seen on the crest of a near-by hill.

From the room allotted to me I could look out over a varied prospect of farmland and heath, terminated by the woody slopes which everywhere hemmed in the valley. Peeping above the outer fringe of trees showed a tower of some old house whereof the rest was hidden by verdure.

Having partaken of a typical country dinner, the small number of courses being amply compensated by their quantity, I lighted my pipe and went down to the bar-parlor, being minded to learn something of the neighborhood at first hand from any chance visitor who might serve my purpose.

The landlord, a somewhat taciturn member of his class, sat behind the bar, pipe in mouth, as I entered, and only one other man was in the room. This was a gipsy-looking fellow, with a very wild eye, attired in the manner of a game-keeper, and wearing leggings and a fur cap. A sporting rifle stood in the corner beside him. The landlord nodded, and the other gave me a "Good evening" as I entered, whereupon I determined to try the game-keeper as the more likely source of information, and:

"Is the shooting good hereabouts?" I asked, by way of opening a conversation.

My inquiry seemed hugely to amuse the man.

"None better," was the reply; "it's thick with game, sir, it is for sure--and nobody to profit, only"--he winked at the landlord--"young Jim Corder!"

The landlord emitted a deep grunt which was evidently recognized by the other as a laugh; for he himself laughed in a wild and not wholly pleasant manner, whereby I concluded that "young Jim Corder" was a standing joke in the neighborhood.

"You look as though you knew a hare from a partridge," said I, "so I'll take your word for it."

This remark provoked a second and deeper growl from the landlord and a further burst of outlandish laughter from my acquaintance, the game-keeper. Presently:

"Why, sir, if I tell you," declared the latter, "them birds all know me like I was their father, they do. I says, 'Good morning' regular and them birds all bows to me, they does."

When the laughter had subsided, scenting possible information:

"I gather," said I, "that you get few shooting-parties nowadays?"

Gloom descended upon both my gossips.

"You're right, you are, sir," replied the game-keeper. "He's right, ain't he, Martin?"

Martin, the landlord, growled. It occurred to me that he regarded the other with a certain disfavor.

"This 'ere country," continued the game-keeper, vaguely waving his arm around, "is a blighted spot. A blighted spot, ain't it, Martin?"

Martin growled, whilst the game-keeper studied him covertly.

"Since Sir Burnham went to his long rest these 'ere parts ain't knowed themselves. I'm tellin' you, sir. Ain't knowed 'emselves. It's all that quiet, winter and summer alike. The Park all shut up; and the Park was the Park in them days--warn't it, Martin?"

Martin achieved speech; he removed his pipe, and:

"It were, Hawkins," he concurred.

Silence fell for a minute or two. My new acquaintance, Hawkins, and Martin both seemed to be pondering upon the degeneracy of Upper Crossleys, and I could mot help thinking that Hawkins took a secret delight in it. Then:

"Surely the Park is still occupied by Lady Coverly?" I asked.

"Aye," Hawkins nodded. "She's kep' me on, me and the missus, she has, like the real lady she is. But things is different; things is wrong. Ain't they, Martin?" he asked, with a mischievous glance at the stolid host.

"Things is," agreed Martin.

"Best part of Park be shut up," declared Hawkins. "Horses gone, carriages gone, everybody gone; only me and my old woman."

"There must be house servants," I interjected.

"My old woman!" cried Hawkins triumphantly; "same as I'm tellin' you!"

"You mean that Lady Coverly lives alone in the place with only--er, Mrs. Hawkins to look after her?"

It was Martin the landlord who answered my question.

"Things ain't right," he observed, and returned to his mouth the pipe which he had removed for the purpose of addressing me.

"You don't know half of it," declared Hawkins. "What's my job, for instance? I ask you--what is it?"

Having thus spoken, he exchanged a significant look with the landlord and relapsed into silence. Even my offer to replenish his tankard, although it was accepted, did not result in any further confidences. Prospects of crops and fruit were briefly touched upon, but that exchange of glances between mine host and Hawkins seemed to have been mutually understood to mean that the conversation touching Friar's Park had proceeded far enough.

It was very mystifying, and naturally it served only to pique my curiosity. A certain quality of loneliness which had seemed to belong to the village, even in the brightness of the summer evening, now asserted itself potently. Seated there in the quiet little inn parlor, I recalled that many of the old-world cottages to right and left of the Abbey Inn had exhibited every indication of being deserted, and the lack of patrons instanced by the emptiness of the bar-parlor was certainly not ascribable to the quality of the ale, which was excellent. A sort of blight it would seem had descended upon humanity in Upper Crossleys. It was all very curious.

Reflecting upon the matter, and sometimes interjecting a word or two into the purely technical and very desultory conversation proceeding between the landlord and Hawkins, I sat looking from one to the other, more than ever convinced that no friendship was lost between them. My position in the room was such that any one entering would not detect my presence until he was right up to the bar, and to this sheltered seat I was undoubtedly indebted for a very strange experience.

During a lull in the patently forced conversation I heard footsteps upon the cobbles outside. Hawkins and the landlord exchanged a swift glance, and then to my surprise they both stared at me questioningly. Before a word could be exchanged, however, and before I had time even to surmise what this covert uneasiness might portend, a young fellow entered whose carriage and dress immediately attracted my attention.

He was attired, then, in a sort of burlesque "fashionable" lounge suit and wore a straw hat set rakishly backward on his well-oiled dark hair. He carried gloves and a malacca cane, and his gait was one of assured superiority. He was a stoutly-built, muscular young fellow and might ordinarily have been good-looking after a rustic fashion, but what principally rendered him noticeable was the fact that he wore surgical bandages around his neck in lieu of a collar and that his face was literally a mosaic of sticking-plaster!

"Evening, Martin--evening, Hawkins," he said jauntily; and advancing to the bar, "The usual, Martin."

As he gave the order and as the landlord turned to execute it, exhibiting a sort of half-amused deference, the embarrassed glance of Hawkins, who was watching me uncomfortably, drew the newcomer's attention to my presence. He turned in a flash and I saw those parts of his face which were visible between the pieces of strapping to turn fierily red. His brown eyes glared at me, and:

"Martin!" he cried, throwing out his hand in the landlord's direction, "Martin, damn you! There is a stranger here! Why the devil didn't you tell me?"

"Sorry, Mr. Edward," said the landlord, setting a glass of whisky before the excited man. "No time."

"It's a lie!" cried the other, with a wild fury which so trivial a matter did not seem to warrant, "a deliberate damned lie! You want to make me the laughing-stock of the place!"

Taking up the newly-filled glass, he dashed it violently to the sanded floor, so that it was shattered to bits. Then, snatching off his hat, he held it as a shield between my inquiring gaze and his plastered face, and ran out of the room. At the door:

"Damn you all!" he shouted back at us.

I heard his quick footsteps receding. Then, as he turned the corner the sound died away. I looked across at Hawkins. He was staring into his tankard with which he was describing slow circles as if to stir the contents. Martin, having raised the bar-flap was phlegmatically engaged in sweeping up the fragments of glass into a dustpan. It came to me all at once that these simple folk regarded the other's outburst as a personal matter; their attitude was that of the grieved elders of a family, some member of which has misbehaved himself. But assuredly I was not prepared to concur in this shielding silence; the pressman within me demanded an explanation.

"A strange young man," I said tentatively. "Very touchy, I should think?"

"Touchy?" repeated Hawkins, glancing up quickly. "I seen him take Tom Pike by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his pants and pitch him in the horse-trough for askin' of him who his tailor was, I have."

"Indeed," said I, "a local Carpentier, no doubt?"

"Ah," said Martin, glancing at me as he turned to his seat behind the bar. "Very 'andy with 'is 'ands."

"He is evidently acutely sensitive of his present disfigurement. Might I suggest that his most recent encounter was with a barbed-wire entanglement?"

But to my acute disappointment, Martin merely growled, shaking his head gloomily; and in this significant gesture he was closely imitated by Hawkins. Therefore:

"Is he badly disfigured?" I persisted.

"Only one is deep," replied Hawkins, glancing almost apologetically at the landlord. The unfortunate incident seemed to have drawn them more closely together. "The one on his neck. But he prides himself on his looks, don't he, Martin?"

"He do," agreed Martin.

I took the bull by the horns. I never neglect an opportunity of this nature, for however irrelevant to the matter in hand an episode may seem to be, not infrequently I have found that it is by the pursuit of such chance clews that one is led to the very piece of news that is sought.

"Drink up, gentlemen," I said, "and as the night draws on, we shall just have time for a peg of whisky before ten o'clock."

My effort proved successful, for whilst Martin prepared the ordered drinks, almost with alacrity, Hawkins became quite confidential.

"Young Mr. Edward Hines that was, sir," he confided, in a church whisper. "His father is the biggest farmer round these parts and young Mr. Edward is a terror with the gals, he is. Mind you, he's straight out about it. Comes in here, he do, and says straight out who he's after. And it's woe betide the one who takes him up on it. I'm glad my gal is up to London, with that Mr. Edward about, I am."

The drinks being placed upon the counter, he ceased, and:

"Good health!" said I; then: "Yes--about our mutilated young friend?" I prompted.

"Well," continued Hawkins--"it's kind o' funny, ain't it, Martin?"

The landlord growled.

"Mr. Edward he come in here three weeks back all puffed up with himself. Said he'd got an appointment with a lady down from London what was coming all the way from West Wingham to see him. Didn't he, Martin?"

Martin corroborated.

"He see her, too," declared Hawkins with a sort of schoolboy naivete. "And he see her again four nights after. She give him a present--a keepsake. He showed us. Then he seen her a third time, and--"

Hawkins ceased speaking and looked at the landlord as if mutely appealing for his aid in making clear to me what occurred at this third tryst with the mysterious "lady from London."

"Go on," prompted Martin. "Tell him. He's stopping here; he's all right."

I keenly appreciated the compliment conveyed by this, the landlord's longest speech of the evening, and raised my glass to him. "Well, then," Hawkins resumed, "we didn't see him for a night or two, but on the Wednesday--"

"The Thursday," corrected Martin.

"Right you are, Martin," agreed Hawkins--"the Thursday it were. I met Farmer Hines comin' back from Wingham market as I came here mid-day. It were the Thursday. Well, then, on the Thursday young Mr. Edward he turns up after dark. Sort of slinked in he did. There was three or four of us here, there was that night, wasn't there, Martin? 'Course it were market day. Slinked in he did, and his face was like you see it to-night only worse. He never said a word to nobody and nobody never said nothin' to him, not likely. Just gulped down a double Scotch and slinked out. What do you think about that for a story, eh, sir?"

He looked at me triumphantly. For my own part I must confess I was disappointed. A cat-and-dog squabble between a rustic Lothario and some local virago did not excite me so intensely as it seemed to excite my companions.

"Is that all you know of the matter?" I asked.

"No," answered Martin, "it ain't. Tell him, Hawkins."

"Aye," resumed Hawkins, "he might as well know, as he's livin' here. Well, sir, young Mr. Edward he's very quiet about what happened to him. Maybe we shouldn't have thought so much about it like if it hadn't been that in this very bar, six months ago, he'd plagued the life out of young Harry Adams."

"For what reason?" I asked idly; the conversation was beginning to bore me. But:

"Young Harry Adams," explained Hawkins with gusto, and his former wicked look returning to his eyes, "at one time was Mr. Edward's only rival with the gals, he was. A good-lookin' young fellow; got a commission in the war he did. He's up to London now. Well, six months ago young Harry Adams come staggerin' in here one night with blood runnin' from his face and neck. He fell down in that seat where you're sitting now and fainted right off, didn't he, Martin? We had to send young Jim Corder (what used to come here in them days) off runnin' all the way past Leeways for the doctor. Ah, that were a night."

"It were," agreed Martin.

"Same as Mr. Edward," continued the narrator, "young Harry Adams wouldn't say a word about what happened to him. But when Mr. Edward first see him, all over sticking-plaster, he laughed till the pots nearly fell off the hooks, he did. Little did he guess his own turn was to come!"

My interest revived.

"Then in the case of, er--Mr. Adams," I said, "you never had any particulars whatever?"

"Never," replied Martin. "Time, please, gentlemen."

"Aye," said Hawkins, rising. "Time it be. Well, good night, sir. Good night, Martin."

"Good night."

Hawkins moved towards the door, and indeed was on the point of going out when I remembered something which I had meant to ask earlier, but which, owing to lack of opportunity, I had postponed asking.

"You spoke of a gift or keepsake, which the lady from London gave to Mr. Hines," I said. "I think you mentioned that he had shown it to you. I am rather curious about this story. Might I ask the nature of the gift?"

"Aye, to be sure," answered Hawkins, standing half in shadow on the step of the bar-parlor, rifle on shoulder, where I thought he made a very wild figure. "Brought it here, he did. All of us see it. That stuck up about it, he was. Not as I should have thought much of it if a party had give it to me, I do say."

"Then what was it?"

"Why--it were a little figure like--gold he said it were, but brass I reckon. Ugly it were, but he says he's goin' to wear it on his watch-chain. Good night, sir."

He turned and departed, but:

"What kind of figure?" I called after him.

Out of the darkness his voice came back:

"A sort of a cat, sir."

And I heard his outlandish laughter dying away in the distance.