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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER XIV. 'TRUTH IS TRUTH, TO THE END OF TIME.'
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CHAPTER XIV. 'TRUTH IS TRUTH, TO THE END OF TIME.'
Mr. Pergament went back to London by a train which left Eborsham at half-past five in the afternoon, half an hour after the termination of the inquest. Churchill went to the station with his solicitor, saw him into the railway carriage, and only left the platform when the train had carried Mr. Pergament away on his road to London. It was an understood thing that Pergament and Pergament were to keep the Penwyn estate in their hands, and that Churchill's interests were henceforward to be their interests. To Pergament and Pergament, indeed, it was as if James Penwyn had never existed, so completely did they transfer their allegiance to his successor.

Churchill walked slowly away from the station, seemingly somewhat at a loss how to dispose of his218 time. He might have gone back to London with Mr. Pergament, certainly, for he had no further business in the city of Eborsham. But for some sufficient reason of his own he had chosen to remain, although he was not a little anxious to see Madge Bellingham, whom he had not met since the change in his fortunes. He had written to her before he left London, to announce that fact—but briefly—feeling that any expression of pleasure in the altered circumstances of his life would show badly in black and white. He had expressed himself properly grieved at his cousin's sad death, but had affected no exaggerated affliction. Those clear dark eyes of Madge's seemed to be looking through him as he wrote.

'I wonder if it is possible to keep a secret from her?' he thought. 'She has a look that pierces my soul—such utter truthfulness.'

He had ordered his dinner for eight, and it was not yet six, so he had ample leisure for loitering. He went back to Lowgate and out through the bar to the dull, quiet road where James met his death. Churchill Penwyn wanted to see the spot where the murder had been committed.

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He had heard it described so often that it was easy enough for him to find it. A few ragged bushes of elder and blackberry divided the low marshy ground from the road just at this point. From behind these bushes the murderer had taken his aim,—at least that was the theory of the police. Between the road and the river the herbage was sour and scant, and the cattle that browsed thereon had a solitary and dejected look, as if they knew they were shut out from the good things of this life. They seemed to be the odds and ends of the animal creation, and to have come there accidentally. A misanthropical donkey, a lean cow or two, some gaunt, ragged-looking horses, a bony pig, scattered wide apart over the narrow tract of sward along the low bank of the river.

Mr. Penwyn contemplated the spot thoughtfully for a little while, as if he would fain have made out something which the police had failed to discover, and then strolled across the grass to the river-bank. The gloomy solitude of the scene seemed to please him, for he walked on for some distance, meditative and even moody. Fortune brings its own responsibilities;220 and a man who finds himself suddenly exalted from poverty to wealth is not always gay.

He was strolling quietly along the bank, his eyes bent upon the river, with that dreaming gaze which sees not the thing it seems to contemplate, when he was startled from his reverie by the sound of voices near at hand, and looking away from the water perceived that he had stumbled on a gipsy encampment. There were the low arched tents—mere kennels under canvas, where the dusky tribe burrowed at night or in foul weather—the wood fire—the ever-simmering pot—the litter of ashes, and dirty straw, and bones, and a broken bottle or two—the sinister-browed vagabond lying on his stomach like the serpent, smoking his grimy pipe, and scowling at any chance passer by—the half-naked children playing among the rubbish, the women sitting on the ground plaiting rushes into a door-mat. All these Churchill's eye took in at a glance—something more, too, perhaps, for he looked at one of the women curiously for a moment, and slackened his leisurely pace.

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She put down her mat, rose, and walked beside him.

'Let me tell your fortune, pretty gentleman,' she began, with the same professional sing-song in which she had addressed James Penwyn a few days before. It was the same woman who stopped the late Squire of Penwyn lower down the river bank.

'I don't want my fortune told, thank you. I know what it is pretty well,' replied Churchill, in his calm, cold voice.

'Don't say that, pretty gentleman. No one can look into the urn of fate.'

'And yet you and your tribe pretend to do it,' said Churchill.

'We study the stars more than others do, and learn to read 'em, my noble gentleman. I've read something in the stars about you since the night your cousin was murdered.'

'And pray what do the stars say of me?' inquired Churchill, with a scornful laugh.

'They say that you're a kind-hearted gentleman at bottom, and will befriend a poor gipsy.'

'I'm afraid they're out in their reckoning, for222 once in a way. Perhaps it was Mercury you got the information from. He's a notorious trickster. And now, pray, my good woman,' turning to see that they were beyond ken of the rest, 'what did you mean by sending me a letter to say you could tell me something about my cousin's death? If you really have any information to give, your wisest course is to carry it directly to the police; and if your information should lead to the discovery of the murderer, you may earn a reward that will provide for you for the rest of your life.'

His eyes were on the woman's face as he spoke, with that intent look with which he was accustomed to read the human countenance.

'I've thought of that,' answered the gipsy, 'and I was very near going and telling all I knew to the police the morning after the murder, but I changed my mind about it when I heard you were here; I thought it might be better for me to see you first.'

'I can't quite fathom your motive. However as I am willing to give two hundred pounds reward for such information as may lead to the apprehension and conviction of the murderer, you may have223 come to the right person in coming to me; only, I tell you frankly, that, deeply as I am interested in the punishment of my cousin's assassin, I had rather not be troubled about details. I won't even ask the nature of your information. Take my advice, my good soul, and carry it to the police. They are the people to profit by it; they are the people to act upon it.'

'Yes, and cheat me of the reward after all choke me off with a five-pound note, perhaps. I know too much of the police to be over-inclined to trust 'em.'

'Is your information conclusive?' asked Churchill; 'certain to lead to the conviction of the murderer?'

'I won't say so much as that, but I know it's worth hearing, and worth paying for.'

'You may as well tell me all about it, if you don't like to tell the police.'

'What, without being paid for my secret? No, my pretty gentleman, I'm not such a fool as that.'

'Come,' said Churchill, with a laugh, 'what does your knowledge amount to? Nothing, I dare say,224 that every one else in Eborsham doesn't share. You know that my cousin has been murdered, and that I am anxious to find the murderer.'

'I know more than that, my noble gentleman.'

'What then?'

'I know who did it.'

Churchill turned his quick glance upon her again, searching, incredulous, derisive.

'Come,' he said, 'you don't expect to make me believe that you know the criminal, and let him slip, and lost your chance of the reward? You are not that kind of woman.'

'I don't say that I've let him slip, or lost my chance of profiting by what I know. Suppose the criminal was some one I'm interested in—some one I shouldn't like to see come to harm?'

'In that case you shouldn't come to me about it. You don't imagine that I am going to condone my cousin's murder? But I believe your story is all a fable.'

'It's as true as the planets. We have been encamped here for the last week, and on the night225 of the murder we'd all been at the races. Folks are always kind to gipsies upon a racecourse, and there was plenty to eat and drink for all of us—perhaps a little too much drink,—and when the races were over I fell asleep in one of the booths, among some straw in a corner where no one took any notice of me. My son Reuben—him, as you saw yonder just now—was in the town, up to very little good, I dare say, and left me to take care of myself; and when I woke it was late at night, and the place was all dark and quiet. I didn't know how late it was till I came through the town and found all the lights out, and the streets empty, and heard the cathedral clock strike two. I walked slow, and the clock had struck the half-hour before I got through the Bar. I was dead tired standing and walking about the racecourse all day, and as I came along this road I saw some one walking a little way ahead of me. He walked on, and I walked after him, keeping on the other side of the way, and in the shadow of the hedge about a hundred yards behind him, and all at once I heard a shot fired, and saw him drop down. There was no one to give the alarm to,226 and no good in giving it if he was dead. I kept on in the shadow till I came nearly opposite where he lay, and then I slipped down into the ditch. There was no water in it, nothing but mud and slime and duckweed, and such like; and I squatted there in the shadow and watched.'

'Like some toad in its hole,' said Churchill. 'Common humanity would have urged you to try to help the fallen man.'

'He was past help, kind gentleman. He dropped without a groan, never so much as moaned as he lay there. And it was wiser for me to watch the murderer so as to be able to bear witness against him, when the right time came, than to scare him away by skreeking out like a raven.'

'Well, woman, you watched and saw—what?'

'I saw a man stooping over the murdered gentleman; a tall man in a loose overcoat, with a scarf muffled round his neck. He put his hand in the other one's bosom, to feel if his heart had left off beating, I suppose, and drew it out again bloody. I could see that, even in the dim light betwixt night and morning, for I've something of a cat's eye, your227 honour, and am pretty well used to seeing in the dark. Candles ain't over plentiful with our people. He held up his hand dripping with blood, and pulled a white handkerchief out of his pocket with the other hand to wipe the blood off.'

Churchill turned and looked her in the face, for the first time since she had begun her narrative.

'Come,' he said, 'you're overdoing the details. Your story would sound more like truth if it were less elaborate.'

'I can't help the sound of it, sir. There's not a word I'm saying that I wouldn't swear by, to-morrow, in a court of justice.'

'You've kept your evidence back too long, I'm afraid. You ought to have given this information at the inquest. A jury would hardly believe your story now.'

'What, not if I had proof of what I say?'

'What proof, woman?'

'The handkerchief with which the murderer wiped those blood-stains off his hands!'

'Pshaw!' exclaimed Churchill, contemptuously. 'There are a hundred ways in which you might come228 possessed of a man's handkerchief. Your tribe lives by such petty plunder. Do you suppose that you, a gipsy and a vagabond, would ever persuade a British jury to believe your evidence, against a gentleman?'

'What!' cried the woman eagerly, 'then you know it was a gentleman who murdered your cousin?' 'Didn't you say so just this minute?'

'Not I, my noble gentleman. I told you he was tall, and wore an overcoat. That's all I told you about him.'

'Well, what next?'

'He wiped the blood off his hand, then put the handkerchief back in his pocket, as he thought; but I suppose he wasn't quite used to the work he was doing, for in his confusion he missed the pocket and let the handkerchief fall into the road. I didn't give him time to find out his mistake, for while he was stooping over the dead man, emptying his pockets, I crept across the road, got hold of the handkerchief, and slipped back to my hiding-place in the ditch again. I'm light of foot, you see, your honour, though an old woman.'

'What next?'

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'He opened the dead man's purse, emptied it, and put the contents in his own waistcoat pocket. Then he crammed watch and purse down into the ditch—the same ditch where I was hiding, but a little way off,—took a stick which he had broken off the hedge, and thrust it down into the mud under the weeds, making sure, I suppose, that no one could ever find it there. When he had done this, he pulled himself together, as you may say, and hurried off as fast as he could go, panting like a hunted deer, across the swampy ground and towards the river, where they found his footsteps afterwards. I think it would have been cleverer of him if he'd left his victim's pockets alone, and let those that found the body rob it, as they'd have been pretty sure to do. Yet it was artful of him to clean the pockets out, so as to make it seem a common case of highway robbery with violence.'

'What did you do with the handkerchief?'

'Took it home with me, to that tent yonder, that's what we call home, and lighted an end of candle, and smoothed out the handkerchief to see if there was any mark upon it. Gentlemen are so230 particular about their things, you see, and don't like to get 'em changed at the wash. Yes, there the mark was, sure enough. The name in full—Christian and surname. It was as much as I could do to read 'em, for the blood-stains.'

'What was the name?'

'That's my secret. Every secret has its price, and I've put a price on mine. If I was sure of getting the reward, and not having the police turn against me, I might be more ready to tell what I know.'

'You're a curious woman,' said Churchill, after a longish pause. 'But I suppose you've some plan of your own?'

'Yes, your honour, I have my views.'

'As to this story of yours, even supported by the evidence of this handkerchief which you pretend to have found, I doubt very much if it would have the smallest weight with a jury. I do not, therefore, press you to bring forward your information; though as my cousin's next of kin, it is of course my duty to do my best to bring his assassin to justice.'

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'That's just what I thought, your honour.'

'Precisely. And you did quite right in bringing the subject before me. It will be necessary for me to know when and where I can find you in future, so that when the right time comes you may be at hand to make your statement.'

'We are but wanderers on the face of the earth kind gentleman,' whined the gipsy. 'It isn't very easy to find us when you want us.'

'That's what I've been thinking,' returned Churchill, musingly. 'If you had some settled home, now? You're getting old, and must be tired of roving, I fancy. Sleeping upon straw, under canvas, in a climate in which east winds are the rule rather than the exception. That sort of thing must be rather trying at your time of life, I should imagine.'

'Trying? I'm racked with the rheumatics every winter, your honour. My bones are not so much bones as gnawing wolves—they torment me so. Sometimes I feel as if I could chop off my limbs willingly, to be quit of the pain in 'em. A settled home—a warm bed—a fireside—that would be heaven to me.'

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'Well, I'll think about it, and see what can be done for you. In the meantime I'll give you a trifle to ward off the rheumatism.'

He opened his purse, and gave the woman a bank note, part of an advance made him by Mr. Pergament that morning. The gipsy uttered her usual torrent of blessings—the gratitude wherewith she was wont to salute her benefactors.

'Have you ever been in Cornwall?' asked Churchill.

'Lord love your honour! there isn't a nook or a corner in all England where I haven't been!'

'Good. If you happen to be in Cornwall any time during the next three months, you may look me up at Penwyn Manor.'

'Bless you, my generous gentleman, it won't be very long before you see me.'

'Whenever you please,' returned Churchill, with that air of well-bred indifference which he wore as a badge of his class. 'Good afternoon.'

He turned to go back to the city, leaving the woman standing alone by the river brink, looking after him; lost in thought, or lost in wonder.


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