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Title: A Warning to the Curious
Author: M. R. James
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Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
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Title: A Warning to the Curious
Author: M. R. James




The place on the east coast which the reader is asked to consider is
Seaburgh. It is not very different now from what I remember it to have
been when I was a child. Marshes intersected by dykes to the south,
recalling the early chapters of Great Expectations; flat fields to the
north, merging into heath; heath, fir woods, and, above all, gorse,
inland. A long sea-front and a street: behind that a spacious church
of flint, with a broad, solid western tower and a peal of six bells.
How well I remember their sound on a hot Sunday in August, as our
party went slowly up the white, dusty slope of road towards them, for
the church stands at the top of a short, steep incline. They rang with
a flat clacking sort of sound on those hot days, but when the air was
softer they were mellower too. The railway ran down to its little
terminus farther along the same road. There was a gay white windmill
just before you came to the station, and another down near the shingle
at the south end the town, and yet others on higher ground to the
north. There were cottages of bright red brick with slate roofs... but
why do I encumber you with these commonplace details? The fact is that
they come crowding to the point of the pencil when it begins to write
of Seaburgh. I should like to be sure that I had allowed the right
ones to get on to the paper. But I forgot. I have not quite done with
the word-painting business yet.

Walk away from the sea and the town, pass the station, and turn up the
road on the right. It is a sandy road, parallel with the railway, and
if you follow it, it climbs to somewhat higher ground. On your left
(you are now going northward) is heath, on your right (the side
towards the sea) is a belt of old firs, wind-beaten, thick at the top,
with the slope that old seaside trees have; seen on the skyline from
the train they would tell you in an instant, if you did not know it,
that you were approaching a windy coast. Well, at the top of my little
hill, a line of these firs strikes out and runs towards the sea, for
there is a ridge that goes that way; and the ridge ends in a rather
well-defined mound commanding the level fields of rough grass, and a
little knot of fir trees crowns it. And here you may sit on a hot
spring day, very well content to look at blue sea, white windmills,
red cottages, bright green grass, church tower, and distant martello
tower on the south.

As I have said, I began to know Seaburgh as a child; but a gap of a
good many years separates my early knowledge from that which is more
recent. Still it keeps its place in my affections, and any tales of it
that I pick up have an interest for me. One such tale is this: it came
to me in a place very remote from Seaburgh, and quite accidentally,
from a man whom I had been able to oblige--enough in his opinion to
justify his making me his confidant to this extent.

I know all that country more or less (he said). I used to go to
Scaburgh pretty regularly for golf in the spring. I generally put up
at the 'Bear', with a friend--Henry Long it was, you knew him
perhaps--('Slightly,' I said) and we used to take a sitting-room and
be very happy there. Since he died I haven't cared to go there. And I
don't know that I should anyhow after the particular thing that
happened on our last visit.

It was in April, 19--, we were there, and by some chance we were
almost the only people in the hotel. So the ordinary public rooms were
practically empty, and we were the more surprised when, after dinner,
our sitting-room door opened, and a young man put his head in. We were
aware of this young man. He was rather a rabbity anaemic subject--
light hair and light eyes--but not unpleasing. So when he said: 'I beg
your pardon, is this a private room?' we did not growl and say: 'Yes,
it is,' but Long said, or I did--no matter which: 'Please come in.'
'Oh, may I?' he said, and seemed relieved. Of course it was obvious
that he wanted company; and as he was a reasonable kind of person--not
the sort to bestow his whole family history on you--we urged him to
make himself at home. 'I dare say you find the other rooms rather
bleak,' I said. Yes, he did: but it was really too good of us, and so
on. That being got over, he made some pretence of reading a book. Long
was playing Patience, I was writing. It became plain to me after a few
minutes that this visitor of ours was in rather a state of fidgets or
nerves, which communicated itself to me, and so I put away my writing
and turned to at engaging him in talk.

After some remarks, which I forget, he became rather confidential.
'You'll think it very odd of me' (this was the sort of way he began),
'but the fact is I've had something of a shock.' Well, I recommended a
drink of some cheering kind, and we had it. The waiter coming in made
an interruption (and I thought our young man seemed very jumpy when
the door opened), but after a while he got back to his woes again.
There was nobody he knew in the place, and he did happen to know who
we both were (it turned out there was some common acquaintance in
town), and really he did want a word of advice, if we didn't mind. Of
course we both said: 'By all means,' or 'Not at all,' and Long put
away his cards. And we settled down to hear what his difficulty was.

'It began,' he said, 'more than a week ago, when I bicycled over to
Froston, only about five or six miles, to see the church; I'm very
much interested in architecture, and it's got one of those pretty
porches with niches and shields. I took a photograph of it, and then
an old man who was tidying up in the churchyard came and asked if I'd
care to look into the church. I said yes, and he produced a key and
let me in. There wasn't much inside, but I told him it was a nice
little church, and he kept it very clean, "But," I said, "the porch is
the best part of it." We were just outside the porch then, and he
said, "Ah, yes, that is a nice porch; and do you know, sir, what's the
meanin' of that coat of arms there?"

'It was the one with the three crowns, and though. I'm not much of a
herald, I was able to say yes, I thought it was the old arms of the
kingdom of East Anglia.

"'That's right, sir," he said, "and do you know the meanin' of them
three crowns that's on it?"

'I said I'd no doubt it was known, but I couldn't recollect to have
heard it myself.

'"Well, then," he said, "for all you're a scholard, I can tell you
something you don't know. Them's the three 'oly crowns what was buried
in the ground near by the coast to keep the Germans from landing--ah,
I can see you don't believe that. But I tell you, if it hadn't have
been for one of them 'oly crowns bein' there still, them Germans would
a landed here time and again, they would. Landed with their ships, and
killed man, woman and child in their beds. Now then, that's the truth
what I'm telling you, that is; and if you don't believe me, you ast
the rector. There he comes: you ast him, I says."

'I looked round, and there was the rector, a nice-looking old man,
coming up the path; and before I could begin assuring my old man, who
was getting quite excited, that I didn't disbelieve him, the rector
struck in, and said:

"What's all this about, John? Good day to you, sir. Have you been
looking at our little church?"'

'So then there was a little talk which allowed the old man to calm
down, and then the rector asked him again what was the matter.

Oh," he said, "it warn't nothink, only I was telling this gentleman
he'd ought to ast you about them 'oly crowns."

'"Ah, yes, to be sure," said the rector, "that's a very curious
matter, isn't it? But I don't know whether the gentleman is interested
in our old stories, eh?"

'"Oh, he'll be interested fast enough," says the old man, "he'll put
his confidence in what you tells him, sir; why, you known William Ager
yoursell, father and son too."

'Then I put in a word to say how much I should like to hear all about
it, and before many minutes I was walking up the village street with
the rector, who had one or two words to say to parishioners, and then
to the rectory, where he took me into his study. He had made out, on
the way, that I really was capable of taking an intelligent interest
in a piece of folklore, and not quite the ordinary tripper. So he was
very willing to talk, and it is rather surprising to me that the
particular legend he told me has not made its way into print before.
His account of it was this: "There has always been a belief in these
parts in the three holy crowns. The old people say they were buried in
different places near the coast to keep off the Danes or the French or
the Germans. And they say that one of the three was dug up a long time
ago, and another has disappeared by the encroaching of the sea, and
one's still left doing its work, keeping off invaders. Well, now, if
you have read the ordinary guides and histories of this county, you
will remember perhaps that in 1687 a crown, which was said to be the
crown of Redwald, King of the East Angles, was dug up at Rendlesham,
and alas! alas! melted down before it was even properly described or
drawn. Well, Rendlesham isn't on the coast, but it isn't so very far
inland, and it's on a very important line of access. And I believe
that is the crown which the people mean when they say that one has
been dug up. Then on the south you don't want me to tell you where
there was a Saxon royal palace which is now under the sea, eh? Well,
there was the second crown, I take it. And up beyond these two, they
say, lies the third."

'"Do they say where it is?" of course I asked.

'He said, "Yes, indeed, they do, but they don't tell," and his manner
did not encourage me to put the obvious question. Instead of that I
waited a moment, and said: "What did the old man mean when he said you
knew William Ager, as if that had something to do with the crowns?"

'"To be sure," he said, "now that's another curious story. These Agers
it's a very old name in these parts, but I can't find that they were
ever people of quality or big owners these Agers say, or said, that
their branch of the family were the guardians of the last crown. A
certain old Nathaniel Ager was the first one I knew--I was born and
brought up quite near here--and he, I believe, camped out at the place
during the whole of the war of 1870. William, his son, did the same, I
know, during the South African War. And young William, his son, who
has only died fairly recently, took lodgings at the cottage nearest
the spot; and I've no doubt hastened his end, for he was a
consumptive, by exposure and night watching. And he was the last of
that branch. It was a dreadful grief to him to think that he was the
last, but he could do nothing, the only relations at all near to him
were in the colonies. I wrote letters for him to them imploring them
to come over on business very important to the family, but there has
been no answer. So the last of the holy crowns, if it's there, has no
guardian now."

'That was what the rector told me, and you can fancy how interesting I
found it. The only thing I could think of when I left him was how to
hit upon the spot where the crown was supposed to be. I wish I'd left
it alone.

'But there was a sort of fate in it, for as I bicycled back past the
churchyard wall my eye caught a fairly new gravestone, and on it was
the name of William Ager. Of course I got off and read it. It said "of
this parish, died at Seaburgh, 19--, aged 28."'There it was, you see.
A little judicious questioning in the right place, and I should at
least find the cottage nearest the spot. Only I didn't quite know what
was the right place to begin my questioning at. Again there was fate:
it took me to the curiosity-shop down that way--you know--and I turned
over some old books, and, if you please, one was a prayer-book of 1740
odd, in a rather handsome binding--I'll just go and get it, it's in my
room.'

He left us in a state of some surprise, but we had hardly time to
exchange any remarks when he was back, panting, and handed us the book
opened at the fly-leaf, on which was, in a straggly hand:

'Nathaniel Ager is my name and England is my nation,

Seaburgh is my dwelling-place and Christ is my Salvation,

When I am dead and in my Grave, and all my bones are rotton,

I hope the Lord will think on me when I am quite forgotton.'

This poem was dated 1754, and there were many more entries of Agers,
Nathaniel, Frederick, William, and so on, ending with William, 19--.

'You see,' he said, 'anybody would call it the greatest bit of luck. I
did, but I don't now. Of course I asked the shopman about William
Ager, and of course he happened to remember that he lodged in a
cottage in the North Field and died there. This was just chalking the
road for me. I knew which the cottage must be: there is only one
sizable one about there. The next thing was to scrape some sort of
acquaintance with the people, and I took a walk that way at once. A
dog did the business for me: he made at me so fiercely that they had
to run out and beat him off, and then naturally begged my pardon, and
we got into talk. I had only to bring up Ager's name, and pretend I
knew, or thought I knew something of him, and then the woman said how
sad it was him dying so young, and she was sure it came of him
spending the night out of doors in the cold weather. Then I had to
say: "Did he go out on the sea at night?" and she said: "Oh, no, it
was on the hillock yonder with the trees on it." And there I was.

'I know something about digging in these barrows: I've opened many of
them in the down country. But that was with owner's leave, and in
broad daylight and with men to help. I had to prospect very carefully
here before I put a spade in: I couldn't trench across the mound, and
with those old firs growing there I knew there would be awkward tree
roots. Still the soil was very light and sandy and easy, and there was
a rabbit hole or so that might be developed into a sort of tunnel. The
going out and coming back at odd hours to the hotel was going to be
the awkward part. When I made up my mind about the way to excavate I
told the people that I was called away for a night, and I spent it out
there. I made my tunnel: I won't bore you with the details of how I
supported it and filled it in when I'd done, but the main thing is
that I got the crown.'

Naturally we both broke out into exclamations of surprise and
interest. I for one had long known about the finding of the crown at
Rendlesham and had often lamented its fate. No one has ever seen an
Anglo-Saxon crown--at least no one had. But our man gazed at us with a
rueful eye. 'Yes,' he said, 'and the worst of it is I don't know how
to put it back.'

'Put it back?' we cried out. 'Why, my dear sir, you've made one of the
most exciting finds ever heard of in this country. Of course it ought
to go to the Jewel Houise at the Tower. What's your difficulty? If
you're thinking about the owner of the land, and treasure-trove, and
all that, we can certainly help you through. Nobody's going to make a
fuss about technicalities in a case of this kind.'

Probably more was said, but all he did was to put his face in his
hands, and mutter: 'I don't know how to put it back.'

At last Long said: 'You'll forgive me, I hope, if I seem impertinent,
but are you quite sure you've got it?' I was wanting to ask much the
same question myself, for of course the story did seem a lunatic's
dream when one thought over it. But I hadn't quite dared to say what
might hurt the poor young man's feelings. However, he took it quite
calmly--really, with the calm of despair, you might say. He sat up and
said: 'Oh, yes, there's no doubt of that: I have it here, in my room,
locked up in my bag. You can come and look at it if you like: I won't
offer to bring it here.'

We were not likely to let the chance slip. We went with him; his room
was only a few doors off. The boots was just collecting shoes in the
passage: or so we thought: afterwards we were not sure. Our visitor--
his name was Parton--was in a worse state of shivers than before, and
went hurriedly into the room, and beckoned us after him, turned on the
light, and shut the door carefully. Then he unlocked his kit-bag, and
produced a bundle of clean pocket-handkerchiefs in which something was
wrapped, laid it on the bed, and undid it. I can now say I have seen
an actual Anglo-Saxon crown. It was of silver--as the Rendlesham one
is always said to have been--it was set with some gems, mostly antique
intaglios and cameos, and was of rather plain, almost rough
workmanship. In fact, it was like those you see on the coins and in
the manuscripts. I found no reason to think it was later than the
ninth century. I was intensely interested, of course, and I wanted to
turn it over in my hands, but Paxton prevented me. 'Don't you touch
it,' he said, 'I'll do that.' And with a sigh that was, I declare to
you, dreadful to hear, he took it up and turned it about so that we
could see every part of it. 'Seen enough?' he said at last, and we
nodded. He wrapped it up and locked it in his bag, and stood looking
at us dumbly. 'Come back to our room,' Long said, 'and tell us what
the trouble is.' He thanked us, and said: 'Will you go first and see
if--if the coast is clear?' That wasn't very intelligible, for our
proceedings hadn't been, after all, very suspicious, and the hotel, as
I said, was practically empty. However, we were beginning to have
inklings of--we didn't know what, and anyhow nerves are infectious. So
we did go, first peering out as we opened the door, and fancying (I
found we both had the fancy) that a shadow, or more than a shadow--but
it made no sound--passed from before us to one side as we came out
into the passage. 'It's all right,' we whispered to Paxton--whispering
seemed the proper tone--and we went, with him between us, back to our
sitting-room. I was preparing, when we got there, to be ecstatic about
the unique interest of what we had seen, but when I looked at Paxton I
saw that would be terribly out of place, and I left it to him to
begin.

'What is to be done?' was his opening. Long thought it right (as he
explained to me afterwards) to be obtuse, and said: 'Why not find out
who the owner of the land is, and inform--' Oh, no, no!' Paxton broke
in impatiently, 'I beg your pardon: you've been very kind, but don't
you see it's got to go back, and I daren't be there at night, and
daytime's impossible. Perhaps, though, you don't see: well, then, the
truth is that I've never been alone since I touched it.' I was
beginning some fairly stupid comment, but Long caught my eye, and I
stopped. Long said: 'I think I do see, perhaps: but wouldn't it be a
relief--to tell us a little more clearly what the situation is?'

Then it all came out: Paxton looked over his shoulder and beckoned to
us to come nearer to him, and began speaking in a low voice: we
listened most intently, of course, and compared notes afterwards, and
I wrote down our version, so I am confident I have what he told us
almost word for word. He said: 'It began when I was first prospecting,
and put me off again and again. There was always somebody--a man--
standing by one of the firs. This was in daylight, you know. He was
never in front of me. I always saw him with the tail of my eye on the
left or the right, and he was never there when I looked straight for
him. I would lie down for quite a long time and take careful
observations, and make sure there was no one, and then when I got up
and began prospecting again, there he was. And he began to give me
hints, besides; for wherever I put that prayer-book--short of locking
it up, which I did at last--when I came back to my loom it was always
out on my table open at the fly-leaf where the names are, and one of my
razors across it to keep it open. I'm sure he just can't open my bag,
or something more would have happened. You see, he's light and weak,
but all the same I daren't face him. Well, then, when I was making the
tunnel, of course it was worse, and if I hadn't been so keen I should
have dropped the whole thing and run. It was like someone scraping at
my back all the time: I thought for a long time it was only soil
dropping on me, but as I got nearer the--the crown, it was
unmistakable. And when I actually laid it bare and got my fingers into
the ring of it and pulled it out, there came a sort of cry behind me--
oh, I can't tell you how desolate it was! And horribly threatening
too. It spoilt all my pleasure in my find--cut it off that moment. And
if I hadn't been the wretched fool I am, I should have put the thing
back and left it. But I didn't. The rest of the time was just awful. I
had hours to get through before I could decently come back to the
hotel. First I spent time filling up my tunnel and covering my tracks,
and all the while he was there trying to thwart me. Sometimes, you
know, you see him, and sometimes you don't, just as he pleases, I
think: he's there, but he has some power over your eyes. Well, I
wasn't off the spot very long before sunrise, and then I had to get to
the junction for Seaburgh, and take a train back. And though it was
daylight fairly soon, I don't know if that made it much better. There
were always hedges, or gorse-bushes, or park fences along the road--
some sort of cover, I mean--and I was never easy for a second. And
then when I began to meet people going to work, they always looked
behind me very strangely: it might have been that they were surprised
at seeing anyone so early; but I didn't think it was only that, and I
don't now: they didn't look exactly at me. And the porter at the train
was like that too. And the guard held open the door after I'd got into
the carriage--just as he would if there was somebody else coming, you
know. Oh, you may be very sure it isn't my fancy,' he said with a dull
sort of laugh. Then he went on: 'And even if I do get it put back, he
won't forgive me: I can tell that. And I was so happy a fortnight
ago.' He dropped into a chair, and I believe he began to cry.

We didn't know what to say, but we felt we must come to the rescue
somehow, and so--it really seemed the only thing--we said if he was so
set on putting the crown back in its place, we would help him. And I
must say that after what we had heard it did seem the right thing. If
these horrid consequences had come on this poor man, might there not
really be something in the original idea of the crown having some
curious power bound up with it, to guard the coast? At least, that was
my feeling, and I think it was Long's too. Our offer was very welcome
to Paxton, anyhow. When could we do it? It was nearing half-past ten.
Could we contrive to make a late walk plausible to the hotel people
that very night? We looked out of the window: there was a brilliant
full moon--the Paschal moon. Long undertook to tackle the boots and
propitiate him. He was to say that we should not be much over the
hour, and if we did find it so pleasant that we stopped out a bit
longer we would see that he didn't lose by sitting up. Well, we were
pretty regular customers of the hotel, and did not give much trouble,
and were considered by the servants to be not under the mark in the
way of tips; and so the boots was propitiated, and let us out on to
the sea-front, and remained, as we heard later, looking after us.
Paxton had a large coat over his arm, under which was the wrapped-up
crown.

So we were off on this strange errand before we had time to think how
very much out of the way it was. I have told this part quite shortly
on purpose, for it really does represent the haste with which we
settled our plan and took action. 'The shortest way is up the hill and
through the churchyard,' Paxton said, as we stood a moment before, the
hotel looking up and down the front. There was nobody about--nobody at
all. Seaburgh out of the season is an early, quiet place. 'We can't go
along the dyke by the cottage, because of the dog,' Paxton also said,
when I pointed to what I thought a shorter way along the front and
across two fields. The reason he gave was good enough. We went up the
road to the church, and turned in at the churchyard gate. I confess to
having thought that there might be some one lying there who might be
conscious of our business: but if it was so, they were also conscious
that one who was on their side, so to say, had us under surveillance,
and we saw no sign of them. But under observation we felt we were, as
I have never felt it at another time. Specially was it so when we
passed out of the churchyard into a narrow path with close high
hedges, through which we hurried as Christian did through that Valley;
and so got out into open fields. Then along hedges, though I world
sooner have been in the open, where I could see if anyone was visible
behind me; over a gate or two, and then a swerve to the left, taking
us up on to the ridge which ended in that mound.

As we neared it, Henry Long felt, and I felt too, that there were what
I can only call dim presences waiting for us, as well as a far more
actual one attending us. Of Paxton's agitation all this time I can
give you no adequate picture: he breathed like a hunted beast, and we
could not either of us look at his face. How he would manage when we
got to the very place we had not troubled to think: he had seemed so
sure that that would not be difficult. Nor was it. I never saw
anything like the dash with which he flung himself at a particular
spot in the side of the mound, and tore at it, so that in a very few
minutes the greater part of his body was out of sight. We stood
holding the coat and that bundle of handkerchiefs, and looking, very
fearfully, I must admit, about us. There was nothing to be seen: a
line of dark firs behind us made one skyline, more trees and the
church tower half a mile off on the right, cottages and a windmill on
the horizon on the left, calm sea dead in front, faint barking of a
dog at a cottage on a gleaming dyke between us and it: full moon
making that path we know across the sea: the eternal whisper of the
Scotch firs just above us, and of the sea in front. Yet, in all this
quiet, an acute, an acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility very
near us, like a dog on a leash that might be let go at any moment.

Paxton pulled himself out of the hole, and stretched a hand back to
us. 'Give it to me,' he whispered, 'unwrapped.' We pulled off the
handkerchiefs, and he took the crown. The moonlight just fell on it as
he snatched it. We had not ourselves touched that bit of metal, and I
have thought since that it was just as well. In another moment Paxton
was out of the hole again and busy shovelling back the soil with hands
that were already bleeding He would have none of our help though It
was much the longest part of the job to get the place to look
undisturbed yet--I don't know how--he made a wonderful success of it.
At last he was satisfied and we turned back.

We were a couple of hundred yards from the hill when Long suddenly
said to him: 'I say you've left your coat there. That won't do. See?'
And I certainly did see it--the long dark overcoat lying where the
tunnel had been. Paxton had not stopped, however: he only shook his
head, and held up the coat on his arm. And when we joined him, he
said, without any excitement, but as if nothing mattered any more:
'That wasn't my coat.' And, indeed, when we looked back again, that
dark thing was not to be seen.

Well, we got out on to the road, and came rapidly back that way. It
was well before twelve when we got in, trying to put a good face on
it, and saying--Long and I--what a lovely night it was for a walk. The
boots was on the look-out for us, and we made remarks like that for
his edification as we entered the hotel. He gave another look up and
down the sea-front before he locked the front door, and said: 'You
didn't meet many people about, I s'pose, sir?' 'No, indeed, not a
soul,' I said; at which I remember Paxton looked oddly at me. 'Only I
thought I see someone turn up the station road after you gentlemen,'
said the boots. 'Still, you was three together, and I don't suppose he
meant mischief.' I didn't know what to say; Long merely said 'Good
night,' and we went off upstairs, promising to turn out all lights,
and to go to bed in a few minutes.

Back in our room, we did our very best to make Paxton take a cheerful
view. There's the crown safe back,' we said; 'very likely you'd have
done better not to touch it' (and he heavily assented to that), 'but
no real harm has been done, and we shall never give this away to
anyone who would be so mad as to go near it. Besides, don't you feel
better yourself? I don't mind confessing,' I said, 'that on the way
there I was very much inclined to take your view about--well, about
being followed; but going back, it wasn't at all the same thing, was
it?' No, it wouldn't do: 'You've nothing to trouble yourselves about,'
he said, 'but I'm not forgiven. I've got to pay for that miserable
sacrilege still. I know what you are going to say. The Church might
help. Yes, but it's the body that has to suffer. It's true I'm not
feeling that he's waiting outside for me just now. But--' Then he
stopped. Then he turned to thanking us, and we put him off as soon as
we could. And naturally we pressed him to use our sitting-room next
day, and said we should be glad to go out with him. Or did he play
golf, perhaps? Yes, he did, but he didn't think he should care about
that tomorrow. Well, we recommended him to get up late and sit in our
room in the morning while we were playing, and we would have a walk
later in the day. He was very submissive and piano about it all: ready
to do just what we thought best, but clearly quite certain in his own
mind that what was coming could not be averted or palliated. You'll
wonder why we didn't insist on accompanying him to his home and seeing
him safe into the care of brothers or someone. The fact was he had
nobody. He had had a flat in town, but lately he had made up his mind
to settle for a time in Sweden, and he had dismantled his flat and
shipped off his belongings, and was whiling away a fortnight or three
weeks before he made a start. Anyhow, we didn't see what we could do
better than sleep on it--or not sleep very much, as was my case and
see what we felt like tomorrow morning.

We felt very different, Long and I, on as beautiful an April morning
as you could desire; and Paxton also looked very different when we saw
him at breakfast. 'The first approach to a decent night I seem ever to
have had,' was what he said. But he was going to do as we had settled:
stay in probably all the morning, and come out with us later. We went
to the links; we met some other men and played with them in the
morning, and had lunch there rather early, so as not to be late back.
All the same, the snares of death overtook him.

Whether it could have been prevented, I don't know. I think he would
have been got at somehow, do what we might. Anyhow, this is what
happened.

We went straight up to our room. Paxton was there, reading quite
peaceably. 'Ready to come out shortly?' said Long, 'say in half an
hour's time?' 'Certainly,' he said: and I said we would change first,
and perhaps have baths, and call for him in half an hour. I had my
bath first, and went and lay down on my bed, and slept for about ten
minutes. We came out of our rooms at the same time, and went together
to the sitting-room. Paxton wasn't there--only his book. Nor was he in
his room, nor in the downstair rooms. We shouted for him. A servant
came out and said: 'Why, I thought you gentlemen was gone out already,
and so did the other gentleman. He heard you a-calling from the path
there, and run out in a hurry, and I looked out of the coffee-room
window, but I didn't see you. 'Owever, he run off down the beach that
way.'

Without a word we ran that way too--it was the opposite direction to
that of last night's expedition. It wasn't quite four o'clock, and the
day was fair, though not so fair as it had been, so that was really no
reason, you'd say, for anxiety: with people about, surely a man
couldn't come to much harm.

But something in our look as we ran out must have struck the servant,
for she came out on the steps, and pointed, and said, 'Yes, that's the
way he went.' We ran on as far as the top of the shingle bank, and
there pulled up. There was a choice of ways: past the houses on the
sea-front, or along the sand at the bottom of the beach, which, the
tide being now out, was fairly broad. Or of course we might keep along
the shingle between these two tracks and have some view of both of
them; only that was heavy going. We chose the sand, for that was the
loneliest, and someone might come to harm there without being seen
from the public path.

Long said he saw Paxton some distance ahead, running and waving his
stick, as if he wanted to signal to people who were on ahead of him. I
couldn't be sure: one of these sea-mists was coming up very quickly
from the south. There was someone, that's all I could say. And there
were tracks on the sand as of someone running who wore shoes; and
there were other tracks made before those--for the shoes sometimes
trod in them and interfered with them--of someone not in shoes. Oh, of
course, it's only my word you've got to take for all this: Long's
dead, we'd no time or means to make sketches or take casts, and the
next tide washed everything away. All we could do was to notice these
marks as we hurried on. But there they were over and over again, and
we had no doubt whatever that what we saw was the track of a bare
foot, and one that showed more bones than flesh.

The notion of Paxton running after--after anything like this, and
supposing it to be the friends he was looking for, was very dreadful
to us. You can guess what we fancied: how the thing he was following
might stop suddenly and turn round on him, and what sort of face it
would show, half-seen at first in the mist--which all the while was
getting thicker and thicker. And as I ran on wondering how the poor
wretch could have been lured into mistaking that other thing for us, I
remembered his saying, 'He has some power over your eyes.' And then I
wondered what the end would be, for I had no hope now that the end
could be averted, and--well, there is no need to tell all the dismal
and horrid thoughts that flitted through my head as we ran on into the
mist. It was uncanny, too, that the sun should still be bright in the
sky and we could see nothing. We could only tell that we were now past
the houses and had reached that gap there is between them and the old
martello tower. When you are past the tower, you know, there is
nothing but shingle for a long way--not a house, not a human creature;
just that spit of land, or rather shingle, with the river on your
right and the sea on your left.

But just before that, just by the martello tower, you remember there is
the old battery, close to the sea. I believe there are only a few
blocks of concrete left now: the rest has all been washed away, but at
this time there was a lot more, though the place was a ruin. Well,
when we got there, we clambered to the top as quick as we could to
take breath and look over the shingle in front if by chance the mist
would let us see anything. But a moment's rest we must have. We had
run a mile at least. Nothing whatever was visible ahead of us, and we
were just turning by common consent to get down and run hopelessly on,
when we heard what I can only call a laugh: and if you can understand
what I mean by a breathless, a lungless laugh, you have it: but I
don't suppose you can. It came from below, and swerved away into the
mist. That was enough. We bent over the wall. Paxton was there at the
bottom.

You don't need to be told that he was dead. His tracks showed that he
had run along the side of the battery, had turned sharp round the
corner of it, and, small doubt of it, must have dashed straight irito
the open arms of someone who was waiting there. His mouth was full of
sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits. I only
glanced once at his face.

At the same moment, just as we were scrambling down from the battery
to get to the body, we heard a shout, and saw a man running down the
bank of the martello tower. He was the caretaker stationed there, and
his keen old eyes had managed to descry through the mist that
something was wrong. He had seen Paxton fall, and had seen us a moment
after, running up--fortunate this, for otherwise we could hardly have
escaped suspicion of being concerned in the dreadful business. Had he,
we asked, caught sight of anybody attacking our friend? He could not
be sure.

We sent him off for help, and stayed by the dead man till they came
with the stretcher. It was then that we traced out how he had come, on
the narrow fringe of sand under the battery wall. The rest was
shingle, and it was hopelessly impossible to tell whither the other
had gone.

What were we to say at the inquest? It was a duty, we felt, not to
give up, there and then, the secret of the crown, to be published in
every paper. I don't know how much you would have told; but what we
did agree upon was this: to say that we had only made acquaintance
with Paxton the day before, and that he had told us he was under some
apprehension of danger at the hands of a man called William Ager. Also
that we had seen some other tracks besides Paxton's when we followed
him along the beach. But of course by that time everything was gone
from the sands.

No one had any knowledge, fortunately, of any William Ager living in
the district. The evidence of the man at the martello tower freed us
from all suspicion. All that could be done was to return a verdict of
wilful murder by some person or persons unknowtn.

Paxton was so totally without connections that all the inquiries that
were subsequently made ended in a No Thoroughfare. And I have never
been at Seaburgh, or even near it, since.



THE END




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