Chapter XXV. The Card on the Door

The chief made no immediate reply to Fullaway's somewhat excited outburst; he led his little party from the room, and in the corridor turned to Celia and the cafe keeper.

"That's all, Miss Lennard, thank you," he said. "Sorry to have to ask you to take part in these painful affairs, but it can't be helped. M. Bonnechose, I'm obliged to you--you'll hear from me again very soon. In the meantime, keep counsel--don't talk to anybody except Madame--no gossiping with customers, you know. Mr. Allerdyke, will you see Miss Lennard downstairs and into a cab, and then join Mr. Fullaway and me again?--we must have a talk with the police and the hotel people."

When Allerdyke went back into the hotel he found Blindway waiting for him at the door of a ground-floor room in which the chief, Fullaway, a City police-inspector and a detective were already closeted with the landlord and landlady. The landlord, a somewhat sullen individual, who appeared to be greatly vexed and disconcerted by these events, was already being questioned by the chief as to what he knew of the young man whose body they had just seen, and he was replying somewhat testily.

"I know no more about him than I know of any chance customer," he was saying when Allerdyke was ushered in by Blindway, who immediately closed the door on this informal conclave. "You see what this house is?--a second-class house for gentlemen having business in this part, round about the Docks. We get a lot of commercial gentlemen, sea-faring men, such-like. Lots of our customers are people who are going to foreign places--Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg, and so on--they put up here just for the night, before sailing. I took this young man for one of that sort--in fact, I think he made some inquiry about one of the boats."

"He did," affirmed the landlady. "He asked William, the head-waiter, what time the Rotterdam steamer sailed this morning."

"And that's about all we know," continued the landlord. "I never took any particular notice of him, and--"

"Just answer a few questions," said the chief, interrupting him quietly. "We shall get at what we want to know more easily that way. What time did this young man come to the hotel yesterday?"

The landlord turned to his wife with an expressive gesture.

"Ask her," he answered. "She looks after all that--I'm not so much in the office."

"He came at seven o'clock last night," said the landlady. "I was in the office, and I booked him and gave him his room--27."

"Was he alone?"

"Quite alone. He'd the suit-case that's upstairs in the room now, and an overcoat and an umbrella."

"Of course," said the chief, "he gave you some name--some address?"

"He gave the name and address of Frank Herman, Walthamstow," replied the landlady, opening a ledger which she had brought into the room. "There you are--that's his writing."

The chief drew the book to him, glanced at the entry, and closed the book again, keeping a finger in it.

"Well, what was seen of him during the evening!" he asked.

"Nothing much," replied the landlady. "He had his supper in the coffee-room--a couple of chops and coffee. He was reading the papers in the smoking-room until about half-past ten; I saw him myself going upstairs between that and eleven. As I didn't see him about next morning and as his breakfast wasn't booked, I asked where he was, and the chambermaid said there was a card on his door saying that he wasn't to be called till eleven."

"Where is that card?" asked the chief.

"It's here in this envelope," answered the landlady, who seemed to be much more alert and much sharper of intellect than her husband. "I took care of it when we found out what had happened. I suppose you'll take charge of it?"

"If you please," answered the chief. He took the envelope, looked inside it to make sure that the card was there, and turned to the landlady again.

"Yes?" he said. "When you found out what had happened. Now, who did find out what had happened?"

"Well," answered the landlady, "the chambermaid came down soon after eleven, and said she couldn't get 27 to answer her knock. Of course, I understood that he wanted to catch the Rotterdam boat which sailed about noon, so I sent my husband up. And as he couldn't get any answer--"

"I went in with the chambermaid's key," broke in the landlord, "and there he was--just as you've seen him--dead. And if you ask me, he was cold, too--been dead some time, in my opinion."

"The surgeon said several hours--six or seven," remarked the inspector in an aside to the chief. "Thought he'd been dead since four o'clock."

"No signs of anything in the room, I suppose?" asked the chief. "Nothing disturbed, eh?"

"Nothing!" replied the landlord stolidly. "The room was as you'd expect to find it; tidy enough. And nothing touched--as the police that were called in at first can testify. They can swear as his money was all right and his watch and chain all right--there'd been no robbery. And," he added with resentful emphasis, "I don't care what you nor nobody says!--'tain't no case of murder, this! It's suicide, that's what it is. I don't want my house to get the name and character of a murder place! I can't help it if a quiet-looking, apparently respectable young fellow comes and suicides himself in my house--there's nobody can avoid that, as I know of, but when it comes to murder--"

"No one has said anything about murder so far," interrupted the chief quietly. "But since you suggest it, perhaps we'd better ask who you'd got in the house last night." He opened the register at the page in which he had kept his finger, and looked at the last entries. "I see that three--no, four--people came in after this young man who called himself Frank Herman. You booked them, I suppose?" he went on, turning to the landlady. "Were they known to you?"

"Only one--that one, Mr. Peter Donaldson, Dundee," answered the landlady. "He's the representative of a jute firm--he often comes here. He's in the house now, or he was, an hour ago--he'll be here for two or three days. Those two, Mr. and Mrs. Nielsen--they appeared to be foreigners. They were here for the night, had breakfast early, and went away by some boat--our porter carried their things to it. Quiet, elderly folks, they were."

"And the fourth--John Barcombe, Manchester--you didn't know him?" asked the chief, pointing to the last entry. "I see you gave him Number 29--two doors from Herman."

"Yes," said the landlady. "No--I didn't know him. He came in about nine o'clock and had some supper before he went up. He'd his breakfast at eight o'clock this morning, and went away at once. Lots of our customers do that--they're just in for bed and breakfast, and we scarcely notice them."

"Did you notice this man--Barcombe?" asked the chief.

"Well, not particularly. But I've a fair recollection of him. A rather pale, stiffish-built man, lightish brown hair and moustache, dressed in a dark suit. He'd no luggage, and he paid me for supper, bed, and breakfast when he booked his room," replied the landlady. "Quite a quiet, respectable man--he said something about being unexpectedly obliged to stop for the night, but I didn't pay any great attention."

The chief looked attentively at the open page of the register. Then he drew the attention of those around him to the signature of John Barcombe. It was a big, sprawling signature, all the letters sloping downward from left to right, and being of an unusual size for a man.

"That looks to me like a feigned handwriting," he said. "However, note this. You see that entry of Frank Herman? Observe his handwriting. Now compare it with the writing on the card which was fixed on the door of 27--Herman's room. Look!"

He drew the card out of its envelope as he spoke and laid it beside the entry in the register. And Marshall Allerdyke, bending over his shoulder to look, almost cried out with astonishment, for the writing on the card was certainly the same as that which Chettle had shown him on the post-card found on Lydenberg, and on the back of the photograph of James Allerdyke discovered in Lydenberg's watch. It was only by a big effort that he checked the exclamation which was springing to his lips, and stopped himself from snatching up the card from the table.

"You observe," said the chief quietly, "you can't fail to observe that the writing in the register, is not the writing of the card pinned on the door of Number 27. They are quite different. The writing of Frank Herman in the register is in thick, stunted strokes; the writing on the card is in thin, angular, what are commonly called crabbed strokes. Yet it is supposed that Herman put that card outside his bedroom door. How is it, then, that Herman's handwriting was thick and stunted when he registered at seven o'clock and slender and a bit shaky when he wrote this card at, say, half-past ten or eleven? Of course, Herman, or whatever his real name is, never wrote the line on that card, and never pinned that card on his door!"

The landlord opened his heavy lips and gasped: the landlady sighed with a gradually awakening interest. Amidst a dead silence the chief went on with his critical inspection of the handwriting.

"But now look at the signature of the man who called himself John Barcombe, of Manchester. You will observe that he signed that name in a great, sprawling hand across the page, and that the letters slope from left to right, downward, instead of in the usually accepted fashion of left to right, upward. Now at first sight there is no great similarity in the writing of that entry in the register and that on the card--one is rounded and sprawling, and the other is thin and precise. But there is one remarkable and striking similarity. In the entry in the register there are two a's--the a in Barcombe, the a in Manchester. On the one line on the card found pinned to the door there are also two a's--the a in please; the a in call. Now observe--whether the writing is big, sprawling, thin, precise; feigned, obviously, in one case, natural, I think, in the other, all those four a's are the same! This man has grown so accustomed to making his a's after the Greek fashion--a--done in one turn of the pen--that he has made them even in his feigned handwriting! There's not a doubt, to my mind, that the card found on Herman's door was written, and put on that door, by the man who registered as John Barcombe. And," he added in an undertone to Allerdyke, "I've no doubt, either, that he's the man of the Eastbourne Terrace affair."

The landlord had risen to his feet, and was scowling gloomily at everybody.

"Then you are making it out to be murder?" he exclaimed sulkily. "Just what I expected! Never had police called in yet without 'em making mountains out of molehills! Murder, indeed!--nothing but a case of suicide, that's what I say. And as this is a temperance hotel, and not a licensed house, I'll be obliged to you if you'll have that body taken away to the mortuary--I shall be having the character of my place taken away next, and then where shall I be I should like to know!"

He swung indignantly out of the room, and his wife, murmuring that it was certainly very hard on innocent people that these things went on, followed him. The police, giving no heed to these protests, proceeded to examine the articles taken from the dead man's clothing. Whatever had been the object of the murderer, it was certainly not robbery. There was a purse and a pocket-book, containing a considerable amount of money in gold and notes; a good watch and chain, and a ring or two of some value.

"Just the same circumstances as in the Eastbourne Terrace affair," said the chief as he rose. "Well--the thing is to find that man. You've no doubt whatever, Mr. Fullaway, that this dead man upstairs is the man you knew as Ebers, a valet at your hotel?"

"None!" answered Fullaway emphatically. "None whatever. Lots of people will be able to identify him."

"That's good, at any rate," remarked the chief. "It's a long step towards--something. Well, I must go."

Allerdyke was in more than half a mind to draw the chief aside and tell him about Chettle's discoveries as regards the handwriting, but while he hesitated Fullaway tugged earnestly at his sleeve.

"Come away!" whispered Fullaway. "Come! We're going to cut in at this ourselves!"