The Middle Temple Murder by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter Fifteen. Market Milcaster
The haunt of well-informed men which Spargo had in view when he turned out of the Watchman office lay well hidden from ordinary sight and knowledge in one of those Fleet Street courts the like of which is not elsewhere in the world. Only certain folk knew of it. It was, of course, a club; otherwise it would not have been what it was. It is the simplest thing in life, in England, at any rate, to form a club of congenial spirits. You get so many of your choice friends and acquaintances to gather round you; you register yourselves under a name of your own choosing; you take a house and furnish it according to your means and your taste: you comply with the very easy letter of the law, and there you are. Keep within that easy letter, and you can do what you please on your own premises. It is much more agreeable to have a small paradise of your own of this description than to lounge about Fleet Street bars.
The particular club to which Spargo bent his steps was called the Octoneumenoi. Who evolved this extraordinary combination of Latin and Greek was a dark mystery: there it was, however, on a tiny brass plate you once reached the portals. The portals were gained by devious ways. You turned out of Fleet Street by an alley so narrow that it seemed as if you might suddenly find yourself squeezed between the ancient walls. Then you suddenly dived down another alley and found yourself in a small court, with high walls around you and a smell of printer's ink in your nose and a whirring of printing presses in your ears. You made another dive into a dark entry, much encumbered by bales of paper, crates of printing material, jars of printing ink; after falling over a few of these you struck an ancient flight of stairs and went up past various landings, always travelling in a state of gloom and fear. After a lot of twisting and turning you came to the very top of the house and found it heavily curtained off. You lifted a curtain and found yourself in a small entresol, somewhat artistically painted--the whole and sole work of an artistic member who came one day with a formidable array of lumber and paint-pots and worked his will on the ancient wood. Then you saw the brass plate and its fearful name, and beneath it the formal legal notice that this club was duly registered and so on, and if you were a member you went in, and if you weren't a member you tinkled an electric bell and asked to see a member--if you knew one.
Spargo was not a member, but he knew many members, and he tinkled the bell, and asked the boy who answered it for Mr. Starkey. Mr. Starkey, a young gentleman with the biceps of a prize-fighter and a head of curly hair that would have done credit to Antinous, came forth in due course and shook Spargo by the hand until his teeth rattled.
"Had we known you were coming," said Mr. Starkey, "we'd have had a brass band on the stairs."
"I want to come in," remarked Spargo.
"Sure!" said Mr. Starkey. "That's what you've come for."
"Well, stand out of the way, then, and let's get in," said Spargo. "Look here," he continued when they had penetrated into a small vestibule, "doesn't old Crowfoot turn in here about this time every night?"
"Every night as true as the clock, my son Spargo, Crowfoot puts his nose in at precisely eleven, having by that time finished that daily column wherein he informs a section of the populace as to the prospects of their spotting a winner tomorrow," answered Mr. Starkey. "It's five minutes to his hour now. Come in and drink till he comes. Want him?"
"A word with him," answered Spargo. "A mere word--or two."
He followed Starkey into a room which was so filled with smoke and sound that for a moment it was impossible to either see or hear. But the smoke was gradually making itself into a canopy, and beneath the canopy Spargo made out various groups of men of all ages, sitting around small tables, smoking and drinking, and all talking as if the great object of their lives was to get as many words as possible out of their mouths in the shortest possible time. In the further corner was a small bar; Starkey pulled Spargo up to it.
"Name it, my son," commanded Starkey. "Try the Octoneumenoi very extra special. Two of 'em, Dick. Come to beg to be a member, Spargo?"
"I'll think about being a member of this ante-room of the infernal regions when you start a ventilating fan and provide members with a route-map of the way from Fleet Street," answered Spargo, taking his glass. "Phew!--what an atmosphere!"
"We're considering a ventilating fan," said Starkey. "I'm on the house committee now, and I brought that very matter up at our last meeting. But Templeson, of the Bulletin--you know Templeson--he says what we want is a wine-cooler to stand under that sideboard--says no club is proper without a wine-cooler, and that he knows a chap--second-hand dealer, don't you know--what has a beauty to dispose of in old Sheffield plate. Now, if you were on our house committee, Spargo, old man, would you go in for the wine-cooler or the ventilating fan? You see--"
"There is Crowfoot," said Spargo. "Shout him over here, Starkey, before anybody else collars him."
Through the door by which Spargo had entered a few minutes previously came a man who stood for a moment blinking at the smoke and the lights. He was a tall, elderly man with a figure and bearing of a soldier; a big, sweeping moustache stood well out against a square-cut jaw and beneath a prominent nose; a pair of keen blue eyes looked out from beneath a tousled mass of crinkled hair. He wore neither hat nor cap; his attire was a carelessly put on Norfolk suit of brown tweed; he looked half-unkempt, half-groomed. But knotted at the collar of his flannel shirt were the colours of one of the most famous and exclusive cricket clubs in the world, and everybody knew that in his day their wearer had been a mighty figure in the public eye.
"Hi, Crowfoot!" shouted Starkey above the din and babel. "Crowfoot, Crowfoot! Come over here, there's a chap dying to see you!"
"Yes, that's the way to get him, isn't it?" said Spargo. "Here, I'll get him myself."
He went across the room and accosted the old sporting journalist.
"I want a quiet word with you," he said. "This place is like a pandemonium."
Crowfoot led the way into a side alcove and ordered a drink.
"Always is, this time," he said, yawning. "But it's companionable. What is it, Spargo?"
Spargo took a pull at the glass which he had carried with him. "I should say," he said, "that you know as much about sporting matters as any man writing about 'em?"
"Well, I think you might say it with truth," answered Crowfoot.
"And old sporting matters?" said Spargo.
"Yes, and old sporting matters," replied the other with a sudden flash of the eye. "Not that they greatly interest the modern generation, you know."
"Well, there's something that's interesting me greatly just now, anyway," said Spargo. "And I believe it's got to do with old sporting affairs. And I came to you for information about it, believing you to be the only man I know of that could tell anything."
"Yes--what is it?" asked Crowfoot.
Spargo drew out an envelope, and took from it the carefully-wrapped-up silver ticket. He took off the wrappings and laid the ticket on Crowfoot's outstretched palm.
"Can you tell me what that is?" he asked.
Another sudden flash came into the old sportsman's eyes--he eagerly turned the silver ticket over.
"God bless my soul!" he exclaimed. "Where did you get this?"
"Never mind, just now," replied Spargo. "You know what it is?"
"Certainly I know what it is! But--Gad! I've not seen one of these things for Lord knows how many years. It makes me feel something like a young 'un again!" said Crowfoot. "Quite a young 'un!"
"But what is it?" asked Spargo.
Crowfoot turned the ticket over, showing the side on which the heraldic device was almost worn away.
"It's one of the original silver stand tickets of the old racecourse at Market Milcaster," answered Crowfoot. "That's what it is. One of the old original silver stand tickets. There are the arms of Market Milcaster, you see, nearly worn away by much rubbing. There, on the obverse, is the figure of a running horse. Oh, yes, that's what it is! Bless me!--most interesting."
"Where's Market Milcaster?" enquired Spargo. "Don't know it."
"Market Milcaster," replied Crowfoot, still turning the silver ticket over and over, "is what the topographers call a decayed town in Elmshire. It has steadily decayed since the river that led to it got gradually silted up. There used to be a famous race-meeting there in June every year. It's nearly forty years since that meeting fell through. I went to it often when I was a lad--often!"
"And you say that's a ticket for the stand?" asked Spargo.
"This is one of fifty silver tickets, or passes, or whatever you like to call 'em, which were given by the race committee to fifty burgesses of the town," answered Crowfoot. "It was, I remember, considered a great privilege to possess a silver ticket. It admitted its possessor--for life, mind you!--to the stand, the paddocks, the ring, anywhere. It also gave him a place at the annual race-dinner. Where on earth did you get this, Spargo?"
Spargo took the ticket and carefully re-wrapped it, this time putting it in his purse.
"I'm awfully obliged to you, Crowfoot," he said, "The fact is, I can't tell you where I got it just now, but I'll promise you that I will tell you, and all about it, too, as soon as my tongue's free to do so."
"Some mystery, eh?" suggested Crowfoot.
"Considerable," answered Spargo. "Don't mention to anyone that I showed it to you. You shall know everything eventually."
"Oh, all right, my boy, all right!" said Crowfoot. "Odd how things turn up, isn't it? Now, I'll wager anything that there aren't half a dozen of these old things outside Market Milcaster itself. As I said, there were only fifty, and they were all in possession of burgesses. They were so much thought of that they were taken great care of. I've been in Market Milcaster myself since the races were given up, and I've seen these tickets carefully framed and hung over mantelpieces--oh, yes!"
Spargo caught at a notion.
"How do you get to Market Milcaster?" he asked.
"Paddington," replied Crowfoot. "It's a goodish way."
"I wonder," said Spargo, "if there's any old sporting man there who could remember--things. Anything about this ticket, for instance?"
"Old sporting man!" exclaimed Crowfoot. "Egad!--but no, he must be dead--anyhow, if he isn't dead, he must be a veritable patriarch. Old Ben Quarterpage, he was an auctioneer in the town, and a rare sportsman."
"I may go down there," said Spargo. "I'll see if he's alive."
"Then, if you do go down," suggested Crowfoot, "go to the old 'Yellow Dragon' in the High Street, a fine old place. Quarterpage's place of business and his private house were exactly opposite the 'Dragon.' But I'm afraid you'll find him dead--it's five and twenty years since I was in Market Milcaster, and he was an old bird then. Let's see, now. If Old Ben Quarterpage is alive, Spargo, he'll be ninety years of age!"
"Well, I've known men of ninety who were spry enough, even in my bit of experience," said Spargo. "I know one--now--my own grandfather. Well, the best of thanks, Crowfoot, and I'll tell you all about it some day."
"Have another drink?" suggested Crowfoot.
But Spargo excused himself. He was going back to the office, he said; he still had something to do. And he got himself away from the Octoneumenoi, in spite of Starkey, who wished to start a general debate on the wisest way of expending the club's ready money balance, and went back to the Watchman, and there he sought the presence of the editor, and in spite of the fact that it was the busiest hour of the night, saw him and remained closeted with him for the extraordinary space of ten minutes. And after that Spargo went home and fell into bed.
But next morning, bright and early, he was on the departure platform at Paddington, suit-case in hand, and ticket in pocket for Market Milcaster, and in the course of that afternoon he found himself in an old-fashioned bedroom looking out on Market Milcaster High Street. And there, right opposite him, he saw an ancient house, old brick, ivy-covered, with an office at its side, over the door of which was the name, Benjamin Quarterpage.