The Middle Temple Murder by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter Twenty-Four. Mother Gutch
Spargo, having exhausted the list of questions which he had thought out on his way to Bayswater, was about to take his leave of Miss Baylis, when a new idea suddenly occurred to him, and he turned back to that formidable lady.
"I've just thought of something else," he said. "I told you that I'm certain Marbury was Maitland, and that he came to a sad end--murdered."
"And I've told you," she replied scornfully, "that in my opinion no end could be too bad for him."
"Just so--I understand you," said Spargo. "But I didn't tell you that he was not only murdered but robbed--robbed of probably a good deal. There's good reason to believe that he had securities, bank notes, loose diamonds, and other things on him to the value of a large amount. He'd several thousand pounds when he left Coolumbidgee, in New South Wales, where he'd lived quietly for some years."
Miss Baylis smiled sourly.
"What's all this to me?" she asked.
"Possibly nothing. But you see, that money, those securities, may be recovered. And as the boy you speak of is dead, there surely must be somebody who's entitled to the lot. It's worth having, Miss Baylis, and there's strong belief on the part of the police that it will turn up."
This was a bit of ingenious bluff on the part of Spargo; he watched its effect with keen eyes. But Miss Baylis was adamant, and she looked as scornful as ever.
"I say again what's all that to me?" she exclaimed.
"Well, but hadn't the dead boy any relatives on his father's side?" asked Spargo. "I know you're his aunt on the mother's side, and as you're indifferent perhaps, I can find some on the other side. It's very easy to find all these things out, you know."
Miss Baylis, who had begun to stalk back to the house in gloomy and majestic fashion, and had let Spargo see plainly that this part of the interview was distasteful to her, suddenly paused in her stride and glared at the young journalist.
"Easy to find all these things out?" she repeated.
Spargo caught, or fancied he caught, a note of anxiety in her tone. He was quick to turn his fancy to practical purpose.
"Oh, easy enough!" he said. "I could find out all about Maitland's family through that boy. Quite, quite easily!"
Miss Baylis had stopped now, and stood glaring at him. "How?" she demanded.
"I'll tell you," said Spargo with cheerful alacrity. "It is, of course, the easiest thing in the world to trace all about his short life. I suppose I can find the register of his birth at Market Milcaster, and you, of course, will tell me where he died. By the by, when did he die, Miss Baylis?"
But Miss Baylis was going on again to the house.
"I shall tell you nothing more," she said angrily. "I've told you too much already, and I believe all you're here for is to get some news for your paper. But I will, at any rate tell you this--when Maitland went to prison his child would have been defenceless but for me; he'd have had to go to the workhouse but for me; he hadn't a single relation in the world but me, on either father's or mother's side. And even at my age, old woman as I am, I'd rather beg my bread in the street, I'd rather starve and die, than touch a penny piece that had come from John Maitland! That's all."
Then without further word, without offering to show Spargo the way out, she marched in at the open window and disappeared. And Spargo, knowing no other way, was about to follow her when he heard a sudden rustling sound in the shadow by which they had stood, and the next moment a queer, cracked, horrible voice, suggesting all sorts of things, said distinctly and yet in a whisper:
Spargo turned and stared at the privet hedge behind him. It was thick and bushy, and in its full summer green, but it seemed to him that he saw a nondescript shape behind. "Who's there?" he demanded. "Somebody listening?"
There was a curious cackle of laughter from behind the hedge; then the cracked, husky voice spoke again.
"Young man, don't you move or look as if you were talking to anybody. Do you know where the 'King of Madagascar' public-house is in this quarter of the town, young man?"
"No!" answered Spargo. "Certainly not!"
"Well, anybody'll tell you when you get outside, young man," continued the queer voice of the unseen person. "Go there, and wait at the corner by the 'King of Madagascar,' and I'll come there to you at the end of half an hour. Then I'll tell you something, young man--I'll tell you something. Now run away, young man, run away to the 'King of Madagascar'--I'm coming!"
The voice ended in low, horrible cachinnation which made Spargo feel queer. But he was young enough to be in love with adventure, and he immediately turned on his heel without so much as a glance at the privet hedge, and went across the garden and through the house, and let himself out at the door. And at the next corner of the square he met a policeman and asked him if he knew where the "King of Madagascar" was.
"First to the right, second to the left," answered the policeman tersely. "You can't miss it anywhere round there--it's a landmark."
And Spargo found the landmark--a great, square-built tavern--easily, and he waited at a corner of it wondering what he was going to see, and intensely curious about the owner of the queer voice, with all its suggestions of he knew not what. And suddenly there came up to him an old woman and leered at him in a fashion that made him suddenly realize how dreadful old age may be.
Spargo had never seen such an old woman as this in his life. She was dressed respectably, better than respectably. Her gown was good; her bonnet was smart; her smaller fittings were good. But her face was evil; it showed unmistakable signs of a long devotion to the bottle; the old eyes leered and ogled, the old lips were wicked. Spargo felt a sense of disgust almost amounting to nausea, but he was going to hear what the old harridan had to say and he tried not to look what he felt.
"Well?" he said, almost roughly. "Well?"
"Well, young man, there you are," said his new acquaintance. "Let us go inside, young man; there's a quiet little place where a lady can sit and take her drop of gin--I'll show you. And if you're good to me, I'll tell you something about that cat that you were talking to just now. But you'll give me a little matter to put in my pocket, young man? Old ladies like me have a right to buy little comforts, you know, little comforts."
Spargo followed this extraordinary person into a small parlour within; the attendant who came in response to a ring showed no astonishment at her presence; he also seemed to know exactly what she required, which was a certain brand of gin, sweetened, and warm. And Spargo watched her curiously as with shaking hand she pushed up the veil which hid little of her wicked old face, and lifted the glass to her mouth with a zest which was not thirst but pure greed of liquor. Almost instantly he saw a new light steal into her eyes, and she laughed in a voice that grew clearer with every sound she made.
"Ah, young man!" she said with a confidential nudge of the elbow that made Spargo long to get up and fly. "I wanted that! It's done me good. When I've finished that, you'll pay for another for me--and perhaps another? They'll do me still more good. And you'll give me a little matter of money, won't you, young man?"
"Not till I know what I'm giving it for," replied Spargo.
"You'll be giving it because I'm going to tell you that if it's made worth my while I can tell you, or somebody that sent you, more about Jane Baylis than anybody in the world. I'm not going to tell you that now, young man--I'm sure you don't carry in your pocket what I shall want for my secret, not you, by the look of you! I'm only going to show you that I have the secret. Eh?"
"Who are you?" asked Spargo.
The woman leered and chuckled. "What are you going to give me, young man?" she asked.
Spargo put his fingers in his pocket and pulled out two half-sovereigns.
"Look here," he said, showing his companion the coins, "if you can tell me anything of importance you shall have these. But no trifling, now. And no wasting of time. If you have anything to tell, out with it!"
The woman stretched out a trembling, claw-like hand.
"But let me hold one of those, young man!" she implored. "Let me hold one of the beautiful bits of gold. I shall tell you all the better if I hold one of them. Let me--there's a good young gentleman."
Spargo gave her one of the coins, and resigned himself to his fate, whatever it might be.
"You won't get the other unless you tell something," he said. "Who are you, anyway?"
The woman, who had begun mumbling and chuckling over the half-sovereign, grinned horribly.
"At the boarding-house yonder, young man, they call me Mother Gutch," she answered; "but my proper name is Mrs. Sabina Gutch, and once upon a time I was a good-looking young woman. And when my husband died I went to Jane Baylis as housekeeper, and when she retired from that and came to live in that boarding-house where we live now, she was forced to bring me with her and to keep me. Why had she to do that, young man?"
"Heaven knows!" answered Spargo.
"Because I've got a hold on her, young man--I've got a secret of hers," continued Mother Gutch. "She'd be scared to death if she knew I'd been behind that hedge and had heard what she said to you, and she'd be more than scared if she knew that you and I were here, talking. But she's grown hard and near with me, and she won't give me a penny to get a drop of anything with, and an old woman like me has a right to her little comforts, and if you'll buy the secret, young man, I'll split on her, there and then, when you pay the money."
"Before I talk about buying any secret," said Spargo, "you'll have to prove to me that you've a secret to sell that's worth my buying."
"And I will prove it!" said Mother Gutch with sudden fierceness. "Touch the bell, and let me have another glass, and then I'll tell you. Now," she went on, more quietly--Spargo noticed that the more she drank, the more rational she became, and that her nerves seemed to gain strength and her whole appearance to be improved--"now, you came to her to find out about her brother-in-law, Maitland, that went to prison, didn't you?"
"Well?" demanded Spargo.
"And about that boy of his?" she continued.
"You heard all that was said," answered Spargo. "I'm waiting to hear what you have to say."
But Mother Gutch was resolute in having her own way. She continued her questions:
"And she told you that Maitland came and asked for the boy, and that she told him the boy was dead, didn't she?" she went on.
"Well?" said Spargo despairingly. "She did. What then?"
Mother Gutch took an appreciative pull at her glass and smiled knowingly. "What then?" she chuckled. "All lies, young man, the boy isn't dead--any more than I am. And my secret is--"
"Well?" demanded Spargo impatiently. "What is it?"
"This!" answered Mother Gutch, digging her companion in the ribs, "I know what she did with him!"