The Middle Temple Murder by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter Twenty-Nine. The Closed Doors
Alone of all the London morning newspapers, the Watchman appeared next day destitute of sensationalism in respect to the Middle Temple Murder. The other daily journals published more or less vivid accounts of the identification of Mr. Stephen Aylmore, M.P. for the Brookminster Division, as the ci-devant Stephen Ainsworth, ex-convict, once upon a time founder and secretary of the Hearth and Home Mutual Benefit Society, the headquarters of which had been at Cloudhampton, in Daleshire; the fall of which had involved thousands of honest working folk in terrible distress if not in absolute ruin. Most of them had raked up Ainsworth's past to considerable journalistic purpose: it had been an easy matter to turn up old files, to recount the fall of the Hearth and Home, to tell anew the story of the privations of the humble investors whose small hoards had gone in the crash; it had been easy, too, to set out again the history of Ainsworth's arrest, trial, and fate. There was plenty of romance in the story: it was that of a man who by his financial ability had built up a great industrial insurance society; had--as was alleged--converted the large sums entrusted to him to his own purposes; had been detected and punished; had disappeared, after his punishment, so effectually that no one knew where he had gone; had come back, comparatively a few years later, under another name, a very rich man, and had entered Parliament and been, in a modest way, a public character without any of those who knew him in his new career suspecting that he had once worn a dress liberally ornamented with the broad arrow. Fine copy, excellent copy: some of the morning newspapers made a couple of columns of it.
But the Watchman, up to then easily ahead of all its contemporaries in keeping the public informed of all the latest news in connection with the Marbury affair, contented itself with a brief announcement. For after Rathbury had left him, Spargo had sought his proprietor and his editor, and had sat long in consultation with them, and the result of their talk had been that all the Watchman thought fit to tell its readers next morning was contained in a curt paragraph:
"We understand that Mr. Stephen Aylmore, M.P., who is charged with the murder of John Marbury, or Maitland, in the Temple on June 21st last, was yesterday afternoon identified by certain officials as Stephen Ainsworth, who was sentenced to a term of penal servitude in connection with the Hearth and Home Mutual Benefit Society funds nearly thirty years ago."
Coming down to Fleet Street that morning, Spargo, strolling jauntily along the front of the Law Courts, encountered a fellow-journalist, a man on an opposition newspaper, who grinned at him in a fashion which indicated derision.
"Left behind a bit, that rag of yours, this morning, Spargo, my boy!" he remarked elegantly. "Why, you've missed one of the finest opportunities I ever heard of in connection with that Aylmore affair. A miserable paragraph!--why, I worked off a column and a half in ours! What were you doing last night, old man?"
"Sleeping," said Spargo and went by with a nod. "Sleeping!"
He left the other staring at him, and crossed the road to Middle Temple Lane. It was just on the stroke of eleven as he walked up the stairs to Mr. Elphick's chambers; precisely eleven as he knocked at the outer door. It is seldom that outer doors are closed in the Temple at that hour, but Elphick's door was closed fast enough. The night before it had been promptly opened, but there was no response to Spargo's first knock, nor to his second, nor to his third. And half-unconsciously he murmured aloud: "Elphick's door is closed!"
It never occurred to Spargo to knock again: instinct told him that Elphick's door was closed because Elphick was not there; closed because Elphick was not going to keep the appointment. He turned and walked slowly back along the corridor. And just as he reached the head of the stairs Ronald Breton, pale and anxious, came running up them, and at sight of Spargo paused, staring questioningly at him. As if with a mutual sympathy the two young men shook hands.
"I'm glad you didn't print more than those two or three lines in the Watchman this morning," said Breton. "It was--considerate. As for the other papers!--Aylmore assured me last night, Spargo, that though he did serve that term at Dartmoor he was innocent enough! He was scapegoat for another man who disappeared."
Then, as Spargo merely nodded, he added, awkwardly:
"And I'm obliged to you, too, old chap, for sending that wire to the two girls last night--it was good of you. They want all the comfort they can get, poor things! But--what are you doing here, Spargo?"
Spargo leant against the head of the stairs and folded his hands.
"I came here," he said, "to keep an appointment with Mr. Elphick--an appointment which he made when I called on him, as you suggested, at nine o'clock. The appointment--a most important one--was for eleven o'clock."
Breton glanced at his watch.
"Come on, then," he said. "It's well past that now, and my guardian's a very martinet in the matter of punctuality."
But Spargo did not move. Instead, he shook his head, regarding Breton with troubled eyes.
"So am I," he answered. "I was trained to it. Your guardian isn't there, Breton."
"Not there? If he made an appointment for eleven? Nonsense--I never knew him miss an appointment!"
"I knocked three times--three separate times," answered Spargo.
"You should have knocked half a dozen times--he may have overslept himself. He sits up late--he and old Cardlestone often sit up half the night, talking stamps or playing piquet," said Breton. "Come on--you'll see!"
Spargo shook his head again.
"He's not there, Breton," he said. "He's gone!"
Breton stared at the journalist as if he had just announced that he had seen Mr. Septimus Elphick riding down Fleet Street on a dromedary. He seized Spargo's elbow.
"Come on!" he said. "I have a key to Mr. Elphick's door, so that I can go in and out as I like. I'll soon show you whether he's gone or not."
Spargo followed the young barrister down the corridor.
"All the same," he said meditatively as Breton fitted a key to the latch, "he's not there, Breton. He's--off!"
"Good heavens, man, I don't know what you're talking about!" exclaimed Breton, opening the door and walking into the lobby. "Off! Where on earth should he be off to, when he's made an appointment with you for eleven, and--Hullo!"
He had opened the door of the room in which Spargo had met Elphick and Miss Baylis the night before, and was walking in when he pulled himself up on the threshold with a sharp exclamation.
"Good God!" he cried. "What--what's all this?"
Spargo quietly looked over Breton's shoulder. It needed but one quick glance to show him that much had happened in that quiet room since he had quitted it the night before. There stood the easy-chair in which he had left Elphick; there, close by it, but pushed aside, as if by a hurried hand, was the little table with its spirit case, its syphon, its glass, in which stale liquid still stood; there was the novel, turned face downwards; there, upon the novel, was Elphick's pipe. But the rest of the room was in dire confusion. The drawers of a bureau had been pulled open and never put back; papers of all descriptions, old legal-looking documents, old letters, littered the centre-table and the floor; in one corner of the room a black japanned box had been opened, its contents strewn about, and the lid left yawning. And in the grate, and all over the fender there were masses of burned and charred paper; it was only too evident that the occupant of the chambers, wherever he might have disappeared to, had spent some time before his disappearance in destroying a considerable heap of documents and papers, and in such haste that he had not troubled to put matters straight before he went.
Breton stared at this scene for a moment in utter consternation. Then he made one step towards an inner door, and Spargo followed him. Together they entered an inner room--a sleeping apartment. There was no one in it, but there were evidences that Elphick had just as hastily packed a bag as he had destroyed his papers. The clothes which Spargo had seen him wearing the previous evening were flung here, there, everywhere: the gorgeous smoking-jacket was tossed unceremoniously in one corner, a dress-shirt, in the bosom of which valuable studs still glistened, in another. One or two suitcases lay about, as if they had been examined and discarded in favour of something more portable; here, too, drawers, revealing stocks of linen and underclothing, had been torn open and left open; open, too, swung the door of a wardrobe, revealing a quantity of expensive clothing. And Spargo, looking around him, seemed to see all that had happened--the hasty, almost frantic search for and tearing up and burning of papers; the hurried change of clothing, of packing necessaries into a bag that could be carried, and then the flight the getting away, the----
"What on earth does all this mean?" exclaimed Breton. "What is it, Spargo?"
"I mean exactly what I told you," answered Spargo. "He's off! Off!"
"Off! But why off? What--my guardian!--as quiet an old gentleman as there is in the Temple--off!" cried Breton. "For what reason, eh? It isn't--good God, Spargo, it isn't because of anything you said to him last night!"
"I should say it is precisely because of something that I said to him last night," replied Spargo. "I was a fool ever to let him out of my sight."
Breton turned on his companion and gasped.
"Out--of--your--sight!" he exclaimed. "Why--why--you don't mean to say that Mr. Elphick has anything to do with this Marbury affair? For God's sake, Spargo----"
Spargo laid a hand on the young barrister's shoulder.
"I'm afraid you'll have to hear a good deal, Breton," he said. "I was going to talk to you today in any case. You see----"
Before Spargo could say more a woman, bearing the implements which denote the charwoman's profession, entered the room and immediately cried out at what she saw. Breton turned on her almost savagely.
"Here, you!" he said. "Have you seen anything of Mr. Elphick this morning?"
The charwoman rolled her eyes and lifted her hands.
"Me, sir! Not a sign of him, sir. Which I never comes here much before half-past eleven, sir, Mr. Elphick being then gone out to his breakfast. I see him yesterday morning, sir, which he was then in his usual state of good health, sir, if any thing's the matter with him now. No, sir, I ain't seen nothing of him."
Breton let out another exclamation of impatience.
"You'd better leave all this," he said. "Mr. Elphick's evidently gone away in a hurry, and you mustn't touch anything here until he comes back. I'm going to lock up the chambers: if you've a key of them give it to me."
The charwoman handed over a key, gave another astonished look at the rooms, and vanished, muttering, and Breton turned to Spargo.
"What do you say?" he demanded. "I must hear--a good deal! Out with it, then, man, for Heaven's sake."
But Spargo shook his head.
"Not now, Breton," he answered. "Presently, I tell you, for Miss Aylmore's sake, and your own, the first thing to do is to get on your guardian's track. We must--must, I say!--and at once."
Breton stood staring at Spargo for a moment as if he could not credit his own senses. Then he suddenly motioned Spargo out of the room.
"Come on!" he said. "I know who'll know where he is, if anybody does."
"Who, then?" asked Spargo, as they hurried out.
"Cardlestone," answered Breton, grimly. "Cardlestone!"