Chapter Thirty-One. The Penitent Window-Cleaner

That afternoon Spargo had another of his momentous interviews with his proprietor and his editor. The first result was that all three drove to the offices of the legal gentleman who catered for the Watchman when it wanted any law, and that things were put in shape for an immediate application to the Home Office for permission to open the Chamberlayne grave at Market Milcaster; the second was that on the following morning there appeared in the Watchman a notice which set half the mouths of London a-watering. That notice; penned by Spargo, ran as follows:--


"WHEREAS, on some date within the past twelve months, there was stolen, abstracted, or taken from the chambers in Fountain Court, Temple, occupied by Mr. Stephen Aylmore, M.P., under the name of Mr. Anderson, a walking-stick, or stout staff, of foreign make, and of curious workmanship, which stick was probably used in the murder of John Marbury, or Maitland, in Middle Temple Lane, on the night of June 21-22 last, and is now in the hands of the police:

"This is to give notice that the Proprietor of the Watchman newspaper will pay the above-mentioned reward (ONE THOUSAND POUNDS STERLING) at once and in cash to whosoever will prove that he or she stole, abstracted, or took away the said stick from the said chambers, and will further give full information as to his or her disposal of the same, and the Proprietor of the Watchman moreover engages to treat any revelation affecting the said stick in the most strictly private and confidential manner, and to abstain from using it in any way detrimental to the informant, who should call at the Watchman office, and ask for Mr. Frank Spargo at any time between eleven and one o'clock midday, and seven and eleven o'clock in the evening."

"And you really expect to get some information through that?" asked Breton, who came into Spargo's room about noon on the day on which the promising announcement came out. "You really do?"

"Before today is out," said Spargo confidently. "There is more magic in a thousand-pound reward than you fancy, Breton. I'll have the history of that stick before midnight."

"How are you to tell that you won't be imposed upon?" suggested Breton. "Anybody can say that he or she stole the stick."

"Whoever comes here with any tale of a stick will have to prove to me how he or she got the stick and what was done with the stick," said Spargo. "I haven't the least doubt that that stick was stolen or taken away from Aylmore's rooms in Fountain Court, and that it got into the hands of--"

"Yes, of whom?"

"That's what I want to know in some fashion. I've an idea, already. But I can afford to wait for definite information. I know one thing--when I get that information--as I shall--we shall be a long way on the road towards establishing Aylmore's innocence."

Breton made no remark upon this. He was looking at Spargo with a meditative expression.

"Spargo," he said, suddenly, "do you think you'll get that order for the opening of the grave at Market Milcaster?"

"I was talking to the solicitors over the 'phone just now," answered Spargo. "They've every confidence about it. In fact, it's possible it may be made this afternoon. In that case, the opening will be made early tomorrow morning."

"Shall you go?" asked Breton.

"Certainly. And you can go with me, if you like. Better keep in touch with us all day in case we hear. You ought to be there--you're concerned."

"I should like to go--I will go," said Breton. "And if that grave proves to be--empty--I'll--I'll tell you something."

Spargo looked up with sharp instinct.

"You'll tell me something? Something? What?"

"Never mind--wait until we see if that coffin contains a dead body or lead and sawdust. If there's no body there----"

At that moment one of the senior messenger boys came in and approached Spargo. His countenance, usually subdued to an official stolidity, showed signs of something very like excitement.

"There's a man downstairs asking for you, Mr. Spargo," he said. "He's been hanging about a bit, sir,--seems very shy about coming up. He won't say what he wants, and he won't fill up a form, sir. Says all he wants is a word or two with you."

"Bring him up at once!" commanded Spargo. He turned to Breton when the boy had gone. "There!" he said, laughing. "This is the man about the stick--you see if it isn't."

"You're such a cock-sure chap, Spargo," said Breton. "You're always going on a straight line."

"Trying to, you mean," retorted Spargo. "Well, stop here, and hear what this chap has to say: it'll no doubt be amusing."

The messenger boy, deeply conscious that he was ushering into Spargo's room an individual who might shortly carry away a thousand pounds of good Watchman money in his pocket, opened the door and introduced a shy and self-conscious young man, whose nervousness was painfully apparent to everybody and deeply felt by himself. He halted on the threshold, looking round the comfortably-furnished room, and at the two well-dressed young men which it framed as if he feared to enter on a scene of such grandeur.

"Come in, come in!" said Spargo, rising and pointing to an easy-chair at the side of his desk. "Take a seat. You've called about that reward, of course."

The man in the chair eyed the two of them cautiously, and not without suspicion. He cleared his throat with a palpable effort.

"Of course," he said. "It's all on the strict private. Name of Edward Mollison, sir."

"And where do you live, and what do you do?" asked Spargo.

"You might put it down Rowton House, Whitechapel," answered Edward Mollison. "Leastways, that's where I generally hang out when I can afford it. And--window-cleaner. Leastways, I was window cleaning when--when----"

"When you came in contact with the stick we've been advertising about," suggested Spargo. "Just so. Well, Mollison--what about the stick?"

Mollison looked round at the door, and then at the windows, and then at Breton.

"There ain't no danger of me being got into trouble along of that stick?" he asked. "'Cause if there is, I ain't a-going to say a word--no, not for no thousand pounds! Me never having been in no trouble of any sort, guv'nor--though a poor man."

"Not the slightest danger in the world, Mollison," replied Spargo. "Not the least. All you've got to do is to tell the truth--and prove that it is the truth. So it was you who took that queer-looking stick out of Mr. Aylmore's rooms in Fountain Court, was it?"

Mollison appeared to find this direct question soothing to his feelings. He smiled weakly.

"It was cert'nly me as took it, sir," he said. "Not that I meant to pinch it--not me! And, as you might say, I didn't take it, when all's said and done. It was--put on me."

"Put on you, was it?" said Spargo. "That's interesting. And how was it put on you?"

Mollison grinned again and rubbed his chin.

"It was this here way," he answered. "You see, I was working at that time--near on to nine months since, it is--for the Universal Daylight Window Cleaning Company, and I used to clean a many windows here and there in the Temple, and them windows at Mr. Aylmore's--only I knew them as Mr. Anderson's--among 'em. And I was there one morning, early it was, when the charwoman she says to me, 'I wish you'd take these two or three hearthrugs,' she says, 'and give 'em a good beating,' she says. And me being always a ready one to oblige, 'All right!' I says, and takes 'em. 'Here's something to wallop 'em with,' she says, and pulls that there old stick out of a lot that was in a stand in a corner of the lobby. And that's how I came to handle it, sir."

"I see," said Spargo. "A good explanation. And when you had beaten the hearthrugs--what then?"

Mollison smiled his weak smile again.

"Well, sir, I looked at that there stick and I see it was something uncommon," he answered. "And I thinks--'Well, this Mr. Anderson, he's got a bundle of sticks and walking canes up there--hell never miss this old thing,' I thinks. And so I left it in a corner when I'd done beating the rugs, and when I went away with my things I took it with me."

"You took it with you?" said Spargo. "Just so. To keep as a curiosity, I suppose?"

Mollison's weak smile turned to one of cunning. He was obviously losing his nervousness; the sound of his own voice and the reception of his news was imparting confidence to him.

"Not half!" he answered. "You see, guv'nor, there was an old cove as I knew in the Temple there as is, or was, 'cause I ain't been there since, a collector of antikities, like, and I'd sold him a queer old thing, time and again. And, of course, I had him in my eye when I took the stick away--see?"

"I see. And you took the stick to him?"

"I took it there and then," replied Mollison. "Pitched him a tale, I did, about it having been brought from foreign parts by Uncle Simon--which I never had no Uncle Simon. Made out it was a rare curiosity--which it might ha' been one, for all I know."

"Exactly. And the old cove took a fancy to it, eh?"

"Bought it there and then," answered Mollison, with something very like a wink.

"Ah! Bought it there and then. And how much did he give you for it?" asked Spargo. "Something handsome, I hope?"

"Couple o' quid," replied Mollison. "Me not wishing to part with a family heirloom for less."

"Just so. And do you happen to be able to tell me the old cove's name and his address, Mollison?" asked Spargo.

"I do, sir. Which they've painted on his entry--the fifth or sixth as you go down Middle Temple Lane," answered Mollison. "Mr. Nicholas Cardlestone, first floor up the staircase."

Spargo rose from his seat without as much as a look at Breton.

"Come this way, Mollison," he said. "We'll go and see about your little reward. Excuse me, Breton."

Breton kicked his heels in solitude for half an hour. Then Spargo came back.

"There--that's one matter settled, Breton," he said. "Now for the next. The Home Secretary's made the order for the opening of the grave at Market Milcaster. I'm going down there at once, and I suppose you're coming. And remember, if that grave's empty----"

"If that grave's empty," said Breton, "I'll tell you--a good deal."