Chapter Twenty. The Parslett Affair
 

At a quarter past ten o'clock on the morning following Ayscough's revelation to Zillah, the detective was closeted with a man from the Criminal Investigation Department at New Scotland Yard in a private room at the local police station, and with them was the superior official who had been fetched to the pawnshop in Praed Street immediately after the discovery of Daniel Multenius's body by Andie Lauriston. And this official was stating his view of the case to the two detectives--conscious that neither agreed with him.

"You can't get over the similarity of the markings of those rings!" he said confidently. "To my mind the whole thing's as plain as a pikestaff-- the young fellow was hard up--he confessed he hadn't a penny on him!--he went in there, found the shop empty, saw those rings, grabbed a couple, was interrupted by the old man--and finished him off by scragging him! That's my opinion! And I advise getting a warrant for him and getting on with the work--all the rest of this business belongs to something else."

Ayscough silently glanced at the man from New Scotland Yard--who shook his head in a decided negative.

"That's not my opinion!" he said with decision. "And it's not the opinion of the people at headquarters. We were at this affair nearly all yesterday afternoon with that little Jew fellow, Rubinstein, and the young Scotch gentleman, Mr. Purdie, and our conclusion is that there's something of a big sort behind old Multenius's death. There's a regular web of mystery! The old man's death--that book, which Levendale did not leave in the 'bus, in spite of all he says, and of his advertisements!--Levendale's unexplained disappearance--the strange death of this man Parslett--the mystery of those platinum studs dropped in the pawnbroker's parlour and in Mrs. Goldmark's eating house--no!--the whole affair's a highly complicated one. That's my view of it."

"And mine," said Ayscough. He looked at the unbelieving official, and turned away from him to glance out of the window into the street. "May I never!" he suddenly exclaimed. "There's young Lauriston coming here, and Purdie with him--and a fellow who looks like an American. I should say Lauriston's got proof about his title to those rings--anyway, he seems to have no fear about showing himself here--case of walking straight into the lions' den, eh?"

"Bring 'em all in!" ordered the superior official, a little surlily. "Let's hear what it's all about!"

Purdie presently appeared in Ayscough's rear, preceding his two companions. He and the detective from New Scotland Yard exchanged nods; they had seen a good deal of each other the previous day. He nodded also to the superior official--but the superior official looked at Lauriston.

"Got that proof about those rings?" he enquired. "Of course, if you have--"

"Before Mr. Lauriston says anything about that," interrupted Purdie, "I want you to hear a story which this gentleman, Mr. Stuyvesant Guyler, of New York, can tell you. It's important--it bears right on this affair. If you just listen to what he can tell--"

The two detectives listened to Guyler's story about the platinum studs with eager, if silent interest: in the end they glanced at each other and then at the local official, who seemed to be going through a process of being convinced against his will.

"Just what I said a few minutes ago," muttered the New Scotland Yard man. "A highly complicated affair! Not going to be got at in five minutes."

"Nor in ten!" said Ayscough laconically. He glanced at Guyler. "You could identify this man Purvis if you saw him?" he asked.

"Why, certainly!" answered the American. "I guess if he's the man who was seen in that eating-house the other day he's not altered any--or not much."

The man at the desk turned to Purdie, glancing at Lauriston.

"About those rings?" he asked. "What's Mr. Lauriston got to say?"

"Let me tell," said Purdie, as Lauriston was about to speak. "Mr. Lauriston," he went on, "has been to Peebles, where his father and mother lived. He has seen an old friend of theirs, Mrs. Taggart, who remembers the rings perfectly. Moreover, she knows that they were given to the late Mrs. Lauriston by a Mr. Edward Killick, a London solicitor, who, of course, will be able to identify them. As to the marks, I think you'll find a trade explanation of that--those rings and the rings in Multenius's tray probably came from the same maker. Now, I find, on looking through the directory, that this Mr. Edward Killick has retired from practice, but I've also found out where he now lives, and I propose to bring him here. In the meantime--I want to know what you're going to do about Mr. Lauriston? Here he is!"

The superior official glanced at the New Scotland Yard man.

"I suppose your people have taken this job entirely in hand, now?" he asked.

"Entirely!" answered the detective.

"Got any instructions about Mr. Lauriston?" asked the official. "You haven't? Mr. Lauriston's free to go where he likes, then, as far as we're concerned, here," he added, turning to Purdie. "But--he'd far better stay at hand till all this is cleared up."

"That's our intention," said Purdie. "Whenever you want Mr. Lauriston, come to me at my hotel--he's my guest there, and I'll produce him. Now we're going to find Mr. Killick."

He and Lauriston and Guyler walked out together; on the steps of the police-station Ayscough called him back.

"I say!" he said, confidentially. "Leave that Mr. Killick business alone for an hour or two. I can tell you of something much more interesting than that, and possibly of more importance. Go round to the Coroner's Court-- Mr. Lauriston knows where it is."

"What's on?" asked Lauriston.

"Inquest on that man Parslett," replied Ayscough with a meaning nod. "You'll hear some queer evidence if I'm not mistaken. I'm going there myself, presently."

He turned in again, and the three young men looked at each other.

"Say!" remarked Guyler, "I reckon that's good advice. Let's go to this court."

Lauriston led them to the scene of his own recent examination by Mr. Parminter. But on this occasion the court was crowded; it was with great difficulty that they contrived to squeeze themselves into a corner of it. In another corner, but far away from their own, Lauriston saw Melky Rubinstein; Melky, wedged in, and finding it impossible to move, made a grimace at Lauriston and jerked his thumb in the direction of the door, as a signal that he would meet him there when the proceedings were over.

The inquest had already begun when Purdie and his companions forced their way into the court. In the witness-box was the dead man's widow--a pathetic figure in heavy mourning, who was telling the Coroner that on the night of her husband's death he went out late in the evening--just to take a walk round, as he expressed it. No--she had no idea whatever of where he was going, nor if he had any particular object in going out at all. He had not said one word to her about going out to get money from any one. After he went out she never saw him again until she was fetched to St. Mary's Hospital, where she found him in the hands of the doctors. He died, without having regained consciousness, just after she reached the hospital.

Nothing very startling so far, thought Purdie, at the end of the widow's evidence, and he wondered why Ayscough had sent them round. But more interest came with the next witness--a smart, bustling, middle-aged man, evidently a well-to-do business man, who entered the box pretty much as if he had been sitting down in his own office, to ring his bell and ask for the day's letters. A whisper running round the court informed the onlookers that this was the gentleman who picked Parslett up in the street. Purdie and his two companions pricked their ears.

Martin James Gardiner--turf commission agent--resident in Portsdown Road, Maida Vale. Had lived there several years--knew the district well--did not know the dead man by sight at all--had never seen him, that he knew of, until the evening in question.

"Tell us exactly what happened, Mr. Gardiner--in your own way," said the Coroner.

Mr. Gardiner leaned over the front of the witness-box, and took the court and the public into his confidence--genially.

"I was writing letters until pretty late that night," he said. "A little after eleven o'clock I went out to post them at the nearest pillar-box. As I went down the steps of my house, the deceased passed by. He was walking down Portsdown Road in the direction of Clifton Road. As he passed me, he was chuckling--laughing in a low tone. I thought he was--well, a bit intoxicated when I heard that, but as I was following him pretty closely, I soon saw that he walked straight enough. He kept perhaps six or eight yards in front of me until we had come to within twenty yards or so of the corner of Clifton Road. Then, all of a sudden--so suddenly that it's difficult for me to describe it!--he seemed to--well, there's no other word for it than--collapse. He seemed to give, you understand--shrank up, like--like a concertina being suddenly shut up! His knees gave--his whole body seemed to shrink--and he fell in a heap on the pavement!"

"Did he cry out--scream, as if in sudden pain--anything of that sort?" asked the Coroner.

"There was a sort of gurgling sound--I'm not sure that he didn't say a word or two, as he collapsed," answered the witness. "But it was so sudden that I couldn't catch anything definite. He certainly never made the slightest sound, except a queer sort of moaning, very low, from the time he fell. Of course, I thought the man had fallen in a fit. I rushed to him; he was lying, sort of crumpled up, where he had fallen. There was a street-lamp close by--I saw that his face had turned a queer colour, and his eyes were already closed--tightly. I noticed, too, that his teeth were clenched, and his fingers twisted into the palms of his hands."

"Was he writhing at all--making any movement?" enquired the Coroner.

"Not a movement! He was as still as the stones he was lying on!" said the witness. "I'm dead certain he never moved after he fell. There was nobody about, just then, and I was just going to ring the bell of the nearest house when a policeman came round the corner. I shouted to him--he came up. We examined the man for a minute; then I ran to fetch Dr. Mirandolet, whose surgery is close by there. I found him in; he came at once, and immediately ordered the man's removal to the hospital. The policeman got help, and the man was taken off. Dr. Mirandolet went with him. I returned home."

No questions of any importance were asked of Mr. Gardiner, and the Coroner, after a short interchange of whispers with his officer, glanced at a group of professional-looking men behind the witness-box.

"Call Dr. Mirandolet!" he directed.

Purdie at that moment caught Ayscough's eye. And the detective winked at him significantly as a strange and curious figure came out from the crowd and stepped into the witness-box.