Chapter Twenty-Six. The Rat
 

Ayscough and Melky kept silence, until they had exchanged the busy streets for the quieter by-roads which lie behind the Paddington Canal--then, as they turned up Portsdown Road, the detective tapped his companion's arm.

"What do you know about these two Chinese chaps that have this furnished house of yours?" he asked. "Much?--or little?"

"We don't know nothing at all, Mr. Ayscough--me and my cousin Zillah," replied Melky. "Never heard of 'em! Never knew they were there! Never knew the old man had furnished house to let in Maida Vale! He was close, the old man was, about some things. That was one of 'em. However, Mr. Penniket, he knew of this--but only recently. He says they're all right-- medical students at one of the hospitals--yes, University College. That's in Gower Street, ain't it? The old man--he put in a note about there here Molteno Lodge that these Chinks were good tenants. I know what he'd mean by that!--paid their rent regular, in advance."

"Oh, I know they've always plenty of money, these chaps!" observed Ayscough. "I've been wondering if I'd ever seen these two. But Lor' bless you!--there's such a lot o' foreigners in this quarter, especially Japanese and Siamese--law students and medical students and such like-- that you'd never notice a couple of Easterns particularly--and I've no doubt they wear English clothes. Now, what do you want to see this doctor for?" he asked as they halted by Dr. Mirandolet's door. "Anything to do with the matter in hand?"

"You'll see in a minute," replied Melky as he rang the bell. "Just a notion that occurred to me. And it has got to do with it."

Dr. Mirandolet was in, and received his visitors in a room which was half- surgery and half-laboratory, and filled to the last corner with the evidences and implements of his profession. He was wearing a white linen operating jacket, and his dark face and black hair looked all the darker and blacker because of it. Melky gazed at him with some awe as he dropped into the chair which Mirandolet indicated and found the doctor's piercing eyes on him.

"Just a question or two, mister!" he said, apologetically. "Me and Mr. Ayscough there is doing a bit of looking into this mystery about Mr. Multenius, and knowing as you was a big man in your way, it struck me you'd tell me something. I was at that inquest on Parslett, you know, mister."

Mirandolet nodded and waited, and Melky gained courage.

"Mister!" he said, suddenly bending forward and tapping the doctor's knee in a confidential fashion. "I hear you say at that inquest as how you'd lived in the East?"

"Yes!" replied Mirandolet. "Many years. India--Burmah--China!"

"You know these Easterns, mister, and their little way?" suggested Melky. "Now, would it be too much--I don't want to get no professional information, you know, if it ain't etiquette!--but would it be too much to ask you if them folks is pretty good hands at poisoning?"

Mirandolet laughed, showing a set of very white teeth, and glared at Ayscough with a suggestion of invitation to join in his amusement. He clapped Melky on the shoulder as if he had said something diverting.

"Good hands, my young friend?" he exclaimed. "The very best in the world! Past masters! Adepts. Poison you while they look at you!"

"Bit cunning and artful about it, mister?" suggested Melky.

"Beyond your conception, my friend," replied Mirandolet. "Unless I very much mistake your physiognomy, you yourself come of an ancient race which is not without cunning and artifice--but in such matters as you refer to, you are children, compared to your Far East folk."

"Just so, mister--I believe you!" said Melky, solemnly. "And--which of 'em, now, do you consider the cleverest of the lot--them as you say you've lived amongst, now? You mentioned three lots of 'em, you know--Indians, Burmese, Chinese. Which would you consider the artfullest of them three-- if it came to a bit of real underhand work, now?"

"For the sort of thing you're thinking of, my friend," answered Mirandolet, "you can't beat a Chinaman. Does that satisfy you?"

Melky rose and glanced at the detective before turning to the doctor.

"Mister," he said, "that's precisely what I should ha' said myself. Only-- I wanted to know what a big man like you thought. Now, I know! Much obliged to you, mister. If there's ever anything I can do for you, doctor --if you want a bit of real good stuff--jewellery, you know--at dead cost price--"

Mirandolet laughed and clapping Melky's shoulder again, looked at Ayscough.

"What's our young friend after?" he asked, good-humouredly. "What's his game?"

"Hanged if I know, doctor!" said Ayscough, shaking his head. "He's got some notion in his head. Are you satisfied, Mr. Rubinstein?"

Melky was making for the door.

"Ain't I just said so?" he answered. "You come along of me, Mr. Ayscough, and let's be getting about our business. Now, look here!" he said, taking the detective's arm when they had left the house. "We're going to take a look at them Chinks. I've got it into my head that they've something to do with this affair--and I'm going to see 'em, and to ask 'em a question or two. And--you're coming with me!"

"I say, you know!" remarked Ayscough. "They're respectable gentlemen--even if they are foreigners. Better be careful--we don't know anything against 'em."

"Never you fear!" said Melky. "I'll beat 'em all right. Ain't I got a good excuse, Mr. Ayscough? Just to ask a civil question. Begging their pardons for intrusion, but since the lamented death of Mr. Daniel Multenius, me and Miss Zillah Wildrose has come into his bit of property, and does the two gentlemen desire to continue their tenancy, and is there anything we can do to make 'em comfortable--see? Oh, I'll talk to 'em all right!"

"What're you getting at, all the same?" asked the detective. "Give it a title!"

Melky squeezed his companion's arm.

"I want to see 'em," he whispered. "That's one thing. And I want to find out how that last cheque of theirs got into our back-parlour! Was it sent by post--or was it delivered by hand? And if by hand--who delivered it?"

"You're a cute 'un, you are!" observed Ayscough. "You'd better join us."

"Thank you, Mr. Ayscough, but events has happened which'll keep me busy at something else," said Melky, cheerfully. "Do you know that my good old relative has divided everything between me and my cousin?--I'm a rich man, now, Mr. Ayscough. S'elp me!--I don't know how rich I am. It'll take a bit o' reckoning."

"Good luck to you!" exclaimed the detective heartily. "Glad to hear it! Then I reckon you and your cousin'll be making a match of it--keeping the money in the family, what?"

Melky laid his finger on the side of his nose.

"Then you think wrong!" he said. "There'll be marriages before long--for both of us--but it'll not be as you suggest! There's Molteno Lodge, across the road there--s'elp me, I've often seen that bit of a retreat from the top of a 'bus, but I never knew it belonged to the poor old man!"

They had now come to the lower part of Maida Vale, where many detached houses stand in walled-in gardens, isolated and detached from each other-- Melky pointed to one of the smaller ones--a stucco villa, whose white walls shone in the November moonlight. Its garden, surrounded by high walls, was somewhat larger than those of the neighbouring houses, and was filled with elms rising to a considerable height and with tall bushes growing beneath them.

"Nice, truly rural sort of spot," said Melky, as they crossed the road and approached the gate in the wall. "And--once inside--uncommon private, no doubt! What do you say, Mr. Ayscough?"

The detective was examining the gate. It was a curious sort of gate, set between two stout pillars, and fashioned of wrought ironwork, the meshes of which were closely intertwined. Ayscough peered through the upper part and saw a trim lawn, a bit of statuary, a garden seat, and all the rest of the appurtenances common to a London garden whose owners wish to remind themselves of rusticity--also, he saw no signs of life in the house at the end of the garden.

"There's no light in this house," he remarked, trying the gate. "Looks to me as if everybody was out. Are you going to ring?"

Melky pointed along the front of the wall.

"There's a sort of alley going up there, between this house and the next," he said. "Come round--sure to be a tradesman's entrance--a side-door--up there."

"Plenty of spikes and glass-bottle stuff on those walls, anyhow!" remarked Ayscough, as they went round a narrow alley to the rear of the villa. "Your grandfather evidently didn't intend anybody to get into these premises very easily, Mr. Rubinstein. Six-foot walls and what you might call regular fortifications on top of 'em! What are you going to do, now?"

Melky had entered a recess in the side-wall and was examining a stout door on which, plainly seen in the moonlight, were the words Tradesman's Entrance. He turned the handle--and uttered an exclamation.

"Open!" he said. "Come on, Mr. Ayscough--we're a-going in! If there is anybody at home, all right--if there ain't, well, still all right. I'm going to have a look round."

The detective followed Melky into a paved yard at the back of the villa. All was very still there--and the windows were dark.

"No lights, back or front," remarked Ayscough. "Can't be anybody in. And I say--if either of those Chinese gents was to let himself in with his key at the front gate and find us prowling about, it wouldn't look very well, would it, now? Why not call again--in broad daylight?"

"Shucks!" said Melky. "Ain't I one o' the landlords of this desirable bit o' property? And didn't we find that door open? Come round to the front."

He set off along a gravelled path which ran round the side of the house, and ascended the steps to the porticoed front door. And there he rang the bell--and he and his companion heard its loud ringing inside the house. But no answer came--and the whole place seemed darker and stiller than before.

"Of course there's nobody in!" muttered Ayscough. "Come on--let's get out of it."

Melky made no answer. He walked down the steps, and across the lawn beneath the iron-work gate in the street wall. A thick shrubbery of holly and laurel bushes stood on his right--and as he passed it something darted out--something alive and alert and sinuous--and went scudding away across the lawn.

"Good Lord!" said Ayscough. "A rat! And as big as a rabbit!"

Melky paused, looked after the rat, and then at the place from which it had emerged. And suddenly he stepped towards the shrubbery and drew aside the thick cluster of laurel branches. Just as suddenly he started back on the detective, and his face went white in the moonbeams.

"Mr. Ayscough!" he gasped. "S'elp me!--there's a dead man here! Look for yourself!"