Chapter Four. The Platinum Solitaire
 

The newcomer, an elderly, thick-set man, who, in spite of his plain clothes, looked as if he were an official of some sort and carried some documents in his hand, at which he was glancing as he entered, started and exclaimed as Lauriston, in his haste, ran up against him. "Hullo!" he said. "What's the matter? You seem in a hurry, young fellow!"

Lauriston, almost out of breath with excitement, turned and pointed to the open door of the little parlour.

"There's an old man--lying in there--dead!" he whispered. "A grey-bearded old man--is it the pawn-broker--Mr. Multenius?"

The man stared, craned his neck to glance in the direction which Lauriston's shaking finger indicated, and then started forward. But he suddenly paused, and motioned Lauriston to go first--and before following him he closed the street door.

"Now then, where?" he said. "Dead, do you say?" He followed Lauriston into the parlour, uttered a sharp exclamation as he caught sight of the recumbent figure, and, bending down, laid a hand on the forehead. "Dead, right enough, my lad!" he muttered. "Been dead some minutes, too. But-- where's the girl--the grand-daughter? Have you seen anybody?"

"Not a soul!" answered Lauriston. "Since I came in, the whole place has been as still as--as it is now!"

The man stared at him for a second or two, silently; then, as if he knew the ins and outs of the establishment, he strode to an inner door, threw it open and revealed a staircase.

"Hullo there!" he called loudly. "Hullo! Miss Wildrose! Are you there?"

This was the first time Lauriston had heard Zillah's surname: even in the midst of that startling discovery, it struck him as a very poetical one. But he had no time to reflect on it--the man turned back into the parlour.

"She must be out," he said. "Do you say you found him?"

"Yes--I found him," answered Lauriston. "Just now."

"And what were you doing here?" asked the man. "Who are you?"

Lauriston fancied he detected a faint note of suspicion in these questions, and he drew himself up, with a flush on his face.

"My name's Andrew Lauriston," he answered. "I live close by. I came in on --business. Who are you?"

"Well, if it comes to that, my lad," said the man, "I'm Detective-Sergeant Ayscough--known well enough around these parts! I came to see the old gentleman about these papers. Now--what was your business, then?"

He was watching Lauriston very keenly, and Lauriston, suddenly realizing that he was in an awkward position, determined on candour.

"Well, if you really want to know," he said, "I came to borrow some money --on these rings."

And he opened his left hand and showed the detective the two rings which he had taken from his trunk--not half-an-hour before.

"Your property?" asked Ayscough.

"Of course they're my property!" exclaimed Lauriston. "Whose else should they be?"

Ayscough's glance wandered from the rings to a table which stood, a little to one side, in the middle of the parlour. Lauriston turned in that direction, also. Two objects immediately met his eye. On the table stood a small tray, full of rings--not dissimilar in style and appearance to those which he held in his hand: old-fashioned rings. The light from the gas- brackets above the mantel-piece caught the facets of the diamonds in those rings and made little points of fire; here and there he saw the shimmer of pearls. But there was another object. Close by the tray of old rings lay a book--a beautifully bound book, a small quarto in size, with much elaborate gold ornament on the back and side, and gilt clasps holding the heavy leather binding together. It looked as if some hand had recently thrown this book carelessly on the table.

But Ayscough gave little, if any, attention to the book: his eyes were fixed on the rings in the tray--and he glanced from them to Lauriston's rings.

"Um!" he said presently. "Odd that you have a couple of rings, young man, just like--those! Isn't it?"

"What do you mean?" demanded Lauriston, flushing scarlet. "You don't suggest--"

"Don't suggest anything--just now," answered the detective, quietly. "But you must stop here with me, until I find out more. Come to the door--we must have help here."

Lauriston saw there was nothing to do but to obey, and he followed Ayscough to the street door. The detective opened it, looked out, and waiting a few minutes, beckoned to a policeman who presently strolled along. After a whispered word or two, the policeman went away, and Ayscough beckoned Lauriston back into the shop.

"Now," he said, "there'll be some of our people and a surgeon along in a few minutes--before they come, just tell me your story. You're an honest- looking young chap--but you must admit that it looks a bit queer that I should find you running out of this shop, old Multenius dead inside his parlour, and you with a couple of rings in your possession which look uncommonly like his property! Just tell me how it came about."

Lauriston told him the plain truth--from the pawning of the watch to the present visit. Ayscough watched him narrowly--and at the end nodded his head.

"That sounds like a straight tale, Mr. Lauriston," he said. "I'm inclined to believe every word you say. But I shall have to report it, and all the circumstances, and you'll have to prove that these two rings were your mother's, and all that--and you must stay here till the doctor comes with our people. Queer that the old man should be alone! I wonder where his grand-daughter is?"

But just then the street door opened and Zillah came in, a big bunch of flowers under one arm, some small parcels in the other. At the sight of the two men she started; crimsoned as she saw Lauriston; paled again as she noticed that Ayscough was evidently keeping an eye on him.

"Mr. Ayscough!" she exclaimed. "What's this?--is something the matter? What are you doing here?" she went on hurriedly, turning to Lauriston. "Inside the shop! What's happened?--tell me, one of you?"

The detective purposely kept himself and Lauriston between Zillah and the open door at the rear of the shop. He made a kindly motion of his head towards her.

"Now, my dear!" he said. "Don't get upset--your grandfather was getting a very old man, you know--and we can't expect old gentlemen to live for ever. Take it quietly, now!"

The girl turned and laid her flowers and parcels on the counter. Lauriston, watching her anxiously, saw that she was nerving herself to be brave.

"That means--he's dead?" she said. "I am quiet--you see I'm quiet. Tell me what's happened--you tell me," she added, glancing at Lauriston. "Tell me --now!"

"I came in and found no one here, and I looked round through the door into the parlour there," answered Lauriston, "and I saw your grandfather lying on the floor. So I jumped over the counter and went to him."

Zillah moved forward as if to go into the parlour. But the detective stopped her, glancing from her to Lauriston.

"You know this young man, Miss Wildrose?" he asked. "You've met him before?"

"Yes," replied Zillah, confidently. "He's Mr. Lauriston. Let me go in there, please. Can nothing be done?"

But Ayscough only shook his head. There was nothing to be done--but to await the arrival of the doctor. They followed the girl into the parlour and stood by while she bent over the dead man. She made no demonstration of grief, and when Ayscough presently suggested that she should go upstairs until the doctor had come, she went quietly away.

"Hadn't we better lift him on that sofa?" suggested Lauriston.

"Not till our people and the police-surgeon have seen him," answered Ayscough, shaking his head. "I want to know all about this--he may have died a natural death--a seizure of some sort--and again, he mayn't-- They'll be here in a minute."

Lauriston presently found himself a passive spectator while a police- inspector, another man in plain clothes, and the doctor examined the body, after hearing Ayscough's account of what had just happened. He was aware that he was regarded with suspicion--the inspector somewhat brusquely bade him stay where he was: it would, indeed, have been impossible to leave, for there was a policeman at the door, in which, by his superior's orders, he had turned the key. And there was a general, uncomfortable sort of silence in the place while the doctor busied himself about the body.

"This man has been assaulted!" said the doctor, suddenly turning to the inspector. "Look here!--he's not only been violently gripped by the right arm--look at that bruise--but taken savagely by the throat. There's no doubt of that. Old and evidently feeble as he was, the shock would be quite enough to kill him. But--that's how it's been done, without a doubt."

The inspector turned, looking hard at Lauriston.

"Did you see anybody leaving the place when you entered?" he asked.

"There was no one about here when I came in--either at the street door or at the side door," replied Lauriston, readily. "The whole place was quiet --deserted--except for him. And--he was dead when I found him."

The inspector drew Ayscough aside and they talked in whispers for a few minutes, eyeing Lauriston now and then; eventually they approached him.

"I understand you're known here, and that you live in the neighbourhood," said the inspector. "You'll not object if the sergeant goes round with you to your lodgings--you'll no doubt be able to satisfy him about your respectability, and so on. I don't want to suggest anything--but--you understand?"

"I understand," replied Lauriston. "I'll show or tell him anything he likes. I've told you the plain truth."

"Go with him now," directed the inspector; "you know what to do, Ayscough!"

Half an hour later, when the dead man had been carried to his room, and the shop and house had been closed, Melky Rubinstein, who had come in while the police were still there, and had remained when they had gone, stood talking to Zillah in the upstairs sitting-room. Melky was unusually grave: Zillah had already gathered that the police had some suspicion about Lauriston.

"I'll go round there and see what the detective fellow's doing with him," said Melky. "I ain't got no suspicion about him--not me! But--it's an awkward position--and them rings, too! Now, if he'd only ha' shown 'em to me, first, Zillah--see?"

"Do go, Melky!" urged Zillah tearfully. "Of course, he'd nothing to do with it. Oh!--I wish I'd never gone out!"

Melky went downstairs. He paused for a moment in the little parlour, glancing meditatively at the place where the old man had been found dead. And suddenly his keen eyes saw an object which lay close to the fender, half hidden by a tassel of the hearthrug, and he stooped and picked it up --a solitaire stud, made of platinum, and ornamented with a curious device.