Chapter Nine. Whose Were Those Rings?
 

Paying no attention to another attempted murmur of advice from Melky, who seemed to be on pins and needles, Lauriston at once jumped to his feet and strode to the witness-box. The women in the public seats glanced at him with admiring interest--such a fine-looking young fellow, whispered one sentimental lady to another, to have set about a poor old gentleman like Mr. Multenius! And everybody else, from the Coroner to the newspaper reporter--who was beginning to think he would get some good copy, after all, that morning--regarded him with attention. Here, at any rate, was the one witness who had actually found the pawnbroker's dead body.

Lauriston, his colour heightened a little under all this attention, answered the preliminary questions readily enough. His name was Andrew Carruthers Lauriston. His age--nearly twenty-two. He was a native of Peebles, in Scotland--the only son of the late Andrew Lauriston. His father was a minister of the Free Church. His mother was dead, too. He himself had come to London about two years ago--just after his mother's death. For the past few weeks he had lodged with Mrs. Flitwick, in Star Street--that was his present address. He was a writer of fiction--stories and novels. He had heard all the evidence already given, including that of the last witness, Hollinshaw. All that Hollinshaw had said was quite true. It was quite true that he had gone to Multenius's pawnshop about five- thirty of the previous afternoon, on his own business. He had looked in through both doors and window before entering the side-door: he wanted to know who was in the shop--whether it was Mr. Multenius, or his grand- daughter. He wanted to know that for a simple reason--he had never done business with Mr. Multenius, never even seen him that he remembered, but he had had one transaction with Miss Wildrose, and he wished, if possible, to do his business with her. As a matter of fact he saw nobody inside the shop when he looked in through the front door and the window--so he went round to the side-entrance.

All this had come in answer to questions put by the Coroner--who now paused and looked at Lauriston not unkindly.

"I daresay you are already aware that there is, or may be, some amount of suspicious circumstances attaching to your visit to this place yesterday afternoon," he said. "Do you care to tell the court--in your own way-- precisely what took place, what you discovered, after you entered the pawnshop?"

"That's exactly what I wish to do," answered Lauriston, readily. "I've already told it, more than once, to the police and Mr. Multenius's relatives--I'll tell it again, as plainly and briefly as I can. I went into one of the compartments just within the side-door of the place. I saw no one, and heard no one. I rapped on the counter--nobody came. So I looked round the partition into the front shop. There was no one there. Then I looked round the other partition into the back parlour, the door of which was wide open. I at once saw an old man whom I took to be Mr. Multenius. He was lying on the floor--his feet were towards the open door, and his head on the hearth-rug, near the fender. I immediately jumped over the counter, and went into the parlour. I saw at once that he was dead-- and almost immediately I hurried to the front door, to summon assistance. At the door I ran into Mr. Ayscough, who was entering as I opened the door. I at once told him of what I had found. That is the plain truth as to all I know of the matter."

"You heard nothing of any person in or about the shop when you entered?" asked the Coroner.

"Nothing!" replied Lauriston. "It was all perfectly quiet."

"What had you gone there to do?"

"To borrow some money--on two rings."

"Your own property?"

"My own property!"

"Had you been there before, on any errand of that sort?"

"Only once."

"When was that?"

"Last week," answered Lauriston. "I pawned my watch there."

"You have, in fact, been short of money?"

"Yes. But only temporarily--I was expecting money."

"I hope it has since arrived," said the Coroner.

"Mr. Ayscough was with me when it did arrive," replied Lauriston, glancing at the detective. "We found it--two letters--at my lodgings when he walked round there with me after what I have just told you of."

"You had done your business on that previous occasion with the grand- daughter?" asked the Coroner. "You had not seen the old man, then?"

"I never to my knowledge saw Mr. Multenius till I found him lying dead in his own parlour," answered Lauriston.

The Coroner turned from the witness, and glanced towards the table at which Mr. Parminter and the police officials sat. And Mr. Parminter slowly rose and looked at Lauriston, and put his first question--in a quiet, almost suave voice, as if he and the witness were going to have a pleasant and friendly little talk together.

"So your ambition is to be a writer of fiction?" he asked.

"I am a writer of fiction!" replied Lauriston.

Mr. Parminter pulled out a snuff-box and helped himself to a pinch.

"Have you published much?" he enquired, drily.

"Two or three stories--short stories."

"Did they bring in much money?"

"Five pounds each."

"Have you done anything else for a living but that since you came to London two years ago?"

"No, I haven't!"

"How much have you earned by your pen since you came, now?"

"About thirty pounds."

"Thirty pounds in two years. What have you lived on, then?"

"I had money of my own," replied Lauriston. "I had two hundred pounds when I left home."

"And that gave out--when?" demanded Mr. Parminter.

"Last week."

"And so--you took your watch to the pawnshop. And--yesterday--your expected money not having arrived, you were obliged to visit the pawnshop again? Taking with you, you said just now, two rings--your own property. Am I correct?"

"Quite correct--two rings--my own property."

Mr. Parminter turned and spoke to a police official, who, lifting aside a sheet of brown paper which lay before him, revealed the tray of rings which Lauriston and Ayscough had found on the table in Multenius's parlour. At the same time, Mr. Parminter, lifting his papers, revealed Lauriston's rings. He picked them up, laid them on the palm of his hand, and held them towards the witness.

"Are these the rings you took to the pawnshop?" he asked.

"Yes!" replied Lauriston. "They were my mother's."

Mr. Parminter indicated the tray.

"Did you see this tray lying in the parlour in which you found the dead man?" he enquired.

"I did."

"Did it strike you that your own rings were remarkably like the rings in this tray?"

"No, it did not," answered Lauriston. "I know nothing about rings."

Mr. Parminter quietly passed the tray of rings to the Coroner, with Lauriston's rings lying on a sheet of paper.

"Perhaps you will examine these things and direct the attention of the jurymen to them?" he said, and turned to the witness-box again. "I want to ask you a very particular question," he continued. "You had better consider it well before answering it--it is more important--to you--than may appear at first hearing. Can you bring any satisfactory proof that those two rings which you claim to be yours, really are yours?"

There followed on that a dead silence in court. People had been coming in since the proceedings had opened, and the place was now packed to the door. Every eye was turned on Lauriston as he stood in the witness-box, evidently thinking deeply. And in two pairs of eyes there was deep anxiety: Melky was nervous and fidgety; Zillah was palpably greatly concerned. But Lauriston looked at neither--and he finally turned to Mr. Parminter with a candid glance.

"The rings are mine," he answered. "But--I don't know how I can prove that they are!"

A suppressed murmur ran round the court--in the middle of it, the Coroner handed the rings to a police official and motioned him to show them to the jurymen. And Mr. Parminter's suave voice was heard again.

"You can't prove that they are yours."

"May I explain?" asked Lauriston. "Very well--there may be people, old friends, who have seen those two rings in my mother's possession. But I don't know where to find such people. If it's necessary, I can try."

"I should certainly try, if I were you," observed Mr. Parminter, drily. "Now, when did those two rings come into your possession?"

"When my mother died," replied Lauriston.

"Where have you kept them?"

"Locked up in my trunk."

"Have you ever, at any time, or any occasion, shown them to any person? Think!"

"No," answered Lauriston. "I can't say that I ever have."

"Not even at the time of your mother's death?"

"No! I took possession, of course, of all her effects. I don't remember showing the rings to anybody."

"You kept them in your trunk until you took them out to raise money on them?"

"Yes--that's so," admitted Lauriston.

"How much money had you--in the world--when you went to the pawnshop yesterday afternoon?" demanded Mr. Parminter, with a sudden keen glance.

Lauriston flushed scarlet.

"If you insist on knowing," he said. "I'd just nothing."

There was another murmur in court--of pity from the sentimental ladies in the public seats, who, being well acquainted with the pawnshops themselves, and with the necessities which drove them there were experiencing much fellow-feeling for the poor young man in the witness- box. But Lauriston suddenly smiled--triumphantly.

"All the same," he added, glancing at Mr. Parminter. "I'd forty pounds, in my letters, less than an hour afterwards. Ayscough knows that!"

Mr. Parminter paid no attention to this remark. He had been whispering to the police inspector, and now he turned to the Coroner.

"I should like this witness to stand down for a few minutes, sir," he said. "I wish to have Miss Wildrose recalled."

The Coroner gently motioned Zillah to go back to the witness-box.