The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter X. The Parish Register
Mr. Pawle, after a glance at Viner which seemed to be full of many meanings, bent forward in his chair and laid a hand on the old landlady's arm.
"Now, have you said as much as that to anybody before?" he asked, eking her significantly. "Have you mentioned it to your neighbours, for instance, or to any one in the town?"
"No, sir!" declared Mrs. Summers promptly. "Not to a soul! I'm given to keeping my ideas to myself, especially on matters of importance. There is no one here in Marketstoke that I would have mentioned such a thing to, now that the late steward, Mr. Marcherson, is dead. I shouldn't have mentioned it to you two gentlemen if it hadn't been for this dreadful news in the papers. No, I've kept my thoughts at home."
"Wise woman!" said Mr. Pawle. "But now let me ask you a few questions. Did you know this Lord Marketstoke before he disappeared?"
"I only saw him two or three times," replied the landlady. "It was seldom that he came to Ellingham Park, after his majority. Of course, I saw him a good deal when he was a mere boy. But after he was grown up, only, as I say, a very few times."
"But you remember him?" suggested Mr. Pawle.
"Oh, very well indeed!" said Mrs. Summers. "I saw him last a day or two before he went away for good."
"Well, now, did you think you recognized anything of him--making allowance for the difference in age--in this man who called himself John Ashton?" asked Mr. Pawle. "For that, of course, is important!"
"Mr. Ashton," answered Mrs. Summers, "was just such a man as Lord Marketstoke might have been expected to become. Height, build--all the Cave-Grays that I've known were big men--colour, were alike. Of course, Mr. Ashton had a beard, slightly grey, but he was a grey-haired man. All the family had crown hair; the present Lord Ellingham is crown-haired. And Mr. Ashton had grey eyes--every Cave-Gray that I remember was grey-eyed. I should say that Mr. Ashton was just what I should have expected Lord Marketstoke to be at sixty."
"I suppose Ashton never said or did anything here to reveal his secret, if he had one?" asked Mr. Pawle, after a moment's thoughtful pause.
"Oh, nothing!" replied Mrs. Summers. "He occupied himself, as I tell you, while he was here, and finally he went away in the car in which he had come, saying that he had greatly enjoyed his stay, and that we should see him again sometime. No--he never said anything about himself, that is. But he asked me several questions; I used to talk to him sometimes, of an evening, about the present Lord Ellingham."
"What sort of questions?" inquired Mr. Pawle.
"Oh--as to what sort of young man he was, and if he was a good landlord and so on," replied Mrs. Summers. "And I purposely told him about the disappearance of thirty-five years ago, just to see what he would say about it."
"Ah! And what did he say?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"Nothing--except that it was extraordinary how people could disappear in this world," said Mrs. Summers. "Whether he was interested or not, he didn't show it."
"Probably felt that he knew more about it than you did," chuckled the old solicitor. "Well, ma'am, we're much obliged to you. Now take my advice and keep to your very excellent plan of saying nothing. Tomorrow morning we will just have a look into certain things, and see if we can discover anything really pertinent, and you shall know what conclusion we come to. Viner!" Pawle went on, when the old landlady had left them alone, "what do you think of this extraordinary story? Upon my word, I think it quite possible that the old lady's theory might be right, and that Ashton may really have been the missing Lord Marketstoke!"
"You think it probable that a man who was heir to an English earldom and to considerable estates could disappear like that, for so many years, and then reappear?" asked Viner.
"I won't discuss the probability," answered Mr. Pawle, "but that it's possible I should steadily affirm. I've known several very extraordinary cases of disappearance. In this particular instance--granting things to be as Mrs. Summers suggests--see how easy the whole thing is. This young man disappears. He goes to a far-off colony under an assumed name. Nobody knows him. It is ten thousand to one against his being recognized by visitors from home. All the advertising in the world will fail to reveal his identity. The only person who knows who he is is himself. And if he refuses to speak--there you are!"
"What surprises me," remarked Viner, "is that a man who evidently lived a new life for thirty-five years and prospered most successfully in it, should want to return to the old one."
"Ah, but you never know!" said the old lawyer. "Family feeling, old associations, loss of the old place--eh? As men get older, their thoughts turn fondly to the scenes and memories of their youth, Viner. If Ashton was really the Lord Marketstoke who disappeared, he may have come down here with no other thought than that of just revisiting his old home for sentimental reasons. He may not have had the slightest intention, for instance, of setting up a claim to the title and estates."
"I don't understand much about the legal aspect of this," said Viner, "but I've been wondering about it while you and the landlady talked. Supposing Ashton to be the long-lost Lord Marketstoke--could he have established a claim such as you speak of?"
"To be sure!" answered Mr. Pawle. "Had he been able to prove that he was the real Simon pure, he would have stepped into title and estates at once. Didn't the old lady say that the seventh Earl died intestate? Very well--the holders since his time, that is to say, Charles, who, his brother's death being presumed, became eighth Earl, and his son, the present holder, would have had to account for everything since the day of the seventh Earl's death. When the seventh Earl died, his elder son, Lord Marketstoke, ipso facto, stepped into his shoes, and if he were, or is, still alive, he's in them still. All he had to do, at any moment, after his father's death, no matter who had come into title and estates, was to step forward and say: 'Here I am!--now I want my rights!'"
"A queer business altogether!" commented Viner. "But whoever Ashton was, he's dead. And the thing that concerns me is this: if he really was Earl of Ellingham, do you think that fact's got anything to do with his murder?"
"That's just what we want to find out," answered Mr. Pawle eagerly. "It's quite conceivable that he may have been murdered by somebody who had a particular interest in keeping him out of his rights. Such things have been known. I want to go into all that. But now here's another matter. If Ashton really was the missing Lord Marketstoke, who is this girl whom he put forward as his ward, to whom he's left his considerable fortune, and about whom nobody knows anything? I've already told you there isn't a single paper or document about her that I can discover. Was he really her guardian?"
"Has this anything to do with it?" asked Viner. "Does it come into things?"
Mr. Pawle did not answer for a moment; he appeared to have struck a new vein of thought and to be exploring it deeply.
"In certain events, it would come into it pretty strongly!" he muttered at last. "I'll tell you why, later on. Now I'm for bed--and first thing after breakfast, in the morning, Viner, we'll go to work."
Viner had little idea of what the old solicitor meant as regards going to work; it seemed to him that for all practical purposes they were already in a maze out of which there seemed no easy way. And he was not at all sure of what they were doing when, breakfast being over next morning, Mr. Pawle conducted him across the square to the old four-square churchyard, and for half an hour walked him up one path and down another and in and around the ancient yew-trees and gravestones.
"Do you know what I've been looking for, Viner?" asked Mr. Pawle at last as he turned towards the church porch. "I was looking for something, you know."
"Not the faintest notion!" answered Viner dismally. "I wondered!"
"I was looking," replied Mr. Pawle with a faint chuckle, "to see if I could find any tombstones or monuments in this churchyard bearing the name Ashton. There isn't one! I take it from that significant fact that Ashton didn't come down here to visit the graves of his kindred. But now come into the church--Mrs. Summers told me this morning that there's a chapel here in which the Cave-Gray family have been interred for two or three centuries. Let's have a look at it."
Viner, who had a dilettante love of ancient architecture, was immediately lost in admiration of the fine old structure into which he and his companion presently stepped. He stood staring at the high rood, the fine old rood screen, the beauty of the clustered columns--had he been alone, and on any other occasion, he would have spent the morning in wandering around nave and aisles and transepts. But Mr. Pawle, severely practical, at once made for the northeast chapel; and Viner, after another glance round, was forced to follow him.
"The Ellingham Chapel!" whispered the old solicitor as they passed a fine old stone screen which Viner mentally registered as fifteenth-century. "No end of Cave-Grays laid here. What a profusion of monuments!"
Viner began to examine those monuments as well as the gloom of the November morning and the dark-painted glass of the windows would permit. And before very long he turned to his companion, who was laboriously reading the inscription on a great box-tomb which stood against the north wall.
"I say!" he whispered. "Here's a curious fact which, in view of what we heard last night, may be of use to us."
"What's that?" demanded Mr. Pawle.
Viner took him by the elbow and led him over to the south wall, on which was arranged a number of ancient tablets, grouped around a great altar-tomb whereon were set up the painted effigies of a gentleman, his wife, and several sons and daughters, all in ruffs, kneeling one after the other, each growing less in size and stature, in the attitude of prayer. He pointed to the inscription on this, and from it to several of the smaller monuments.
"Look here!" he said. "There are Cave-Grays commemorated here from 1570 until 1820. No end of 'em--men and women. And now, see--there's a certain Christian name--a woman's name--which occurs over and over again. There it is--and there--and here--and here--and here again; it's evidently been a favourite family name among the Cave-Gray women for three hundred years at least. You see what it is? Avice!"
Mr. Pawle peered at the various places to which his companion's finger pointed.
"Yes," he answered, "I see it--several times, as you say. Avice! Yes?"
"Miss Wickham's Christian name is Avice," said Viner.
Mr. Pawle started.
"God bless me!" he exclaimed. "So it is! I'd forgotten that. Dear me! Now, that's very odd--too odd, perhaps, to be a coincidence. Very interesting, indeed! Favourite family name without a doubt."
Viner silently went round the chapel, inspecting every monument its four walls sheltered.
"It occurs just nineteen times," he announced at last. "Now, is it a coincidence that Miss Wickham's name should be Avice? Or is it that there's some connection between her and all these dead and gone Avices?"
"Very strange!" admitted Mr. Pawle. "Viner--we'll go next and have a look at the parish registers. But look here! Not a word to parson or clerk about our business! We merely wish to make search for a certain legal purpose, eh?"
Three hours later Viner, heartily weary of turning over old registers full of crabbed writing, was glad when Mr. Pawle closed the one on which he was engaged, intimated that he had seen all he wanted, paid the fees for his search, and whispered to his companion that they would go to lunch.
"Well?" asked Viner as they walked across the square to the Ellington Arms. "Have we done anything?"
"Probably!" answered Mr. Pawle. "For you never know how these little matters might help. We've established two facts, anyway. One--that there have never been any folk of the name of Ashton in this town since the registers came into being in 1567; the other, that the name Avice was a very favourite one indeed amongst the women of the Cave-Gray family. And there's just another little fact which I discovered, and said nothing about while the vicar and clerk were about--it may be nothing, and it may be something."
"What is it?" asked Viner.
"Well," answered Mr. Pawle pausing a few yards away from the porch of the hotel, and speaking in a confidential voice, "it's this: In turning up the records of the Cave-Gray family, as far as they are shown in their parish registers, I found that Stephen John Cave-Gray, sixth Earl of Ellingham, married one Georgina Wickham. Now, is that another coincidence? There you get the two names in combination--Avice Wickham. That particular Countess of Ellingham would, of course, be the grandmother of the Lord Marketstoke who disappeared. Did he think of her maiden name, Wickham, when he wanted a new one for himself? Possibly! And when he married, and had a daughter, did he think of the Christian name so popular with his own womenfolk of previous generations, and call his daughter Avice? And are Marketstoke and Wickham and Ashton all one and the same man?"
"Upon my word, it's a strange muddle!" exclaimed Viner.
"Nothing as yet to what it will be," remarked Mr. Pawle sententiously. "Come on--I'm famishing. Let's lunch--and then we'll go back to town."
Another surprise awaited them when they walked into Mr. Pawle's office in Bedford Row at four o'clock that afternoon. A card lay on the old lawyer's blotting-pad, and after glancing at it, he passed it to Viner.
"See that?" he said. "Now, who on earth is Mr. Armitstead Ashton Armitstead, of Rouendale House, Rawtenstall? Who left this?" he went on, as a clerk entered the room with some letters.
"A gentleman who called at three o'clock, sir," replied the clerk. "He said he's travelled specially from Lancashire to see you about the Ashton affair. He's going to call again, sir. In fact," concluded the clerk, glancing into the anteroom, "I think he's here now."
"Bring him in," commanded Mr. Pawle. He made a grimace at Viner as the clerk disappeared. "You see how things develop," he murmured. "What are we going to hear next?"