The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XI. What Happened in Paris
The man who presently walked in, a tall, grey-bearded, evidently prosperous person, dressed in the height of fashion, glanced keenly from one to the other of the two men who awaited him.
"Mr. Pawle?" he inquired as he dropped into the chair which the old lawyer silently indicated at the side of his desk. "One of your partners, no doubt!" he added, looking again at Viner.
"No sir," replied Mr. Pawle. "This is Mr. Viner, who gave evidence in the case you want to see me about. You can speak freely before him. What is it you have to say, Mr. Armitstead?"
"Not, perhaps, very much, but it may be of use," answered the visitor. "The fact is that, like most folk, I read the accounts of this Ashton murder in the newspapers, and I gave particular attention to what was said by the man Hyde at the inquest the other day. It was what he said in regard to the man whom he alleges he saw leaving Lonsdale Passage that made me come specially to town to see you. I don't know," he went on, glancing at the card which still lay on Mr. Pawle's blotting-pad, "if you know my name at all? I'm a pretty well-known Lancashire manufacturer, and I was a member of Parliament for some years--for the Richdale Valley division. I didn't put up again at the last General Election."
Mr. Pawle bowed.
"Just so, Mr. Armitstead," he answered. "And there's something you know about this case?"
"I know this," replied Mr. Armitstead. "I met John Ashton in Paris some weeks ago. We were at the Hotel Bristol together. In fact, we met and introduced ourselves to each other in an odd way. We arrived at the Hotel Bristol at the same time--he from Italy, I from London, and we registered at the same moment. Now, I have a habit of always signing my name in full, Armitstead Ashton Armitstead. I signed first; he followed. He looked at me and smiled. 'You've got one of my names, anyway, sir,' he remarked. 'And I see you hail from where I hailed from, many a long year ago.' 'Then you're a Lancashire man?' I said. 'I left Lancashire more years ago than I like to think of,' he answered, with a laugh. And then we got talking, and he told me that he had emigrated to Australia when he was young, and that he was going back to England for the first time. We had more talk during the two or three days that we were at the Bristol together, and we came to the conclusion that we were distantly related--a long way back. But he told me that, as far as he was aware, he had no close relations living, and when I suggested to him that he ought to go down to Lancashire and look up old scenes and old friends, he replied that he'd no intention of doing so--he must, he said, have been completely forgotten in his native place by this time."
"Did he tell you what his native place was, Mr. Armitstead?" asked Mr. Pawle, who had given Viner two or three expressive glances during the visitor's story.
"Yes," replied Mr. Armitstead. "He did--Blackburn. He left it as a very young man."
"Well," said Mr. Pawle, "there's a considerable amount of interest in what you tell us, for Mr. Viner and myself have been making certain inquiries during the last twenty-four hours, and we formed, or nearly formed, a theory which your information upsets. Ashtons of Blackburn? We must go into that. For we particularly want to know who Mr. John Ashton was--there's a great deal depending on it. Did he tell you more?"
"About himself, no," replied the visitor, "except that he'd been exceedingly fortunate in Australia, and had made a good deal of money and was going to settle down here in London. He took my address and said he'd write and ask me to dine with him as soon as he got a house to his liking, and he did write, only last week, inviting me to call next time I was in town. Then I saw the accounts of his murder in the papers--a very sad thing!"
"A very mysterious thing!" remarked Mr. Pawle. "I wish we could get some light on it!"
The visitor looked from one man to the other and lowered his voice a little.
"It's possible I can give you a little," he said. "That, indeed, is the real reason why I set off to see you this morning. You will remember that Hyde, the man who is charged with the murder, said before the Coroner that as he turned into Lonsdale Passage, he saw coming out of it a tall man in black clothes who was swathed to the very eyes in a big white muffler?"
"Yes!" said Mr. Pawle. "Well?"
"I saw such a man with Ashton in Paris," answered Mr. Armitstead. "Hyde's description exactly tallies with what I myself should have said."
Mr. Pawle looked at his visitor with still more interest and attention.
"Now, that really is of importance!" he exclaimed. "If Hyde saw such a man--as I believe he did--and you saw such a man, then that man must exist, and the facts that you saw him with Ashton, and that Hyde saw him in close proximity to the place where Ashton was murdered, are of the highest consequence. But--you can tell us more, Mr. Armitstead?"
"Unfortunately, very little," replied the visitor. "What I saw was on the night before I left Paris--after it I never saw Ashton again to speak to. It was late at night. Do you know the Rue Royale? There is at the end of it a well-known restaurant, close to the Place de la Concorde--I was sitting outside this about a quarter to eleven when I saw Ashton and the man I am speaking of pass along the pavement in the direction of the Madeleine. What made me particularly notice the man was the fact that although it was an unusually warm night, he was closely muffled in a big white silk handkerchief. It was swathed about his throat, his chin, his mouth; it reached, in fact, right up to his eyes. An odd thing, on such a warm night--Ashton, who was in evening dress, had his light overcoat thrown well back. He was talking very volubly as they passed me--the other man was listening with evident attention."
"Would you know the man if you saw him again?" asked Viner.
"I should most certainly know him if I saw him dressed and muffled in the same way," asserted Mr. Armitstead. "And I believe I could recognize him from his eyes--which, indeed, were all that I could really see of him. He was so muffled, I tell you, that it was impossible to see if he was a clean-shaven man or a bearded man. But I did see his eyes, for he turned them for an instant full on the light of the restaurant. They were unusually dark, full and brilliant--his glance would best be described as flashing. And I should say, from my impression at the time, and from what I remember of his dress, that he was a foreigner--probably an Italian."
"You didn't see this man at your hotel?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"No--I never saw him except on this one occasion," replied Mr. Armitstead. "And I did not see Ashton after that. I left Paris very early the next morning, for Rouen, where I had some business. You think this matter of the man in the muffler important?"
"Now that you've told us what you have, Mr. Armitstead, I think it's of the utmost importance and consequence--to Hyde," answered Mr. Pawle. "You must see his solicitor--he's Mr. Viner's solicitor too--and offer to give evidence when Hyde's brought up again; it will be of the greatest help. There's no doubt, to me, at any rate, that the man Hyde saw leaving the scene of the murder is the man you saw with Ashton in Paris. But now, who is he? Ashton, as we happen to know, left his ship at Naples, and travelled to England through Italy and France. Is this man some fellow that he picked up on the way? His general appearance, now--how did that strike you?"
"He was certainly a man of great distinction of manner," declared Mr. Armitstead. "He had the air and bearing of--well, of a personage. I should say he was somebody--you know what I mean--a man of superior position, and so on."
"Viner," exclaimed Mr. Pawle, "that man must be found! There must be people in London who saw him that night. People can't disappear like that. We'll set to work on that track--find him we must! Now, all the evidence goes to show that he and Ashton were in company that night--probably they'd been dining together, and he was accompanying Ashton to his house. How is it that no one at all has come forward to say that Ashton was seen with this man? It's really extraordinary!"
Mr. Armitstead shook his head.
"There's one thing you're forgetting, aren't you?" he said. "Ashton and this man mayn't have been in each other's company many minutes when the murder took place. Ashton may have been trapped. I don't know much about criminal affairs, but in reading the accounts of the proceedings before the magistrate and the coroner, an idea struck me which, so far as I could gather from the newspapers, doesn't seem to have struck any one else."
"What's that?" demanded Mr. Pawle. "All ideas are welcome."
"Well, this," replied Mr. Armitstead: "In one of the London newspapers there was a plan, a rough sketchmap of the passage in which the murder took place. I gathered from it that on each side of that passage there are yards or gardens, at the backs of houses--the houses on one side belong to some terrace; on the other to the square--Markendale Square--in which Ashton lived. Now, may it not be that the murder itself was actually committed in one of those houses, and that the body was carried out through a yard or garden to where it was found?"
"Ashton was a big and heavy man," observed Viner. "No one man could have carried him."
"Just so!" agreed Mr. Armitstead. "But don't you think there's a probability that more than one man was engaged in this affair! The man in the muffler, hurrying away, may have only been one of several."
"Aye!" said Mr. Pawle, with a deep sigh. "There's something in all that. It may be as you say--a conspiracy. If we only knew the real object of the crime! But it appears to be becoming increasingly difficult to find it.... What is it?" he asked, as his clerk came into the room with a card. "I'm engaged."
The clerk came on, however, laid the card before his employer, and whispered a few words to him.
"A moment, then--I'll ring," said Mr. Pawle. He turned to his two companions as the clerk retired and closed the door, and smiled as he held up the card. "Here's another man who wants to tell me something about the Ashton case!" he exclaimed.
"It's been quite a stroke of luck having that paragraph in the newspapers, asking for information from anybody who could give it!"
"What's this?" asked Viner.
"Mr. Jan Van Hoeren, Diamond Merchant," read Mr. Pawle from the card, "583 Hatton Garden--"
"Ah!" Mr. Armitstead exclaimed. "Diamonds!"
"I shouldn't wonder if you're right," remarked Mr. Pawle. "Diamonds, I believe, are to Hatton Garden what cabbages and carrots are to Covent." He touched his bell, and the clerk appeared. "Bring Mr. Van Hoeren this way," he said.
There entered, hat in hand, bowing all round, a little fat, beady-eyed man, whose beard was blue-black and glossy, whose lips were red, whose nose was his most decided feature. His hat was new and shining, his black overcoat of superfine cloth was ornamented with a collar of undoubted sable; he carried a gold-mounted umbrella. But there was one thing on him that put all the rest of his finery in the shade. In the folds of his artistically-arranged black satin stock lay a pearl--such a pearl as few folk ever have the privilege of seeing. It was as big as a moderately sized hazel nut, and the three men who looked at it knew that it was something wonderful.
"Take a chair, Mr. Van Hoeren," said Mr. Pawle genially. "You want to tell me something about this Ashton case? Very much obliged to you, I'm sure. These gentlemen are both interested--considerably--in that case, and if you can give me any information that will throw any light on it--"
Mr. Van Hoeren deposited his plump figure in a convenient chair and looked round the circle of faces.
"One thing there is I don't see in them newspapers, Mr. Pawle," he said in strongly nasal accents. "Maybe nobody don't know nothings about it, what? So I come to tell you what I know, see? Something!"
"Very good of you, I'm sure," replied Mr. Pawle. "What may it be?"
Mr. Van Hoeren made a significant grimace; it seemed to imply that there was a great deal to be told.
"Some of us, my way, we know Mr. Ashton," he said. "In Hatton Garden, you understand. Dealers in diamonds, see? Me, and Haas, and Aarons, and one or two more. Business!"
"You've done business with Mr. Ashton?" asked the old lawyer. "Just so!"
"No--done nothing," replied Mr. Van Hoeren. "Not a shilling's worth. But we know him. He came down there. And we don't see nothing in them papers that we expected to see, and today two or three of us, we lunch together, and Haas, he says: 'Them lawyer men,' he says, 'they want information. You go and give it to 'em. So!"
"Well--what is it?" demanded Mr. Pawle.
Mr. Van Hoeren leaned forward and looked from one face to another.
"Ashton," he said, "was carrying a big diamond about--in his pocketbook!"
Mr. Armitstead let a slight exclamation escape his lips. Viner glanced at Mr. Pawle. And Mr. Pawle fastened his eyes on his latest caller.
"Mr. Ashton was carrying a big diamond about in his pocketbook?" he said. "Ah--have you seen it?"
"Several times I see it," replied Mr. Van Hoeren. "My trade, don't it? Others of us--we see it too."
"He wanted to sell it?" suggested Mr. Pawle.
"There ain't so many people could afford to buy it," said Mr. Van Hoeren.
"Why!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle. "Was it so valuable, then?"
The diamond merchant shrugged his shoulders and waved the gold-mounted umbrella which he was carefully nursing in his tightly-gloved hands.
"Oh, well!" he answered. "Fifty or sixty thousand pounds it was worth--yes!"