Chapter XII. The Grey Mare Inn

The three men who heard this announcement were conscious that at this point the Ashton case entered upon an entirely new phase. Armitstead's mind was swept clean away from the episode in Paris, Viner's from the revelations at Marketstoke, Mr. Pawle suddenly realized that here, at last, was something material and tangible which opened out all sorts of possibilities. And he voiced the thoughts of his two companions as he turned in amazement on the fat little man who sat complacently nursing his umbrella.

"What!" he exclaimed. "You mean to tell me that Ashton was walking about London with a diamond worth fifty thousand pounds in his pocket? Incredible!"

"Don't see nothing so very incredible about it," retorted Mr. Van Hoeren. "I could show you men what carries diamonds worth twice that much in their pockets about the Garden."

"That's business," said Mr. Pawle. "I've heard of such things--but you all know each other over there, I'm told. Ashton wasn't a diamond merchant. God bless me--he was probably murdered for that stone!"

"That's just what I come to you about, eh?" suggested Mr. Van Hoeren. "You see 'tain't nothing if he show that diamond to me, and such as me; we don't think nothing of that--all in our way of business. But if he gets showing it to other people, in public places--what?"

"Just so!" asserted Mr. Pawle. "Sheer tempting of Providence! I'm amazed! But--how did you get to know Mr. Ashton and to hear of this diamond? Did he come to you?"

"Called on me at my office," answered Mr. Van Hoeren laconically. "Pulled out the diamond and asked me what I thought it was worth. Well, I introduce him to some of the other boys in the Garden, see? He show them the diamond too. We reckon it's worth what I say--fifty to sixty thousand. So!"

"Did he want to sell it?" demanded Mr. Pawle.

"Oh, well, yes--he wouldn't have minded," replied the diamond merchant. "Wasn't particular about it, you know--rich man."

"Did he tell you anything about it--how he got it, and so on?" asked Mr. Pawle. "Was there any history attached to it?"

"Oh, nothing much," answered Mr. Van Hoeren. "He told me he'd had it some years--got it in Australia, where he come from to London. Got it cheap, he did--lots of things like that in our business."

"And carried it in his pocket!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle. He stared hard at Mr. Van Hoeren, as if his mind was revolving some unpleasant idea. "I suppose all the people you introduced him to are--all right?" he asked.

"Oh, they're all right!" affirmed Mr. Van Hoeren, with a laugh. "Give my word for any of 'em, eh? But Ashton--if he pulls that diamond out to show to anybody--out of the trade, you understand--well, then, there's lots of fellows in this town would settle him to get hold of it--what?"

"I think you're right," said Mr. Pawle. He glanced at Viner. "This puts a new complexion on affairs," he remarked. "We shall have to let the police know of this. I'm much obliged to you, Mr. Van Hoeren. You won't mind giving evidence about this if it's necessary?"

"Don't mind nothing," said Mr. Van Hoeren. "Me and the other boys, we think you ought to know about that diamond, see?"

He went away, and Mr. Pawle turned to Viner and Armitstead.

"I shouldn't wonder if we're getting at something like a real clue," he said. "It seems evident that Ashton was not very particular about showing his diamond to people! If he'd show it--readily--to a lot of Hatton Garden diamond merchants, who, after all, were strangers to him, how do we know that he wouldn't show it to other men? The fact is, wealthy men like that are often very careless about their possessions. Possibly a diamond worth fifty or sixty thousand pounds wasn't of so much importance in Ashton's eyes as it would have been in--well, in mine. And how do we know that he didn't show the diamond to the man with the muffler, in Paris, and that the fellow followed him here and murdered him for it?"

"Possible!" said Armitstead.

"Doesn't it strike you as strange, though," suggested Viner, "that the first news of this diamond comes from Van Hoeren? One would have thought that Ashton would have mentioned it--and shown it--to Miss Wickham and Mrs. Killenhall. Yet apparently--he never did."

"Yes, that does seem odd," asserted Mr. Pawle. "But there seems to be no end of oddity in this case. And there's one thing that must be done at once: we must have a full and thorough search and examination of all Ashton's effects. His house must be thoroughly searched for papers and so on. Viner, I suppose you're going home? Do me the favour to call at Miss Wickham's, and tell her that I propose to come there at ten o'clock tomorrow morning, to go through Ashton's desk and his various belongings with her--surely there must be something discoverable that will throw more light on the matter. And in the meantime, Viner, don't say anything to her about our journey to Marketstoke--leave that for a while."

Viner went away from Crawle, Pawle, and Rattenbury's in company with Armitstead. Outside, the Lancashire business man gave him a shrewd glance.

"I very much doubt if that diamond has anything whatever to do with Ashton's murder," he said. "From what I saw of him, he seemed to me to be a very practical man, full of business aptitude and common sense, and I don't believe that he'd make a practice of walking about London with a diamond of that value in his pocket. It's all very well that he should have it in his pocket when he went down to Hatton Garden--he had a purpose. But that he should always carry it--no, I don't credit that, Mr. Viner."

"I can scarcely credit such a foolish thing myself," said Viner. "But--where is the diamond?"

"Perhaps you'll find it tomorrow," suggested Armitstead. "The man would be sure to have some place in his house where he kept his valuables. I shall be curious to hear."

"Are you staying in town?" inquired Viner.

"I shall be at the Hotel Cecil for a fortnight at least," answered Armitstead. "And if I can be of any use to you or Mr. Pawle, you've only to ring me up there. You've no doubt yourself, I think, that the unfortunate fellow Hyde is innocent?"

"None!" said Viner. "No doubt whatever! But--the police have a strong case against him. And unless we can find the actual murderer, I'm afraid Hyde's in a very dangerous position."

"Well," said Armitstead, "in these cases, you never know what a sudden and unexpected turn of events may do. That man with the muffler is the chap you want to get hold of--I'm sure of that!"

Viner went home and dined with his aunt and their two guests, Hyde's sisters, whom he endeavoured to cheer up by saying that things were developing as favourably as could be expected, and that he hoped to have good news for them ere long. They were simple souls, pathetically grateful for any scrap of sympathy and comfort, and he strove to appear more confident about the chances of clearing this unlucky brother than he really felt. It was his intention to go round to Number Seven during the evening, to deliver Mr. Pawle's message to Miss Wickham, but before he rose from his own table, a message arrived by Miss Wickham's parlour-maid--would Mr. Viner be kind enough to come to the house at once?

At this, Viner excused himself to his guests and hurried round to Number Seven, to find Miss Wickham and Mrs. Killenhall, now in mourning garments, in company with a little man whom Viner at once recognized as a well-known tradesman of Westbourne Grove--a florist and fruiterer named Barleyfield, who was patronized by all the well-to-do folk of the neighbourhood. He smiled and bowed as Viner entered the room, and turned to Miss Wickham as if suggesting that she should explain his presence.

"Oh, Mr. Viner!" said Miss Wickham, "I'm so sorry to send for you so hurriedly, but Mr. Barleyfield came to tell us that he could give some information about Mr. Ashton, and as Mr. Pawle isn't available, and I don't like to send for a police-inspector, I thought that you, perhaps--"

"To be sure!" said Viner. "What is it, Mr. Barleyfield?"

Mr. Barleyfield, who had obviously attired himself in his Sunday raiment for the purposes of his call, and had further shown respect for the occasion by wearing a black cravat, smiled as he looked from the two ladies to Viner.

"Well, Mr. Viner," he answered, "I'll tell you what it is--it may help a bit in clearing up things, for I understand there's a great deal of mystery about Mr. Ashton's death. Now, I'm told, sir, that nobody--especially these good ladies--knows nothing about what the deceased gentleman used to do with himself of an evening--as a rule. Just so. Well, you know, Mr. Viner, a tradesman like myself generally knows a good deal about the people of his neighbourhood. I knew Mr. Ashton very well indeed--he was a good customer of mine, and sometimes he'd stop and have a bit of chat with me. And I can tell you where he very often spent an hour or two of an evening."

"Yes--where?" asked Viner.

"At the Grey Mare Inn, sir," answered Barleyfield promptly. "I have often seen him there myself."

"The Grey Mare Inn!" exclaimed Viner, while Mrs. Killenhall and Miss Wickham looked at each other wonderingly. "Where is that? It sounds like the name of some village tavern."

"Ah, but you don't know this part of London as I do, sir!" said Barleyfield, with a knowing smile. "If you did, you'd know the Grey Mare well enough--it's an institution. It's a real old-fashioned place, between Westbourne Grove and Notting Hill--one of the very last of the old taverns, with a tea-garden behind it, and a bar-parlour of a very comfortable sort, where various old fogies of the neighbourhood gather of an evening and smoke churchwarden pipes and tell tales of the olden days--I rather gathered from what I saw that it was the old atmosphere that attracted Mr. Ashton--made him think of bygone England, you know, Mr. Viner."

"And you say he went there regularly?" asked Viner.

"I've seen him there a great deal, sir, for I usually turn in there for half an hour or so, myself, of an evening, when business is over and I've had my supper," answered Barleyfield. "I should say that he went there four or five nights a week."

"And no doubt conversed with the people he met there?" suggested Viner.

"He was a friendly, sociable man, sir," said Barleyfield. "Yes, he was fond of a talk. But there was one man there that he seemed to associate with--an elderly, superior gentleman whose name I don't know, though I'm familiar enough with his appearance. Him and Mr. Ashton I've often seen sitting in a particular corner, smoking their cigars, and talking together. And--if it's of any importance--I saw them talking like that, at the Grey Mare, the very evening that--that Mr. Ashton died, Mr. Viner."

"What time was that?" asked Viner.

"About the usual time, sir--nine-thirty or so," replied Barleyfield. "I generally look in about that time--nine-thirty to ten."

"Did you leave them talking there?" inquired Viner.

"They were there when I left, sir, at a quarter past ten," answered Barleyfield. "Talking in their usual corner."

"And you say you don't know who this man is?"

"I don't! I know him by sight--but he's a comparatively recent comer to the Grey Mare. I've noticed him for a year or so--not longer."

Viner glanced at the two ladies.

"I suppose you never heard Mr. Ashton mention the Grey Mare?" he asked.

"We never heard Mr. Ashton say anything about his movements," answered Miss Wickham. "We used to wonder, sometimes, if he'd joined a club or if he had friends that we knew nothing about."

"Well," said Viner, turning to the florist, "do you think you could take me to the Grey Mare, Mr. Barleyfield?"

"Nothing easier, sir--open to one and all!"

"Then, if you've the time to spare, we'll go now," said Viner. He lingered behind a moment to tell Miss Wickham of Mr. Pawle's appointment for the morning, and then went away with Barleyfield in the Notting Hill direction. "I suppose you've been at the Grey Mare since Mr. Ashton's death?" he asked as they walked along.

"Once or twice, sir," replied Barleyfield.

"And you've no doubt heard the murder discussed?" suggested Viner.

"I've heard it discussed hard enough, sir, there and elsewhere," replied the florist. "But at the Gray Mare itself, I don't think anybody knew that this man who'd been murdered was the same as the grey-bearded gentleman who used to drop in there sometimes. They didn't when I was last in, anyway. Perhaps this gentleman I've mentioned to you might know--Mr. Ashton might have told his name to him. But you know how it is in these places, Mr. Viner--people drop in, even regularly, and fellow-customers may have a bit of talk with them without having the least idea who they are. Between you and me, sir, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Ashton was a man who liked to see a bit of what we'll call informal, old-fashioned tavern life, and he hit on this place by accident, in one of his walks round, and took to coming where he could be at his ease--amongst strangers."

"No doubt," agreed Viner.

He followed his guide through various squares and streets until they came to the object of their pilgrimage--a four-square, old-fashioned house set back a little from the road, with a swinging sign in front, and a garden at the side. Barleyfield led him through this garden to a side-door, whence they passed into a roomy, low-ceilinged parlour which reminded Viner of old coaching prints--he would scarcely have believed it possible that such a pre-Victorian room could be found in London. There were several men in it, and he nudged his companion's elbow.

"Let us sit down in a quiet corner and have something to drink," he said. "I just want to take a look at this place--and its frequenters."

Barleyfield led him to a nook near the chimney-corner and beckoned to an aproned boy who hung about with a tray under his arm. But before Viner could give an order, his companion touched his arm and motioned towards the door.

"Here's the gentleman Mr. Ashton used to talk to!" he whispered. "The tall man--just coming in."