The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XIII. The Japanese Cabinet
Remembering that Barleyfield had said that the man who now entered had been in Ashton's company in that very room on the evening of the murder, Viner looked at him with keen interest and speculation. He was a tall, well-built, clean-shaven man, of professional appearance and of a large, heavy, solemn face the evidently usual pallor of which was deepened by his black overcoat and cravat. An eminently respectable, slow-going, unimaginative man, in Viner's opinion, and of a type which one may see by the dozen in the precincts of the Temple; a man who would be content to do a day's work in a placid fashion, and who cherished no ambition to set the Thames on fire; certainly, so Viner thought from appearances, not the man to commit a peculiarly daring murder. Nevertheless, knowing what he did, he watched him closely.
The newcomer, on entering, glanced at once at a quiet corner of the room, and seeing it unoccupied, turned to the bar, where the landlord, who was as old-fashioned as his surroundings, was glancing over the evening paper. He asked for whisky and soda, and when he took up the glass, drank slowly and thoughtfully. Suddenly he turned to the landlord.
"Have you seen that gentleman lately that I've sometimes talked to in the corner there?" he asked.
The landlord glanced across the room and shook his head.
"Can't say that I have, sir," he answered. "The tallish gentleman with a grey beard? No, he hasn't been in this last night or two."
The other man sat down his glass and drew something from his pocket.
"I promised to bring him a specimen of some cigars I bought lately," he said, laying an envelope on the counter. "I can't stop tonight. If he should come in, will you give him that--he'll know what it is."
"Good heavens!" muttered Viner, as he turned in surprise to Barleyfield. "These men evidently don't know that the man they're talking about is--"
"Murdered!" whispered Barleyfield, with a grim smile. "Nothing wonderful in that, Mr. Viner. They haven't connected Mr. Ashton with the man they're mentioning--that's all."
"And yet Ashton's portrait has been in the papers!" exclaimed Viner. "It amazes me!"
"Aye, just so, sir," said Barleyfield. "But--a hundred yards in London takes you into another world, Mr. Viner. For all practical purposes, Lonsdale Passage, though it's only a mile away, is as much separated from this spot as New York is from London. Well--that's the man I told you of, sir."
The man in question drank off the remaining contents of his glass, nodded to the landlord, and walked out. And Viner was suddenly minded to do something towards getting information.
"Look here!" he said. "I'm going to ask that landlord a question or two. Come with me."
He went up to the bar, Barleyfield following in close attendance, and gave the landlord a significant glance.
"Can I have a word with you, in private?" he asked.
The landlord looked his questioner over and promptly opened a flap in the counter.
"Step inside, sir," he said, indicating a door in the rear. "Private room there, sir."
Viner and Barleyfield walked into a little snugly furnished sitting-room; the landlord followed and closed the door.
"Do you happen to know the name of the gentleman who was speaking to you just now?" asked Viner, going straight to his point. "I've a very particular reason for wishing to know it."
"No more idea than I have of yours, sir," replied the landlord with a shrewd glance.
Viner pulled out a card and laid it on the table.
"That is my name," he said. "You and the gentleman who has just gone out were speaking just now of another gentleman whom he used to meet here--who used to sit with him in that far corner. Just so--you don't know the name of that gentleman, either?"
"No more than I know the others', sir," replied the landlord, shaking his head. "Lord bless you, folks may come in here for a year or two, and unless they happen to be neighbours of mine, I don't know who they are. Now, there's your friend there," he went on, indicating Barleyfield with a smile, "I know his face as that of a customer, but I don't know who he is! That gentleman who's just gone out, he's been in the habit of dropping in here for a twelvemonth, maybe, but I never remember hearing his name. As for the gentleman he referred to, why, I know him as one that's come in here pretty regular for the last few weeks, but I don't know his name, either."
"Have you heard of the murder in Lonsdale Passage?" asked Viner.
"Markendale Square way? Yes," answered the landlord, with awakening interest. "Why, is it anything to do--"
Viner saw an illustrated paper lying on a side-table and caught it up. There was a portrait of Ashton in it, and he held it up before the landlord.
"Don't you recognize that?" he asked.
The landlord started and stared.
"Bless my life and soul!" he exclaimed. "Why, surely that's very like the gentleman I just referred to--I should say it was the very man!"
"It is the very man!" said Viner with emphasis, "the man for whom your customer who's just gone out left the envelope. Now, this man who was murdered in Lonsdale Passage was here in your parlour for some time on the evening of the night on which he was murdered, and he was then in conversation with the man who has just gone out. Naturally, therefore, I should like to know that man's name."
"You're not a detective?" suggested the landlord.
"Not at all!" replied Viner. "I was a neighbour of Mr. Ashton's, and I am interested--deeply interested--in an attempt to clear up the mystery of his death. Things keep coming out. I didn't know until this evening that Ashton spent some time here, at your house, the night he was killed. But when I got to know, I came along to make one or two inquiries."
"Bless me!" said the landlord, who was still staring at the portrait. "Yes, that's the gentleman, sure enough! I've often wondered who he was--pleasant, sociable sort, he was, poor fellow. Now I come to think of it I remember him being in here that night--last time, of course, he was ever in. He was talking to that gentleman who's just gone; in fact, they left together."
"They left together, did they!" exclaimed Viner with a sharp glance at Barleyfield. "Ah! What time was that, now?"
"As near as I can recollect, about ten-fifteen to ten-thirty," answered the landlord. "They'd been talking together for a good hour in that corner where they usually sat. But dear me," he went on, looking from one to the other of his two visitors, "I'm quite sure that gentleman who's just left doesn't know of this murder! Why, you heard him ask for the other gentleman, and leave him some cigars that he'd promised!"
"Just so--which makes it all the stranger," said Viner. "Well, I'm much obliged to you, landlord--and for the time being, just keep the matter of this talk strictly to yourself. You understand?"
"As you wish, sir," assented the landlord. "I shan't say anything. You wouldn't like me to find out this gentleman's name? Somebody'll know him. My own idea is that he lives in this part--he began coming in here of an evening about a year since."
"No--do nothing at present," said Viner. "The inquiries are only beginning."
He impressed the same obligation of silence on Barleyfield as they went away, and the florist readily understood.
"No hard work for me to hold my tongue, Mr. Viner," he said. "We tradespeople are pretty well trained to that, sir! There's things and secrets I could tell! But upon my word, I don't ever remember quite such a case as this. And I expect it'll be like most cases of the sort!"
"What do you mean?" asked Viner.
"Oh, there'll be a sudden flash of light on it, sir, all of a sudden," replied Barleyfield. "And then--it'll be as clear as noonday."
"I don't know where it's coming from!" muttered Viner. "I don't even see a rift in the clouds yet."
He had been at work for an hour or two with Miss Wickham and Mr. Pawle next morning, searching for whatever might be discovered among Ashton's effects, before he saw any reason to alter this opinion. The bunch of keys discovered in the murdered man's pocket had been duly delivered to Miss Wickham by the police, and she handed them over to the old solicitor with full license to open whatever they secured. But both Mr. Pawle and Viner saw at once that Ashton had been one of those men who have no habit of locking up things. In all that roomy house he had but one room which he kept to himself--a small, twelve-foot-square apartment on the ground floor, in which, they said, he used to spend an hour or two of a morning. It contained little in the way of ornament or comfort--a solid writing-desk with a hard chair, an easy-chair by the fireplace, a sofa against the wall, a map of London and a picture or two, a shelf of old books, a collection of walking-sticks, and umbrellas: these made up all there was to see.
And upon examination the desk yielded next to nothing. One drawer contained a cash-box, a checkbook, a pass-book. Some sixty or seventy pounds in notes, gold and silver lay in the cash-box; the stubs of the checks revealed nothing but the payment of tradesmen's bills; the pass-book showed that an enormous balance lay at the bank. In another drawer rested a collection of tradesmen's books--Mr. Ashton, said Mrs. Killenhall, used to pay his tradesmen every week; these books had been handed to him on the very evening of his death for settlement next morning.
"Evidently a most methodical man!" remarked Mr. Pawle. "Which makes it all the more remarkable that so few papers are discoverable. You'd have thought that in his longish life he'd have accumulated a good many documents that he wanted to keep."
But documents there were next to none. Several of the drawers of the desk were empty, save for stationery. One contained a bunch of letters, tied up with blue ribbon--these, on examination, proved to be letters written by Miss Wickham, at school in England, to her guardian in Australia. Miss Wickham, present while Mr. Pawle and Viner searched, showed some emotion at the sight of them.
"I used to write to him once a month," she said. "I had no idea that he had kept the letters, though!"
The two men went silently on with their search. But there was no further result. Ashton did not appear to have kept any letters or papers relative to his life or doings prior to his coming to England. Private documents of any sort he seemed to have none. And whatever business had taken him to Marketstoke, they could find no written reference to it; nor could they discover anything about the diamond of which Mr. Van Hoeren had spoken. They went upstairs to his bedroom and examined the drawers, cabinets and dressing-case--they found nothing.
"This is distinctly disappointing," remarked Mr. Pawle when he and Viner returned to the little room. "I never knew a man who left such small evidence behind him. It's quite evident to me that there's nothing whatever in this house that's going to be of any use to us. I wonder if he rented a box at any of the safe-deposit places? He must have had documents of some sort."
"In that case, we should surely have found a key, and perhaps a receipt for the rent of the box," suggested Viner. "I should have thought he'd have had a safe in his own house," he added, "but we don't hear of one."
Mr. Pawle looked round the room, as if suspicious that Ashton might have hidden papers in the stuffing of the sofa or the easy-chair.
"I wonder if there's anything in that," he said suddenly. "It looks like a receptacle of some sort."
Viner turned and saw the old lawyer pointing to a curious Japanese cabinet which stood in the middle of the marble mantelpiece--the only really notable ornament in the room. Mr. Pawle laid hold of it and uttered a surprised exclamation. "That's a tremendous weight for so small a thing!" he said. "Feel it!"
Viner took hold of the cabinet--an affair of some eighteen inches in height and twelve in depth--and came to the conclusion that it was heavily weighted with lead. He lifted it down to the desk, giving it a slight shake.
"I took it for a cigar cabinet," he remarked. "How does it open? Have you a key that will fit it?"
But upon examination there was no keyhole, and nothing to show how the door was opened.
"I see what this is," said Viner, after looking closely over the cabinet, back, front and sides. "It opens by a trick--a secret. Probably you press something somewhere and the door flies open. But--where?"
"Try," counselled Mr. Pawle. "There's something inside--I heard it when you shook the thing."
It took Viner ten minutes to find out the secret. He would not have found it at all but for accident. But pressing here and pulling there, he suddenly touched what appeared to be no more than a cleverly inserted rivet in the ebony surface; there was a sharp click, and the panelled front flew open.
"There is something!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle. "Papers!"
He drew out a bundle of papers, folded in a strong sheet of cartridge-paper and sealed back and front. The enveloping cover was old and faded; the ribbon which had been tied round the bundle was discoloured by age; the wax of the seals was cracked all over the surface.
"No inscription, no writing," said Mr. Pawle. "Now, I wonder what's in here?"
"Shall I fetch Miss Wickham?" suggested Viner. Mr. Pawle hesitated.
"No!" he said at last. "I think not. Let us first find out what this packet contains. I'll take the responsibility."
He cut the ribbons beneath the seals, and presently revealed a number of letters, old and yellow, in a woman's handwriting. And after a hasty glance at one or two of the uppermost, he turned to Viner with an exclamation that signified much.
"Viner!" he said, "here is indeed a find! These are letters written by the Countess of Ellingham to her son, Lord Marketstoke, when he was a schoolboy at Eton!"