The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XIV. The Ellingham Motto
Viner looked over Mr. Pawle's shoulder at the letters--there were numbers of them, all neatly folded and arranged; a faint scent of dried flowers rose from them as the old lawyer spread them out on the desk.
"Which Countess of Ellingham, and which Lord Marketstoke?" asked Viner. "There have been--must have been--several during the last century."
"The Lord Marketstoke I mean is the one who disappeared," answered Mr. Pawle. "We've no concern with any other. Look at these dates! We know that if he were living, he would now be a man of sixty-one or so; therefore, he'd be at school about forty-five years ago. Now, look here," he went on, rapidly turning the letters over. "Compare these dates--they run through two or three years; they were all of forty-three to forty-six years since. You see how they're signed--you see how they're addressed? There's no doubt about it, Viner--this is a collection of letters written by the seventh Countess of Ellingham to her elder son, Lord Marketstoke, when he was at Eton."
"How came they into Ashton's possession, I wonder!" asked Viner.
"It's all of a piece!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle. "All of a piece with Ashton's visit to Marketstoke--all of a piece with the facts that Avice was a favourite name with the Cave-Gray family, and that one of the holders of the title married a Wickham. Viner, there's no doubt whatever--in my mind--that either Ashton was Lord Marketstoke or that he knew the man who was!"
"You remember what Armitstead told us," remarked Viner. "That Ashton told him, in Paris, that he, Ashton, hailed from Lancashire?"
"Then--he knew the missing man, and got these papers from him!" declared the old lawyer. "But why? Ah!--now I have an idea! It may be that Marketstoke, dying out there in Australia, handed these things to Ashton and asked him to give them to some members of the Cave-Gray family--perhaps an aunt, or a cousin, or so on--and that Ashton went down to Marketstoke to find out what relations were still in existence. That may be it--that would solve the problem!"
"No!" said Viner was sudden emphasis. He made sure that the door of the little room was closed, and then went up to the old lawyer's elbow. "Is that really all you can think of?" he asked, with a keen glance. "As for me--why, I'm thinking of something that seems absolutely--obvious!"
"What, then?" demanded Mr. Pawle. "Tell me!"
Viner pointed towards the door.
"Haven't we heard already, that a man named Wickham handed over his daughter Avice to Ashton's care and guardianship?" he asked. "Doesn't that seem to be an established fact?"
"No doubt of it!" assented Mr. Pawle. "Well?"
"In my opinion," said Viner, quietly, "Wickham was the missing Lord of Marketstoke!"
Mr. Pawle, who was still turning over the letters, examining their dates, let them slip out of his hands and gasped.
"By George!" he exclaimed in a wondering voice. "It may be--possibly is! Then, in that case, that girl outside there--"
"Well?" asked Viner, after a pause.
Mr. Pawle made a puzzled gesture and shook his head, as if in amazement.
"In that case, if Wickham was the missing Lord Marketstoke, and this girl is his daughter, she's--" He broke off, and became still more puzzled. "Upon my honour," he exclaimed, "I don't know who she is!"
"What do you mean?" asked Viner. "She's his daughter, of course--Wickham's. Only, in that case--I mean, if he was really Lord Marketstoke--her proper name, I suppose, is Cave-Gray."
Mr. Pawle looked his young assistant over with an amused expression.
"You haven't the old practitioner's flair, Viner, my boy!" he said. "When one's got to my age, and seen a number of queer things and happenings, one's quick to see possible cases. Look here!--if Wickham was really Lord Marketstoke, and that girl across the hall is his daughter, she's probably--I say probably, for I don't know if the succession in this case goes with the female line--Countess of Ellingham, in her own right!"
Viner looked his surprise.
"Is that really so--would it be so?" he asked.
"It may be--I'm not sure," replied Mr. Pawle. "As I say, I don't know how the succession runs in this particular instance. There are, as you are aware, several peeresses in their own rights--twenty-four or five, at least. Some are very ancient peerages. I know that three--Furnivale and Fauconberg and Conyers--go right back to the thirteenth century; three others--Beaumont, Darcy da Knayth, and Zorch of Haryngworth--date from the fourteenth. I'm not sure of this Ellingham peerage--but I'll find out when I get back to my office. However, granting the premises, and if the peerage does continue in the female line, it will be as I say--this girl's the rightful holder of the title!"
Viner made no immediate answer and Mr. Pawle began to put up the letters in their original wrappings.
"Regular romance, isn't it--if it is so?" he exclaimed. "Extraordinary!"
"Shall you tell her?" asked Viner.
Mr. Pawle considered the direct question while he completed his task.
"No," he said at last, "not at present. She evidently knows nothing, and she'd better be left in complete ignorance for a while. You see, Viner, as I've pointed out to you several times, there isn't a paper or a document of any description extant which refers to her. Nothing in my hands, nothing in the banker's hands, nothing here! And yet, supposing her father, Wickham, to have been Lord Marketstoke, and to have entrusted his secret to Ashton at the same time that he gave him the guardianship of his daughter, he must have given Ashton papers to prove his and her identity--must! Where are they?"
"Do you know what I think?" said Viner. "I think--if I'm to put it in plain language--that Ashton carried those papers on him, and that he was murdered for the possession of them!"
Mr. Pawle nodded, and put the packet of letters in his pocket.
"I shouldn't be surprised," he answered. "It's a very probable theory, my boy. But it presupposes one thing, and makes one horribly suspicious of another."
"Yes?" inquired Viner.
"It presupposes that Ashton let somebody into the secret," replied Mr. Pawle, "and it makes one suspect that the person to whom he did reveal it had such personal interest in suppressing it that he went to the length of murdering Ashton before Ashton could tell it to any one else. How does that strike you, Viner?"
"It's this--and not the diamond!" declared Viner doggedly. "I've a sort of absolute intuition that I'm right."
"I think so too," assented the old lawyer, dryly. "The fifty-thousand-pound diamond is a side-mine. Very well, now we know a lot, you and I. And, we're going to solve matters. And we're not going to say a word to this young lady, at present--that's settled. But I want to ask her some questions--come along."
He led the way across the hall to the dining-room where a reminder of Ashton's death met his and Viner's view as soon as they had crossed the threshold. The funeral was to take place next day, and Mrs. Killenhall and Miss Wickham were contemplating a massive wreath of flowers which had evidently just arrived from the florist's and been deposited on the centre-table.
"All we can do for him, you know!" murmured Mrs. Killenhall, with a glance at the two men. "He--he had so few friends here, poor man!"
"That remark, ma'am," observed Mr. Pawle, "is apropos of a subject that I want to ask Miss Wickham two or three questions about. Friends, now? Miss Wickham, you always understood that Mr. Ashton and your father were very close friends, I believe?"
"I always understood so--yes, Mr. Pawle," replied Miss Wickham.
"Did he ever tell you much about your father?"
"No, very little indeed. He never told me more than that they knew each other very well, in Australia, that my father died out there, comparatively young, and that he left me in his, Mr. Ashton's care."
"Did he ever tell you whether your father left you any money?" demanded the old lawyer.
Miss Wickham looked surprised.
"Oh, yes!" she answered. "I thought you'd know that. My father left me a good deal of money. Didn't Mr. Ashton tell you?"
"Never a word!" said Mr. Pawle. "Now--where is it, then?"
"In my bank," replied Miss Wickham promptly. "The London and Universal. When Mr. Ashton fetched me away from school and brought me here, he told me that he had twelve thousand pounds of mine which my father had left me, and he handed it over to me then and there, and took me to the London and Universal Bank, where I opened an account with it."
"Spent any of it?" asked Mr. Pawle dryly.
"Only a few pounds," answered Miss Wickham.
The old solicitor glanced at Viner, who, while these private matters were being inquired into, was affecting to examine the pictures on the walls.
"Most extraordinary!" he muttered. "All this convinces me that Ashton must have had papers and documents! These must have been--however, we don't know where they are. But there would surely be, for instance, your father's will, Miss Wickham. I suppose you've never seen such a document? No, to be sure! You left all to Ashton. Well, now, do you remember your father?"
"Only just--and very faintly, Mr. Pawle," replied Miss Wickham. "You must remember I was little more than five years old."
"Can you remember what he was like?"
"I think he was a big, tall man--but it's a mere impression."
"Listen!" said Mr. Pawle. "Did you ever, at any time, hear Mr. Ashton make any reference--I'm talking now of the last few weeks--to the Ellingham family, or to the Earl of Ellingham?"
"Never!" replied Miss Wickham. "Never heard of them. He never--"
Mrs. Killenhall was showing signs of a wish to speak, and Mr. Pawle turned to her.
"Have you, ma'am?" he asked.
"Yes," said Mrs. Killenhall, "I have! It was one night when Miss Wickham was out--you were at Mrs. Murray-Sinclair's, my dear--and Mr. Ashton and I dined alone. He asked me if I remembered the famous Ellingham case, some years ago--something about the succession to the title--he said he'd read it in the Colonial papers. Of course, I remembered it very well."
"Well, ma'am," said Mr. Pawle, "and what then?"
"I think that was all," answered Mrs. Killenhall. "He merely remarked that it was an odd case, and said no more."
"What made him mention it?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"Oh, we'd been talking about romances of the peerage," replied Mrs. Killenhall. "I had told him of several."
"You're well up in the peerage, ma'am?" suggested the old lawyer.
"I know my Burke and my Debrett pretty thoroughly," said Mrs. Killenhall. "Very interesting, of course."
Mr. Pawle, who was sitting close to Miss Wickham, suddenly pointed to a gold locket which she wore.
"Where did you get that, my dear?" he asked. "Unusual device, isn't it?"
"Mr. Ashton gave it to me, a few weeks ago," answered Miss Wickham. "He said it had belonged to my father."
The old lawyer bent nearer, looked more closely at the locket, and got up.
"Elegant old thing!" he said. "Not made yesterday, that! Well, ladies, you will see me, for this very sad occasion"--he waved a hand at the wreath of flowers--"tomorrow. In the meantime, if there is anything you want done, our young friend here is close at hand. Just now, however, I want him."
"Viner," observed Pawle when they had left the house, "it's very odd how unobservant some people are! Now, there's that woman we've just left, Mrs. Killenhall, who says that she's well up in her Debrett, and her Burke,--and there, seen by her many a time, is that locket which Miss Wickham is wearing, and she's never noticed it! Never, I mean, noticed what's on it. Why, I saw it--and its significance--instantly, just now, which was the first time I'd seen it!"
"What is it that's on it?" asked Viner.
"After we came back from Marketstoke," replied Mr. Pawle, "I looked up the Cave-Gray family and their peerage. That locket bears their device and motto. The device is a closed fist, grasping a handful of blades of wheat; the motto is Have and Hold. Viner, as sure as fate, that girl's father was the missing Lord Marketstoke, and Ashton knew the secret! I'm convinced of it--I'm positive of it. And now see the extraordinary position in which we're all placed. Ashton's dead, and there isn't one scrap of paper to show what it was that he really knew. Nothing--not one written line!"
"Because, as I said before, he was murdered for his papers," affirmed Viner. "I'm sure of that as you are of the rest."
"I dare say you're right," agreed Mr. Pawle. "But, as I've said before, that presupposes that Ashton told somebody the secret. Now--who? Was it the man he was with in Paris? And if so, who is that man? But it's useless speculating. I've made up my mind to a certain course, Viner. Tomorrow, after the funeral, I'm going to call on the present Lord Ellingham--his town house is in Hertford Street, and I know he's in town--and ask him if he has heard anything of a mysterious nature relating to his long-missing uncle. We may hear something--you come with me."
Next day, toward the middle of the afternoon, Mr. Pawle and Viner got out of a taxicab in Park Lane and walked down Hertford Street, the old lawyer explaining the course he was about to take.
"This is a young man--not long come of age," he said. "He'll be quite well acquainted, however, with the family history, and if anything's happened lately, I dare say I can get him to talk. He--What is it?"
Viner had suddenly gripped his companion's arm and pulled him to a halt. He was looking ahead--at the house at which they were about to call. And there, just being shown out by a footman, was the man whom he had seen at the old-fashioned tavern in Notting Hill, and with him a tall, good-looking man whom he had never seen before.