Chapter XV. The Present Holder
 

Mr. Pawle turned sharply on his companion as Viner pulled him up. He saw the direction of Viner's suddenly arrested gaze and looked from him to the two men who had now walked down the steps of the house and were advancing towards them.

"What is it?" he asked. "Those fellows are coming away from Lord Ellingham's house. You seem to know them?"

"One of them," murmured Viner. "The clean-shaven man. Look at him!"

The two men came on in close, evidently absorbed conversation, passed Mr. Pawle and Viner without as much as a glance at them, and went along in the direction of Park Lane.

"Well?" demanded Mr. Pawle.

"The clean-shaven man is the man I told you of--the man who was in conversation with Ashton at that tavern in Notting Hill the night Ashton was murdered," answered Viner. "The other man I don't know."

Mr. Pawle turned and looked after the retreating figures.

"You're sure of that?" he asked.

"Certain!" replied Viner. "I should know him anywhere."

Mr. Pawle came to another halt, glancing first at the two men, now well up the street, and then at the somewhat sombre front of Ellingham House.

"Now, this is an extraordinary thing, Viner!" he exclaimed. "There's the man who, you say, was with Ashton not very long before he came to his end, and we find him coming away--presumably--from Lord Ellingham, certainly from Lord Ellingham's house! What on earth does it mean? And I wonder who the man is?"

"What I'd like to know," said Viner, "is--who is the other man? But as you say, it is certainly a very curious thing that we should find the first man evidently in touch with Lord Ellingham--considering our recent discoveries. But--what are you going to do?"

"Going in here," affirmed Mr. Pawle, "to the fountain-head. We may get to know something. Have you a card?"

The footman who took the cards looked doubtfully at them and their presenters.

"His Lordship is just going out," he said, glancing over his shoulder. "I don't know--"

Mr. Pawle pointed to the name of his firm at the corner of his card.

"I think Lord Ellingham will see me," he said. "Tell his lordship I shall not detain him many minutes if he will be kind enough to give me an interview."

The man went away--to return in a few minutes and to lead the callers into a room at the rear of the hall, wherein, his back to the fire, his look and attitude one of puzzled surprise, stood a very young man, dressed in the height of fashion, who, as his servant had said, was obviously just ready to go out. Viner, remembering what had brought him and Mr. Pawle there, looked at Lord Ellingham closely--he seemed to be frank, ingenuous, and decidedly youthful. But there was something decidedly practical and business-like in his greeting of his visitors.

"I'm afraid I can't give you very long, Mr. Pawle," he said, glancing instinctively at the old lawyer. "I've a most important engagement in half an hour, and it won't be put off. But I can give you ten minutes."

"I am deeply obliged to your lordship," answered Mr. Pawle. "As your lordship will have seen from my card, I am one of the partners in Crawle, Pawle and Rattenbury--a firm not at all unknown, I think. Allow me to introduce my friend Mr. Viner, a gentlemen who is deeply concerned and interested in the matter I want to mention to your lordship."

Lord Ellingham responded politely to Viner's bow and drew two chairs forward.

"Sit down, Mr. Pawle; sit down, Mr. Viner," he said. He dropped into a chair near a desk which stood in the centre of the room and looked interrogatively at his elder visitor. "Have you some business to discuss, Mr. Pawle?" he asked.

"Some business, my lord, which, I confess at once, is of extraordinary nature," answered the old lawyer. "I will go straight to it. Your lordship has doubtless read in the newspapers of the murder of a man named Ashton in Lonsdale Passage, in the Bayswater district?"

Lord Ellingham glanced at a pile of newspapers which lay on a side-table.

"Yes," he answered, "I have. I've been much interested in it--as a murder. A curious and mysterious case, don't you think?"

"We," replied Mr. Pawle, waving a hand toward Viner, "know it to be a much more mysterious case than anybody could gather from the newspaper accounts, for they know little who have written them, and we, who are behind the scenes, know a great deal. Now, your lordship will have seen that a young man, an actor named Langton Hyde, has been arrested and charged, and is on remand. This unfortunate fellow was an old schoolmate of Mr. Viner--they were at Rugby together; and Mr. Viner--and I may say I myself also--is convinced beyond doubt of his entire innocence, and we want to clear him; we are doing all we can to clear him. And it is because of this that we have ventured to call on your lordship."

"Oh!" exclaimed Lord Ellingham. "But--what can I do! How do I come in?"

"My lord," said Mr. Pawle in his most solemn manner, "I will go straight to this point also. We have reason to feel sure, from undoubted evidence, that Mr. John Ashton, a very wealthy man, who had recently come from Australia, where he had lived for a great many years, to settle here in London, had in his possession when he was murdered certain highly important papers relating to your lordship's family, and that he was murdered for the sake of them!"

The puzzled expression which Viner had noted in Lord Ellingham's boyish face when they entered the room grew more and more marked as Mr. Pawle proceeded, and he turned on the old lawyer at the end with a stare of amazement.

"You really think that!" he exclaimed.

"I shall be very much surprised if I'm not right!" declared Mr. Pawle.

"But what papers?" asked Lord Ellingham. "And what--how could this Mr. Ashton, who, you say, came from Australia, be in possession of papers relating to my family? I never heard of him."

"Your lordship," said Mr. Pawle, "is doubtless well aware that some years ago there was a very strange--shall we call it romance?--in your family. A very remarkable episode, anyway, a most unusual--"

"You mean the strange disappearance of my uncle--this Lord Marketstoke?" interrupted Lord Ellingham with a smile. "Oh, of course, I know all about that."

"Very well, my lord," continued Mr. Pawle. "Then your lordship is aware that Lord Marketstoke was believed to have gone to the Colonies--Australia or New Zealand--and was--lost there. His death was presumed. Now, Ashton came from Australia, and as I say, we believe him to have brought with him certain highly important papers relative to Lord Marketstoke, whom we think to have been well known to him at one time. Indeed, we felt sure that Ashton knew Lord Marketstoke's secret. Now, my lord, we are also confident that whoever killed John Ashton did so in order to get hold of certain papers which, I feel certain, Ashton made a habit of carrying on his person--papers relating to his friend Lord Marketstoke's identity."

Lord Ellingham remained silent for a moment, looking from one visitor to another. It was very clear to Viner that some train of thought had been aroused in him and that he was closely pursuing it. He fixed his gaze at last on the old lawyer.

"Mr. Pawle," he said quietly, "have you any proof--undoubted proof--that Mr. Ashton did possess papers relating to my long-missing uncle?"

"Yes," answered Mr. Pawle, "I have!" He pulled out the bundle of letters which he and Viner had unearthed from the Japanese cabinet. "This! It is a packet of letters written by the seventh Countess of Ellingham to her elder son, the Lord Marketstoke we are talking of, when he was a boy at Eton. Your Lordship will probably recognize your grandmother's handwriting."

Lord Ellingham bent over the letter which Mr. Pawle spread before him.

"Yes," he said, "I know the writing quite well. And--these were in Mr. Ashton's possession?"

"We have just found them--Mr. Viner and I--in a cabinet in his house," replied Mr. Pawle. "They are the only papers we have so far been able to bring to light. But as I have said, we are convinced there were others--much more important ones!--in his possession, probably in his pocketbook."

Lord Ellingham handed the letters back.

"You think that this Mr. Ashton was in possession of a secret relating to the missing man--my uncle, Lord Marketstoke?" he asked.

"I am convinced of it!" declared Mr. Pawle.

Lord Ellingham glanced shrewdly at his visitors.

"I should like to know what it was!" he said.

"Your lordship feels as I do," remarked Mr. Pawle. "But now I should like to ask a question which arises out of this visit. As we approached your lordship's door, just now, we saw, leaving it, two men. One of them, my friend Mr. Viner immediately recognized. He does not know who the man is--"

"Which of the two men do you mean!" interrupted Lord Ellingham. "I may as well say that they had just left me."

"The clean-shaven man," answered Viner.

"Whom Mr. Viner knows for a fact," continued Mr. Pawle, "to have been in Ashton's company only an hour or so before Ashton's murder!"

Lord Ellingham looked at Viner in obvious surprise.

"But you do not know who he is?" he exclaimed.

"No," replied Viner, "I don't. But there is no doubt of the truth of what Mr. Pawle has just said. This man was certainly with Mr. Ashton at a tavern in Notting Hill from about nine-thirty to ten-thirty on the evening of Ashton's death. In fact, they left the tavern together."

The young nobleman suddenly pulled open a drawer in his desk, produced a box of cigarettes and silently offered it to his visitors. He lighted a cigarette himself, and for a moment smoked in silence--it seemed to Viner that his youthful face had grown unusually grave and thoughtful.

"Mr. Pawle," he said at last, "I'm immensely surprised by what you've told me, and all the more so because this is the second surprise I've had this afternoon. I may as well tell you that the two gentlemen whom you saw going away just now brought me some very astonishing news--yours comes right on top of it! And, if you please, I'd rather not say any more about it, just now, but I'm going to make a proposal to you. Will you--and Mr. Viner, if he'll be so good--meet me tomorrow morning, say at noon, at my solicitors' offices?"

"With pleasure!" responded Mr. Pawle. "Your lordship's solicitors are--"

"Carless and Driver, Lincoln's Inn Fields," answered Lord Ellingham.

"Friends of ours," said Mr. Pawle. "We will meet your lordship there at twelve o 'clock to the minute."

"And--you'll bring that with you?" suggested Lord Ellingham, pointing to the packet of letters which Mr. Pawle held in his hand.

"Just so, my lord," assented Mr. Pawle. "And we'll be ready to tell all we know--for there are further details."

Outside the house the old lawyer gripped Viner's elbow.

"That boy knows something!" he said with a meaning smile. "He's astute enough for his age--smart youngster! But--what does he know? Those two men have told him something. Viner, we must find out who that clean-shaven man is. I have some idea that I have seen him before--I shouldn't be at all surprised if he's a solicitor, may have seen him in some court or other. But in that case I wonder he didn't recognize me."

"He didn't look at you," replied Viner. "He and the other man were too much absorbed in whatever it was they were talking about. I have been wondering since I first saw him at the tavern," he continued, "if I ought not to tell the police what I know about him--I mean, that he was certainly in Ashton's company on the evening of the murder. What do you think?"

"I think not, at present," replied Mr. Pawle. "It seems evident--unless, indeed, it was all a piece of bluff, and it may have been--that this man is, or was when you saw him, just as ignorant as the landlord of that place was that the man who used to drop in there and Ashton were one and the same person. No, let the police go on their own lines--we're on others. We shall hear of this man again, whoever he is. Now I must get back to my office--come there at half-past eleven tomorrow morning, Viner, and we'll go on to Carless and Driver's."

Viner went thoughtfully homeward, ruminating over the events of the day, and entered his house to find his two guests, the sisters of the unlucky Hyde, in floods of tears, and Miss Penkridge looking unusually grave. The elder Miss Hyde sprang up at sight of him and held a tear-soaked handkerchief towards him in pantomimic appeal.

"Oh, Mr. Viner," she exclaimed, "you are so kind, and so clever. I'm sure you'll see a way out of this! It looks, oh, so very black, and so very much against him; but oh, dear Mr. Viner, there must be some explanation!"

"But what is it?" asked Viner, looking from one to the other. "What has happened! Has any one been here?"

Miss Penkridge silently handed to her nephew an early edition of one of the evening newspapers and pointed to a paragraph in large type. And Viner rapidly read it over, to the accompaniment of the younger Miss Hyde's sobs.

A sensational discovery in connection with the recent murder of Mr. Ashton in Lonsdale Passage, Bayswater, was made in the early hours of this morning. Charles Fisher, a greengrocer, carrying on business in the Harrow Road, found in his woodshed, concealed in a nook in the wall, a parcel containing Mr. Ashton's gold watch and chain and a diamond ring. He immediately communicated with the police, and these valuables are now in their possession. It will be remembered that Langton Hyde, the young actor who is charged with the crime, and who is now on remand, stated at the coroner's inquest that he passed the night on which the crime was committed in a shed in this neighbourhood.

Viner read this news twice over. Then a sudden idea occurred to him, and he turned to leave the room.

"I don't think you need be particularly alarmed about this," he said to the weeping sisters. "Cheer up, till I return--I am going round to the police."