The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XVI. The Outhouse
Near the police-station Viner fell in with his solicitor, Felpham, who turned a corner in a great hurry. Felpham's first glance showed his client that their purposes were in common.
"Seen that paragraph in the evening papers?" said Felpham without preface. "By George! that's serious news! What a pity that Hyde ever made that statement about his doings on the night of the murder! It would have been far better if he'd held his tongue altogether."
"He insisted on it--in the end," answered Viner. "And in my opinion he was right. But--you think this is very serious?"
"Serious? Yes!" exclaimed Felpham. "He says he spent the night in a shed in the Harrow Road district. Now the things that were taken from Ashton's body are discovered in such a place--nay, the very place; for if you remember, Hyde particularized his whereabouts. What's the obvious conclusion? What can anybody think?"
"I see two or three obvious conclusions, and I think several things," remarked Viner. "I'll tell you what they are when we've seen Drillford. I'm not alarmed about this discovery, Felpham. I think it may lead to finding the real murderer."
"You see further than I do, then," muttered Felpham. "I only see that it's highly dangerous to Hyde's interests. And I want first-handed information about it."
Drillford, discovered alone in his office, smiled as the two men walked in--there was an irritating I-told-you-so air about him.
"Ah!" he said. "I see you gentlemen have been reading the afternoon papers! What do you think about your friend now, Mr. Viner?"
"Precisely what I thought before and shall continue to think," retorted Viner. "I've seen no reason to alter my opinion."
"Oh--but I guess Mr. Felpham doesn't think that way?" replied Drillford with a shrewd glance at the solicitor. "Mr. Felpham knows the value of evidence, I believe!"
"What is it that's been found, exactly?" asked Felpham.
Drillford opened a locked drawer, lifted aside a sheet of cardboard, and revealed a fine gold watch and chain and a diamond ring. These lay on two or three sheets of much crumpled paper of a peculiar quality.
"There you are!" said Drillford. "Those belonged to Mr. Ashton; there's his name on the watch, and a mark of his inside the ring. They were found early this morning, hidden, in the very place in which Hyde confessed that he spent most of the night after Ashton's murder--a shed belonging to one Fisher, a greengrocer, up the Harrow Road.
"Who found them?" demanded Felpham.
"Fisher himself," answered Drillford. "He was pottering about in his shed before going to Covent Garden. He wanted some empty boxes, and in pulling things about he found--these! Couldn't have made a more important find, I think.
"Were these things loose?" asked Viner.
"Wrapped loosely in the paper they're lying on," replied Drillford.
Viner took the paper out of the drawer, examined it and lifted it to his nose.
"I wonder, if Hyde really did put those things there," he said, "how Hyde came to be carrying about with him these sheets of paper which had certainly been used before for the wrappings of chemicals or drugs?"
Felpham pricked his ears.
"Eh?" he said. "What's that?"
"Smell for yourself," answered Viner. "Let the inspector smell too. I draw the attention to both of you to the fact, because we'll raise that point whenever it's necessary. Those papers have at some time been used to wrap some strong-smelling drug."
"No doubt of it!" said Felpham, who was applying the papers to his nose. "Smell them, Drillford! As Mr. Viner says, what would Hyde be doing with this stuff in his pocket?"
"That's a mere detail," remarked Drillford impatiently. "These chaps that mooch about, as Hyde was doing, pick up all sorts of odds and ends. He may have pinched them from a chemist's shop. Anyway, there's the fact--and we'll hang him on it! You'll see!"
"We shall never see anything of the sort!" said Viner. "You're on the wrong tack, Inspector. Let me put two or three things to your intelligence. Where's Ashton's purse? I know for a fact that Ashton had a purse full of money when he went out of his house that night--Mrs. Killenhall and Miss Wickham saw him take it out just before he left to give some cash to the parlourmaid, and they saw him replace it in his trousers pocket; I also know for another fact where he spent money that evening--in short, I know now a good deal about his movements for some hours before his death."
"Then you ought to tell us, Mr. Viner," said Drillford a little sulkily. "You oughtn't to keep any information to yourself."
"You're going on the wrong tack, or I might," retorted Viner. "But you'll know all in good time. Now, I ask you again--where's Ashton's purse? You know as well as I do that when his clothing was examined, almost immediately after his death, all his effects were gone--watch, chain, rings, pocketbook, purse. If Hyde took the whole lot, do you think he would ever have been such a consummate ass as to wait until next morning to pawn that ring in Edgware Road? The idea is preposterous!"
"And why, pray?" demanded Drillford, obviously nettled at the turn which the conversation was taking.
"I wonder your own common sense doesn't tell you," said Viner with intentional directness. "If Hyde took everything from his victim, as you say he did, he would have had a purse full of ready money. He could have gone off to some respectable lodging-house. He could have put a hundred miles between himself and London by breakfast-time. He would have had ready money to last him for months. But--he was starving when he went to the pawnbrokers! Hyde told you the truth--he never had anything but that ring."
"Good!" muttered Felpham. "Good, Viner! That's one in the eye for you, Drillford."
"Another thing that you're forgetting, Inspector," continued Viner: "I suppose you attach some value to probabilities? Do you, as a sensible man, believe for one moment that Hyde, placed in the position he is, would be such a fool, such a suicidal fool, as to tell you about that particular shed if he'd really hidden those things there? The mere idea is absurd--ridiculous!"
"Good again, Viner!" said Felpham. "He wouldn't!"
Drillford, obviously ill-pleased, put the strongly-smelling paper and the valuables which had been wrapped in it, back in the drawer and turned the key.
"All very well talking and theorizing, Mr. Viner," he said sullenly. "We know from his own lips that Hyde did spend the night in that shed. If he didn't put these things there, who did?"
Viner gave him a steady look.
"The man who murdered and robbed Ashton!" he answered. "And that man was not Hyde."
"You'll have that to prove," retorted Drillford, derisively. "I know what a jury'll think with all this evidence before it!"
"We shall prove a good many things that'll surprise you," said Viner quietly. "And you'll see, then, the foolishness of jumping at what seems to be an obvious conclusion."
He motioned Felpham to follow, and going outside, turned in the direction of the Harrow Road.
"I'm going to have a look at the place where these things were found," he said. "Come with me. You see for yourself," he continued as they walked on, "how ridiculous it is to suppose that Hyde planted them. The whole affair is plain enough, to me. The real murderer read--or may have heard--Hyde's statement before the coroner, and in order to strengthen the case against Hyde and divert suspicion from himself, sought out this shed and put the things there. Clumsy! If Hyde had ever had the purse, which more certainly disappeared with the rest of the property, he'd never have gone to that shed at all."
"We'll make the most of all that," said Felpham. "But I gathered, from what you said just now to Drillford, that you know more about this case than you've let out. If it's in Hyde's favour--"
"I can't tell you what I know," answered Viner. "I do know some strange things, which will all come out in good time. If we bring the murder home to the right man, Hyde of course will be cleared. I'll tell everything as soon as I can, Felpham."
They walked quickly forward until they came to the higher part of the Harrow Road; there, at a crowded point of that dismal thoroughfare, where the shops were small and mean, Felpham suddenly lifted a finger towards a sign which hung over an open front filled with the cheaper sorts of vegetables.
"Here's the place," he said, "a corner shop. The shed, of course, will be somewhere behind."
Viner looked with interest at the refuge which Hyde had chosen after his hurried flight from the scene of the murder. A shabby looking street ran down from the corner of the greengrocer's shop; the first twenty yards of it on that side were filled with palings, more or less broken and dilapidated; behind them lay a yard in which stood a van, two or three barrows, a collection of boxes and baskets and crates, and a lean-to shed, built against the wall of the adjoining house. The door of this yard hung loosely on its rusty hinges; Viner saw at once that nothing could be easier than for a man to slip into this miserable shelter unseen.
"Let's get hold of the tenant," he said. "Better show him your card, and then he'll know we're on professional business."
The greengrocer, a dull-looking fellow who was measuring potatoes, showed no great interest on hearing what his callers wanted. Summoning his wife to mind the shop, he led Viner and Felpham round to the yard and opened the door of the shed. This was as untidy as the yard, and filled with a similar collection of boxes, baskets and crates. In one corner lay a bundle of empty potato sacks--the greengrocer at once pointed to it.
"I reckon that's where the fellow got a bit of a sleep that night," he said. "There was nothing to prevent him getting in here--no locks or bolts on either gate of the yard or that door. He may have been in here many a night, for all I know."
"Where did you find those valuables this morning?" asked Viner.
The greengrocer pointed to a shelf in a corner above the bundle of sacking.
"There!" he answered. "I wanted some small boxes to take down to Covent Garden, and in turning some of these over I came across a little parcel, wrapped in paper--slipped under a box that was turned top downwards on the shelf, you understand? So of course I opened it, and there was the watch and chain and ring."
"Just folded in the papers that you handed to the police?" suggested Viner.
"Well, there was more paper about 'em than what I gave to Inspector Drillford," said the greengrocer. "A well-wrapped-up bit of parcel it was--there's the rest of the paper there, where I threw it down."
He pointed to some loose sheets of paper which lay on the sacking, and Viner went forward, picked them up, looked quickly at them, and put them in his pocket.
"I suppose you never heard anybody about, that night?" he asked turning to the greengrocer.
"Not I!" the man replied. "I sleep too sound to hear aught of that sort. There's nothing in here that's of any value. No--a dozen folk could come into this yard at night and we shouldn't hear 'em--we sleep at the front of the house."
Viner slipped some silver into the greengrocer's hand and led Felpham away. And when they reached a quieter part of the district, he pulled out the papers which he had picked out of the corner in the shed and held them in front of his companion's eyes.
"We did some good in coming up here, after all, Felpham!" he said, with a grim smile. "It wasn't a mere desire to satisfy idle curiosity that made me come. I thought I might, by sheer good luck, hit on something, or some idea that would help. Now then, look at these things. That's a piece of newspaper from out of a copy of the Melbourne Argus of September 6th last. Likely thing for Langton Hyde to be carrying in his pocket, eh?"
"Good heavens, that's certainly important!" exclaimed Felpham.
"And so is this, and perhaps much more so," said Viner, making a second exhibit. "That's a sheet of brown wrapping-paper with the name and address of a famous firm of wholesale druggists and chemical manufacturers on one side--printed. It's another likely thing for Hyde to possess, and to carry about, isn't it?"
"And the same bitter, penetrating smell about it!" said Felpham.
"Hyde, of course, if Drillford is correct, had all this paper in his pocket when he went into that shed," said Viner. "But I have a different idea, and a different theory. Here," he went on, folding his discoveries together neatly, "you take charge of these--and take care of them. They may be of more importance than we think."
He went home full of thought, restored the sisters to something like cheerfulness by assuring them that the situation was no worse, and possibly rather better, and spent the rest of the evening in his study, silently working things out. Viner, by the time he went to bed, had evolved an idea, and it was still developing and growing stronger when he set out next morning to accompany Mr. Pawle to Lord Ellingham's solicitors.