The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XVII. The Claimant
Carless and Driver practised their profession of the law in one of the old houses on the south side of Lincoln's Inn Fields--a house so old that it immediately turned Viner's thought to what he had read of the days wherein Inigo Jones exercised his art up the stately frontages, and duels were fought in the gardens which London children now sport in. In one of these houses lived Blackstone; in another Erskine; one ancient roof once sheltered John Milton; another heard the laughter of Nell Gwynn; up the panelled staircase which Mr. Pawle and his companion were presently conducted, the feet of many generations had trod. And the room into which they were duly conducted was so old-world in appearance with its oaken walls and carving and old-fashioned furniture that nothing but the fact that its occupants wore twentieth century garments would have convinced Viner that he had not been suddenly thrown back to the days of Queen Anne.
Lord Ellingham was already there when they arrived--in conference with his solicitor, Mr. Carless, a plump, rosy, active gentleman who wore mutton-chop whiskers and--secretly--prided himself on his likeness to the type of fox-hunting squire. It was very evident to Viner that both solicitor and client were in a state of expectancy bordering on something very like excitement; and Mr. Carless, the preliminary greetings being over, plunged at once into the subject.
"I say, Pawle," he exclaimed, turning at once to his fellow-practitioner, "this appears to be a most extraordinary business! His lordship has just been telling me all about the two calls he had yesterday--first from two men whom he'd never seen before--then from you two, who were also strangers. He has also told me what both lots of his callers had to say, and hang me if I ever heard of two such curious unfoldings coming one on top of the other. Sounds like a first-class mystery!"
"You forget," remarked Mr. Pawle with a glance at Lord Ellingham, "that we don't know--Mr. Viner and myself--what it was that his lordship's first couple of callers told him. He left that until today."
Mr. Carless looked at his client, who nodded his head as if in assent to something in the glance.
"Well, as I'm now in possession of the facts," said he, "I'll tell you, Pawle--His Lordship has given me a clear account of what his first callers said, and what you and Mr. Viner added to it. The two men whom you saw coming away from Ellingham House were Methley and Woodlesford, two solicitors who are in partnership in Edgware Road--I know of them: I think we've had conveyancing business with them once or twice. Quite a respectable firm--in a smallish way, you know, but all right so far as I know anything of them. Now, they came to Lord Ellingham yesterday afternoon with a most extraordinary story. His lordship tells me that he learned from your talk with him yesterday afternoon that you are pretty well acquainted, you and Mr. Viner, with his family history, so I'll go straight to the point. What do you think Methley and Woodlesford came to tell him? You'd never guess!"
"I won't try!" answered Mr. Pawle. "What, then?"
Mr. Carless smiled grimly.
"That the long-lost Lord Marketstoke was alive and in England!" he said. "Here, in fact, in London!"
Mr. Pawle smiled too. But his smile was not grim--it was, rather, the smile of a man who hears what he has been expecting to hear.
"I thought it would be something of that sort!" he exclaimed. "Aye, I fancied that would be the game!"
"You think it a game?" suggested Mr. Carless.
"And a highly dangerous one--as somebody will find out," responded Mr. Pawle. "But--what did these fellows really say!"
"His lordship will correct me if I miss anything pertinent," answered Mr. Carless with a glance at his client. "They said this--that they had been called upon by a gentleman now staying at one of the private residential hotels in Lancaster Gate, who was desirous of legal assistance in an important matter and had been recommended to them by a fellow-boarder at the hotel. He then told them that though he was now passing under the name of Cave--"
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle, with a snort which denoted a certain sort of surprised satisfaction. "Ah, to be sure! Cave, of course! But I interrupt you--pray proceed."
"I see your point," remarked Mr. Carless with a smile. "Well--although he was passing under the name of Cave, he was, in strict reality, the Lord Marketstoke who disappeared from England many years ago, who was never heard of again, and whose death had been presumed. He was, therefore, the rightful Earl of Ellingham, and as such entitled to the estates. He proceeded to tell Methley and Woodlesford his adventures.
"He had, he said, never at any time from boyhood been on good terms with his father: there had always been mutual dislike. As he grew to manhood, his father had thwarted him in every conceivable way. He himself as a young man, had developed radical and democratic ideas--this had caused a further widening of the breach. Eventually he had made up his mind to clear out of England altogether. He had a modest amount of money of his own, a few thousands which had been left him by his mother. So he took this and quietly disappeared.
"According to his own account he became a good deal of a rolling stone, going to various out-of-the-way parts of the earth, and taking particular pains, wherever he went, to conceal his identity. He told these people Methley and Woodlesford, that he had at one time or another lived and traded in South Africa, India, China, Japan and the Malay Settlement--finally he had settled down in Australia. He had kept himself familiar with events at home--knew of his father's death, and he saw no end of advertisements for himself. He was aware that legal proceedings were taken as regards the presumption of his death and the administration of the estates; he was also aware of the death of his younger brother and that title and estates were now in possession of his nephew--His Lordship there. In fact, he was very well up in the whole story, according to Methley and Woodlesford," said Mr. Carless, with a smile. "And Lord Ellingham believed that Methley and Woodlesford were genuinely convinced by him."
"Seemed so, anyway, both of 'em," agreed Lord Ellingham.
"However," continued Mr. Carless, "Methley and Woodlesford, like you and I, Pawle, are limbs of the law. They asked two very pertinent questions. First--why had he come forward after this long interval? Second--what evidence had he to support and prove his claim?"
"Good!" muttered Mr. Pawle. "And I'll be bound he had some excellent replies ready for them."
"He had," said Mr. Carless. "He answered as regards the first question that of late things had not gone well with him. He was still comfortably off, but he had lost a lot of money in Australia through speculation. He replied to the second by producing certain papers and documents."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle, nudging Viner. "Now we're warming to it!"
"And according to what Methley and Woodlesford told Lord Ellingham," continued Mr. Carless, "these papers and documents are of a very convincing nature. They said to His Lordship frankly that they were greatly surprised by them. They had thought that this man might possibly be a bogus claimant, who had somehow gained a thorough knowledge of the facts he was narrating, but the papers he produced, which, he alleged, had never been out of his possession since his secret flight from London, were--well, staggering. After inspecting them, Methley and Woodlesford came to the conclusion that their caller really was what he claimed to be--the missing man!"
"What were the papers?" demanded Mr. Pawle.
"Oh!" replied Mr. Carless, looking at his client. "Letters, certificates, and the like,--all, according to Methley and Woodlesford, excellent proofs of identity."
"Did they show them to Your Lordship?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"Oh, no! they only told me of them," answered Lord Ellingham. "They said, of course, that they would be shown to me, or to Mr. Carless."
"Aye!" muttered Mr. Pawle. "Just so! Yes, and they will have to be shown!"
"That follows as a matter of course," observed Mr. Carless. "But now, Pawle, we come to the real point of the case. Methley and Woodlesford, having informed His Lordship of all this when they called on him yesterday afternoon then proceeded to tell him precisely what their client, the claimant, as we will now call him, really wanted, for he had been at some pains, considerable pains, to make himself clear on that point to them, and he desired them to make themselves clear to Lord Ellingham, whom he throughout referred to as his nephew. He had no desire, he told them, to recover his title, nor the estates. He did not care a cent--his own phrase--for the title. He was now sixty years of age. The life he had lived had quite unfitted him for the positions and duties of an English nobleman. He wanted to go back to the country in which he had settled. But as title and estates really were his, he wanted his nephew, the present holder, to make him a proper payment, in consideration of the receipt of which he would engage to preserve the silence which he had already kept so thoroughly and effectively for thirty-five years. Eh?"
"In plain language," said Mr. Pawle, "he wanted to be bought."
"Precisely!" agreed Mr. Carless. "Of course, Methley and Woodlesford didn't quite put it in that light. They put it that their client had no wish to disturb his nephew, but suggested, kindly, that his nephew should make him a proper payment out of his abundance."
Mr. Pawle turned to Lord Ellingham.
"Did they mention a sum to Your Lordship?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Lord Ellingham, with a smile at Carless. "They did--tentatively."
"How much?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"One hundred thousand pounds!"
"On receipt of which, I suppose," observed Mr. Pawle dryly, "nothing would ever be heard again of your lordship's long-lost uncle, the rightful owner of all that Your Lordship possesses?"
Lord Ellingham laughed.
"So I gathered!" he answered.
"I wish I'd been present when Methley and Woodlesford put forward that proposition," exclaimed the old lawyer. "Did they seem serious?"
"Oh, I think they were quite serious," replied Lord Ellingham. "They seemed so; they spoke of it as what they called a domestic arrangement."
"Excellent phrase!" remarked Mr. Pawle. "And what said your lordship to their--or the claimant's proposition?"
"I told them that the matter was so serious that they and I must see my solicitors about it," answered Lord Ellingham, "and I arranged to meet them here at one o'clock today. They quite agreed that that was the proper thing to do, and went away. Then--you and Mr. Viner called."
"With, I understand, another extraordinary story," remarked Mr. Carless. "The particulars of which His Lordship has also told me. Now, Pawle, what do you really say about all this?"
Mr. Pawle smote his clenched right fist on the palm of his open left hand.
"I will tell you what I say, Carless!" he exclaimed with emphasis. "I say that whatever the papers and documents were which were produced by this man to Methley and Woodlesford, they were stolen from the body of John Ashton, who was foully murdered in Lonsdale Passage only last week. I'll stake all I have on that! Now, then, did this claimant steal them? Did he murder John Ashton for them? No--a thousand times no, for no man would have been such a fool as to come forward with them so soon after his victim's death! This claimant doesn't know how or where or when they were obtained--he doesn't suspect that murder's in it. Now, then--where did he get them? Who's at the back of him? Who--to be plain--who's making a cat's-paw of him? Find that out, and we shall know who murdered John Ashton!"
Viner, glancing at Lord Ellingham and at Mr. Carless, saw that Mr. Pawle's words had impressed them greatly, the solicitor especially. He nodded sympathetically, and Mr. Pawle went on speaking.
"Listen here, Carless!" he continued. "Mr. Viner and I have been investigating this case as far as we could, largely to save a man whom we both believe to be absolutely innocent of murder. I have come to certain conclusions. John Ashton, many years ago, fell in with the missing Lord Marketstoke, then living under the name of Wickham, in Australia, and they became close friends. At some time or other, Wickham told Ashton the real truth about himself, and when he died, left his little daughter--"
Carless looked sharply round.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "So there's a daughter?"
"There is a daughter, and her name is Avice--a name borne by a good many women of the Cave-Gray family," answered Mr. Pawle with a significant glance at his fellow-practitioner. "But let me go on: Wickham left his daughter, her mother being dead, in Ashton's guardianship. She was then about six years of age. Ashton sent her to school here in England. About twelve or thirteen years later, he came home and settled in Markendale Square. He brought Avice Wickham to live with him. He handed over to her a considerable sum, which, he said, her father had left in his hands for her. And then, secretly, Ashton went down to Marketstoke and evidently made certain inquiries and investigations. Whether he was going to reveal the truth as to what I have just told you, we don't know--probably he was. But he was murdered, and we all know when and where. And I say he was murdered for the sake of these very papers which we now know were produced to Methley and Woodlesford by this claimant. Now, then--"
Mr. Carless suddenly bent forward.
"A moment, Pawle!" he said. "If this man Wickham really was the lost Lord Marketstoke, and he's dead, and he left a daughter, and the daughter's alive--"
"Well?" demanded Mr. Pawle. "Well?"
"Why, then, of course, that daughter," said Mr. Carless slowly, "that daughter is--"
A clerk opened the door and glanced at his employer.
"Mr. Methley and Mr. Woodlesford, sir," he announced. "By appointment."