The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XVIII. Let Him Appear!
The meeting between the solicitors suggested to Viner and to Lord Ellingham, who looked on curiously while they exchanged formal greetings and explanations, a certain solemnity--each of them seemed to imply in look and manner that this was an unusually grave occasion. And Mr. Carless, assuming the direction of things, became almost judicial in his deportment.
"Well, gentlemen," he said, when they had all gathered about his desk. "Lord Ellingham has informed me of what passed between you and himself at his house yesterday. In plain language, the client whom you represent claims to be the Lord Marketstoke who disappeared so completely many years ago, and therefore the rightful Earl of Ellingham. Now, a first question--do you, as his legal advisers, believe in his claim?"
"Judging by the proofs with which he has furnished us, yes," answered Methley. "There seems to be no doubt of it."
"We'll ask for these proofs presently," remarked Mr. Carless. "But now a further question: Your client--whom we'll now call the claimant--had, I understand, no desire to take up his rightful position, and suggests that the secret shall remain a secret, and that he shall be paid a hundred thousand pounds to hold his tongue?"
"If you put it that way--yes," replied Methley.
"I don't know in what other way it could be put," said Mr. Carless grimly. "It's the plain truth. But now, if Lord Ellingham refuses that offer, does your client intend to commence proceedings?"
"Our instructions are--yes," answered Methley.
"Very good," said Mr. Carless. "Now, then--what are these proofs?"
Methley turned to his partner, who immediately thrust a hand in his breastpocket and produced a long envelope.
"I have them here," said Woodlesford. "Our client intrusted them to us so that we might show them to Lord Ellingham, if necessary. There are not many documents--they all relate to the period of our client's life before he left England. There are one or two important letters from his father, the seventh Earl, two or three from his mother; there is also his mother's will. There is one letter from his younger brother, to whom he had evidently, more than once, announced his determination of leaving home for a considerable time. There are two letters from your own firm, relating to some property which Lord Marketstoke disposed of before he left London. There is a schedule or memorandum of certain personal effects which he left in his rooms at Ellingham Hall: there is also a receipt from his bankers for a quantity of plate and jewellery which he had deposited with them before leaving--these things had been left him by his mother. There are also two documents which he seems to have considered it worth while to preserve all these years," concluded Woodlesford with a smile. "One is a letter informing him that he had been elected a member of the M.C.C.; the other is his commission as a justice of the peace for the county of Buckinghamshire."
As he detailed these things, Woodlesford laid each specified paper before Mr. Carless, and then they all gathered round, and examined each exhibit. The various documents were somewhat faded with age, and the edges of some were worn as if from long folding and keeping in a pocketbook. Mr. Carless hastily ran his eye over them.
"Very interesting, gentlemen," he remarked. "But you know, as well as I do, that these things don't prove your client to be the missing Lord Marketstoke. A judge and jury would want a lot more evidence than that. The mere fact that your man is in possession of all these documents proves nothing whatever. He may have stolen them!"
"From what we have seen of our client, Mr. Carless," observed Methley, with some stiffness of manner, "there is no need for such a suggestion."
"I dare say we shall all see a good deal of your client before this matter is settled, Mr. Methley," retorted Mr. Carless. "And even when I have seen a lot of him, I should still say the same--he may have stolen them! What else has he to prove that he's what he says he is?"
"He is fully conversant with his family history," said Woodlesford. "He can give a perfectly full and--so far as we can judge--accurate account of his early life and of his subsequent doings. He evidently knows all about Ellingham Hall, Marketstoke and the surroundings. I think if you were to examine him on these points, you would find that his memory is surprisingly fresh."
"I have no doubt that it will come to his being examined on a great many points and in much detail," said Mr. Carless with a dry smile. "Of course, I shall be much interested in seeing him. You see, I remember the missing Lord Marketstoke very well indeed--he was often in here when I, as a lad of nineteen or twenty, was articled to my own father. And now, gentlemen, I'll ask you a question and commend it to your intelligence and common sense: if your client is this man he claims to be, why didn't he come straight to Carless and Driver, whom he would remember well enough, instead of going to Methley and Woodlesford? Come, now?"
Neither visitor answered this question, and Mr. Pawle suddenly turned on them with another.
"Did your client mention to you that he knew Carless and Driver as the family solicitors?" he asked.
"No, I can't say that he did," admitted Methley. "After all, thirty-five years' absence, you know--"
"You said just now that his memory was surprisingly fresh," interrupted Mr. Pawle.
"Surely," replied Woodlesford, "surely you can't expect a man who has been away from England all that time to remember everything!"
"I should have expected Lord Marketstoke to have gone straight to the family solicitors, anyway," retorted Mr. Pawle. "Obvious thing to do--if his story is a true one."
Woodlesford glanced at his partner, and repossessing himself of the documents, began to arrange them in the envelope from which he had drawn them.
"We cannot, of course, say positively who our client is or who he is not," he said. "All we can say is that he came to us with an introduction from an old client of ours whom we knew very well, and that his story seems to us to be quite credible. No doubt he can bring further proof. That he did not come here in the first instance--"
"I'll tell you why I, personally, am very much surprised that he didn't," interrupted Mr. Carless. "You told Lord Ellingham yesterday that your client saw no end of advertisements for him at the time of his father's death. Now, we, Carless and Driver, sent out those advertisements--our name was appended to every one of them, wherever they appeared. Why, then, when this man--if he is the real man--returned home, did he not come to us? For there are three persons in this office who--but wait!"
He touched a bell; the clerk who had announced Methley and Woodlesford put his head in at the door.
"Ask Mr. Portlethwaite to come here," commanded Mr. Carless. "And just find out if Mr. Driver is in his room. Portlethwaite can tell me when he comes."
An elderly, grey-haired man presently appeared and closed the door behind him as if aware of the sacred nature of the proceedings.
"Mr. Driver is out, Mr. Carless," he said. "You wanted me, I think?"
"Our senior clerk," observed Mr. Carless, by way of introduction. "Portlethwaite, you remember the Lord Marketstoke who disappeared some thirty-five years ago?"
Mr. Portlethwaite smiled.
"Quite well, Mr. Carless!" he answered. "As if it were yesterday. He used to come here a good deal, you know."
"Do you think you'd know him again, Portlethwaite, after all these years?" asked Mr. Carless. "Thirty-five years, mind!"
The elderly clerk smiled--more assuredly than before. Then he looked significantly at a corner of the room, and Mr. Carless took the hint, and rising from his chair, went aside with him. Portlethwaite whispered something in his employer's ear, and Carless suddenly laughed and nodded.
"To be sure--to be sure--I remember now!" he said aloud. "Thank you, Portlethwaite: that's all. Well, gentlemen," he continued, returning to his desk when the clerk had gone. "I think the best thing you can do is to bring your client here--if he is the real and genuine article, he will, I am sure, be very glad indeed to meet three persons who knew him quite intimately in the old days--Mr. Driver, Mr. Portlethwaite and myself. And I really don't know that there's any more to do or say."
The two visitors rose, and Methley looked at Mr. Carless in a questioning fashion.
"Am I to go away with the impression that you believe our client to be an impostor?" he said quietly.
"Frankly I do!" answered Mr. Carless.
"So do I!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle. "Emphatically so!"
"In that case," said Methley, "I see no advantage in bringing him here."
"Not even anything to your own advantage?" suggested Mr. Carless, with a keen glance which passed from one partner to the other. "You, as reputable practitioners of our profession, don't want to be mixed up with an impostor?"
"We should be very sorry to be mixed up in any way with an impostor, Mr. Carless!" said Methley.
Mr. Carless pursed his lips for a moment as if he were never going to open them again; then he suddenly relaxed them.
"I tell you what it is, gentlemen!" he said. "I'm only anticipating matters in saying what I'm going to say, and I'm saying it because I feel sure you are quite sincere and genuine in this affair and are being deceived. If you will bring your client here, there are three of us in this office who, as my old clerk has just reminded me, can positively identify him on the instant if he is the man he claims to be. Positively, I say, and at once! There!"
"May one ask how?" said Woodlesford.
"No!" exclaimed Mr. Carless. "Bring him! Telephone an appointment--and we'll settle the matter as soon as he sets foot inside that door."
"May we tell him that?" asked Methley.
"You can do as you like," answered Mr. Carless. "Between ourselves, I shouldn't! But I assure you--we can tell in one glance! That's a fact!"
The two solicitors went away; and Viner, who had closely watched Methley during the interview, followed them out and hailed Methley in the corridor outside Mr. Carless' room.
"May I have a word with you?" he asked, drawing him aside. "I don't know if you remember, but I saw you the other night in the parlour of that old tavern in Notting Hill--you came in while I was there?"
"I had some idea that I remembered your face when we were introduced just now," said Methley. "Yes, I think I do remember--you were sitting in a corner near the hearth?"
"Just so," agreed Viner. "And I heard you ask the landlord a question about a gentleman whom you used to meet there sometimes--you left some specimen cigars with the landlord for him."
"Yes," assented Methley wonderingly.
"You never knew that man's name?" continued Viner. "Nor who he was? Just so--so I gathered. Then I'll tell you. There was a good reason why he had not been to that tavern for some nights. He was John Ashton, the man who was murdered in Lonsdale Passage!"
Viner was watching his man with all the keenness of which he was capable, and he saw that this announcement fell on Methley as an absolute surprise. He started as only a man can start who has astounding news given to him suddenly.
"God bless me!" he exclaimed. "You don't mean it! Of course, I know about that murder--our own district. And I saw Ashton's picture in the paper--but then there are so many elderly men of that type--broad features, trimmed grey beard! Dear me, dear me! A very pleasant, genial fellow. I'm astonished, Mr. Viner."
Viner resolved on a bold step--he would take it without consulting Mr. Pawle or anybody. He drew Methley further aside.
"Mr. Methley," he said. "You're a man of honour, and I trust you with a secret, to be kept until I release you from the obligation of secrecy. I have reasons for getting at the truth about Ashton's murder--so has Mr. Pawle. He and I have been making investigations and inquiries, and we are convinced, we are positive, that these papers which your partner now has in his pocket were stolen from Ashton's dead body--that, in fact, Ashton was murdered for the possession of them. And I tell you, for your own sake--find out who this client of yours is! That he was the actual murderer I don't believe for a second--he is probably a mere cat's-paw. But--who's behind him? If you can do anything to find out the truth, do it!"
That Methley was astonished beyond belief was so evident that Viner was now absolutely convinced of his sincerity. He stood staring open-mouthed for a moment: then he glanced at Woodlesford, who was waiting at some distance along the corridor.
"Mr. Viner!" he said. "You amaze me! Listen: my partner is as sound and honest a fellow as there is in all London. Let me tell him this--I'll engage for his secrecy. If you'll consent to that, I'll see that, without a word from us as to why, this man who claims to be the missing Lord Marketstoke is brought here. If what you say is true, we are not going to be partners to a crime. Let me tell Woodlesford--I'll answer for him."
Viner considered this proposition for a moment.
"Very well!" he said at last. "Tell him--I shall trust you both. Remember--it's between the three of us. I shan't say a word to Pawle, nor to Carless. You know there's a man's life at stake--Hyde's! Hyde is as innocent as I am--he's an old schoolfellow of mine."
"I understand," said Methley. "Very well, trust to me, Mr. Viner."
He went off with a reassuring nod, and Viner returned to Mr. Carless' room. The three men he had left there were deep in conversation, and as he entered, Mr. Carless smote his hand on the desk before him.
"This is certain!" he exclaimed. "We must have this Miss Avice Wickham here--at once!"