The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XIX. Under Examination
Mr. Pawle nodded assent to this proposition and rose from his chair.
"It's the only thing to do," he said. "We must get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible--whether Miss Wickham can tell us much or little, we must know what she can tell. Let us all meet here again at three o'clock--I will send one of my clerks to fetch her. But let us be clear on one point--are we to tell this young lady what our conclusions are, regarding herself?"
"Your conclusions!" said Mr. Carless, with a sly smile. "We know nothing yet, you know, Pawle."
"My conclusions, then," assented Mr. Pawle. "Are we--"
Lord Ellingham quietly interrupted the old lawyer.
"Pardon me, Mr. Pawle," he said, "but before we go any further, do you mind telling me, briefly, what your conclusions really are!"
"I will tell your lordship in a few words," answered Mr. Pawle, readily. "Wrong or right, my conclusions are these: From certain investigations which Mr. Viner and I have made since this affair began--with the murder of Ashton--and from certain evidence which we have unearthed, I believe that Ashton's friend Wickham, the father of the girl we are going to produce this afternoon, was in reality your lordship's uncle, the missing Lord Marketstoke. I believe that Ashton came to England in order to prove this, and that he was probably about to begin proceedings when he was murdered--for the sake of those papers which we have just seen. And I believe, too, that we have not seen all the papers which were stolen from his dead body. What was produced to us just now by Methley and Woodlesford was a selection--the probability is that there are other and more important papers in the hands of the murderer, whose cat's-paw or accomplice this claimant, whoever he may be, is. I believe," concluded Mr. Pawle, with emphasis, "that my conclusions will be found to be correct ones, based on indisputable fact."
Lord Ellingham looked from one solicitor to the other.
"Then," he said, with something of a smile, "if Wickham was really my uncle, Lord Marketstoke, and this young lady you tell me of is his daughter--what, definitely, is my position?"
Mr. Pawle looked at Mr. Carless, and Mr. Carless shook his head.
"If Mr. Pawle's theory is correct," he said, "and mind you, Pawle, it will take a lot of proving. If Mr. Pawle's theory is correct, the position, my lord, is this. The young lady we hear of is Countess of Ellingham in her own right! She would not be the first woman to succeed to the title: there was a Countess of Ellingham in the time of George the Third. She would, of course, have to prove her claim before the House of Lords--if made good, she succeeds to titles and estates. That's the plain English of it--and upon my honour," concluded Mr. Carless, "it's one of the most extraordinary things I ever heard of. This other affair is nothing to it!"
Lord Ellingham again inspected the legal countenances.
"I see nothing at all improbable about it," he said. "We may as well face that fact at once. I will be here at three o'clock, Mr. Carless. I confess I should like to meet my cousin--if she really is that!"
"Your Lordship takes it admirably!" exclaimed Mr. Carless. "But really--well, I don't know. However, we shall see. But, 'pon my honour, it's most odd! One claimant disposed of, another, a more formidable one, comes on!"
"But we have not disposed of the first, have we?" suggested Lord Ellingham.
"I don't anticipate any trouble in that quarter," answered Mr. Carless. "As I said to those two who have just gone out--send or bring the man here, and we'll tell in one minute if he's what he claims to be!"
"But--how?" asked Lord Ellingham. "You seem very certain."
"Dead certain!" asserted Mr. Carless. He looked round his callers and laughed. "I may as well tell you," he said. "Portlethwaite drew me aside to remind me of it. The real Lord Marketstoke, if he were alive, could easily be identified. He lost a finger when a mere boy."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle. "Good--excellent! Best bit of evidence I've heard of. Hang this claimant! Now we can tell if Wickham really was Lord Marketstoke. If necessary, we can have his body exhumed and examined."
"It was a shooting accident," continued Mr. Carless. "He was out shooting in the park at Ellingham when a boy of fourteen or fifteen; he was using an old muzzle-loading gun; it burst, and he lost his second finger--the right hand. It was, of course, very noticeable. Now, that small but very important fact is most likely not known to Methley and Woodlesford's client--but it's known to Driver and to Portlethwaite and to me, and now to all of you. If this man comes here--look at his right hand! If he possesses his full complement of fingers, well--"
Mr. Carless ended with a significant grimace, and Mr. Pawle, nodding assent, returned to the question which he was putting when Lord Ellingham interrupted him.
"Now let us settle the point I raised," he said. "Are we to tell Miss Wickham what my conclusions are, or are we to leave her in ignorance until we get proof that they are correct?"
"Or--incorrect!" answered Mr. Carless with an admonitory laugh. "I should say--at present, tell her nothing. Let us find out all we can from her; there are several questions I should like to ask her, myself, arising out of what you have told us. Leave all the rest until a later period. If your theory is correct, Pawle, it can be established, if it isn't, the girl may as well be left in ignorance that you ever raised it."
"Until three o'clock, then," said Mr. Pawle.
Three o'clock found the old lawyer and Viner pacing the pavement of Lincoln's Inn Fields in expectation of Miss Wickham's arrival. She came at last in the taxicab which Mr. Pawle had sent for her, and her first words on stepping out of it were of surprise and inquiry.
"What is it, Mr. Pawle?" she demanded as she shook hands with her two squires. "More questions? What's it all about?"
Mr. Pawle nudged Viner's arm.
"My dear young lady," he answered in grave and fatherly fashion, "you must bear in mind that a man's life is in danger. We are doing all we can to clear that unfortunate young fellow Hyde of the dreadful charge which has been brought against him, and to do that we must get to know all we can about your late guardian, you know."
"I know so little about Mr. Ashton," said Miss Wickham, looking apprehensively at the building towards which she was being conducted. "Where are you taking me?"
"To a solicitor's office--friends of mine," answered Mr. Pawle. "Carless and Driver--excellent people. Mr. Carless wants to ask you a few questions in the hope that your answers will give us a little more light on Ashton's history. You needn't be afraid of Carless," he added as they began to climb the stairs. "Carless is quite a pleasant fellow--and he has with him a very amiable young gentleman, Lord Ellingham, of whom you needn't be afraid, either."
"And why is Lord Ellingham, whoever he may be, there?" inquired Miss Wickham.
"Lord Ellingham is also interested in your late guardian," replied Mr. Pawle. "In fact, we are all interested. So now, rub up your memory--and answer Mr. Carless' questions."
Viner remained in the background, quietly watching, while Mr. Pawle effected the necessary introductions. He was at once struck by what seemed to him an indisputable fact--between Lord Ellingham and Miss Wickham there was an unmistakable family likeness. And he judged from the curious, scrutinizing look which Mr. Carless gave the two young people as they shook hands that the same idea struck him--Mr. Carless wound up that look in a significant glance at Mr. Pawle, to whom he suddenly muttered a few words which Viner caught.
"By Jove!" he whispered. "I shouldn't wonder if you're right."
Then he placed Miss Wickham in an easy-chair on his right hand, and cast a preliminary benevolent glance on her.
"Mr. Pawle," he began, "has told us of your relationship with the late Mr. Ashton--you always regarded him as your guardian?"
"He was my guardian," answered Miss Wickham. "My father left me in his charge."
"Just so. Now, have you any recollection of your father?"
"Only very vague recollections. I was scarcely six, I think, when he died."
"What do you remember about him?"
"I think he was a tall, handsome man--I have some impression that he was. I think, too, that he had a fair complexion and hair. But it's all very vague."
"Do you remember where you lived?"
"Only that it was in a very big town--Melbourne, of course. I have recollections of busy streets--I remember, too, that when I left there it was very, very hot weather."
"Do you remember Mr. Ashton at that time?"
"Oh, yes--I remember Mr. Ashton. I had nobody else, you see; my mother had died when I was quite little; I have no recollection whatever of her. I remember Mr. Ashton's house, and that he used to buy me lots of toys. His house was in a quiet part of the town, and he had a big, shady garden."
"How long, so far as you remember, did you live with Mr. Ashton there?"
"Not very long, I think. He told me that I was to go to England, to school. For a little time before we sailed, I lived with Mrs. Roscombe, with whom I came to England. She was very kind to me; I was very fond of her."
"And who was Mrs. Roscombe?"
"I didn't know at the time, of course--I only knew she was Mrs. Roscombe. But Mr. Ashton told me, not long before his death, who she was. She was the widow of some government official, and she was returning to England in consequence of his death. So she took charge of me and brought me over. She used to visit me regularly at school, every week, and I used to spend my holidays with her until she died."
"Ah!" said Mr. Carless. "She is dead?"
"She died two years ago," answered Miss Wickham.
"I wish she had been living," observed Mr. Carless, with a glance at Mr. Pawle. "I should have liked to see Mrs. Roscombe. Well," he continued, turning to Miss Wickham, "so Mrs. Roscombe brought you to England, to school. What school?"
"Ryedene! That's one of the most expensive schools in England, isn't it?"
"I don't know. I--perhaps it is."
"I happen to know it is," said Mr. Carless dryly. "Two of my clients have daughters there, now. I've seen their bills! Do you know who paid yours?"
"No," she answered, "I don't know. Mr. Ashton, I suppose."
"You had everything you wanted, I dare say! Clothes, pocket-money, and so on?"
"I've always had everything I wanted," replied Miss Wickham.
"And you were at Ryedene twelve years?"
"Except for the holidays--yes."
"You must be a very learned young lady," suggested Mr. Carless.
Miss Wickham looked round the circle of attentive faces.
"I can play tennis and hockey very well," she said, smiling a little. "And I wasn't bad at cricket the last season or two--we played cricket there. But I'm not up to much at anything else, except that I can talk French decently."
"Physical culture, eh?" observed Mr. Carless, smiling. "Very well! Now, then, in the end Mr. Ashton came home to England, and of course came to see you, and in due course you left school, and came to his house in Markendale Square, where he got a Mrs. Killenhall to look after you. All that correct? Yes? Well, then, I think, from what Mr. Pawle tells me, Mr. Ashton handed over a lot of money to you, and told you it had been left to you, or left in his charge for you, by your father? That is correct too? Very well. Now, did Mr. Ashton never tell you anything much about your father?"
"No, he never did. Beyond telling me that my father was an Englishman who had gone out to Australia and settled there, he never told me anything. But," here Miss Wickham paused and hesitated for a while, "I have an idea," she continued in the end, "that he meant to tell me something--what, I, of course, don't know. He once or twice--hinted that he would tell me something, some day."
"You didn't press him?" suggested Mr. Carless.
"I don't think I am naturally inquisitive," replied Miss Wickham. "I certainly did not press him. I knew he'd tell me, whatever it was, in his own way."
"One or two other questions," said Mr. Carless. "Do you know who your mother was?"
"Only that she was some one whom my father met in Australia."
"Do you know what her maiden name was?"
"No, only her Christian name; that was Catherine. She and my father are buried together."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Carless. "That is something else I was going to ask. You know where they are buried?"
"Oh, yes! Because, before we sailed, Mrs. Roscombe took me to the churchyard, or cemetery, to see my father's and mother's grave. I remembered that perfectly. Her own husband was buried there too, close by. I remember how we both cried."
Mr. Carless suddenly pointed to the ornament which Miss Wickham was wearing.
"Will you take that off, and let me look at it?" he asked. "Thank you," he said, as she somewhat surprisedly obeyed. "I believe," he continued, as he quietly passed the ornament to Lord Ellingham, "that Mr. Ashton gave you this and told you it had belonged to your father? Just so! Well," he concluded, handing the ornament back, "I think that's all. Much obliged to you, Miss Wickham. You won't understand all this, but you will, later. Now, one of my clerks will get you a car, and we'll escort you down to it."
"No," said Lord Ellingham, promptly jumping to his feet. "Allow me--I'm youngest. If Miss Wickham will let me--"
The two young people went out of the room together, and the three men left behind looked at each other. There was a brief and significant silence.
"Well, Carless?" said Mr. Pawle at last. "How now?"
"'Pon my honour," answered Mr. Carless, "I shouldn't wonder if you're right!"