The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter II. Number Seven in the Square
Before the sputter of the match had died out, Viner had recognized the man who lay dead at his feet. He was a man about whom he had recently felt some curiosity, a man who, a few weeks before, had come to live in a house close to his own, in company with an elderly lady and a pretty girl; Viner and Miss Penkridge had often seen all three in and about Markendale Square, and had wondered who they were. The man looked as if he had seen things in life--a big, burly, bearded man of apparently sixty years of age, hard, bronzed; something about him suggested sun and wind as they are met with in the far-off places. Usually he was seen in loose, comfortable, semi-nautical suits of blue serge; there was a roll in his walk that suggested the sea. But here, as he lay before Viner, he was in evening dress, with a light overcoat thrown over it; the overcoat was unbuttoned and the shirt-front exposed. And on it that sickening crimson stain widened and widened as Viner watched.
Here, without doubt, was murder, and Viner's thoughts immediately turned to two things--one the hurrying young man whose face he thought he had remembered in some vague fashion; the other the fact that a policeman was slowly pacing up the terrace close by. He turned and ran swiftly up the still deserted passage. And there was the policeman, twenty yards away, coming along with the leisureliness of one who knows that he has a certain area to patrol. He pulled himself to an attitude of watchful attention as Viner ran up to him; then suddenly recognizing Viner as a well-known inhabitant of the Square, touched the rim of his helmet.
"I say!" said Viner in the hushed voice of one who imparts strange and confidential tidings. "There's a man lying dead in the passage round here. And without doubt murdered! There's blood all over his shirt-front."
The policeman stood stock still for the fraction of a second. Then he pulled out his whistle and blew loudly and insistently. Before the shrill call had died away, he was striding towards the passage, with Viner at his side.
"Did you find him, Mr. Viner?" he asked.
"I found him," asserted Viner. "Just now--halfway down the passage!"
"Sure he's dead, sir?"
"Dead--yes! And murdered, too! And--"
He was about to mention the hurrying young man, but they had just then arrived at the mouth of the passage, and the policeman once more drew out his whistle and blew more insistently than before.
"There's my sergeant and inspector not far off," he remarked. "Some of 'em'll be on the spot in a minute or two. Now then, sir."
He marched down the passage to the dead man, glanced at the lamp, and turning on his own lantern, directed its light on the body.
"God bless me!" he muttered. "Mr. Ashton!"
"You know him?" said Viner.
"Gent that came to live at number seven in your square a while back, Mr. Viner," answered the policeman. "Australian or New Zealander, I fancy. He's gone right enough, sir! And--knifed! You didn't see anybody about, sir?"
"Yes," replied Viner, "that's just it. As I turned into the passage, I met a young fellow running out of it in a great hurry--he ran into me, and then, shot off across the road, Westbourne Grove way. Then I came along and found--this!"
The policeman bent lower and suddenly put a knowing finger on certain of the dead man's pockets.
"Robbed!" he said. "No watch there, anyway, and nothing where you'd expect to find his purse. Robbery and murder--murder for the sake of robbery--that's what it is, Mr. Viner! Westbourne Grove way, you say this fellow went? And five minutes' start!"
"Is it any good getting a doctor?" asked Viner.
"A thousand doctors'll do him no good," replied the policeman grimly. "But--there's Dr. Cortelyon somewhere about here--number seven in the terrace. One of these back doors is his. We might call him."
He turned the light of his lantern on the line of doors in the right-hand wall, and finding the number he wanted, pulled the bell. As its tinkle sounded somewhere up the yard behind, he thrust his whistle into Viner's hand.
"Mr. Viner," he said, "go up to the end of the passage and blow on that as loud as you can, three times. I'll stand by here till you come back. If you don't hear or see any of our people coming from either direction, blow again."
Viner heard steps coming down the yard behind the door as he walked away. And he heard more steps, hurrying steps, as he reached the end of the passage. He turned it to find an inspector and a sergeant approaching from one part of the terrace, a constable from another.
"You're wanted down here," said Viner as they all converged on him. "There's been murder! One of your men's there--he gave me this whistle to summon further help. This way!"
The police followed him in silence down the passage. Another figure had come on the scene. Bending over the body and closely scrutinizing it in the light of the policeman's lantern was a man whom Viner knew well enough by sight--a tall, handsome man, whose olive-tinted complexion, large lustrous eyes and Vandyke beard gave him the appearance of a foreigner. Yet though he had often seen him, Viner did not know his name; the police-inspector, however, evidently knew it well enough.
"What is it, Dr. Cortelyon?" he asked as he pushed himself to the front. "Is the man dead?"
Dr. Cortelyon drew himself up from his stooping position to his full height--a striking figure in his dress jacket and immaculate linen. He glanced round at the expectant faces.
"The man's been murdered!" he said in calm, professional accents. "He's been stabbed clean through the heart. Dead? Yes, for several minutes."
"Who found him here?" demanded the inspector.
"I found him," answered Viner. He gave a hurried account of the whole circumstances as he knew them, the police watching him keenly. "I should know the man again if I saw him," he concluded. "I saw his face clearly enough as he passed me."
The inspector bent down and hastily felt the dead man's pockets.
"Nothing at all here," he said as he straightened himself. "No watch or chain or purse or anything. Looks like robbery as well as murder. Does anybody know him?"
"I know who this gentlemen is, sir," answered the policeman to whom Viner had first gone. "He's a Mr. Ashton, who came to live not so long since at number seven in Markendale Square, close by Mr. Viner there. I've heard that he came from the Colonies."
"Do you know him," asked the inspector, turning to Viner.
"Only by sight," answered Viner. "I've seen him often, but I didn't know his name. I believe he has a wife and daughter--"
"No sir," interrupted the policeman. "He was a single gentleman. The young lady at number seven is his ward, and the older lady looked after her--sort of a companion."
The Inspector looked round. Other policemen, attracted by the whistle, were coming into the passage at each end, and he turned to his sergeant.
"Put a man at the top and another at the bottom of this passage," he said. "Keep everybody out. Send for the divisional surgeon. Dr. Cortelyon, will you see him when he comes along? I want him to see the body before its removal. Now, then, about these ladies--they'll have to be told." He turned to Viner. "I understand you live close by them?" he asked. "Perhaps you'll go there with me?"
Viner nodded; and the inspector, after giving a few more words of instruction to the sergeant, motioned him to follow; together they went down the passage into Markendale Square.
"Been resident here long, Mr. Viner?" asked the Inspector as they emerged. "I noticed that some of my men knew you. I've only recently come into this part myself."
"Fifteen years," answered Viner.
"Do you know anything of this dead man?"
"Nothing--not so much as your constable knows."
"Policemen pick things up. These ladies, now? It's a most unpleasant thing to have to go and break news like this. You know nothing about them, sir?"
"Not even as much as your man knew. I've seen them often--with him, the dead man. There's an elderly lady and a younger one, a mere girl. I took them for his wife and daughter. But you heard what your man said."
"Well, whatever they are, they've got to be told. I'd be obliged if you'd come with me. And then--that fellow you saw running away! You'll have to give us as near a description of him as you can. What number did my man say it was--seven?"
Viner suddenly laid a hand on his companion's sleeve. A smart car, of the sort let out on hire from the more pretentious automobile establishments, had just come round the corner and was being pulled up at the door of a house in whose porticoed front hung a brilliant lamp.
"That's number seven," said Viner. "And--those are the two ladies."
The Inspector stopped and watched. The door of the house opened, letting a further flood of light on the broad step beneath the portico and on the pavement beyond; the door of the car opened too, and a girl stepped out, and for a second or two stood in the full glare of the lamps. She was a slender, lissome young creature, gowned in white, and muffled to the throat in an opera cloak out of which a fresh, girlish face, bright in colour, sparkling of eye, crowned by a mass of hair of the tint of dead gold, showed clearly ere she rapidly crossed to the open door. After her came an elderly, well-preserved woman in an elaborate evening toilette, the personification of the precise and conventional chaperon. The door closed; the car drove away; the Inspector turned to Viner with a shake of his head.
"Just home from the theatre!" he said. "And--to hear this! Well, it's got to be done, Mr. Viner, anyhow."
Viner, who had often observed the girl whom they had just seen with an interest for which he had never troubled to account, found himself wishing that Miss Penkridge was there in his place. He did not know what part he was to play, what he was to do or say; worse than that, he did not know if the girl in whose presence he would certainly find himself within a minute or two was very fond of the man whom he had just found done to death. In that case--but here his musings were cut short by the fact that the Inspector had touched the bell in the portico of number seven, and that the door had opened, to reveal a smart and wondering parlour-maid, who glanced with surprise at the inspector's uniform.
"Hush! This is Mr. Ashton's?" said the Inspector. "Yes--well, now, what is the name of the lady--the elderly lady--I saw come in just now? Keep quiet, there's a good girl,--the fact is, Mr. Ashton's had an accident, and I want to see that lady."
"Mrs. Killenhall," answered the parlour-maid.
"And the young lady--her name?" asked the Inspector.
The Inspector walked inside the house.
"Just ask Mrs. Killenhall and Miss Wickham if they'll be good enough to see Inspector Drillford for a few minutes," he said. Then, as the girl closed the door and turned away up the inner hall, he whispered to Viner. "Better see both and be done with it. It's no use keeping bad news too long; they may as well know--both."
The parlour-maid reappeared at the door of a room along the hall; and the two men, advancing in answer to her summons, entered what was evidently the dining-room of the house. The two ladies had thrown off their wraps; the younger one sat near a big, cheery fire, holding her slender fingers to the blaze; the elder stood facing the door in evident expectancy. The room itself was luxuriously furnished in a somewhat old-fashioned, heavy style; everything about it betokened wealth and comfort. And that its owner was expected home every minute was made evident to the two men by the fact that a spirit-case was set on the centre table, with glasses and mineral waters and cigars; Viner remembered, as his eyes encountered these things, that a half-burned cigar lay close to the dead man's hand in that dark passage so close by.
"Mrs. Killenhall? Miss Wickham?" began Drillford, looking sharply from one to the other. "Sorry to break in on you like this, ladies, but the fact is, there has been an accident to Mr. Ashton, and I'm obliged to come and tell you about it."
Viner, who had remained a little in the background, was watching the faces of the two to whom this initial breaking of news was made. And he saw at once that there was going to be no scene. The girl by the fire looked for an instant at the inspector with an expression of surprise, but it was not the surprise of great personal concern. As for the elder woman, after one quick glance from Drillford to Viner, whom she evidently recognized, she showed absolute self-possession.
"A bad accident?" she asked.
Drillford again looked from the elder to the younger lady.
"You'll excuse me if I ask what relation you ladies are to Mr. Ashton?" he said with a significant glance at Mrs. Killenhall.
"None!" replied Mrs. Killenhall. "Miss Wickham is Mr. Ashton's ward. I am Miss Wickham's chaperon--and companion."
"Well, ma'am," said Drillford, "then I may tell you that my news is--just about as serious as it possibly could be, you understand."
In the silence that followed, the girl turned toward the visitors, and Viner saw her colour change a little. And it was she who first spoke.
"Don't be afraid to tell us," she said. "Is Mr. Ashton dead?"
Drillford inclined his head, and spoke as he was bidden.
"I'm sorry to say he is," he replied. "And still more to be obliged to tell you that he came to his death by violence. The truth is--"
He paused, looking from one to the other, as if to gauge the effect of his words. And again it was the girl who spoke.
"What is the truth?" she asked.
"Murder!" said Drillford. "Just that!"
Mrs. Killenhall, who had remained standing until then, suddenly sat down, with a murmur of horror. But the girl was watching the inspector steadily.
"When was this? and how, and where?" she inquired.
"A little time ago, near here," answered Drillford. "This gentleman, Mr. Viner, a neighbour of yours, found him--dead. There's no doubt, from what we can see, that he was murdered for the sake of robbery. And I want some information about him, about his habits and--"
Miss Wickham got up from her chair and looked meaningly at Mrs. Killenhall.
"The fact is," she said, turning to Drillford; "strange as it may seem, neither Mrs. Killenhall nor myself know very much about Mr. Ashton."