Chapter XX. Surprising Readiness

Mr. Pawle made a gesture which seemed to denote a certain amount of triumphant self-satisfaction.

"I'm sure I'm right!" he exclaimed. "You'll find out that I'm right! But there's a tremendous lot to do, Carless. If only that unfortunate man, Ashton, had lived, he could have cleared this matter up at once. I feel convinced that he possessed papers which would have proved this girl's claim beyond dispute. Those papers, of course--"

"Now, what particular papers are you thinking of?" interrupted Mr. Carless.

"Well," replied Mr. Pawle, "such papers as proofs of her father's marriage, and of her own birth. According to what she told us just now, her father was married in Australia, and she herself was born there. There must be documentary proof of that."

"Her father was probably married under his assumed name of Wickham," observed Mr. Carless. "You'll have to prove that Wickham and Lord Marketstoke were identical--were one and the same person. The fact is, Pawle, if this girl's claim is persisted in, there'll have to be a very searching inquiry made in Australia. However much I may feel that your theory may be--probably is--right, I should have to advise my client, Lord Ellingham, to insist on the most complete investigation."

"To be sure, to be sure!" assented Mr. Pawle. "That's absolutely necessary. But my own impression is that as we get into the secret of Ashton's murder, as I make no doubt we shall, there will be more evidence forthcoming. Now, as regards this man, whoever he is, who claims to be the missing Lord Marketstoke--"

At that moment a clerk entered the room and glanced at Mr. Carless.

"Telephone message from Methley and Woodlesford, sir," he announced. "Mr. Methley's compliments, and if agreeable to you, he can bring his client on to see you this afternoon--at once, if convenient."

Mr. Carless looked at Mr. Pawle, and Mr. Pawle nodded a silent assent.

"Tell Mr. Methley it's quite agreeable and convenient," answered Mr. Carless. "I shall be glad to see them both--at once. Um!" he muttered when the clerk had withdrawn. "Somewhat sudden, eh, Pawle? You might almost call it suspicious alacrity. Evidently the gentleman has no fear of meeting us!"

"You may be quite certain, Carless, if my theory about the whole thing is a sound theory, that the gentleman will have no fear of meeting anybody, not even a judge and jury!" answered Mr. Pawle sardonically. "If I apprehend things rightly, he'll have been very carefully coached and prepared."

"You think there's a secret conspiracy behind all this?" suggested Mr. Carless. "With this claimant as cat's-paw--well tutored to his task?"

"I do!" affirmed Mr. Pawle. "Emphatically, I do!"

"Aye, well!" said Mr. Carless. "Don't forget what I told you about the missing finger--middle finger of the right hand. And I'll have Driver in here, and Portlethwaite, too; we'll see if he knows which is which of the three of us. I'll go and prepare them."

He returned presently with his partner, a quiet, elderly man; a few minutes later Portlethwaite, evidently keenly interested, joined them. They and Mr. Pawle began to discuss certain legal matters connected with the immediate business, and Viner purposely withdrew to a corner of the room, intent on silently watching whatever followed on the arrival of the visitors. A quarter of an hour later Methley was shown into the room, and the five men gathered there turned with one accord to look at his companion, a tall, fresh-coloured, slightly grey-haired man of distinctly high-bred appearance, who, Viner saw at once, was much more self-possessed and assured in manner than any of the men who rose to meet him.

"My client, Mr. Cave, who claims to be Earl of Ellingham," said Methley, by way of introduction. "Mr. Car--"

But the other man smiled quietly and immediately assumed a lead.

"There is no need of introduction, Mr. Methley," he said. "I remember all three gentlemen perfectly! Mr. Carless--Mr. Driver--and--yes, to be sure, Mr. Portlethwaite! I have a good memory for faces." He bowed to each man as he named him, and smiled again. "Whether these gentlemen remember me as well as I remember them," he remarked, "is another question!"

"May I offer you a chair?" said Mr. Carless.

The visitor bowed, sat down, and took off his gloves. And in the silence which followed, Viner saw that the eyes of Driver, Carless, Pawle and Portlethwaite were all steadily directed on the claimant's right hand--he himself turned to it, too, with no small interest. The next instant he was conscious that an atmosphere of astonishment and surprise had been set up in that room. For the middle finger of the man's right hand was missing!

Viner felt, rather than saw, that the three solicitors and the elderly clerk were exchanging glances of amazement. And he fancied that Mr. Carless' voice, which had sounded cold and noncommittal as he offered the visitor a seat, was somewhat uncertain when he turned to address him.

"You claim, sir, to be the Lord Marketstoke who disappeared so many years ago?" he asked, eyeing the claimant over.

"I claim to be exactly what I am, Mr. Carless," answered the visitor with another ready and pleasant smile. "I hope your memory will come to your aid."

"When a man has disappeared--absolutely--for something like thirty-five years," remarked Mr. Carless, "those whom he has left behind may well be excused if their memories don't readily respond to sudden demands. But I should like to ask you some questions? Did you see the advertisements which were issued, broadcast, at the time of the seventh Earl of Ellingham's death?"

"Yes--in several English and Colonial papers," answered the claimant.

"Why did you not reply to them?"

"At that time I still persevered in my intention of never again having anything to do with my old life. I had no desire--at all--to come forward and claim my rights. So I took no notice of your advertisements."

"And since then--of late, to be exact--you have changed your mind?" suggested Mr. Carless dryly.

"To a certain extent only," replied the visitor, whose calm assurance was evidently impressing the legal practitioners around him. "I have already told Mr. Methley and his partner, Mr. Woodlesford, that I have no desire to assume my title nor to require possession of the estates which are certainly mine. I have lived a free life too long to wish for--what I should come in for if I established my claim. But I have a right to a share in the property which I quite willingly resign to my nephew--"

"In plain language," said Mr. Carless, "if you are paid a certain considerable sum of money, you will vanish again into the obscurity from whence you came? Am I right in that supposition?"

"I don't like your terminology, Mr. Carless," answered the visitor with a slight frown. "I have not lived in obscurity, and--"

"If you are what you claim to be, sir, you are Earl of Ellingham," said Mr. Carless firmly, "and I may as well tell you at once that if you prove to us that you are, your nephew, who now holds title and estates, will at once relinquish both. There will be no bargaining. It is all or nothing. Our client, whom we know as Earl of Ellingham, is not going to traffic. If you are what you claim to be, you are head of the family and must take your place."

"We could have told you that once for all, if you had come to us in the first instance," remarked Mr. Driver. "Any other idea is out of the question. It seems to me most remarkable that such a notion as that which you suggest should ever enter your head, sir. If you are Earl of Ellingham, you are!"

"And that reminds me," said Mr. Carless, "that there is another question I should like to ask. Why, knowing that we have been legal advisers to your family for several generations, did you not come straight to us, instead of going--Mr. Methley, I'm sure, will pardon me--to a firm of solicitors which, as far as I know, has never had any connection with it!"

"I thought it best to employ absolutely independent advice," replied the visitor. "And I still think I was right. For example, you evidently do not admit my claim?"

"We certainly admit nothing, at present!" declared Mr. Carless with a laugh. "It would be absurd to expect it. The proofs which your solicitors showed us this morning are no proofs at all. That those papers belonged to the missing Lord Marketstoke there is no doubt, but your possession of them at present does not prove that you are Lord Marketstoke or Lord Ellingham. They may have been stolen!"

The claimant rose from his chair with a good deal of dignity. He glanced at Methley.

"I do not see that any good can come of this interview, Mr. Methley," he remarked in quiet, level tones. "I am evidently to be treated as an impostor. In that case,"--he bowed ceremoniously to the men gathered around Mr. Carless' desk--"I think it best to withdraw."

Therewith he walked out of the room; and Methley, after a quiet word with Carless, followed--to be stopped in the corridor, for a second time that day, by Viner, who had hurried after him.

"I'm not going to express any opinion on what we've just heard," whispered Viner, drawing Methley aside, "but in view of what I told you this morning, there's something I want you to do for me."

"Yes!" said Methley. "What?"

"That unlucky fellow Hyde, who is on remand, is to be brought before the magistrate tomorrow morning," answered Viner. "Get him--this claimant there, to attend the court as a spectator--go with him! Use any argument you like, but get him there! I've a reason--which I'll explain later."

"I'll do my best," promised Methley. "And I've an idea of what's on your mind. You want to find out if Hyde can recognize him as the man whom he met at the Markendale Square end of Lonsdale Passage?"

"Well, that is my idea!" assented Viner. "So get him there."

Methley nodded and turned away; then he turned back and pointed at Carless' room.

"What do they really think in there?" he whispered. "Tell me--between ourselves?"

"That he is an impostor, and that there's a conspiracy," replied Viner.

Methley nodded again, and Viner went back. The men whom he had left were talking excitedly.

"It was the only course to take!" Mr. Carless was declaring. "Uncompromising hostility! We could do no other. You saw--quite well--that he was all for money. I will engage that we could have settled with him for one half of what he asked. But--who is he?"

"The middle finger of his right hand is gone!" said Mr. Pawle, who had been very quiet and thoughtful during the recent proceedings. "Remember that, Carless!"

"A most extraordinary coincidence!" exclaimed Mr. Carless excitedly. "I don't care twopence what anybody says--we all know that the most surprising coincidences do occur. Nothing but a coincidence! I assert--what is it, Portlethwaite?"

The elderly clerk had been manifesting a strong desire to get in a word, and he now rapped his senior employer's elbow.

"Mr. Carless," he said earnestly, "you know that before I came to you, now nearly forty years ago, I was a medical student: you know, too, you and Mr. Driver, why I gave up medicine for the law. But--I haven't forgotten all of that I learned in the medical schools and the hospitals."

"Well, Portlethwaite," demanded Mr. Carless, "what is it? You've some idea?"

"Gentlemen," answered the elderly clerk. "I was always particularly interested in anatomy in my medical student days. I've been looking attentively at what I could see of that man's injured finger since he sat down at that desk. And I'll lay all I have that he lost the two joints of that finger within the last three months! The scar over the stump had not long been healed. That's a fact!"

Mr. Carless looked round with a triumphant smile.

"There!" he exclaimed. "What did I tell you? Coincidence--nothing but coincidence!"

But Portlethwaite shook his head.

"Why not say design, Mr. Carless?" he said meaningly. "Why not say design? If this man, or the people who are behind him, knew that the real Lord Marketstoke had a finger missing, what easier--in view of the stake they're playing for--than to remove one of this man's fingers? Design, sir, design. All part of the scheme!"

The elderly clerk's listeners looked at each other.

"I'll tell you what it is!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle with sudden emphasis. "The more we see and hear of this affair, the more I'm convinced that it is, as Portlethwaite says, a conspiracy. You know, that fellow who has just been here was distinctly taken aback when you, Carless, informed him that it was going to be a case of all or nothing. He--or the folk behind him--evidently expected that they'd be able to effect a money settlement. Now, I should say that the real reason of his somewhat hasty retirement was that he wanted to consult his principal or principals. Did you notice that he was not really affronted by your remark? Not he! His personal dignity wasn't ruffled a bit. He was taken aback! He's gone off to consult. Carless, you ought to have that man carefully shadowed, to see where and to whom he goes."

"Good idea!" muttered Mr. Driver. "We might see to that."

"I can put a splendid man on to him, at once, Mr. Carless," remarked Portlethwaite. "If you could furnish me with his address--"

"Methley and Woodlesford know it," said Mr. Carless. "Um--yes, that might be very useful. Ring Methley's up, Portlethwaite, and ask if they would oblige us with the name of Mr. Cave's hotel--some residential hotel in Lancaster Gate, I believe."

Mr. Pawle and Viner went away, ruminating over the recent events, and walked to the old lawyer's offices in Bedford Row. Mr. Pawle's own particular clerk met them as they entered.

"There's Mr. Roland Perkwite, of the Middle Temple, in your room, sir," he said, addressing his master. "You may remember him, sir--we've briefed him once or twice in some small cases. Mr. Perkwite wants to see you about this Ashton affair--he says he's something to tell you."

Mr. Pawle looked at Viner and beckoned him to follow.

"Here a little, and there a little!" he whispered. "What are we going to hear this time?"