The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XXI. The Marseilles Meeting
The man who was waiting in Mr. Pawle's room, and who rose from his chair with alacrity as the old lawyer entered with Viner at his heels, was an alert, sharp-eyed person of something under middle-age, whose clean-shaven countenance and general air immediately suggested the Law Courts. And he went straight to business before he had released the hand which Mr. Pawle extended to him.
"Your clerk has no doubt already told you what I came about, Mr. Pawle?" he said. "This Ashton affair."
"Just so," answered Mr. Pawle. "You know something about it? This gentleman is Mr. Richard Viner, who is interested in it--considerably."
"To be sure," said the barrister. "One of the witnesses, of course. I read the whole thing up last night. I have been on the Continent--the French Riviera, Italy, the Austrian Tyrol--for some time, Mr. Pawle, and only returned to town yesterday. I saw something, in an English newspaper, in Paris, the other day, about this Ashton business, and as my clerk keeps the Times for me when I am absent, last night I read over the proceedings before the magistrate and before the coroner. And of course I saw your request for information about Ashton and his recent movements."
"And you've some to give?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"I have some to give," assented Mr. Perkwite, as the three men sat down by Mr. Pawle's desk. "Certainly--and I should say it's of considerable importance. The fact is I met Ashton at Marseilles, and spent the better part of the week in his company at the Hotel de Louvre there."
"When was that?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"About three months ago," replied the barrister. "I had gone straight to Marseilles from London; he had come there from Italy by way of Monte Carlo and Nice. We happened to get into conversation on the night of my arrival, and we afterwards spent most of our time together. And finding out that I was a barrister, he confided certain things to me and asked my advice."
"Aye--and on what, now?" enquired the old lawyer.
"It was the last night we were together," replied Mr. Perkwite. "We had by that time become very friendly, and I had promised to renew our acquaintance on my return to London, where, Ashton told me, he intended to settle down for the rest of his life. Now on that last evening at Marseilles I had been telling him, after dinner, of some curious legal cases, and he suddenly remarked that he would like to tell me of a matter which might come within the law, and on which he should be glad of advice. He then asked me if I had ever heard of the strange disappearance of Lord Marketstoke, heir to the seventh Earl of Ellingham. I replied that I had at the time when application was made to the courts for leave to presume Lord Marketstoke's death.
"Thereupon, pledging me to secrecy for the time being, Ashton went on to tell me that Lord Marketstoke was well known to him and that he alone knew all the facts of the matter, though a certain amount of them was known to another man, now living in London. He said that Marketstoke, after a final quarrel with his father, left England in such a fashion that no one could trace him, taking with him the fortune which he had inherited from his mother, and eventually settled in Australia, where he henceforth lived under the name of Wickham. According to Ashton, he and Marketstoke became friends, close friends, at a very early period of Marketstoke's career in Australia, and the friendship deepened and existed until Marketstoke's death some twelve or thirteen years ago. But Ashton never had the slightest notion of Marketstoke's real identity until his friend's last days. Then Marketstoke told him the plain truth; and the fact who he really was at the same time was confided to another man--who, however, was not told all the details which were given to Ashton.
"Now, Marketstoke had married in Australia. His wife was dead. But he had a daughter who was about six years of age at the time of her father's death. Marketstoke confided her to Ashton, with a wish that she should be sent home to England to be educated. He also handed over to Ashton a considerable sum of money for this child. Further, he gave him a quantity of papers, letters, family documents, and so on. He had a purpose. He left it to Ashton--in whom he evidently had the most absolute confidence--as to whether this girl's claim to the title and estates should be set up. And when Ashton had finished telling me all this, I found that one of his principal reasons in coming to England to settle down, was the wish to find out how things were with the present holder of the title: if, he said, he discovered that he was a worthy sort of young fellow, he, Ashton, should be inclined to let the secret die with him. He told me that the girl already had some twelve thousand pounds of her own, and that it was his intention to leave her the whole of his own fortune, and as she was absolutely ignorant of her real position, he might perhaps leave her so. But in view of the possibility of his setting up her claim, he asked me some questions on legal points, and of course I asked him to let me see the papers of which he had spoken."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle, with a sigh of relieved satisfaction. "Then you saw them?"
"Yes--he showed me the whole lot," replied Mr. Perkwite. "Not so many, after all--those that were really pertinent, at any rate. He carried those in a pocketbook; had so carried them, he told me, ever since Marketstoke had handed them to him; they had never, he added, been out of his possession, day or night, since Marketstoke's death. Now, on examining the papers, I at once discovered two highly important facts. Although Marketstoke went to and lived in Australia under the name of Wickham, he had taken good care to get married in his own proper name, and there, amongst the documents, was the marriage certificate, in which he was correctly described. Further, his daughter had been correctly designated in the register of her birth; there was a copy, properly attested, of the entry."
Mr. Pawle glanced at Viner, and Viner knew what he was thinking of. The two documents just described by Mr. Perkwite had not been among the papers which Methley and Woodlesford had exhibited at Carless & Driver's office.
"A moment," said Mr. Pawle, lifting an arresting finger. "Did you happen to notice where this marriage took place?"
"It was not in Melbourne," replied Mr. Perkwite.
"My recollection is that it was at some place of a curious name. Ashton told me that Marketstoke's wife had been a governess in the family of some well-to-do-sheep-farmer--she was an English girl, and an orphan. The child, however, was certainly born in Melbourne and registered in Melbourne."
"Now, that's odd!" remarked Mr. Pawle. "You'd have thought that when Lord Marketstoke was so extensively advertised for some years ago, on the death of his father, some of these officials--"
"Ah! I put that point to Ashton," interrupted Mr. Perkwite. "He said that Marketstoke, though he had taken good care to be married in his own name and had exercised equal precaution about his daughter, had pledged everybody connected with his marriage and the child's birth to secrecy."
"Aye!" muttered Mr. Pawle. "He would do that, of course. But continue."
"Well," said the barrister, "after seeing these papers, I had no doubt whatever that the case as presented by Ashton was quite clear, and that his ward Miss Avice Wickham is without doubt Countess of Ellingham (the title, I understand, going in the female as well as the male line) and rightful owner of the estates. And I told him that his best plan, on reaching England, was to put the whole matter before the family solicitors. However, he said that before doing that, there were two things he wanted to do. One was to find out for himself how things were--if the young earl was a satisfactory landlord and so on, and likely to be a credit to the family; the other was that he wanted to consult the man who shared with him the bare knowledge that the man who had been known in Melbourne as Wickham was really the missing Lord Marketstoke. And he added that he had already telegraphed to this man to meet him in Paris."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle with a look in Viner's direction. "Now we are indeed coming to something! He was to meet him in Paris! Viner, I'll wager the world against a China orange that that's the man whom Armitstead saw in company with Ashton in the Rue Royale, and--no doubt--the man of Lonsdale Passage! Mr. Perkwite, this is most important. Did Ashton tell you the name of this man?"
The old lawyer was tremulous with excited interest, and Mr. Perkwite was obviously sorry to disappoint him.
"Unfortunately, he did not!" he replied. "He merely told me that he was a man who had lived in Melbourne for some time and had known Marketstoke and himself very intimately--had left Melbourne just after Marketstoke's death, and had settled in London. No, he did not mention his name."
"Disappointing!" muttered Mr. Pawle. "That's the nearest approach to a clue that we've had, Perkwite. If we only knew who that man was! But--what more can you tell us?"
"Nothing more, I'm afraid," answered the barrister. "I promised to call on Ashton when I returned to London, and when he'd started housekeeping, and we parted--I went on next morning to Genoa, and he set off for Paris. He was a pleasant, kindly, sociable fellow," concluded Mr. Perkwite, "and I was much grieved to hear of his sad fate."
"He didn't correspond with you at all after you left him at Marseilles?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"No," replied the barrister. "No--I never heard of or from him until I read of his murder."
Pawle turned to Viner.
"I think we'd better tell Perkwite of all that's happened, within our own ken," he said, and proceeded to give the visitor a brief account of the various important details. "Now," he concluded, "it seems to me there's only one conclusion to be arrived at. The man who shared the secret with Ashton is certainly the man whom Armitstead saw with him in Paris. He is probably the man whom Hyde saw leaving Londsdale Passage, just before Hyde found the body. And he is without doubt the murderer, and is the man to whom this claimant fellow is acting as cat's-paw. And--who is he?"
"There must be some way of finding that out," observed Mr. Perkwite. "If your theory is correct, that this claimant is merely a man who is being put forward, then surely the thing to do is to get at the person or persons behind him, through him!"
"Aye, there's that to be thought of," asserted Mr. Pawle. "But it may be a tougher job than we think for. It would have been a tremendous help if Ashton had only mentioned a name to you."
"Sorry, but he didn't," said Mr. Perkwite. "You feel," he continued after a moment's silence, "you feel that this affair of the Ellingham succession lies at the root of the Ashton mystery--that he was really murdered by somebody who wanted to get possession of those papers?"
"And to remain sole repository of the secret," declared Mr. Pawle. "Isn't it established that beyond yourself and this unknown man nobody but Ashton knew the secret?"
"There is another matter, though," remarked Viner. He turned to the visitor. "You said that you and Ashton became very friendly and confidential during your stay in Marseilles. Pray, did he never show you anything of a valuable nature which he carried in his pocketbook?"
The barrister's keen eyes suddenly lighted up with recollection.
"Yes!" he exclaimed. "Now you come to suggest it, he did! A diamond!"
"Ah!" said Mr. Pawle. "So you saw that!"
"Yes, I saw it," assented Mr. Perkwite. "He showed it to me as a sort of curiosity--a stone which had some romantic history attaching to it. But I was not half as much interested in that as in the other affair."
"All the same," remarked Mr. Pawle, "that diamond is worth some fifty or sixty thousand pounds, Perkwite--and it's missing!"
Mr. Perkwite looked his astonishment.
"You mean--he had it on him when he was murdered?" he asked.
"So it's believed," replied Mr. Pawle.
"In that case it might form a clue," said the barrister.
"When it's heard of," admitted Mr. Pawle, with a grim smile. "Not till then!"
"From what we have heard," remarked Viner, "Ashton carried that diamond in the pocketbook which contained his papers--the papers you have told me of, and some of which have certainly come into possession of this claimant person. Now, whoever stole the papers, of course got the diamond."
Mr. Perkwite seemed to consider matters during a moment's silence; finally he turned to the old lawyer.
"I have been thinking over something that might be done," he said. "I see that the coroner's inquest was adjourned. Now, as that inquest is, of course, being held to inquire into the circumstances of Ashton's death, I suggest that I should come forward as a witness and should prove that Ashton showed certain papers relating to the Ellingham peerage to me at Marseilles; I can tell the story, as a witness. It can then be proved by you, or by Carless, that a man claiming to be the missing Lord Marketstoke showed these stolen papers to you. In the meantime, get the coroner to summon this man as a witness, and take care that he's brought to the court. Once there, let him be asked how he came into possession of these papers? Do you see my idea?"
"Capital!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle. "An excellent notion! Much obliged to you, Perkwite. It shall be done--I'll see to it at once. Yes, to be sure, that will put this fellow in a tight corner."
"Don't be surprised if he hasn't some very clever explanation to give," said the barrister warningly. "The whole thing is evidently a well-concocted conspiracy. But when is the adjourned inquest?"
"Day after tomorrow," replied Mr. Pawle, after glancing at his desk-diary.
"And tomorrow morning," remarked Viner, "Hyde comes up before the magistrate again, on remand."
He was half-minded to tell Mr. Pawle there and then of his secret dealings with Methley that day, but on reflection he decided that he would keep the matter to himself. Viner had an idea which he had not communicated even to Methley. It had struck him that the mysterious deux ex machina who was certainly at the back of all this business might not improbably be so anxious about his schemes that he would, unknown and unsuspected, attend the magistrates' court. Would Hyde, his wits sharpened by danger, be able to spot him as the muffled man of Lonsdale Passage?