The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XXIII. Is this Man Right?
A murmur of astonishment ran through the court as the witness made his last reply, and those most closely interested in him turned and looked at each other with obvious amazement. And for a moment Mr. Millington-Bywater seemed to be at a loss; in the next he bent forward toward the witness-box and fixed the man standing there with a piercing look.
"Do you seriously tell us, on your oath, that these papers--your papers, if you are what you claim to be--were stolen from you many years ago, and have only just been restored to you?" he asked. "On your oath, mind!"
"I do tell you so," answered the witness quietly. "I am on oath."
The magistrate glanced at Mr. Millington-Bywater.
"What is the relevancy of this--in relation to the prisoner and the charge against him?" he inquired. "You have some point, of course?"
"The relevancy is this, Your Worship," replied Mr. Millington-Bywater: "Our contention is that the papers referred to were until recently in the custody of John Ashton, the murdered man--I can put a witness in the box who can give absolute proof of that, a highly reputable witness, who is present,--and that John Ashton was certainly murdered by some person or persons who, for purposes of their own, wished to gain possession of them. Now, we know that they are in possession of the present witness, or rather, of his solicitors, to whom he has handed them. I mean to prove that Ashton was murdered in the way, and for the reason I suggest, and that accordingly the prisoner is absolutely innocent of the charge brought against him. I should therefore like to ask this witness to tell us how he regained possession of these papers, for I am convinced that in what he can tell us lies the secret of Ashton's murder. Now," he continued, turning again to the witness as the magistrate nodded assent, "we will assume for the time being that you are what you represent yourself to be--the Lord Marketstoke who disappeared from England thirty-five years ago. You have just heard what I said to His Worship--about these papers, and what I put forward as regards their connection with the murder of John Ashton? Will you tell us how you lost those papers, and more particularly, how you recently regained possession of them? You see the immense, the vital importance of this to the unfortunate young fellow in the dock?"
"Who," answered the witness with a calm smile, "is quite and utterly mistaken in thinking that he knew me in America, for I have certainly never set foot in America, neither North nor South, in my life! I am very much surprised indeed to be forced into publicity as I have been this morning--I came here as a merely curious spectator and had no idea whatever that I should be called into this box. But if any evidence of mine can establish, or help to establish, the prisoner's innocence, I will give it only too gladly."
"Much obliged to you, sir," said Mr. Millington-Bywater, who, in Viner's opinion, was evidently impressed by the witness's straightforward tone and candid demeanour.
"Well, if you will tell us--in your own way--about these papers, now--always remembering that we have absolute proof that until recently they were in the possession of John Ashton? Let me preface whatever you choose to tell us with a question: Do you know that they were in possession of John Ashton?"
"I have no more idea or knowledge of whose hands they were in, and had been in, for many years, until they were restored to me, than the man in the moon has!" affirmed the witness. "I'll tell you the whole story--willingly: I could have told it yesterday to certain gentlemen, whom I see present, if they had not treated me as an impostor as soon as they saw me. Well,"--here he folded his hands on the ledge of the witness-box, and quietly fixing his eyes on the examining counsel, proceeded to speak in a calm, conversational tone--"the story is this: I left England about five-and-thirty years ago after certain domestic unpleasantnesses which I felt so much that I determined to give up all connection with my family and to start an absolutely new life of my own. I went away to Australia and landed there under the name of Wickham. I had a certain amount of money which had come to me from my mother. I speculated with it on my arrival, somewhat foolishly, no doubt, and I lost it--every penny.
"So then I was obliged to work for my living. I went up country, and for some time worked as a miner in the Bendigo district. I had been working in this way perhaps fourteen months when an accident occurred in the mine at which I was engaged. There was a serious fall of earth and masonry; two or three of my fellow-workers were killed on the spot, and I was taken up for dead. I was removed to a local hospital--there had been some serious injury to my head and spine, but I still had life in me, and I was brought round. But I remained in hospital, in a sort of semiconscious state, for a long time--months. When I went back, after my discharge, to my quarters--nothing but a rough shanty which I had shared with many other men--all my possessions had vanished. Among them, of course, were the papers I had kept, and a packet of letters written to me by my mother when I was a schoolboy at Eton.
"Of course, I knew at once what had happened--some one of my mates, believing me to be dead, had appropriated all my belongings and gone off with them. There was nothing at all to be wondered at in that--it was the usual thing in such a society. And I knew there was nothing to do but to accept my loss philosophically."
"Did you make no effort to recover your possessions?" asked Mr. Millington-Bywater.
"No," answered the witness with a quiet smile. "I didn't! I knew too much of the habits of men in mining centers to waste time in that way. A great many men had left that particular camp during my illness--it would have been impossible to trace each one. No--after all, I had left England in order to lose my identity, and now, of course, it was gone. I went away into quite another part of the country--into Queensland. I began trading in Brisbane, and I did very well there, and remained there many years. Then I went farther south, to Sydney--and I did very well there too. It was in Sydney, years after that, that I saw the advertisements in the newspapers, English and Colonial, setting forth that my father was dead, and asking for news of myself. I took no notice of them--I had not the least desire to return to England, no wish for the title, and I was quite content that my youngest brother should get that and the estates. So I did nothing; nobody knew who I really was--"
"One moment!" said Mr. Millington-Bywater. "While you were at the mining-camp, in the Bendigo district, did you ever reveal your secret to any of your fellow-miners?"
"Never!" answered the witness. "I never revealed it to a living soul until I told my solicitor there, Mr. Methley, after my recent arrival in London."
"But of course, whoever stole your letters and so on, would discover, or guess at, the truth?" suggested Mr. Millington-Bywater.
"Oh, of course, of course!" said the witness. "Well as I was saying, I did nothing--except to keep an eye on the papers. I saw in due course that leave to presume my death had been given, and that my younger brother had assumed the title, and administered the estate, and I was quite content. The fact was, I was at that time doing exceedingly well, and I was too much interested in my doings to care about what was going on in England. All my life," continued the witness, with a slight smile, "I have had a--I had better call it a weakness--for speculating; and when I had got a goodly sum of money together by my trading venture in Brisbane and Sydney, I began speculating again, in Melbourne chiefly. And--to cut my story short--last year I had one of my periodic bad turns of fortune: I lost a lot of money. Now, I am, as you see, getting on in life, over sixty--and it occurred to me that if I came over to England and convinced my nephew, the present holder of the title and estates, that I am really who I am, he would not be averse--we have always been a generous family--to giving me enough to settle down on in Australia for the rest of my days. Perhaps I had better say at once, since we are making matters so very public, that I do not want the title, nor the estate; I will be quite candid and say what I do want--enough to let me live in proper comfort in Australia, whither I shall again repair as soon as I settle my affairs here."
Mr. Millington-Bywater glanced at the magistrate and then at the witness.
"Well, now, these papers?" he said. "You didn't bring them to London with you?"
"Of course not!" answered the witness. "I had not seen or heard of them for thirty-two years! No I relied, on coming to this country, on other things to prove my identity, such as my knowledge of Marketstoke and Ellingham, my thorough acquaintance with the family history, my recollection of people I had known, like Mr. Carless, Mr. Driver, and their clerk, Mr. Portlethwaite, and on the fact that I lost this finger through a shooting accident when I was a boy, at Ellingham. Curiously," he added with another smile, "these things don't seem to have much weight. But no! I had no papers when I landed here."
"How did they come into your possession, then?" asked Mr. Millington-Bywater. "That is what we most earnestly desire to know. Let me impress upon you, sir, that this is the most serious and fateful question I can possibly put to you! How did you get them?"
"And--from whom?" said the magistrate. "From whom?"
The witness shook his head.
"I can tell you exactly how I got them," he answered. "But I can't tell you from whom, for I don't know! What I can tell you is this: When I arrived at Tilbury from Melbourne, I asked a fellow-passenger with whom I came along to London if he could tell me of a quiet, good hotel in the neighbourhood of the parks--he recommended the Belfield, in Lancaster Gate. I went there and put myself up, and from it I went out and about a good deal, looking up old haunts. I also lunched and dined a good many times at some of the new restaurants which had sprung into being since I left London. I mention this to show you that I was where I could be seen and noticed, as I evidently was. One afternoon, while I was sitting in the smoking-room at my hotel, the page-boy came in with a letter on his tray, approached me, and said that it had been brought by a district messenger. It was addressed simply, 'Mr. Cave'--the name by which I had registered at the hotel--and was sealed; the inclosure, on a half-sheet of note-paper, was typewritten. I have it here," continued the witness, producing a pocketbook and taking out an envelope. "I will read its contents, and I shall be glad to let any one concerned see it. There is no address and no date, and it says this: 'If you wish to recover the papers and letters which were lost by you when you went into hospital at Wirra-Worra, Bendigo, thirty-two years ago, be at the Speke Monument in Kensington Gardens at five o'clock this afternoon.' There was no signature."
Another murmur of intense and excited interest ran round the court as the witness handed the letter up to the magistrate, who, after looking it over, passed it on to the counsel below. They, in their turn, showed it to Mr. Carless, Mr. Pawle and Lord Ellingham, Mr. Pawle, showing it to Viner, whispered in his ear:
"If this man's telling the truth," he said, "this is the most extraordinary story I ever heard in my life."
"It seems to me that it is the truth!" muttered Viner. "And I'm pretty certain that at last we're on the way-to finding out who killed Ashton. But let's hear the end."
Mr. Millington-Bywater handed the letter back with a polite bow--it was very obvious to more than one observer that he had by this time quite accepted the witness as what he claimed to be.
"You kept the appointment?" he asked.
"I did, indeed!" exclaimed the witness. "As much out of greatly excited curiosity as anything! It seemed to me a most extraordinary thing that papers stolen from me in Australia thirty-two years ago should be returned to me in London! Yes, I walked down to the Speke Monument. I saw no one about there but a heavily veiled woman who walked about on one side of the obelisk while I patrolled the other. Eventually she approached me, and at once asked me if I had kept secret the receipt of the mysterious letter? I assured her that I had. She then told me that she was the ambassadress of the people who had my letters and papers, and who had seen and recognized me in London and tracked me to my hotel. She was empowered to negotiate with me for the handing over of the papers. There were stipulations. I was to give my solemn word of honour that I would not follow her, or cause her to be followed. I was not to ask questions. And I was to give a post-dated check on the bank at which I had opened an account in London, on receipt of the papers. The check was to be post-dated one month; it was to be made out to bearer, and the amount was ten thousand pounds. I agreed!"
"You really agreed!" exclaimed Mr. Millington-Bywater.
"I agreed! I wanted my papers. We parted, with an agreement that we were to meet two days later at the same place. I was there--so was the woman. She handed me a parcel, and I immediately took it to an adjacent seat and examined it. Everything that I could remember was there, with two exceptions. The packet of letters from my mother, to which I referred just now, was missing; so was a certain locket, which had belonged to her, and of which I had taken great care since her death, up to the time of my accident in the mining-camp. I pointed out these omissions to the woman: she answered that the papers which she had handed over were all that had been in her principal's possession. Thereupon I gave her the check which had been agreed upon, and we parted."
"And that is all you know of her?" asked Mr. Millington-Bywater.
"Can you describe her?"
"A tallish, rather well-built woman, but so veiled that I could see nothing of her features; it was, moreover, nearly dark on both occasions. From her speech and manner, she was, I should say, a woman of education and refinement."
"Did you try to trace her, or her principals, through the district messenger who brought the letter?"
"Certainly not! I told you, just now, that I gave my word of honour: I couldn't."
Mr. Millington-Bywater turned to the magistrate.
"I can, if Your Worship desires it, put a witness in the box who can prove beyond doubt that the papers of which we have just heard this remarkable story, were recently in the possession of John Ashton," he said. "He is Mr. Cecil Perkwite, of the Middle Temple--a member of my own profession."
But the magistrate, who appeared unusually thoughtful, shook his head.
"After what we have heard," he said, "I think we had better adjourn. The prisoner will be remanded--as before--for another week."
When the magistrate had left the bench, and the court was humming with the murmur of tongues suddenly let free, Mr. Pawle forced his way to the side of the last witness.
"Whoever you are, sir," he said, "there's one thing certain--nobody but you can supply the solution of the mystery about Ashton's death! Come with me and Carless at once."