Chapter XXIV. The Broken Letter

The man whose extraordinary story had excited such intense interest had become the object of universal attention. Hyde, hitherto the centre of attraction, was already forgotten, and instead of people going away from the court to canvass his guilt or his innocence, they surged round the witness whose testimony, strange and unexpected, had so altered the probabilities of the case. It was with difficulty that Methley got his client away into a private room; there they were joined by Mr. Carless, Mr. Pawle, Mr. Perkwite, Lord Ellingham and Viner, and behind a locked door these men looked at each other and at this centre of interest with the air of those to whom something extraordinary has just been told. After a moment of silence Mr. Carless spoke, addressing the man whose story had brought matters to an undeniable crisis.

"I am sure," he said gravely, and with a side glance at Lord Ellingham, "that if your story is true, sir,--and after what we have just heard, I am beginning to think that my first conclusions may have been wrong ones,--no one will welcome your reappearance more warmly than the young gentleman whom you will turn out of title and property! But you must see for yourself that your claims must be thoroughly investigated--and as what you have now just told affects other people, and we must invite you to full discussion, I propose that, for the time being, we address you as Mr. Cave."

The claimant smiled, and nodded genially to the young man whose uncle he alleged himself to be.

"I wish to remain Mr. Cave," he said. "I don't want to turn my nephew out of title and property, so long as he will do something for his old uncle. Call me Mr. Cave, by all means."

"We must talk--and at once," said Mr. Carless. "There are several points arising out of your evidence on which you must give me information. Whoever is at the back of that woman who handed you those papers is probably the murderer of John Ashton--and that is what must be got at. Now, where can we have a conference--immediately?--Your office, Methley, is not far away, I think."

"My house is nearer," said Viner. "Come--we shall be perfectly quiet in my study, and there will be nothing to interrupt us. Let us go now."

A police official let them out by a side-door, and Viner and Mr. Pawle led the way through some side-streets to Markendale Square, the others coming behind, conversing eagerly about the events of the morning. Mr. Pawle, on his part, was full of excitement.

"If we can only trace that woman, Viner!" he exclaimed. "That's the next thing! Get hold of her, whoever she is, and then--ah, we shall be in sight of the finishing-part."

"What about tracing the whole lot through the check he has given?" suggested Viner. "Wouldn't that be a good way?"

"We should have to wait nearly a month," answered Mr. Pawle. "And even then it would be difficult--simple though it seems at first sight. There are folk who deal in post-dated checks, remember! This may have been dealt with already--aye, and that diamond too; and the man who has got the proceeds may already be many a mile away. Deep, cunning folk they are who have been in this, Viner. And now--speed is the thing!"

Viner led his guests into his library, and as he placed chairs for them round a centre table, an idea struck him.

"I have a suggestion to make," he said with a shy smile at the legal men. "My aunt, Miss Penkridge, who lives with me, is an unusually sharp, shrewd woman. She has taken vast interest in this affair, and I have kept her posted up in all its details. She was in court just now and heard Mr. Cave's story. If no one has any objection, I should like her to be present at our deliberations--as a mysterious woman has entered into the case, Miss Penkridge may be able to suggest something."

"Excellent idea!" exclaimed Mr. Carless. "A shrewd woman is worth her weight in gold! By all means bring Miss Penkridge in--she may, as you say, make some suggestion."

Miss Penkridge, fetched into the room and duly introduced, lost no time in making a suggestion of an eminently practical nature--that as all these gentlemen had been cooped up in that stuffy police-court for two or three hours, they would be none the worse for a glass of wine, and she immediately disappeared, jingling a bunch of keys, to reappear a few minutes later in charge of the parlour-maid carrying decanters and glasses.

"A very comfortable suggestion, that, ma'am," observed Mr. Carless, bowing to his hostess over a glass of old sherry. "Your intuition does you credit! But now, gentlemen, and Miss Penkridge, straight to business! Mr. Cave, the first question I want to put to you is this: on what date did you receive the letter which you exhibited in court this morning?"

Mr. Cave produced a small pocket diary and turned over its pages.

"I can tell you that," he answered. "I made a note of it at the time. It was--yes, here we are--on the twenty-first of November."

"And you received these papers, I think you said, two days later?"

"Yes--on the twenty-third. Here is the entry."

Mr. Carless looked round at the assembled faces.

"John Ashton was murdered on the night of the twenty-second of November," he remarked significantly. "Therefore he had not been murdered when the veiled woman first met Mr. Cave for the first time, and he had been murdered when she met Mr. Cave the second time!"

There was a silence as significant as Mr. Carless' tone upon this--broken at last by Mr. Cave.

"If I may say a word or two," he remarked diffidently. "I don't understand matters about this John Ashton. The barrister who asked me questions--Mr. Millington-Bywater, is it--said that he, or somebody, had positive proof that Mr. Ashton had my papers in his possession for some time previous to his death. Is that really so?"

Mr. Carless pointed to Mr. Perkwite.

"This is the gentleman whom Mr. Millington-Bywater could have put in the box this morning to prove that," he replied. "Mr. Perkwite, of the Middle Temple--a barrister-at-law, Mr. Cave. Mr. Perkwite met Mr. Ashton some three months ago at Marseilles, and Mr. Ashton then not only asked his advice about the Ellingham affair, alleging that he knew the missing Lord Marketstoke, but showed him the papers which you have recently deposited with Mr. Methley here--which papers, Ashton alleged, were intrusted to him by Lord Marketstoke on his deathbed. Ashton, according to Mr. Perkwite, took particular care of these papers, and always carried them about with him in a pocketbook."

Mr. Cave appeared to be much exercised in thought on hearing this.

"It is, of course, absurd to say that Lord Marketstoke --myself!--intrusted papers to any one on his deathbed, since I am very much alive," he said. "But it is, equally of course, quite possible that Ashton had my papers. Who was Ashton?"

"A man who had lived in Australia for some thirty-five or forty years at least," replied Mr. Carless, "and who recently returned to England and settled down in London, in this very square. He lived chiefly in Melbourne, but we have heard that for some four or five years he was somewhere up country. You never heard of him out there? He was evidently well known in Melbourne."

"No, I never heard of him," replied Mr. Cave. "But I don't know Melbourne very well; I know Sydney and Brisbane better. However, an idea strikes me--Ashton may have had something to do with the purloining of my letters and effects at Wirra-Worra, when I met with the accident I told you of."

"So far as we are aware," remarked Mr. Carless, "Ashton was an eminently respectable man!"

"So far as you know!" said Mr. Cave. "There is a good deal in the saving clause, I think. I have known a good many men in Australia who were highly respectable in the last stages of life who had been anything but that in their earlier ones! Of what class was this Ashton?"

"I met him, occasionally," said Methley, "though I never knew who he was until after his death. He was a very pleasant, kindly, good-humoured man--but," he added, "I should say, from his speech and manners, a man who had risen from a somewhat humble position of life. I remember noticing his hands--they were the hands of a man who at some period had done hard manual labour."

Mr. Cave smiled knowingly.

"There you are!" he said. "He had probably been a miner! Taking everything into consideration, I am inclined to believe that he was most likely one of the men, or the man, who stole my papers thirty-two years ago."

"There may be something in this," remarked Mr. Pawle, glancing uneasily at Mr. Carless. "It is a fact that the packet of letters to which Mr. Cave referred this morning as having been written by the Countess of Ellingham to Lord Marketstoke when a boy at school, was found by Mr. Viner and myself in Ashton's house, and that the locket which he also mentioned is in existence--facts which Mr. Cave will doubtless be glad to know of. But," added the old lawyer, shaking his head, "what does all this imply? That Ashton, of whom up to now we have heard nothing but good, was not only a thief, but an impostor who was endeavouring, or meant to endeavour, to palm off a bogus claimant on people, who, but for Mr. Cave's appearance and evidence, would certainly have been deceived! It is most amazing."

"Don't forget," said Viner quietly, "that Mr. Perkwite says that Ashton showed him at Marseilles a certain marriage certificate and a birth certificate."

Mr. Carless started.

"Ah!" he exclaimed. "I had forgotten that. Um! However, don't let us forget, just now, that our main object in meeting was to do something towards tracking these people who gave Mr. Cave these papers. Now, Mr. Cave, you got no information out of the woman?"

"None!" answered Mr. Cave. "I was not to ask questions, you remember."

"You took her for a gentlewoman?"

"Yes--from her speech and manner."

"Did she imply to you that she was an intermediary?"

"Yes--she spoke of some one, indefinitely, you know, for whom she was acting."

"And she told you, I think, that you had been recognized, in London, since your arrival, by some one who had known you in Australia years before?"

"Yes--certainly she told me that."

"Just let me look at that typewritten letter again, will you?" asked Mr. Carless. "It seems impossible, but we might get something out of that."

Mr. Cave handed the letter over, and once more it was passed from hand to hand: finally it fell into the hands of Miss Penkridge, who began to examine it with obvious curiosity.

"Afraid there's nothing to be got out of that!" sighed Mr. Carless. "The rogues were cunning enough to typewrite the message--if there'd been any handwriting, now, we might have had a chance! You say there was nothing on the envelope but your name, Mr. Cave?"

Mr. Cave opened his pocketbook again.

"There is the envelope," he said. "Nothing but Mr. Cave, as you see--that is also typewritten."

Miss Penkridge picked up the envelope as Mr. Cave tossed it across the table. She appeared to examine it carefully, but suddenly she turned to Mr. Carless.

"There is a clue in these things!" she exclaimed. "A plain clue! One that's plain enough to me, anyway. I could follow it up. I don't know whether you gentlemen can."

Mr. Carless, who had, up to that point, treated Miss Penkridge with good-humoured condescension, turned sharply upon her.

"What do you mean, ma'am?" he asked. "You really see something in--in a typewritten letter?"

"A great deal!" answered Miss Penkridge. "And in the stationery on which it's typed, and in the envelope in which it's inclosed. Now look here: This letter has been typed on a half-sheet of notepaper. Hold the half-sheet up to the light--what do you see? One half of the name and address of the stationer who supplied it, in watermark. What is that one half?"

Mr. Carless held the paper to the light and saw on the top line, ... "sforth," on the middle line, ... "nd Stationer" and, ... "n Hill" on the bottom line.

"My nephew there," went on Miss Penkridge, "knows what that would be, in full, if the other half of the sheet were here. It would be precisely what it is under the flap of this envelope--there you are! 'Bigglesforth, Bookseller and Stationer, Craven Hill.' Everybody in this district knows Bigglesforth--we get our stationery from him. Now, Bigglesforth has not such a very big business in really expensive notepaper like this--the other half of the sheet, of course, would have a finely engraved address on it--and you can trace the owner of this paper through him, with patience and trouble.

"But here's a still better clue! Look at this typewritten letter. In it, the letter o occurs with frequency. Now, notice--the letter is broken, imperfect; the top left-hand curve has been chipped off. Do you mean to tell me that with time and trouble and patience you can't find out to whom that machine belongs? Taking the fact that this half-sheet of notepaper came from Bigglesforth's, of Craven Hill," concluded Miss Penkridge with emphasis, "I should say that this document--so important--came from somebody who doesn't live a million miles from here!"

Mr. Carless had followed Miss Penkridge with admiring attention, and he now rose to his feet.

"Ma'am," he exclaimed, "Mr. Viner's notion of having you to join our council has proved invaluable! I'll have that clue followed up instantly! Gentlemen, we can do no more just now--let us separate. Mr. Cave--you'll continue to be heard of at the Belfield Hotel?"

"I shall be at your service any time, Mr. Carless," responded Mr. Cave. "A telephone message will bring me at once to Lincoln's Inn Fields."

The assembly broke up, and Viner was left alone with Miss Penkridge.

"That was clever of you!" he said, admiringly. "I should never have noticed that. But--there are a lot of typewriting machines in London!"

"Not so many owned by customers of Bigglesforth's!" retorted Miss Penkridge. "I'd work it out, if I were a detective!"

The parlour-maid looked in and attracted Viner's attention.

"Mr. Felpham wants you at the telephone, sir," she said.