The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XXV. Through the Telephone
Events had crowded so thick and fast upon Viner during the last day or two, that he went to the telephone fully expecting to hear of some new development. But he was scarcely prepared for his solicitor's first words.
"Viner!" said Felpham, whose voice betrayed his excitement. "Is that man Cave still with you?"
"No!" answered Viner. "Why?"
"Listen carefully," responded Felpham. "In spite of all he asserts, and his long tale this morning at the police-court, I believe he's a rank impostor! I've just had another talk with Hyde."
"Well?" demanded Viner.
"Hyde," answered Felpham, "persists that he's not mistaken. He swears that the man is Nugent Starr. He says there's no doubt of it! And he's told me of another actor, a man named George Bellingham, who's now somewhere in London, who can positively identify him as Starr. I'm going to find Bellingham this afternoon--there's some deep-laid plot in all this, and that fellow had been cleverly coached in the event of his being unexpectedly tackled.... Viner!"
"Well--I'm listening carefully," replied Viner.
"Where's this man gone?" demanded Felpham.
"To his hotel, I should think," answered Viner. "He left here just before one."
"Listen!" said Felpham. "Do you think it would be wise to post New Scotland Yard on to him--detectives, you know?"
Viner considered swiftly. In the rush of events he had forgotten that Carless had already given instructions for the watching of the pseudo Mr. Cave.
"Why not find this man Bellingham first?" he suggested. "If he can prove, positively, that the fellow is Nugent Starr, you'd have something definite to work on. Where can Bellingham be found?"
"Hyde's given me the address of a theatrical agent in Bedford Street who's likely to know of his whereabouts," replied Felpham. "I'm going over there at once. Hyde saw Bellingham in town three weeks ago."
"Let me know at once," said Viner. "If you find Bellingham, take him to the Belfield Hotel and contrive to show him the man. Call me up later."
He went away from his telephone and sought Miss Penkridge, whom he found in her room, arraying herself for out of doors.
"Here's a new development!" he exclaimed, shutting the door on them. "Felpham's just telephoned to say that Hyde persists that the man who calls himself Cave is Nugent Starr! In that case, he won't--"
Miss Penkridge interrupted her nephew with a sniff.
"My dear Richard," she said, with a note of contemptuous impatience, "in a case like this, you don't know who's who or who isn't who! It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if the man turns out to be Nugent Starr."
"How did he come by such a straight tale, then?" asked Viner doubtfully.
"Carefully prepared--in case of need," declared Miss Penkridge as she tied her bonnet-strings with a decisive tug. "The whole thing's a plant!"
"That's what Felpham says," remarked Viner. "But--where are you going?" he broke off as Miss Penkridge, seizing an umbrella, started for the door. "Lunch is just going in."
"My lunch can wait--I've had a biscuit and a glass of sherry," asserted Miss Penkridge. "I'm going round to Bigglesforth the stationer's, to follow up that clue I suggested just now. I dare say I can do a bit of detective work as well as another, and in my opinion, Richard, there's no time to be lost. I have been blessed and endowed," continued Miss Penkridge, as she laid hold of the door-handle, "with exceedingly acute perceptions, and I saw something when I made that suggestion which I'm quite sure none of you men, with all your brains, saw!"
"What?" demanded Viner.
"I saw that my suggestion wasn't at all pleasing to the man who calls himself Cave!" exclaimed Miss Penkridge. "It was only a flash of his eye, a sudden droop at the corners of his lips--but I saw! And I saw something else, too--that he got away as quickly as ever he could after I'd made that suggestion."
Viner looked at his aunt with amused wonder. He thought she was unduly suspicious, and Miss Penkridge guessed his thoughts.
"You'll see," she said as she opened the door.
"There are going to be strange revelations, Richard Viner, my boy! You said at the beginning of this that you'd suddenly got plunged into the middle of things--well, in my opinion, we're now coming to the end of things, and I'm going to do my bit to bring it about."
With that Miss Penkridge sailed away, her step determined and her head high, and Viner, pondering many matters, went downstairs to entertain his visitors, the unlucky Hyde's sisters, with stories of the morning's proceedings and hopes of their brother's speedy acquittal. The poor ladies were of that temperament which makes its possessors clutch eagerly at any straw of hope floating on the sea of trouble, and they listened eagerly to all that their host could tell.
"Langton has an excellent memory!" declared the elder Miss Hyde. "Don't you remember, sister, what a quantity of poetical pieces he knew by heart when he was quite a child?"
"Before he was seven years of age!" said the younger sister. "And at ten he could recite the whole of the trial scene from 'The Merchant of Venice.' Oh, yes, he always had a marvellous memory! If Langton says he remembers this man in America, dear Mr. Viner, I am sure Langton will be right, and that this is the man. But what a very dreadful person to utter such terrible falsehoods!"
"And on oath!" said the elder Miss Hyde, solemnly. "On oath, sister!"
"Sad!" murmured the younger lady. "Most sad! We find London life very disturbing, dear Mr. Viner, after our quiet country existence."
"There are certainly some disturbing elements in it," admitted Viner.
Just then came another interruption; for the second time since his return from the police-court, he was summoned to the telephone. To his great surprise, the voice that hailed him was Mrs. Killenhall's.
"Is that Mr. Viner?" the voice demanded in its usual brisk, clear tones.
"Yes," answered Viner. "Is that Mrs. Killenhall?"
"Yes!" came the prompt reply. "Mr. Viner, can you be so very kind? Miss Wickham and I have come down to the City on some business connected with Mr. Ashton, and we do so want somebody's help. Can you run down at once and join us? So sorry to trouble you, but we really do want a gentleman here."
"Certainly!" responded Viner. "I'll come to you at once. But where are you?"
"Come to 23 Mirrapore Street, off Whitechapel Road," answered Mrs. Killenhall. "There is some one here who knew Mr. Ashton, and I should like you to see him. Can you come at once? And have you the address right?"
"A moment--repeat it, please," replied Viner, pulling out a memorandum book. He noted the address and spoke again: "I'll be there in half an hour, Mrs. Killenhall," he said. "Sooner, if it's possible."
"Thank you so much," responded Mrs. Killenhall's steady voice. "So good of you--good-bye for the present, then."
"Good-bye," said Viner. He hurried away into the hall, snatched up a hat, and letting himself out of the house, ran to the nearest cab-stand and beckoned to a chauffeur who often took him about. "I want to get along to Mirrapore Street, Whitechapel Road," he said, as he sprang into the car. "Do you know whereabouts it is?"
The chauffeur knitted his brows and shook his head.
"There's a sight of small streets running off Whitechapel Road, both sides, sir," he answered. "It'll be one of them--I'll find it. Mirrapore Street? Right, sir."
"Get there as quickly as possible," said Viner. "The quicker the better."
It was not until he had gone a good half of his journey that Viner began to wonder whatever it was that had taken Miss Wickham and her chaperon down to the far boundaries of the City--or, indeed, farther. Mrs. Killenhall had said the City, but Viner knew his London well enough to know that Whitechapel Road lies without the City confines. She had said, too, that a man who knew Mr. Ashton was there with her and Miss Wickham--what man, wondered Viner, and what doing in a district like that toward which he was speeding?
The chauffeur did the run to Whitechapel Road in unusually good time; it was little more than two o'clock when the car passed the parish church. But the man had gone from one end of the road to the other, from the end of High Street to the beginning of Mile End Road, without success, when he stopped and looked in at his passenger.
"Can't see no street of that name on either side, Mr. Viner," he said. "Have you got it right, sir?"
"That's the name given me," answered Viner. He pointed to a policeman slowly patrolling the side walk. "Ask him," he said. "He'll know."
The policeman, duly questioned, seemed surprised at first; then recollection evidently awoke in him.
"Mirrypoor Street?" he said. "Oh, yes! Second to your left, third to the right--nice sort o' street for a car like yours to go into, too!"
Viner overheard this and put his head out of the window.
"Why?" he demanded.
The policeman, quick to recognize a superior person, touched his helmet and stepped off the curb toward his questioner.
"Pretty low quarter down there, sir," he said, with a significant glance in the direction concerned. "If you've business that way, I should advise you to look after yourself--some queer places down those streets, sir."
"Thanks," responded Viner with a grim smile. "Go on, driver, as quick as you can, and stop at the corner of the street."
The car swung out of Whitechapel Road into a long, dismal street, the shabbiness of which increased the further the main thoroughfare was left behind; and Viner, looking right and left, saw that the small streets running off that which he was traversing were still more dismal, still more shabby. Suddenly the car twisted to the right and stopped, and Viner was aware of a long, narrow street, more gloomy than the rest, wherein various doubtful-looking individuals moved about, and groups of poorly clad children played in the gutters.
"All right," he said as he got down from the car, and the chauffeur made a grimace at the unlovely vista. "Look here--I don't want you to wait here. Go back to Whitechapel Road and hang about the end of the street we've just come down. I'll come back there to you."
"Not afraid of going down here alone, then, sir?" asked the chauffeur. "It's a bit as that policeman said."
"I'm all right," repeated Viner. "You go back and wait. I may be some time. I mayn't be long."
He turned away down the street--and in spite of his declaration, he felt that this was certainly the most doubtful place he had ever been in. There were evil and sinister faces on the sidewalks; evil and sinister eyes looking out of dirty windows; here and there a silent-footed figure went by him in the gloom of the December day with the soft step of a wild animal; here and there, men leaning against the wall, glared suspiciously at him or fixed rapacious eyes on his good clothes. There were shops in this street such as Viner had never seen the like of--shops wherein coarse, dreadful looking food was exposed for sale; and there were public-houses from which came the odour of cheap gin and bad beer and rank tobacco; an atmosphere of fried fish and something far worse hung heavily above the dirty pavements, and at every step he took Viner asked himself the same question--what on earth could Miss Wickham and Mrs. Killenhall be doing in this wretched neighbourhood?
Suddenly he came to the house he wanted--Number 23. It was just like all the other houses, of sombre grey brick, except for the fact that it looked somewhat cleaner than the rest, was furnished with blinds and curtains, and in the front downstairs window had a lower wire blind, on which was worked in tarnished gilt letters, the word Surgery. On the door was a brass plate, also tarnished, across which ran three lines in black:
"Dr. Martincole. Attendance: 3 to 6 p. m. Saturdays. 5 to 9.30 p. m."
Before Viner took the bell in hand, he glanced at the houses which flanked this East-end surgery. One was a poor-looking, meanly equipped chemist's shop; the other a second-hand clothing establishment. And comforting himself with the thought that if need arose the apparently fairly respectable proprietors of these places might reasonably be called upon for assistance, he rang the bell of Number 23 and awaited the opening of the door with considerable curiosity.
The door was opened by Mrs. Killenhall herself, and Viner's quick eye failed to notice anything in her air or manner that denoted uneasiness. She smiled and motioned him to enter, shutting the door after him as he stepped into the narrow entrance hall.
"So very good of you to come, Mr. Viner, and so quickly," she said. "You found your way all right?"
"Yes, but I'm a good deal surprised to find you and Miss Wickham in this neighbourhood," answered Viner. "This is a queer place, Mrs. Killenhall. I hope--"
"Oh, we're all right!" said Mrs. Killenhall, with a reassuring smile. "It is certainly a queer neighbourhood, but Dr. Martincole is an old friend of mine, and we're safe enough under his roof. He'll be here in a few minutes, and then--"
"This man who knew Mr. Ashton?" interrupted Viner. "Where is he?"
"Dr. Martincole will bring him in," said Mrs. Killenhall, "Come upstairs, Mr. Viner."
Viner noticed that the house through which he was led was very quiet, and larger than he should have guessed at from the street frontage. From what he could see, it was well furnished, but dark and gloomy; gloomy, too, was a back room, high up the stairs, into which Mrs. Killenhall presently showed him. There, looking somewhat anxious, sat Miss Wickham, alone.
"Here's Mr. Viner," said Mrs. Killenhall. "I'll tell Dr. Martincole he's come."
She motioned Viner to a chair and went out. But the next instant Viner swung quickly round. As the door closed, he had heard the unmistakable click of a patent lock.