The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XXVII. The Back Way
Viner was so sure that the sound which he had heard on Mrs. Killenhall's retirement was that caused by the turning of a key or slipping of a lock in the door by which he had entered, that before speaking to Miss Wickham he instantly stepped back and tried it. To his astonishment it opened readily, but the anteroom outside was empty; Mrs. Killenhall had evidently walked straight through it and disappeared.
"That's odd!" he said, turning to Miss Wickham. "I distinctly thought I heard something like the snap of a lock, or a bolt or something. Didn't you?"
"I certainly heard a sound of that sort," admitted Miss Wickham. "But--the door's open, isn't it?"
"Yes--that is so," answered Viner, who was distinctly puzzled. "Yet--but then, all this seems very odd. When did you come down here?"
"About an hour ago," replied Miss Wickham, "in a hurry."
"Do you know why?" asked Viner.
"To see a Dr. Martincole, who is to tell us something about Mr. Ashton," replied his fellow-sharer in these strange quarters. "Didn't Mrs. Killenhall ask you to come down for the same purpose, Mr. Viner?"
Viner, before he replied, looked round the room. Considering the extreme shabbiness and squalour of the surrounding district, he was greatly surprised to find that the apartment in which he and Miss Wickham waited was extremely well furnished, if in an old-fashioned and rather heavy way. The walls were panelled in dark, age-stained oak, to the height of several feet; above the panelling were arranged good oil pictures, which Viner would have liked to examine at his leisure; here and there, in cabinets, were many promising curiosities; there were old silver and brass things, and a shelf or two of well-bound books--altogether the place and its effects were certainly not what Viner had expected to find in such a quarter.
"Yes," he said at last, turning to his companion, "that's what I was brought here for. Well--have you seen this doctor?"
"No," answered Miss Wickham. "Not yet."
"Know anything about him?" suggested Viner.
"Nothing whatever! I have heard of him," said Miss Wickham with a glance of surprise. "I suppose he--somehow--got into touch with Miss Killenhall."
"Queer!" remarked Viner. "And why doesn't he come in?"
Then, resolved to know more, he walked into the anteroom, and after a look round it, tried the door by which Mrs. Killenhall had admitted him after coming up the stairs from the street; a second later he went back to Miss Wickham and shook his head.
"It's just as I supposed," he remarked quietly. "We're trapped! Anyway, the door of that anteroom is locked--and it's a strong lock. There's something wrong."
The girl started, and paled a little, but Viner saw at once that she was not likely to be seriously frightened, and presently she laughed.
"How very queer!" she said. "But--perhaps Mrs. Killenhall turned the key in the outer lock so that no--patients, or other callers, perhaps--should come in?"
"Sorry, but that doesn't strike me as a good suggestion," replied Viner. "I'm going to have a look at that window!"
The one window of the room, a long, low one, was set high in the wall, above the panelling; Viner had to climb on a bookcase to get at it. And when he had reached it, he found it to be securely fastened, and to have in front of it, at a distance of no more than a yard, a blank whitewashed wall which evidently rose from a passage between that and the next house.
"I don't like the look of this at all!" he said as he got down from the bookcase. "It seems to me that we might be kept here for a long time."
Miss Wickham showed more astonishment than fear.
"But why should any one want to keep us here for any time?" she asked. "What's it mean?"
"I wish I knew!" exclaimed Viner. He pulled out his watch and made a mental note of the time. "We're being kept much longer than we should be in any ordinary case," he remarked.
"Of course!" admitted Miss Wickham. "Well past three o'clock, isn't it? If we're delayed much longer, Mrs. Killenhall will be too late for the bank."
"What bank?" asked Viner.
"My bank. I always give Mrs. Killenhall a check for the weekly bills every Friday, and as we were coming through the City to get here, she said, just before we left home, that I might as well give her the check and she could call and cash it as we drove back. And," concluded Miss Wickham, "the bank closes at four."
Viner began to be suspicious.
"Look here!" he said suddenly. "Don't think me inquisitive, but what was the amount of the check you gave her?"
"There was no amount stated," replied Miss Wickham. "I always give her a blank check--signed, of course--and she fills in the amount herself. It varies according to what she wants."
Without expressing any opinion on the wisdom of handing checks to other people on this plan, Viner turned to Miss Wickham with a further question.
"Do you know anything about Mrs. Killenhall's movements this morning?" he asked. "Did she go out anywhere?"
"Yes," replied Miss Wickham. "She went to the police-court, to hear the proceedings against Mr. Hyde. She wanted me to go, but I wouldn't--I dislike that sort of thing. She was there all the morning."
"So was I," said Viner. "I didn't see her. But the place was crowded."
"And she was veiled," remarked Miss Wickham. "Naturally, she didn't want people to see her in a place like that."
"Do you know whether she went to the previous sitting? I mean when Hyde was brought up the first time?" inquired Viner. "I remember there were some veiled ladies there--and at the coroner's inquest, too."
"She was at the coroner's inquest, I know," replied Miss Wickham. "I don't know about the other time."
Viner made no remark, and Miss Wickham suddenly lowered her voice and bent nearer to him.
"Why?" she asked. "Are you--suspecting Mrs. Killenhall of anything, Mr. Viner?"
Viner gave her a quick glance.
"Are you?" he said in low tones.
Miss Wickham waved a hand towards the anteroom.
"Well!" she whispered. "What's it look like? She brings me down here in a hurry, on a message which I myself never heard nor saw delivered in any way; after I get here, you are fetched--and here we are! And--where is she?"
"And--possibly a much more pertinent question," said Viner, "where is this Dr. Martincole? Look here: this is a well-furnished room; those pictures are good; there are many valuable things here; yet the man who practises here is only in attendance for an hour or two in an afternoon, and once a week for rather longer in the evening. He can't earn much here; certainly an East End doctor could not afford to buy things like this or that. Do you know what I think? I think this man is some West End man, who for purposes of his own has this place down here--a man who probably lives a double life, and may possibly be mixed up in some nefarious practices. And so I propose, as we've waited long enough, to get out of it, and I'm going to smash that window and yell as loud as I can--somebody will hear it!"
Miss Wickham pointed to a door in the oak panelling, a door set in a corner of the room, across which hung a heavy curtain of red plush, only halfdrawn.
"There's a door there," she remarked, "but I suppose it's only a cupboard."
"Sure to be," said Viner. "However, we'll see." He went across, drew the curtain aside, tried the door, looked within, and uttered an exclamation. "I say!" he called back. "Stairs!"
Miss Wickham came across and looked past his shoulder. There was certainly the head of a staircase before him, and a few stairs to be seen before darkness swallowed up the rest--but the darkness was deep and the atmosphere that came up from below decidedly musty.
"Are you going down there?" she asked. "I don't like it!"
"It seems our only chance," answered Viner. He looked back into the room, and seeing some wax candles standing on a writing-table, seized one and lighted it. "Come along!" he said. "Let's get out of this altogether."
Miss Wickham gathered up her skirts and followed down the stairs, Viner going cautiously in front, with the light held before him in such a fashion that he could see every step. At a turn in the stairway he came across a door, and opening it, saw that it stood at the end of a narrow passage running through the house; at the farther end of the passage he recognized an oak cabinet which he had noticed when Mrs. Killenhall first admitted him.
"I see how these people, whoever they are, manage matters," he remarked over his shoulder as he led his companion forward. "This place has a front and a back entrance. If you don't want to be seen, you know, well, it's convenient. We're approaching the back--and here it is."
The stairs came to an end deep down in the house, terminating in a door which Viner, after leaving his silver-sticked candle, only blown out, on the last step, carefully opened. There before him lay a narrow whitewashed yard, at the end of which they could see a street, evidently pretty much like the rest of the streets in that district. But in the yard a pale-cheeked, sharp-eyed urchin was feeding a couple of rabbits in a wire-faced soap-box, and him Viner immediately hailed.
"You're a smart-looking lad," he said. "Would you like five shillings? Well, have you seen Dr. Martincole this afternoon? You know, the doctor who comes to the house behind us?"
"See him go out abaht an hour ago, guv'nor--wiv anuvver gent," said the lad eagerly, his bright eyes wavering between Viner's face and the hand which he had thrust in his pocket. He pointed to the distant entrance of the yard. "Went aht that way, they did."
"Ah! And what was the other gentleman like?" asked Viner.
"Swell!" answered the informant. "Proper swell, he was!"
"And Dr. Martincole?" Viner continued. "You've seen him many a time, of course. Now what's he like!"
"He's a tall gentleman," said the boy, after some evidently painful thought.
"Yes, but what else--has he got a beard?" asked Viner.
"Couldn't tell you that, guv'nor, d'yer see," said the lad, "'cause he's one o' them gents what allus wears a white silk handkercher abaht his face--up to his eyes. But he's a big man--wears black clothes."
Viner gave the boy his promised reward, and was passing on when Miss Wickham touched his arm.
"Ask if he's seen a lady go out this way," she said. "That's equally important."
The boy, duly questioned nodded his head.
"I see Mrs. Killerby go out not so long since," he answered. "Her what used to live here one time. Know her well enough."
"Come along!" muttered Viner. "We've hit it! Mrs. Killerby--who is Mrs. Killenhall--used to live here at one time! Good--which means very bad, considering that without doubt the doctor who wears a white silk handkerchief about his face is the muffled man of Lonsdale Passage. Miss Wickham, something has alarmed these birds and they've flown."
"But why were we brought here?" asked Miss Wickham.
"I've an idea as to why you were," said Viner, "and I propose to find out at once if I'm right. Let's get away, find a taxicab, and go to your--but, good heavens!" he went on, breaking off as two men came into the yard. "Here's one of Carless' clerks, and Perkwite the barrister.--What are you doing here?" he demanded, as Millwaters and Perkwite hurried up. "Are you after anybody along there--in that house--the one at the end?"
"We're after a good many things and people in Dr. Martincole's place, Mr. Viner," answered Millwaters. "Mr. Perkwite and I traced Mr. Cave here early in the afternoon; he went in, but he's never come out; we saw you enter--here you are. We saw Miss Wickham and Mrs. Killenhall--there's Miss Wickham, but where's the other lady? And where--"
Viner stopped the clerk's questions with a glance, and he laughed a little as he gave him his answer.
"My dear fellow," he said, "you should have posted somebody at the back here. Why, we don't quite know yet, but Miss Wickham and myself were trapped in there. As for Cave, he must be the man who went away with Martincole. As for Mrs. Killenhall, she too has gone. That boy down there saw all three go, some time ago, while we were locked up. But--what made you watch these people?"
"We followed Cave," said Perkwite, "because Millwaters had been ordered to do so, and because I considered his conduct mysterious. Then, when we saw what was going on here,--your arrival following on that of Miss Wickham and Mrs. Killenhall,--we telephoned for Mr. Carless and more help. Carless and Lord Ellingham, and a couple of detectives, are at the front now. Millwaters and I heard from a denizen of these unlovely parts that there was a back entrance. We'd tried in vain for admittance at the front--"
"But they've got in now, Mr. Perkwite!" exclaimed Millwaters suddenly. "See, there's Mr. Carless at a back window, waving to us to come in. I suppose we can get in by the back, Mr. Viner?"
"Yes--if you like to take the risk of entering people's houses without permission!" said Viner sardonically. "I don't think you'll find anybody or anything there. As for Miss Wickham and myself, we've an engagement elsewhere."
He hurried his companion away, through the street on which they emerged from the whitewashed yard, and out into the Whitechapel Road; he hurried her, too, into the first taxicab which came along empty.
"Now," he said, as they stepped in, "tell this man the name of your bank, and let him go there, quick!"