The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XXVIII. The Truth
Four o'clock had struck, and the doors of the bank were closed when Miss Wickham and Viner hurried up to it, but there was a private entrance at the side, and the man who answered their summons made no difficulty about admitting them when Miss Wickham said who she was. And within a few minutes they were closeted with a manager, who, surprised when they entered, was astonished before many words had been exchanged. For during their dash from the Whitechapel streets Viner had coached his companion as to the questions he wished her to put on arrival at the bank, and she went straight to the point.
"I wanted to know if my companion, Mrs. Killenhall, had called here this afternoon?" begun Miss Wickham.
"She has," answered the manager. "I happened to see her, and I attended to her myself."
"Did she present a check from me?" inquired Miss Wickham.
"Certainly--and I cashed it," said the manager. He gave his customer and her companion a look of interrogation which had a good deal of surprise in it. "Why?" he continued, glancing at Miss Wickham, "wasn't it in order?"
"That," replied Miss Wickham, "depends upon the amount."
"The amount!" he exclaimed. "You know--if the drawer! It was for ten thousand pounds!"
"Then Mrs. Killenhall has done me, or you, out of that," said Miss Wickham. "The check I gave her was to have been filled up for the amount of the usual weekly bills--twenty pounds or so. Ten thousand? Ridiculous!"
"But--it all seemed in order!" exclaimed the concerned manager. "She was as plausible, and all that--and really, you know, Miss Wickham, we know her very well--and, in addition to that, you have a very large balance lying here. Mrs. Killenhall merely mentioned that you wanted this amount, in notes, and that she had called for it--and of course, I cashed the check--your check, remember!--at once."
"I hadn't filled in the amount," remarked Miss Wickham.
"Mrs. Killenhall had often presented checks bearing your signature in which you hadn't filled in the amount," said the manager. "There was nothing unusual, I assure you, in any detail of the affair."
"The most important detail, now," observed Viner dryly, "is to find Mrs. Killenhall."
The manager, who was obviously filled with amazement at Mrs. Killenhall's audacity, looked from one to the other of his visitors, as if he could scarcely credit their suggestion.
"You really mean me to believe that Mrs. Killenhall has got ten thousand pounds out of Miss Wickham by a trick?" he asked, fixing his gaze at last on Viner.
"What I really mean you to believe," said Viner, rising, "is that a rapid series of events this afternoon has proved to me that Mrs. Killenhall is one of a gang who are responsible for the murder of John Ashton, who stole his diamond and certain papers, and who have endeavoured, very cleverly, to foist one of their number, a scoundrelly clever actor, on the public, as a peer of the realm who had been missing. Mrs. Killenhall--who has another name--probably got wind of possible detection about noon today, and took advantage of Miss Wickham's habit of giving her a weekly check, to provide herself with ample funds. That's really about the truth--and I think Miss Wickham and I had better be seeing the police."
"The very best thing you can do!" responded the manager with alacrity. "And take my advice and go straight to headquarters--go to New Scotland Yard. Just think what this woman--and her accomplices--could do! If she or they had one hour's start of you, they can have already put a good distance between themselves and London; they can be halfway to Dover, or Harwich, or Southampton. And therefore--"
"And therefore all the more reason why we should set somebody on their trail," interrupted Viner, and hurried Miss Wickham out of the manager's room and away to the taxicab which he had purposely kept in waiting. "I don't think Mrs. Killenhall, or Killerby, or whatever her name is, will have hurried away as quickly as all that," he remarked as they sped along toward Whitehall. "My own idea is that, having got hold of your money, she'll probably have made for the headquarters of this precious gang, she and they are sure to have one, for I should say the place in Whitechapel was only an outpost,--and they'll be better able to arrange an escape from there than she would to make an immediate flight. She--but what are you thinking?"
"That I seem to be involved, somehow, in a very strange and curious combination of things," answered Miss Wickham.
"Just so!" agreed Viner. "So do I--and I was literally pitchforked into the very midst of it all by sheer accident. If I hadn't happened to go out for a late stroll on the night on which it began, I should never have--but here we are!"
The official of the Criminal Investigation Department with whom they were shortly closeted, listened carefully and silently to Viner's account of all that had happened. He was one of those never-to-be-sufficiently-praised individuals who never interrupt and always understand, and at the close of Viner's story he said exactly what the narrator was thinking. "The real truth of all this, Mr. Viner," he said, "is that this is probably one of the last chapters in the history of the Lonsdale Passage murder. For if you find this woman and the men who are undoubtedly her accomplices, you will most likely have found, in one or other of them, the murderer of John Ashton!"
"Precisely!" agreed Viner. "Precisely!"
The official rose from his seat and turned to the door.
"Drillford, of your nearest police-station, had this case in charge," he remarked. "I'll just call him on the telephone."
He left the room and was away for several minutes; when he returned there was something like a smile on his face.
"If you and Miss Wickham will drive along and see Drillford, Mr. Viner," he said. "I think you'll find he's some news for you."
"Has he told it to you?" demanded Viner.
"Well--just a little," answered the official with another smile. "But I won't rob him of the pleasure of telling you himself. You ought to be disappointed. However, I'll just tell you enough to whet your appetite for more--Drillford is confident that he's just arrested the real man! No--no more!" he added, with a laugh. "You'll run up there in twenty minutes."
Drillford, cool and confident as ever, was alone in his office when Viner and his companion were shown in. He looked at Miss Wickham with considerable curiosity as he handed her a chair, and Viner noticed that the bow he made her was unusually respectful. But he immediately plunged into the pertinent subject, and turned to Viner with a laugh of self-deprecation.
"Well, Mr. Viner!" he said. "You were right, and I was wrong. It wasn't that young fellow Hyde who killed Mr. Ashton. And now that I know who did, I don't mind saying that I'm jolly glad that his innocence will be established."
"But do you know who did?" asked Viner eagerly.
"I do!" answered Drillford.
"Who, then?" exclaimed Viner.
"He's in the cells at the back, now," said Drillford, "and I only hope he's not one of those chaps who are so clever that they can secrete poison to the very last moment and then cheat the gallows, for now that I know as much as I do, I should say he's as pretty a specimen of the accomplished scoundrel as ever put on fine clothes. Dr. Cortelyon, of your square!"
This sudden and surprising revelation, made in ordinary matter-of-fact tones, produced different effects on the two people to whom it was made. Viner, after a start and a smothered exclamation, stared silently at Drillford as if he scarcely comprehended his meaning. But Miss Wickham, with a quick flush which evidently denoted suddenly-awakened recollection, broke into words.
"Dr. Cortelyon!" she exclaimed. "Ah--I remember now. Mr. Ashton once told me, in quite a casual way as we were passing through the square, that he had known Dr. Cortelyon in Australia, years and years ago!"
Drillford glanced at Viner and smiled.
"I wish you'd remembered that little matter before, Miss Wickham!" he said. "It might have saved a lot of trouble. Well--Cortelyon's the man! And it all came about quite suddenly, this afternoon. Through your aunt, Mr. Viner--Miss Penkridge. Smart lady, sir!"
"My aunt!" exclaimed Viner. "Why, how on earth--"
"Some of your gentlemen had a conference with that fellow Cave at your house, after you left court this morning," said Drillford. "Miss Penkridge was present. Cave told more of his cock-and-bull story, and produced a certain letter which he said had been handed to him at the hotel he'd put up at. All that, and all the stuff he told at the police-court, was bluff--carefully concocted by himself and Cortelyon in case Cave was ever put in a tight corner. Now, according to what she tells me, Miss Penkridge immediately spotted something about that letter which none of you gentlemen were clever enough to see--"
"I know!" interrupted Viner. "She saw that the envelope and paper had been supplied by Bigglesforth, of Craven Gardens, and that a certain letter in the typewriter which had been used was defective."
"Just so," laughed Drillford, "and so, being, as I say, a smart woman, she went round to Bigglesforth, got him to herself, and made some inquiries. And--it's very queer, Mr. Viner, how some of these apparently intricate cases are easily solved by one chance discovery!--she hadn't been talking to Bigglesforth ten minutes before she was on the right track. Bigglesforth, when he'd got to know the main features of the case, was willing enough to help, and your aunt immediately brought him round here to see me. And I knew at once that we'd got right there!"
"Yes--but how, exactly?" asked Viner.
"Bigglesforth," answered Drillford, "told me that he'd supplied stationery to Dr. Cortelyon for some time, and he'd no doubt that the paper and envelope described by Miss Penkridge was some which he'd specially secured for the Doctor. But he told something far more important: Six months ago Cortelyon went to Bigglesforth and asked him if he could get him a good second-hand typewriter. Now, Bigglesforth had a very good one for which he'd no use, and he at once sold it to Cortelyon. Bigglesforth didn't mention the matter to his customer, for the machine was perfect in all other respects, but one of the letters was defective--broken. That was the same letter, Mr. Viner, which was defective in the document which Cave showed to you gentlemen and spoke of previously in court!"
"Extraordinary!" muttered Viner. "What a piece of luck!"
"No, sir!" said Drillford, stoutly. "No luck at all--just a bit of good common-sense thinking on the part of a shrewd woman. But you'll want to know what we did. I was so absolutely certain of the truth of Miss Penkridge's theory that I immediately made preparations for a descent on Cortelyon's house. I got a number of our best men--detectives, of course--and we went round to Markendale Square, back and front. Inquiry showed that Cortelyon was out, but we'd scarcely got that fact ascertained when he drove up in a taxicab with Cave himself. They hurriedly entered the house--I myself was watching from a good point of vantage, and I saw that both men were, to say the least, anxious and excited. Then I began to make final preparations. But before I'd finished telling my men exactly what to do, another party drove up--your companion, Miss Wickham, Mrs. Killenhall. She too entered. Then I moved--quick. Some of us went to the front--I with the others went in by the back. We made straight for Cortelyon's surgery, and we were on him and the other two before they'd time to move, literally. The two men certainly tried to draw revolvers, but we were too many for 'em, and as they'd tried that game, I had 'em handcuffed there and then. It was all an affair of a moment--and of course, they saw it was all up. Now, equally of course, Mr. Viner, in all these cases, in my experience, the subordinates immediately try to save their own skins by denouncing the principal, and it was so in this instance. Mrs. Killenhall and Cave at once denounced Cortelyon as the mainspring, and the woman, who's a regular coward, got me aside and offered to turn King's evidence, and whispered that Cortelyon actually killed Ashton himself, unaided, as he let him out of his back door into Lonsdale Passage!"
"So--that's settled!" exclaimed Viner.
"Yes, I think so," agreed Drillford. "Well, we brought 'em all here, and charged 'em, and examined 'em. Nothing much on Cave, who, of course, is precisely what Hyde said he was--a man named Nugent Starr, an old actor--if he was as good a performer on the stage as he is in private life, he ought to have done well. But on Mrs. Killenhall we found ten thousand pounds in Bank of England notes, and one or two letters from Cortelyon, which she was a fool for keeping, for they clearly prove that she was an accessory. And on Cortelyon we'd a big find! That diamond that Ashton used to carry about, the other ring that Ashton was wearing when he was murdered, and--perhaps most important of all--certain papers which he'd no doubt taken from Ashton's body."
"What are they?" demanded Viner.
Drillford glanced at Miss Wickham.
"Well," he said, "I've only just had time to glance at them, but I should say that they affect Miss Wickham in a very surprising fashion, and I shall be glad to hand them over to her solicitors as soon as they come for them. They're birth certificates, burial certificates, marriage certificates, and a complete memorandum of a certain case, evidently written out with great care by Ashton himself. And of course, knowing what I do now, it's very clear to me how Ashton's murder came about. Cortelyon knew that if Ashton was out of the way, and he himself in possession of the papers, he could use some, suppress others, and foist off an accomplice of his own as claimant to a title which, from what I've seen, appears without doubt to belong to--"
Drillford was again glancing at Miss Wickham, but Viner contrived to stop any further revelations and got to his feet.
"Extraordinary!" he said. "But--my aunt? Where is she?"
"She remained here until we'd safely caged the birds," answered Drillford. "Then she said she'd go home. And I suppose you'll find her there."
Viner took his companion away from the police-station in silence. But at the end of the street Miss Wickham looked back.
"Are those three people really locked up--in cells--close by where we were sitting with the inspector?" she asked.
"Just so," answered Viner.
"And will they all be hanged?" she whispered.
"I sincerely hope one will!" exclaimed Viner.
"What," she inquired, "did the inspector mean about the papers found on Dr. Cortelyon? I have some uneasy feeling that--"
"I think you 'd better wait," said Viner. "There'll have to be some queer explanations. We must let Mr. Pawle and Mr. Carless know of what's happened--they're the proper people to deal with this affair."
And then, as they turned into Markendale Square, they saw Mr. Pawle and Mr. Carless, who, with Lord Ellingham, were hurrying from Miss Wickham's house in the direction of Viner's. Mr. Carless quickened his pace and came toward them.
"I was so upset when I heard from Perkwite that Miss Wickham has been in that house in Whitechapel," he said, "that, on learning she'd gone off with you, Viner, Lord Ellingham and I drove to Pawle's and brought him on here to learn if she'd got home and what had happened."
"What had happened?" demanded Mr. Pawle. "What is it, Viner?"
Viner gathered them round him with a look.
"This has happened!" he said. "The whole thing's solved. Ashton's murderer is found, and he and his accomplices are under lock and key. Listen, and I'll tell you all that's been done since one o'clock, up here--while we've been at the other end of the town. But I'll only give you an outline. Well, then--"
The three men listened in dead silence until Viner had repeated Drillford's story; then Mr. Pawle glanced round at the window of Viner's house.
"Miss Penkridge, by all that's wonderful!" he said in a deep voice. "Most extraordinary! Where is she?"
"At home, I should imagine," answered Viner with a laugh.
"Then, my dear sir, by all means let us pay our respects to her!" said Mr. Pawle. "A tribute!"
"By all means!" exclaimed Mr. Carless. "A just tribute--richly deserved!"
"I should like to add my small quota," said Lord Ellingham.
Viner led the way into his house and to the drawing-room. Miss Penkridge, in her best cap, was calmly dispensing tea to the two Hyde sisters, who were regarding her with obvious admiration. She looked round on her nephew and the flood of callers as if to ask what most of them were doing there. And Viner, knowing Miss Penkridge's peculiar humour, rose to the occasion.
"My dear aunt," he said in a hushed voice, "these gentlemen, having heard of your extraordinary achievement this afternoon, have come to lay at your feet their united tribute of--"
Miss Penkridge shot a warning glance through her steel-rimmed spectacles.
"Don't talk nonsense, Richard!" she exclaimed sharply. "Ring the bell for more cups and saucers!"