The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XXIX. Who is to Tell Her?
But Viner, instead of ordering the teacups, whispered a word or two to Miss Penkridge, and then beckoned Lord Ellingham and the two solicitors to follow him out of the room. He silently led them to his study and closed the door.
"Miss Wickham will be all right for a while under my aunt's care," he said, with a smile that had a certain meaning in it which was not lost on Mr. Pawle or on Mr. Carless, "but there are matters connected with her which ought not to wait, even for ten minutes hanging round Miss Penkridge's tea-table. Now, I have been thrown headlong into this case, and like all the rest of you, I am pretty well acquainted with it. And I take it that now that the murder of Ashton has been solved, the real question is--what is the truth about the young lady who was certainly his ward?"
"That is right!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle. "Carless--and Lord Ellingham--I am sure, agree with me."
"Absolutely--as far as I'm concerned," asserted Mr. Carless. "His Lordship will speak for himself."
Lord Ellingham answered Viner's smile with one equally frank.
"I don't know whether I'm Lord Ellingham or not!" he said. "I have had considerable doubt on that point ever since our conference the other day. But I will say this, gentlemen: I had some conversation with Miss Wickham the other day, after we left your office, Mr. Carless, when she was kind enough to allow me to escort her home, and--well, to be frank, gentlemen, whether she is my cousin or not, I--to me an old-fashioned phrase--desire her better acquaintance! And if she is my cousin, why, then--the title is not mine but hers!"
The two lawyers exchanged significant glances.
"Admirably spoken, My Lord!" said Mr. Pawle. "Excellent!"
"It is just what I would have expected of his Lordship," remarked Mr. Carless. "I have known His Lordship since he was first breeched! But I believe Mr. Viner has something to say?"
"Yes--this," answered Viner. "Drillford found on Cortelyon the papers which are missing from those which Ashton had evidently kept together with a view to proving his ward's right to the title and estates. He is a sharp, fellow, Drillford, and he told me just now that he had glanced over those papers since Cortelyon's arrest, and he--well, I only just stopped him from letting out to Miss Wickham who--if the papers and the deduction to be drawn from them are correct--she really is. I am right in supposing," he continued, suddenly interrupting himself, "that the Ellingham title runs in the female as in the male line?"
"Quite right, Mr. Viner," said Mr. Carless. "Quite right. It does! I believe I mentioned the other day that there has already been one Countess of Ellingham in her own right. The male line came to an end at one period--the daughter of the last male holder succeeded, and the man whom she married took the family name of Cave-Gray, and their eldest son, of course, succeeded on the death of his mother. Quite right, sir."
"Then," suggested Viner, "don't you think it would be advisable, rather than that Lord Ellingham should be kept in suspense, that we should go round to the police-station and inspect the documents? I don't know whether Drillford will give them up until his prisoners have been brought before the magistrate, but he said he would give them to the proper persons eventually, and in any case he will show them to you three gentlemen."
"Good!" said Mr. Pawle. "Let us go at once--it is only a few minutes' walk."
"And in the meantime," suggested Mr. Carless, "Miss Wickham might be asked to remain here--under the wing of the excellent Miss Penkridge?"
Viner laughingly remarked that he had no doubt whatever that Miss Penkridge would willingly assume this position of trust, and leading his callers into the hall, left them for a moment while he returned to the drawing-room. He was smiling when he returned.
"I think Miss Wickham will be safe for some time," he said. "Horrified as she is at the conduct of the wicked Mrs. Killenhall, she is sufficiently feminine to be taking a vast interest in my aunt's account of how she brought off her wonderful stroke of genius this afternoon. So--shall we go round?"
Drillford, found alone in his office, showed no surprise when Viner brought in and introduced his companions. He already knew the two lawyers, and exchanged comprehending words with them, but he looked at Lord Ellingham with the same interest which Viner had seen in him when Miss Wickham was present.
"Of course, you may see the whole lot, gentlemen," he said as he unlocked the drawer. "I don't want you to take these things away now, though, because we'd like to produce them when these people are brought up tomorrow morning. But after they've been shown, I'll hand them over--and in the meantime you can rely on it that they'll be taken care of--rather! Well, now, here's the missing ring! Hyde, you know, admitted to picking up one--this is the other, without doubt. And--there's the fifty-thousand-pound diamond. Of course, Cortelyon robbed Ashton after he'd killed him as a piece of bluff--what he wanted was these papers. He evidently gave Cave, or Starr, his accomplice, certain of the papers, to play the game with, but the really important ones he kept in his own pocket, where I found 'em. There you are, gentlemen."
He handed over a stout linen-lined foolscap envelope to Mr. Carless, and that gentleman, whose fingers trembled a little in spite of his determined attempt to preserve his professional coolness, drew certain papers from it, and laying them on a desk close by, beckoned the other men to his elbows, and began to examine them. For several minutes the four pairs of eyes ran over the various documents, Mr. Carless' finger pointing to one particular passage or another during their hasty perusal, and he and Mr. Pawle nodding assent as they exchanged glances and muttered remarks.
"Not a doubt of it!" exclaimed Mr. Carless suddenly. "Not one doubt! Observe the extraordinary care which the missing Lord Marketstoke took to safeguard his own interests and those of his daughter, in case he ever wished to revive his claims. Here, for instance is his marriage certificate. You see, he took good care to be married in his own real, proper, legal name! Here, again, is the birth certificate of his daughter. You see how she is described--Avice Wickham Cave-Gray, daughter of, et cetera, et cetera. And here is his death certificate--that too is all in order. You see, all these are duly attested copies--we could, of course, insist on having them verified over there, but I've no doubt about their genuineness--what do you say, Pawle?"
"I should say there's no doubt whatever," answered Mr. Pawle readily. "But now, this memorandum, evidently written by Ashton himself, in London, soon after he got here?"
Mr. Carless ran his eye over the document which Mr. Pawle indicated.
"Aye!" he said. "A most important, most valuable piece of evidence. You see that Cortelyon's name is mentioned in it. What's he say--'The only man besides myself who is in full possession of the facts,' Gad--that'll hang this scoundrel! Yes, here it is--the full history of the case, very lucidly summarized; he must have been a very good business man, this unfortunate Ashton, poor fellow! But what's this he's put at the end, as a sort of note?"
"'Since arriving in England and making inquiries in London and about Marketstoke and Ellingham as to the character and abilities of the young man who is the present holder of the title and estates which are by right my ward's I have had considerable doubt as to whether or not I should exercise the discretion extended to me by her father. Having nobody of my own, I have left her all my fortune, which is a handsome one, and she will be a rich woman. The young man seems to be an estimable and promising young fellow, and I am much exercised in mind as to whether it might not be best if Cortelyon and I kept the secret to ourselves until our deaths.'"
Mr. Carless read this passage aloud, and then smote the desk heavily with his hand.
"There's the secret of the murder!" he exclaimed. "You see, gentlemen, Ashton, one holder of the secret, was honest; the other, Cortelyon, was a rogue. Ashton wanted nothing for himself; Cortelyon wanted to profit. Cortelyon saw that by killing Ashton he alone would have the secret; he evidently got two accomplices who were necessary to him, and he meant, by suppressing certain facts and enlarging on others, to palm off an impostor who--mark this!--could be squared by one hundred thousand pounds! Oh, a bad fellow! Keep him tight, Mr. Inspector, keep him tight!"
"You needn't bother yourself, Mr. Carless," answered Drillford laconically. "We'll see to that!"
Mr. Carless again cast an eye on the passage he had just read, and then, touching Lord Ellingham's arm, drew his attention to it again, whispering something in his ear at which the young man's cheek reddened. Then he gathered up the papers, carefully replaced them in their linen-lined envelope, and handed them to Drillford.
"Much obliged to you," he said. "Now, at what time are these miscreants to be put in the dock tomorrow? Ten sharp? Then," he declared, with a shrewd glance, "I shall be there--and in all my experience I shall never have set eyes on a worse scoundrel than the chief one of 'em! Now, gentlemen, shall we go?"
Outside, Mr. Carless took Lord Ellingham's arm.
"You know what this really means--to you?" he said.
Lord Ellingham laughed.
"Of course!" he answered.
"Remember," continued Mr. Carless, with a knowing glance at Mr. Pawle, "you needn't give in without a struggle! You can make a big fight. You're in possession; it would take a long time to turn you out. You can have litigation--as much as ever you wish. But--I don't think there's the least doubt that the young woman we're going back to is your cousin, and therefore Countess of Ellingham."
"Neither do I!" said his client with a smile. "Nor, I think, does Mr. Pawle?"
"Not a doubt of it!" affirmed Mr. Pawle.
"Very well," said Mr. Carless, and pulled his companions to a halt. "Then--the question now is--who is to tell her?"
The two lawyers and Viner looked from one another to Lord Ellingham--but Lord Ellingham was already eager and responsive.
"Gentlemen," he said quickly, "I claim that right! If I am to abdicate in favour of another, let me have at any rate the privilege of first greeting the new sovereign! Besides, as I have already said to you--"
Mr. Carless interrupted him by pointing toward Viner's house, of which they were now in sight.
"I dare say our friend Viner, who has, as he says, been strangely mixed up in this strange affair, can manage matters," he said dryly. "And as things are, nothing could be better!"
Viner took his companions back into his library, and opening a door, showed Lord Ellingham a small study which lay beyond.
"I'll bring Miss Wickham to you at once," he said. Then, with a glance at the two lawyers, which went round again to Lord Ellingham, he added quietly, "When you have told her, you'll let us know what she says?"
"Aye, aye!" muttered Mr. Pawle. "Good--we must know that!"
Viner went away to the drawing-room and presently brought Miss Wickham back with him. She looked from one solicitor to the other with something of a smile.
"More mystery?" she asked.
Mr. Carless, with a courtly bow, took the girl's hand.
"My dear young lady," he said, "there is, this time, a mystery to be explained. And--allow me to hand you into this room--there is a young gentleman in here who will explain it, all of it, a thousand times better than we old fogies possibly could!"
He closed the door on her, and turned to Mr. Pawle.
"I'll trouble you for a pinch of that old snuff of yours, Pawle!" he said. "Um--dear me! What extraordinary moments we do pass through! Viner, my dear fellow, you're a book-collector, I know. To--er--pass the time, show me some of your treasures."
Ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, went by, while Viner showed some of his most treasured possessions in the way of print and binding to the two old lawyers. They were both past masters in the art of make-believe, and they contrived to show great interest in what was exhibited to them, but Viner knew very well that when Mr. Pawle was expatiating on the merits of an Elzevir or Mr. Carless on the beauties of a Grolier, they were really wondering what the two young people in the next room, so strangely thrown together, were saying to each other. And then, as he was about to unlock a cabinet, and bring out a collection of autograph letters, the door of the inner room was opened, and the two appeared on the threshold, one looking extremely confident, and the other full of blushes and surprise. And--they were holding each other's hands.
"Gentlemen--our very good friends," said Lord Ellingham, "it is only right that we should take you into our confidence at once. There will be no litigation, Mr. Carless--no difficulties, Mr. Pawle. I absolutely insist on resigning--what is not mine--to my cousin, the Countess of Ellingham. And--not in any return, gentlemen!--she has promised to give me something which I shall prize far more than any title or any estate--you understand? And now, if Mr. Viner will excuse me, there are just a few more things we have to say to each other, and then--"
He drew the girl back into the room and closed the door, and the three men, once more left to themselves, solemnly shook hands with each other, heaving sighs of infinite delight and gratification.