The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter III. Who was Mr. Ashton?
For the first time since they had entered the room, Drillford turned and glanced at Viner; his look indicated the idea which Miss Wickham's last words had set up in his mind. Here was a mystery! The police instinct was aroused by it.
"You don't know very much about Mr. Ashton?" he said, turning back to the two ladies. "Yet--you're under his roof? This is his house, isn't it?"
"Just so," assented Miss Wickham. "But when I say we don't know much, I mean what I say. Mrs. Killenhall has only known Mr. Ashton a few weeks, and until two months ago I had not seen Mr. Ashton for twelve years. Therefore, neither of us can know much about him."
"Would you mind telling me what you do know?" asked Drillford. "We've got to know something--who he is, and so on."
"All that I know is this," replied Miss Wickham. "My father died in Australia, when I was about six years old. My mother was already dead, and my father left me in charge of Mr. Ashton. He sent me, very soon after my father's death, to school in England, and there I remained for twelve years. About two months ago Mr. Ashton came to England, took this house, fetched me from school and got Mrs. Killenhall to look after me. Here we've all been ever since--and beyond that I know scarcely anything."
Drillford looked at the elder lady.
"I know, practically, no more than Miss Wickham has told you," said Mrs. Killenhall. "Mr. Ashton and I got in touch with each other through his advertisement in the Morning Post. We exchanged references, and I came here."
"Ah!" said Drillford. "And--what might his references be, now?"
"To his bankers, the London and Orient, in Threadneedle Street," answered Mrs. Killenhall promptly. "And to his solicitors, Crawle, Pawle and Rattenbury, of Bedford Bow."
"Very satisfactory they were, no doubt, ma'am?" suggested Drillford.
Mrs. Killenhall let her eye run round the appointments of the room.
"Eminently so," she said dryly. "Mr. Ashton was a very wealthy man."
Drillford pulled out a pocketbook and entered the names which Mrs. Killenhall had just mentioned.
"The solicitors will be able to tell something," he murmured as he put the book back. "We'll communicate with them first thing in the morning. But just two questions before I go. Can you tell me anything about Mr. Ashton's usual habits? Had he any business? What did he do with his time?"
"He was out a great deal," said Mrs. Killenhall. "He used to go down to the City. He was often out of an evening. Once, since I came here, he was away for a week in the country--he didn't say where. He was an active man--always in and out. But he never said much as to where he went."
"The other question," said Drillford, "is this: Did he carry much on him in the way of valuables or money? I mean--as a rule?"
"He wore a very fine gold watch and chain," answered Mrs. Killenhall; "and as for money--well, he always seemed to have a lot in his purse. And he wore two diamond rings--very fine stones."
"Just so!" murmured Drillford. "Set upon for the sake of those things, no doubt. Well, ladies, I shall telephone to Crawle's first thing in the morning, and they'll send somebody along at once, of course. I'm sorry to have brought you such bad news, but--"
He turned toward the door; Miss Wickham stopped him.
"Will Mr. Ashton's body be brought here--tonight?" she asked.
"No," replied Drillford. "It will be taken to the mortuary. If you'll leave everything to me, I'll see that you are spared as much as possible. Of course, there'll have to be an inquest--but you'll hear all about that tomorrow. Leave things to us and to Mr. Ashton's solicitors."
He moved towards the door, and Viner, until then a silent spectator, looked at Miss Wickham, something impelling him to address her instead of Mrs. Killenhall.
"I live close by you," he said. "If there is anything that I can do, or that my aunt Miss Penkridge, who lives with me, can do? Perhaps you will let me call in the morning."
The girl looked at him steadily and frankly.
"Thank you, Mr. Viner," she said. "It would be very kind if you would. We've no men folk--yes, please do."
"After breakfast, then," answered Viner, and went away to join the Inspector, who had walked into the hall.
"What do you think of this matter?" he asked, when they had got outside the house.
"Oh, a very clear and ordinary case enough, Mr. Viner," replied Drillford. "No mystery about it at all. Here's this Mr. Ashton been living here some weeks--some fellow, the man, of course, whom you saw running away, has noticed that he was a very rich man and wore expensive jewellery, has watched him, probably knew that he used that passage as a short cut, and has laid in wait for him and murdered him for what he'd got on him. It wouldn't take two minutes to do the whole thing. Rings, now! They spoke of diamond rings, in there. Well, I didn't see any diamond rings on his hands when I looked at his body, and I particularly noticed his hands, to see if there were signs of any struggle. No sir--it's just a plain case of what used to be called highway robbery and murder. But come round with me to the police-station, Mr. Viner--they'll have taken him to the mortuary by now, and I should like to hear what our divisional surgeon has to say, and what our people actually found on the body."
As Viner and the Inspector walked into the police-station, Dr. Cortelyon came out. Drillford stopped him.
"Found out anything more, Doctor?" he asked.
"Nothing beyond what I said at first," replied Cortelyon. "The man has been stabbed through the heart, from behind, in one particularly well-delivered blow. I should say the murderer had waited for him in that passage, probably knowing his habits. That passage, now--you know it really will have to be seen to! That wretched old lamp in the middle gives no light at all. The wonder is that something of this sort hasn't occurred before."
Drillford muttered something about local authorities and property-owners and went forward into an office, motioning Viner to follow. The divisional surgeon was there in conversation with the sergeant whom Drillford had left in charge of the body. "That is something on which I'd stake my professional reputation," he said. "I'm sure of it."
"What's that, Doctor?" asked Drillford. "Something to do with this affair?"
"I was saying that whoever stabbed this unfortunate man had some knowledge of anatomy," remarked the doctor. "He was killed by one swift blow from a particularly keen-edged, thin-bladed weapon which was driven through his back at the exact spot. You ought to make a minute search behind the walls on either side of that passage--the probability is that the murderer threw his weapon away."
"We'll do all that, Doctor," said Drillford. "As to your suggestion--don't you forget that there are a good many criminals here in London who are regular experts in the use of the knife--I've seen plenty of instances of that myself. Now," he went on, turning to the sergeant, "about that search? What did you find on him?"
The sergeant lifted the lid of a desk and pointed to a sheet of foolscap paper whereon lay certain small articles at which Viner gazed with a sense of strange fascination. A penknife, a small gold matchbox, a gold-mounted pencil-case, some silver coins, a handkerchief, and conspicuous among the rest, a farthing.
"That's the lot," said the sergeant, "except another handkerchief, and a pair of gloves in the overcoat, where I've left them. Nothing else--no watch, chain, purse or pocketbook. And no rings--but it's very plain from his fingers that he wore two rings one on each hand, third finger in each case."
"There you are!" said Drillford with a glance at Viner. "Murdered and robbed--clear case! Now, Mr. Viner, give us as accurate a description as possible of the fellow who ran out of that passage."
Viner did his best. His recollections were of a young man of about his own age, about his own height and build, somewhat above the medium; it was his impression, he said, that the man was dressed, if not shabbily, at least poorly; he had an impression, too, that the clean-shaven face which he had seen for a brief moment was thin and worn.
"Got any recollection of his exact look?" inquired the Inspector. "That's a lot to go by."
"I'm trying to think," said Viner. "Yes--I should say he looked to be pretty hard-up. There was a sort of desperate gleam in his eye. And--"
"Take your time," remarked Drillford. "Anything you can suggest, you know--"
"Well," replied Viner. "I'd an idea at the moment, and I've had it since, that I'd seen this man before. Something in his face was familiar. The only thing I can think of is this: I potter round old bookshops and curiosity-shops a good deal--I may have seen this young fellow on some occasion of that sort."
"Anyway," suggested Drillford, glancing over the particulars which he had written down, "you'd know him again if you saw him?"
"Oh, certainly!" asserted Viner. "I should know him anywhere."
"Then that's all we need trouble you with now, sir," said Drillford. "The next business will be--tomorrow."
Viner walked slowly out of the police-station and still more slowly homeward. When he reached the first lamp, he drew out his watch. Half-past twelve! Just two hours ago he had been in his own comfortable library, smiling at Miss Penkridge's ideas about the very matters into one of which he was now plunged. He would not have been surprised if he had suddenly awoke, to find that all this was a bad dream, induced by the evening's conversation. But just then he came to the passage in which the murder had been committed. A policeman was on guard at the terrace end--and Viner, rather than hear any more of the matter, hastened past him and made a circuitous way to Markendale Square.
He let himself into his house as quietly as possible, and contrary to taste and custom, went into the dining-room, switched on the electric light and helped himself to a stiff glass of brandy and soda at the sideboard. When the mixture was duly prepared, he forgot to drink it. He stood by the sideboard, the glass in his hand, his eyes staring at vacancy. Nor did he move when a very light foot stole down the stairs, and Miss Penkridge, in wraps and curl-papers, looked round the side of the door.
"Heavens above, Richard!" she exclaimed, "What is the matter! I wondered if you were burglars! Half-past twelve!"
Viner suddenly became aware of the glass which he was unconsciously holding. He lifted it to his lips, wondering whatever it was that made his mouth feel so dry. And when he had taken a big gulp, and then spoke, his voice--to himself--sounded just as queer as his tongue had been feeling.
"You were right!" he said suddenly. "There are queerer, stranger affairs in life than one fancies! And I--I've been pitchforked--thrown--clean into the middle of things! I!"
Miss Penkridge came closer to him, staring. She looked from him to the glass, from the glass to him.
"No--I haven't been drinking," said Viner with a harsh laugh. "I'm drinking now, and I'm going to have another, too. Listen!"
He pushed her gently into a chair, and seating himself on the edge of the table, told her the adventure. And Miss Penkridge, who was an admirable listener to fictitious tales of horror, proved herself no less admirable in listening to one of plain fact, and made no comment until her nephew had finished.
"That poor man!" she said at last. "Such a fine, strong, healthy-looking man, too! I used to wonder about him, when I saw him in the square, I used to think of him as somebody who'd seen things!"
Viner made a sudden grimace.
"Don't!" he said. "Ugh! I've seen things tonight that I never wished to see! And I wish--"
"What?" demanded Miss Penkridge after a pause, during which Viner had sat staring at the floor.
"I wish to God I'd never seen that poor devil who was running away!" exclaimed Viner with sudden passion. "They'll catch him, and I shall have to give evidence against him, and my evidence'll hang him, and--"
"There's a lot to do, and a lot'll happen before that comes off, Richard," interrupted Miss Penkridge. "The man may be innocent."
"He'd have a nice job to prove it!" said Viner with a forced laugh. "No, if the police get him--besides, he was running straight from the place! Isn't it a queer thing?" he went on, laughing again. "I don't mind remembering the--the dead man, but I hate the recollection of that chap hurrying away! I wonder what it feels like when you've just murdered another fellow, to slink off like--"
"You've no business to be wondering any such thing!" said Miss Penkridge sharply. "Here--get yourself another brandy and soda, and let us talk business. These two women--did they feel it much?"
"They puzzled me," replied Viner. He took his aunt's advice about the extra glass, and obeyed her, too, when she silently pointed to a box of cigars which lay on the sideboard. "All right," he said after a minute or two. "I'm not going to have nerves. What was I saying? They puzzled me? Yes, puzzled. Especially the girl; she seemed so collected about everything. And yet, according to her own story, she's only just out of the schoolroom. You'll go round there with me?"
"If we can be of any service to them? certainly," assented Miss Penkridge.
"The girl said they'd no men folk," remarked Viner.
"In that case I shall certainly go," said Miss Penkridge. "Now, Richard, smoke your cigar, and think no more about all this till tomorrow."
Viner flung himself into an easy-chair.
"All right!" he said. "Don't bother! It's been a bit of a facer, but--"
He was astonished when he woke the next morning, much later than was his wont, to find that he had not dreamed about the events of the midnight. And he was his usual practical and cool-headed self when, at eleven o'clock, he stood waiting in the hall for Miss Penkridge to go round with him to number seven. But the visit was not to be paid just then--as they were about to leave the house, a police-officer came hurrying up and accosted Viner. Inspector Drillford's compliments, and would Mr. Viner come round? And then the messenger gave a knowing grin.
"We've got the man, sir!" he whispered. "That's why you're wanted."