The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter IV. The Ring and the Knife
Viner was hoping that the police had got hold of the wrong man as he reluctantly walked into Drillford's office, but one glance at the inspector's confident face, alert and smiling, showed him that Drillford himself had no doubts on that point.
"Well, Mr. Viner," he said with a triumphant laugh, "we haven't been so long about it, you see! Much quicker work than I'd anticipated, too."
"Are you sure you've got the right man?" asked Viner. "I mean--have you got the man I saw running away from the passage?"
"You shall settle that yourself," answered Drillford. "Come this way."
He led Viner down a corridor, through one or two locked doors, and motioning him to tread softly, drew back a sliding panel in the door of a cell and silently pointed. Viner, with a worse sickness than before, stole up and looked through the barred opening. One glance at the man sitting inside the cell, white-faced, staring at the drab, bare wall, was enough; he turned to Drillford and nodded. Drillford nodded too, and led him back to the office.
"That's the man I saw," said Viner.
"Of course!" assented Drillford. "I'd no doubt of it. Well, it's been a far simpler thing than I'd dared to hope. I'll tell you how we got him. This morning, about ten o'clock, this chap, who won't give his name, went into the pawnbroker's shop in Edgware Road, and asked for a loan on a diamond ring which he produced. Now, Pelver, who happened to attend to him himself, is a good deal of an expert in diamonds--he's a jeweller as well as a pawnbroker, and he saw at once that the diamond in this ring was well worth all of a thousand pounds--a gem of the first water! He was therefore considerably astonished when his customer asked for a loan of ten pounds on it--still more so when the fellow suggested that Pelver should buy it outright for twenty-five. Pelver asked him some questions as to his property in the ring--he made some excuses about its having been in his family for some time, and that he would be glad to realize on it. Under pretence of examining it, Pelver took the ring to another part of his shop and quietly sent for a policeman. And the end was, this officer brought the man here, and Pelver with him, and the ring. Here it is!"
He opened a safe and produced a diamond ring at which Viner stared with feelings for which he could scarcely account.
"How do you know that's one of Mr. Ashton's rings?" he asked.
"Oh, I soon solved that!" laughed Drillford. "I hurried round to Markendale Square with it at once. Both the ladies recognized it--Mr. Ashton had often shown it to them, and told them its value, and there's a private mark of his inside it. And so we arrested him, and there he is! Clear case!"
"What did he say?" asked Viner.
"He's a curious customer," replied Drillford. "I should say that whatever he is now, he has been a gentleman. He was extremely nervous and so on while we were questioning him about the ring, but when it came to the crucial point, and I charged him and warned him, he turned strangely cool. I'll tell you what he said, in his exact words. 'I'm absolutely innocent of that!' he said. 'But I can see that I've placed myself in a very strange position.' And after that he would say no more--he hasn't even asked to see a solicitor."
"What will be done next?" asked Viner.
"He'll be brought before the magistrate in an hour or two," said Drillford. "Formal proceedings--for a remand, you know. I shall want you there, Mr. Viner; it won't take long. I wish the fellow would tell us who he is."
"And I wish I could remember where and when I have seen him before!" exclaimed Viner.
"Ah, that's still your impression?" remarked Drillford. "You're still convinced of it?"
"More than ever--since seeing him just now," affirmed Viner. "I know his face, but that's all I can say. I suppose," he continued, looking diffidently at the inspector, as if he half-expected to be laughed at for the suggestion he was about to make, "I suppose you don't believe that this unfortunate fellow may have some explanation of his possession of Mr. Ashton's ring?"
Drillford, who had been replacing the ring in a safe, locked the door upon it with a snap, and turned on his questioner with a look which became more and more businesslike and official with each succeeding word.
"Now, Mr. Viner," he said, "you look at it from our point of view. An elderly gentleman is murdered and robbed. A certain man is seen--by you, as it happens--running away as fast as he can from the scene of the murder. Next morning that very man is found trying to get rid of a ring which, without doubt, was taken from the murdered man's finger. What do you think? Or--another question--what could we, police officials, do?"
"Nothing but what you're doing, I suppose," said Viner. "Still--there may be a good deal that's--what shall I say?--behind all this."
"It's for him to speak," observed Drillford, nodding in the direction of the cells. "He's got a bell within reach of his fingers; he's only got to ring it and to ask for me or any solicitor he likes to name. But--we shall see!"
Nothing had been seen or heard, in the way hinted at by Drillford, when, an hour later, Viner, waiting in the neighbouring police-court, was aware that the humdrum, sordid routine was about to be interrupted by something unusual. The news of an arrest in connection with the Lonsdale Passage murder had somehow leaked out, and the court was packed to the doors --Viner himself had gradually been forced into a corner near the witness-box in which he was to make an unwilling appearance. And from that corner he looked with renewed interest at the man who was presently placed in the dock, and for the hundredth time asked himself what it was in his face that woke some chord of memory in him.
There was nothing of the criminal in the accused man's appearance. Apparently about thirty years of age, spare of figure, clean-shaven, of a decidedly intellectual type of countenance, he looked like an actor. His much-worn suit of tweed was well cut and had evidently been carefully kept, in spite of its undoubtedly threadbare condition. It, and the worn and haggard look of the man's face, denoted poverty, if not recent actual privation, and the thought was present in more than one mind there in possession of certain facts: if this man had really owned the ring which he had offered to the pawnbroker, why had he delayed so long in placing himself in funds through its means? For if his face expressed anything, it was hunger.
Viner, who was now witnessing police-court proceedings for the first time in his life, felt an almost morbid curiosity in hearing the tale unfolded against the prisoner. For some reason, best known to themselves, the police brought forward more evidence than was usual on first proceedings before a magistrate. Viner himself proved the finding of the body; the divisional surgeon spoke as to the cause of death; the dead man's solicitor testified to his identity and swore positively as to the ring; the pawnbroker gave evidence as to the prisoner's attempt to pawn or sell the ring that morning. Finally, the police proved that on searching the prisoner after his arrest, a knife was found in his hip-pocket which, in the opinion of the divisional surgeon, would have caused the wound found in the dead man's body. From a superficial aspect, no case could have seemed clearer.
But in Viner's reckoning of things there was mystery. Two episodes occurred during the comparatively brief proceedings which made him certain that all was not being brought out. The first was when he himself went into the witness-box to prove his discovery of the body and to swear that the prisoner was the man he had seen running away from the passage. The accused glanced at him with evident curiosity as he came forward; on hearing Viner's name, he looked at him in a strange manner, changed colour and turned his head away. But when a certain question was put to Viner, he looked round again, evidently anxious to hear the answer.
"I believe you thought, on first seeing him, that the prisoner's face was familiar to you, Mr. Viner?"
"Yes--I certainly think that I have seen him before, somewhere."
"You can't recollect more? You don't know when or where you saw him?"
"I don't. But that I have seen him, perhaps met him, somewhere, I am certain."
This induced the magistrate to urge the accused man--who had steadfastly refused to give name or address--to reveal his identity. But the prisoner only shook his head.
"I would rather not give my name at present," he answered. "I am absolutely innocent of this charge of murder, but I quite realize that the police are fully justified in bringing it against me. I had nothing whatever to do with Mr. Ashton's death--nothing! Perhaps the police will find out the truth; and meanwhile I had rather not give my name."
"You will be well advised to reconsider that," said the magistrate. "If you are innocent, as you say, it will be far better for you to say who you are, and to see a solicitor. As things are, you are in a very dangerous position."
But the prisoner shook his head.
"Not yet, at any rate," he answered. "I want to hear more."
When the proceedings were over and the accused, formally remanded for a week, had been removed to the cells previous to being taken away, Viner went round to Drillford's office.
"Look here!" he said abruptly, finding the Inspector alone, "I dare say you think I'm very foolish, but I don't believe that chap murdered Ashton. I don't believe it for one second!"
Drillford who was filling up some papers, smiled.
"No?" he said. "Now, why, Mr. Viner?"
"You can call it intuition if you like," answered Viner. "But I don't! And I shall be surprised if I'm not right. There are certain things that I should think would strike you."
"What, for instance?" asked Drillford.
"Do you think it likely that a man who must have known that a regular hue and cry would be raised about that murder, would be such a fool as to go and offer one of the murdered man's rings within a mile of the spot where the murder took place?" asked Viner.
Drillford turned and looked steadily at his questioner.
"Well, but that's precisely what he did, Mr. Viner!" he exclaimed. "There's no doubt whatever that the ring in question was Ashton's; there's also no doubt that this man did offer it to Pelver this morning. Either the fellow is a fool or singularly ignorant, to do such a mad thing! But--he did it! And I know why."
"Why, then?" demanded Viner.
"Because he was just starving," answered Drillford. "When he was brought in here, straight from Pelver's, he hadn't a halfpenny on him, and in the very thick of my questionings--and just think how important they were!--he stopped me. 'May I say a word that's just now much more important to me than all this?' he said. 'I'm starving! I haven't touched food or drink for nearly three days. Give me something, if it's only a crust of bread!' That's fact, Mr. Viner."
"What did you do?" inquired Viner.
"Got the poor chap some breakfast, at once," answered Drillford, "and let him alone till he'd finished. Have you ever seen a starved dog eat? No--well, I have, and he ate like that--he was ravenous! And when a man's at that stage, do you think he's going to stop at anything? Not he! This fellow, you may be sure, after killing and robbing Ashton, had but one thought--how soon he could convert some of the property into cash, so that he could eat. If Pelver had made him that advance, or bought the ring, he'd have made a bee-line for the nearest coffee-shop. I tell you he was mad for food!"
"Another thing," said Viner. "Where is the rest of Mr. Ashton's property--his watch, chain, the other ring, his purse, and--wasn't there a pocketbook? How is it this man wasn't found in possession of them?"
"Easy enough for him to hide all those things, Mr. Viner," said Drillford, with an indulgent smile. "What easier? You don't know as much of these things as I do--he could quite easily plant all those articles safely during the night. He just stuck to the article which he could most easily convert into money."
"Well, I don't believe he's guilty," repeated Viner. "And I want to do something for him. You may think me quixotic, but I'd like to help him. Is there anything to prevent you from going to him, telling him that I'm convinced of his innocence and that I should like to get him help--legal help?"
"There's nothing to prevent it, to be sure," answered Drillford. "But Mr. Viner, you can't get over the fact that this fellow had Ashton's diamond ring in his possession!"
"How do I--how do you--know how he came into possession of it?" demanded Viner.
"And then--that knife!" exclaimed Drillford. "Look here! I've got it. What sort of thing is that for an innocent, harmless man to carry about him? It's an American bowie-knife!"
He opened a drawer and exhibited a weapon which, lying on a pile of paper, looked singularly suggestive and fearsome.
"I don't care!" said Viner with a certain amount of stubbornness. "I'm convinced that the man didn't kill Ashton. And I want to help him. I'm a man of considerable means; and in this case--well, that's how I feel about it."
Drillford made no answer. But presently he left the room, after pointing Viner to a chair. Viner waited--five, ten minutes. Then the door opened again, and Drillford came back. Behind him walked the accused man, with a couple of policemen in attendance upon him.
"There, Mr. Viner!" said Drillford. "You can speak to him yourself!"
Viner rose from his chair. The prisoner stepped forward, regarding him earnestly.
"Viner!" he said, in a low, concentrated tone, "don't you know me? I'm Langton Hyde! You and I were at Rugby together. And--we meet again, here!"