The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter V. Look for that Man!
At these words Viner drew back with an exclamation of astonishment, but in the next instant he stepped forward again, holding out his hand.
"Hyde!" he said. "Then--that's what I remembered! Of course I know you! But good heavens, man, what does all this mean? What's brought you to this--to be here, in this place?"
The prisoner looked round at his captors, and back at Viner, and smiled as a man smiles who is beginning to realize hopelessness to the full.
"I don't know if I'm allowed to speak," he said.
Drillford, who had been watching this episode with keen attention, motioned to the two policemen.
"Wait outside," he said abruptly. "Now, then," he continued when he, Viner and Hyde were alone, "this man can say anything he likes to you, Mr. Viner, so long as you've asked to see him. This is all irregular, but I've no wish to stop him from telling you whatever he pleases. But remember," he went on, glancing at the prisoner, "you're saying it before me--and in my opinion, you'd a deal better have said something when you were in court just now."
"I didn't know what to say," replied Hyde doubtfully. "I'm pretty much on the rocks, as you can guess; but--I have relatives! And if it's possible, I don't want them to know about this."
Drillford looked at Viner and shook his head, as if to signify his contempt of Hyde's attitude.
"Considering the position you're in," he said, turning again to Hyde, "you must see that it's impossible that your relations should be kept from knowing. You'll have to give particulars about yourself, sooner or later. And charges of murder, like this, can't be kept out of the newspapers."
"Tell me, Hyde!" exclaimed Viner. "Look here, now, to begin with--you didn't kill this man?"
Hyde shook his head in a puzzled fashion--something was evidently causing him surprise.
"I didn't know the man was killed, or dead, until they brought me here, from that pawnbroker's this morning!" he said. Then he laughed almost contemptuously, and with some slight show of spirit. "Do you think I'd have been such a fool as to try to pawn or sell a ring that belonged to a man who'd just been murdered?" he demanded. "I'm not quite such an ass as that!"
Viner looked round at Drillford.
"There!" he said quietly. "What did I tell you? Isn't that what I said? You're on the wrong track, Inspector!"
But Drillford, sternly official in manner, shook his head.
"How did he come by the ring, then?" he asked, pointing at his prisoner. "Let him say!"
"Hyde!" said Viner. "Tell! I've been certain for an hour that you didn't kill this man, and I want to help you. But--tell us the truth! What do you know about it? How did you get that ring?"
"I shall make use of anything he tells," remarked Drillford warningly.
"He's going to tell--everything," said Viner. "Come now, Hyde, the truth!"
Hyde suddenly dropped into a chair by which he was standing, and pressed his hand over his face with a gesture which seemed to indicate a certain amount of bewilderment.
"Let me sit down," he said. "I'm weak, tired, too. Until this morning I hadn't had a mouthful of food for a long time, and I'd--well, I'd been walking about, night as well as day. I was walking about all yesterday, and a lot of last night. I'm pretty nearly done, if you want to know!"
"Take your time," said Drillford. "Here, wait a bit," he went on after a sudden glance at his prisoner. "Keep quiet a minute." He turned to a cupboard in the corner of the room and presently came back with something in a glass. "Drink that," he said not unkindly. "Drop of weak brandy and water," he muttered to Viner. "Do him no harm--I see how it is with him--he's been starving."
Hyde caught the last word and laughed feebly as he handed the glass back.
"Starving!" he said. "Yes--that's it! I hope neither of you'll know what it means! Three days without--"
"Now, Hyde!" interrupted Viner. "Never mind that--you won't starve again. Come--tell us all about this--tell everything."
Hyde bent forward in his chair, but after a look at the two men, his eyes sought the floor and moved from one plank to another as if he found it difficult to find a fixed point.
"I don't know where to begin, Viner," he said at last. "You see, you've never met me since we left school. I went in for medicine--I was at Bart's for a time, but--well, I was no good, somehow. And then I went in for the stage--I've had some fairly decent engagements, both here and in the States, now and then. But you know what a precarious business that is. And some time ago I struck a real bad patch, and I've been out of a job for months. And lately it's gone from bad to worse--you know, or rather I suppose you don't know, because you've never been in that fix--pawning everything, and so on, until--well, I haven't had a penny in my pockets for days now!"
"Your relations?" questioned Viner.
"Didn't want them to know," answered Hyde. "The fact is, I haven't been on good terms with them for a long time, and I've got some pride left--or I had, until yesterday. But here's the truth: I had to clear out of my lodgings--which was nothing but an attic, three days since, and I've been wandering about, literally hungry and homeless, since that. If it hadn't been for that, I should never have been in this hole! And that's due to circumstances that beat me, for I tell you again, I don't know anything about this man's murder--at least, not about it actually."
"What do you know?" asked Viner. "Tell us plainly."
"I'm going to," responded Hyde. "I was hanging about the Park and around Kensington Gardens most of yesterday. Then, at night, I got wandering about this part--didn't seem to matter much where I went. You don't know, either of you, what it means to wander round, starving. You get into a sort of comatose state--you just go on and on. Well, last night I was walking, in that way, in and out about these Bayswater squares. I got into Markendale Square. As I was going along the top side of it, I noticed a passage and turned into it--as I've said, when a man's in the state I was in, it doesn't matter where he slouches--anywhere! I turned into that passage, I tell you, just aimlessly, as a man came walking out. Viner, look for that man! Find him! He's the fellow these police want! If there's been murder--"
"Keep calm, Hyde!" said Viner. "Go on, quietly."
"This man passed me and went on into the square," continued Hyde. "I went up the passage. It was very dark, except in the middle, where there's an old-fashioned lamp. And then I saw another man, who was lying across the flags. I don't know that I'd any impression about him--I was too sick and weary. I believe I thought he was drunk, or ill or something. But you see, at the same instant that I saw him, I saw something else which drove him clean out of my mind. In fact, as soon as I'd seen it, I never thought about him any more, nor looked at him again."
"What was it?" demanded Viner, certain of what the answer would be.
"A diamond ring," replied Hyde. "It was lying on the flags close by the man. The light from the lamp fell full on it. And I snatched it up, thrust it into my pocket and ran up the passage. I ran into somebody at the far end--it turns out to have been you. Well, you saw me hurry off--I got as far away as I could, lest you or somebody else should follow. I wandered round Westbourne Grove, and then up into the Harrow Road, and in a sort of back street there I sneaked into a shanty in a yard, and stopped in it the rest of the night. And this morning I tried to pawn the ring."
"Having no idea of its value," suggested Viner, with a glance at Drillford, who was listening to everything with an immovable countenance.
"I thought it might be worth thirty or forty pounds," answered Hyde. "Of course, I'd no idea that it was worth what's been said. You see, I'm fairly presentable, and I thought I could tell a satisfactory story if I was asked anything at the pawnshop. I didn't anticipate any difficulty about pawning the ring--I don't think there'd have been any if it hadn't been for its value. A thousand pounds! of course, I'd no idea of that!"
"And that's the whole truth?" asked Viner.
"It's the whole truth as far as I'm concerned," answered Hyde. "I certainly picked up that ring in that passage, close by this man who was lying there. But I didn't know he was dead; I didn't know he'd been murdered. All I know is that I was absolutely famishing, desperate, in no condition to think clearly about anything. I guess I should do the same thing again, under the circumstances. I only wish--"
He paused and began muttering to himself, and the two listeners glanced at each other. "You only wish what, Hyde?" asked Viner.
"I wish it had been a half-crown instead of that ring!" said Hyde with a queer flashing glance at his audience. "I could have got a bed for fourpence, and have lived for three days on the rest. And now--"
Viner made no remark; and Drillford, who was leaning against his desk, watching his prisoner closely, tapped Hyde on the shoulder.
"Can you describe the man who came out of the passage as you entered it?" he asked. "Be accurate, now!"
Hyde's face brightened a little, and his eyes became more intelligent.
"Yes!" he answered. "You know--or you don't know--how your mental faculties get sharpened by hunger. I was dull enough, in one way, but alert enough in another. I can describe the man--as much as I saw of him. A tall man--neither broad nor slender--half-and-half. Dressed in black from top to toe. A silk hat--patent leather boots--and muffled to the eyes in a white silk handkerchief."
"Could you see his face?" asked Drillford. "Was he clean-shaved, or bearded, or what?"
"I tell you he was muffled to the very eyes," answered Hyde. "One of those big silk handkerchiefs, you know--he had it drawn up over his chin and nose--right up."
"Then you'd have difficulty in knowing him again," observed Drillford. "There are a few thousand men in the West End of London who'd answer the description you've given."
"All right!" muttered Hyde doggedly. "But--I know what I saw. And if you want to help me, Viner, find that man--because he must have come straight away from the body!"
Drillford turned to Viner, glancing at the same time at the clock.
"Do you want to ask him any more questions?" he inquired. "No? Well, there's just one I want to ask. What were you doing with that knife in your possession?" he went on, turning to Hyde. "Be careful, now; you heard what the doctor said about it, in court?"
"I've nothing to conceal," replied Hyde. "You heard me say just now that I'd had engagements in the States. I bought that knife when I was out West--more as a curiosity than anything--and I've carried it in my pocket ever since."
Drillford looked again at Viner.
"He'll have to go, now," he said. "If you're going to employ legal help for him, the solicitor will know where and when he can see him." He paused on his way to the door and looked a little doubtfully at his prisoner. "I'll give you a bit of advice," he said, "not as an official, but as an individual. If you want to clear yourself, you'd better give all the information you can."
"I'll send my own solicitor to you, Hyde, at once," said Viner. "Be absolutely frank with him about everything."
When Viner was once more alone with Drillford, the two men looked at each other.
"My own impression," said Viner, after a significant silence, "is that we have just heard the plain truth! I'm going to work on it, anyway."
"In that case, Mr. Viner, there's no need for me to say anything," remarked Drillford. "It may be the plain truth. But as I am what I am, all I know is the first-hand evidence against this young fellow. So he really was a schoolmate of yours?"
"Certainly!" said Viner. "His people live, or did live, in the north. I shall have to get into communication with them. But now--what about the information he gave you? This man he saw?"
Drillford shook his head.
"Mr. Viner," he answered, "you don't understand police methods. We've got very strong evidence against Hyde. We know nothing about a tall man in a white muffler. If you want to clear Hyde, you'd better do what he suggested--find that man! I wish you may--if he ever existed!"
"You don't believe Hyde?" asked Viner.
"I'm not required to believe anything, sir, unless I've good proof of it," said Drillford with a significant smile. "If there is any mystery in this murder, well--let's hope something will clear it up."
Viner went away troubled and thoughtful. He remembered Hyde well enough now, though so many years had elapsed since their last meeting. And he was genuinely convinced of his innocence: there had been a ring of truth in all that he had said. Who, then, was the guilty man? And had robbery been the real motive of the murder? Might it not have been that Ashton had been murdered for some quite different motive, and that the murderer had hastily removed the watch, chain, purse, and rings from the body with the idea of diverting suspicion, and in his haste had dropped one of the rings?
"If only one knew more about Ashton and his affairs!" mused Viner. "Even his own people don't seem to know much."
This reminded him of his promise to call on Miss Wickham. He glanced at his watch: it was not yet one o'clock: the proceedings before the magistrate and the subsequent talk with Hyde had occupied comparatively little time. So Viner walked rapidly to number seven in the square, intent on doing something toward clearing Hyde of the charge brought against him. The parlour-maid whom he had seen the night before admitted him at once; it seemed to Viner that he was expected. She led him straight to a room in which Mrs. Killenhall and Miss Wickham were in conversation with an elderly man, who looked at Viner with considerable curiosity when his name was mentioned, and who was presently introduced to him as Mr. Ashton's solicitor, Mr. Pawle, of Crawle, Pawle and Rattenbury.