The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter VI. Speculations
Mr. Pawle, an alert-looking, sharp-eyed little man, whom Viner at once recognized as having been present in the magistrate's court when Hyde was brought up, smiled as he shook hands with the new visitor.
"You don't know me, Mr. Viner," he said. "But I knew your father very well--he and I did a lot of business together in our time. You haven't followed his profession, I gather?"
"I'm afraid I haven't any profession, Mr. Pawle," answered Viner. "I'm a student--and a bit, a very little bit, of a writer."
"Aye, well, your father was a bit in that way too," remarked Mr. Pawle. "I remember that he was a great collector of books--you have his library, no doubt?"
"Yes, and I'm always adding to it," said Viner. "I shall be glad to show you my additions, any time."
Mr. Pawle turned to the two ladies, waving his hand at Viner.
"Knew his father most intimately," he said, as if he were guaranteeing the younger man's status. "Fine fellow, was Stephen Viner. Well," he continued, dropping into a chair, and pointing Viner to another, "this is a sad business that we've got concerned in, young man! Now, what do you think of the proceedings we've just heard? Your opinion, Mr. Viner, is probably better worth having than anybody's, for you saw this fellow running away from the scene, and you found my unfortunate client lying dead. What, frankly, is your opinion?"
"I had better tell you something that's just happened," replied Viner. He went on to repeat the statements which Hyde had just made to Drillford and himself. "My opinion," he concluded, "is that Hyde is speaking the plain truth--that all he really did was, as he affirms, to pick up that ring and run away. I don't believe he murdered Mr. Ashton, and I'm going to do my best to clear him."
He looked round from one listener to another, seeking opinion from each. Mr. Pawle maintained a professional imperturbability; Mrs. Killenhall looked mildly excited on hearing this new theory. But from Miss Wickham, Viner got a flash of intelligent comprehension.
"The real thing is this," she said, "none of us know anything about Mr. Ashton, really. He may have had enemies."
Pawle rubbed his chin; the action suggested perplexity.
"Miss Wickham is quite right," he said. "Mr. Ashton is more or less a man of mystery. He had been here in England two months. His ward knows next to nothing about him, except that she was left in his guardianship many a year ago, that he sent her to England, to school, and that he recently joined her here. Mrs. Killenhall knows no more than that he engaged her as chaperon to his ward, and that they exchanged references. His references were to his bankers and to me. But neither his bankers nor I know anything of him, except that he was a very well-to-do man. I can tell precisely what his bankers know. It is merely this: he transferred his banking-account from an Australian bank to them on coming to London. I saw them this morning on first getting the news. They have about two hundred thousand pounds lying to his credit. That's absolutely all they know about him--all!"
"The Australian bankers would know more," suggested Viner.
"Precisely!" agreed Mr. Pawle. "We can get news from them, in time. But now, what do I know? No more than this--Mr. Ashton called on me about six or seven weeks ago, told me that he was an Australian who had come to settle in London, that he was pretty well off, and that he wanted to make a will. We drafted a will on his instructions, and he duly executed it. Here it is! Miss Wickham has just seen it. Mr. Ashton has left every penny he had to Miss Wickham. He told me she was the only child of an old friend of his, who had given her into his care on his death out in Australia, some years ago, and that as he, Ashton, had no near relations, he had always intended to leave her all he had. And so he has, without condition, or reservation, or anything--all is yours, Miss Wickham, and I'm your executor. But now," continued Mr. Pawle, "how far does this take us toward solving the mystery of my client's death? So far as I can see, next to nowhere! And I am certain of this, Mr. Viner: if we are going to solve it, and if this old school friend of yours is being unjustly accused, and is to be cleared, we must find out more about Ashton's doings since he came to London. The secret lies--there!"
"I quite agree," answered Viner. "But--who knows anything?"
Mr. Pawle looked at the two ladies.
"That's a stiff question!" he said. "The bankers tell me that Ashton only called on them two or three times; he called on me not oftener; neither they nor I ever had much conversation with him. These two ladies should know more about him than anybody--but they seem to know little."
Viner, who was sitting opposite to her, looked at Miss Wickham.
"You must know something about his daily life?" he said. "What did he do with himself?"
"We told you and the police-inspector pretty nearly all we know, last night," replied Miss Wickham. "As a rule, he used to go out of a morning--I think, from his conversation, he used to go down to the City. I don't think it was on business: I think, he liked to look about him. Sometimes he came home to lunch; sometimes he didn't. Very often in the afternoon he took us for motor-rides into the country--sometimes he took us to the theatres. He used to go out a good deal, alone at night--we don't know where."
"Did he ever mention any club?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"No, never!" replied Miss Wickham. "He was reticent about himself--always very kind and thoughtful and considerate for Mrs. Killenhall and myself, but he was a reserved man."
"Did he ever have any one to see him?" inquired the solicitor. "Any men to dine, or anything of that sort?"
"No--not once. No one has ever even called on him," said Miss Wickham. "We have had two or three dinner-parties, but the people who came were friends of mine--two or three girls whom I knew at school, who are now married and live in London."
"A lonely sort of man!" commented Mr. Pawle. "Yet--he must have known people. Where did he go when he went into the City? Where did he go at night? There must be somebody somewhere who can tell more about him. I think it will be well if I ask for information through the newspapers."
"There is one matter we haven't mentioned," said Mrs. Killenhall. "Just after we got settled down here, Mr. Ashton went away for some days--three or four days. That, of course, may be quite insignificant."
"Do you know where he went?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"No, we don't know," answered Mrs. Killenhall. "He went away one Monday morning, saying that now everything was in order we could spare him for a few days. He returned on the following Thursday or Friday,--I forget which,--but he didn't tell us where he had been."
"You don't think any of the servants would know?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"Oh, dear me, no!" replied Mrs. Killenhall. "He was the sort of man who rarely speaks to his servants--except when he wanted something."
Mr. Pawle looked at his watch and rose.
"Well!" he said. "We shall have to find out more about my late client's habits and whom he knew in London. There may have been a motive for this murder of which we know nothing. Are you coming, Mr. Viner? I should like a word with you!"
Viner, too, had risen; he looked at Miss Wickham.
"I hope my aunt called on you this morning?" he asked. "I was coming with her, but I had to go round to the police-station."
"She did call, and she was very kind indeed, thank you," said Miss Wickham. "I hope she'll come again."
"We shall both be glad to do anything," said Viner. "Please don't hesitate about sending round for me if there's anything at all I can do." He followed Mr. Pawle into the square, and turned him towards his own house. "Come and lunch with me," he said. "We can talk over this at our leisure."
"Thank you--I will," answered Mr. Pawle. "Very pleased. Between you and me, Mr. Viner, this is a very queer business. I'm quite prepared to believe the story that young fellow Hyde tells. I wish he'd told it straight out in court. But you must see that he's in a very dangerous position--very dangerous indeed! The police, of course, won't credit a word of his tale--not they! They've got a strong prima facie case against him, and they'll follow it up for all they're worth. The real thing to do, if you're to save him, is to find the real murderer. And to do that, you'll need all your wits! If one only had some theory!"
Viner introduced Mr. Pawle to Miss Penkridge with the remark that she was something of an authority in mysteries, and as soon as they had sat down to lunch, told her of Langton Hyde and his statement.
"Just so!" said Miss Penkridge dryly. "That's much more likely to be the real truth than that this lad killed Ashton. There's a great deal more in this murder than is on the surface, and I dare say Mr. Pawle agrees with me."
"I dare say I do," assented Mr. Pawle. "The difficulty is--how to penetrate into the thick cloak of mystery."
"When I was round there, at Number Seven, this morning," observed Miss Penkridge, "those two talked very freely to me about Mr. Ashton. Now, there's one thing struck me at once--there must be men in London who knew him. He couldn't go out and about, as he evidently did, without meeting men. Even if it wasn't in business, he'd meet men somewhere. And if I were you, I should invite men who knew him to come forward and tell what they know."
"It shall be done--very good advice, ma'am," said Mr. Pawle.
"And there's another thing," said Miss Penkridge. "I should find out what can be told about Mr. Ashton where he came from. I believe you can get telegraphic information from Australia within a few hours. Why not go to the expense--when there's so much at stake? Depend upon it, the real secret of this murder lies back in the past--perhaps the far past."
"That too shall be done," agreed Mr. Pawle. "I shouldn't be surprised if you're right."
"In my opinion," remarked Miss Penkridge, dryly, "the robbing of this dead man was all a blind. Robbery wasn't the motive. Murder was the thing in view! And why? It may have been revenge. It may be that Ashton had to be got out of the way. And I shouldn't wonder a bit if that isn't at the bottom of it, which is at the top and bottom of pretty nearly everything!"
"And that, ma'am?" asked Mr. Pawle, who evidently admired Miss Penkridge's shrewd observations, "that is what, now?"
"Money!" said Miss Penkridge. "Money!"
The old solicitor went away, promising to get to work on the lines suggested by Miss Penkridge, and next day he telephoned to Viner asking him to go down to his offices in Bedford Row. Viner hurried off, and on arriving found Mr. Pawle with a cablegram before him.
"I sent a pretty long message to Melbourne, to Ashton's old bankers, as soon as I left you yesterday," he said. "I gave them the news of his murder, and asked for certain information. Here's their answer. I rang you up as soon as I got it."
Viner read the cablegram carefully:
Deeply regret news. Ashton well known here thirty years dealer in real estate. Respected, wealthy. Quiet man, bachelor. Have made inquiries in quarters likely to know. Cannot trace anything about friend named Wickham. Ashton was away from Melbourne, up country, four years, some years ago. May have known Wickham then. Ashton left here end July, by Maraquibo, for London. Was accompanied by two friends Fosdick and Stephens. Please inform if can do more.
"What do you think of that?" asked Mr. Pawle. "Not much in it, is there?"
"There's the mention of two men who might know something of Ashton's habits," said Viner. "If Fosdick and Stephens are still in England and were Ashton's friends, one would naturally conclude that he'd seen them sometimes. Yet we haven't heard of their ever going to his house."
"We can be quite certain that they never did--from what the two ladies say," remarked Mr. Pawle. "Perhaps they don't live in London. I'll advertise for both. But now, here's another matter. I asked these people if they could tell me anything about Wickham, the father of this girl to whom Ashton's left his very considerable fortune. Well, you see, they can't. Now, it's a very curious thing, but Miss Wickham has no papers, has, in fact, nothing whatever to prove her identity. Nor have I. Ashton left nothing of that sort. I know no more, and she knows no more, than what he told both of us--that her father died when she was a mere child, her mother already being dead, that the father left her in Ashton's guardianship, and that Ashton, after sending her here to school, eventually came and took her to live with him. There isn't a single document really to show who she is, who her father was, or anything about her family."
"Is that very important?" asked Viner.
"It's decidedly odd!" said Mr. Pawle. "This affair seems to be getting more mysterious than ever."
"What's to be done next?" inquired Viner.
"Well, the newspapers are always very good about that," answered the solicitor. "I'm getting them to insert paragraphs asking the two men, Fosdick and Stephens, to come forward and tell us if they've seen anything of Ashton since he came to England; I'm also asking if anybody can tell us where Ashton was when he went away from home on that visit that Mrs. Killenhall spoke of. If--"
Just then a clerk came into Mr. Pawle's room, and bending down to him, whispered a few words which evidently occasioned him great surprise.
"At once!" he said. "Bring them straight in, Parkinson. God bless me!" he exclaimed, turning to Viner. "Here are the two men in question--Fosdick and Stephens! Saw our name in the paper as Ashton's solicitors and want to see me urgently."