The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter VIII. News from Arcadia
When Viner, half an hour later, walked into the waiting-room at Crawle, Pawle and Rattenbury's, he was aware of a modestly attired young woman, evidently, from her dress and appearance, a country girl, who sat shyly turning over the pages of an illustrated paper. And as soon as he got into Pawle's private room, the old solicitor jerked his thumb at the door by which Viner had entered, and smiled significantly.
"See that girl outside?" he asked. "She's the reason of my ringing you up."
"Yes?" said Viner. "But what--why? More mystery?"
"Don't know," said Mr. Pawle. "I've kept her story till you came. She turned up here about three-quarters of an hour ago, and said that her grandmother, who keeps an inn at Marketstoke, in Buckinghamshire, had seen the paragraph in the papers this morning in which I asked if anybody could give any information about Mr. John Ashton's movements, and had immediately sent her off to me with the message that a gentleman of that name stayed at their house for a few days some weeks since, and that if I would send somebody over there, she, the grandmother, could give some particulars about him. So that solves the question we were talking of at Markendale Square, as to where Ashton went during the absence Mrs. Killenhall told us of."
"If this is the same Ashton," suggested Viner.
"We'll soon decide that," answered Mr. Pawle as he touched the bell on his desk. "I purposely awaited your coming before hearing what this young woman had to tell. Now, my dear," he continued as a clerk brought the girl into the room, "take a chair and tell me what your message is, more particularly. You're from Marketstoke eh? Just so--and your grandmother, who sent you here, keeps an inn there?"
"Yes, sir, the Ellingham Arms," replied the girl as she sat down and glanced a little nervously at her two interviewers.
"To be sure. And your grandmother's name is--what?"
"Hannah Summers, sir."
"Mrs. Hannah Summers. Grandfather living?"
"Very well--Mrs. Hannah Summers, landlady at the Ellingham Arms, Marketstoke, in Buckinghamshire. Now then--but what's your name, my dear?"
"Lucy Summers, sir."
"Very pretty name, I'm sure! Well, and what's the message your grandmother sent me? I want this gentleman to hear it."
"Grandmother wished me to say, sir, that we read the piece in the paper this morning asking if anybody could give you any news about a Mr. John Ashton, and that as we had a gentleman of that name staying with us for three or four days some weeks since, she sent me to tell you, and to say that if you would send somebody down to see her, she could give some information about him."
"Very clearly put, my dear--much obliged to you," said Mr. Pawle. "Now, I suppose you were at the Ellingham Arms when this Mr. Ashton came there?"
"Oh, yes, sir; I live there!"
"To be sure! Now, what sort of man was he--in appearance?"
"A tall, big gentleman, sir, with a beard, going a little grey. He was wearing a blue serge suit."
Mr. Pawle nodded at Viner.
"Seems like our man," he remarked. "Now," he went on, turning again to Lucy Summers, "you say he stayed there three or four days. What did he do with himself while he was there?"
"He spent a good deal of time about the church, sir," answered the girl, "and he was at Ellingham Park a good deal--"
"Whose place is that?" interrupted Mr. Pawle.
"Lord Ellingham's, sir."
"Do you mean that Mr. Ashton called on Lord Ellingham, or what?"
"No, sir, because Lord Ellingham wasn't there--he scarcely ever is there," replied Lucy Summers. "I mean that Mr. Ashton went into the park a good deal and looked over the house--a good many people come to see Ellingham Park, sir."
"Well, and what else?" asked Mr. Pawle. "Did he go to see people in the town at all?"
"I don't know, sir--but he was out most of the day. And at night he talked a great deal with my grandmother, in her sitting-room, I think," added the girl with a glance which took in both listeners. "I think that's what she wants to tell about. She would have come here herself, but she's over seventy and doesn't like travelling."
Mr. Pawle turned to Viner.
"Now we know where we are," he said. "There's no doubt that this is our Ashton, and that Mrs. Summers has something she can tell about him. Viner, I suggest that you and I go down to Marketstoke this afternoon. You've accommodations for a couple of gentlemen, I suppose, my dear?" he added, turning to the girl. "Couple of nice bedrooms and a bit of dinner, eh?"
"Oh, yes sir!" replied Lucy Summers. "We constantly have gentlemen there, sir."
"Very well," said Mr. Pawle. "Now, then, you run away home to Marketstoke, my dear, and tell your grandmother that I'm very much obliged to her, and that I am coming down this evening, with this gentleman, Mr. Viner, and that we shall be obliged if she'll have a nice, plain, well-cooked dinner ready for us at half-past seven. We shall come in my motorcar--you can put that up for the night, and my driver too? Very well--that's settled. Now, come along, and one of my clerks shall get you a cab to your station. Great Central, isn't it? All right--mind you get yourself a cup of tea before going home."
"Viner," Pawle continued when he had taken the girl into the outer office, "we can easily run down to Marketstoke in under two hours. I'll call for you at your house at half-past five. That'll give us time to wash away the dirt before our dinner. And then--we'll hear what this old lady has to tell."
Viner, who was musing somewhat vaguely over these curious developments, looked at Mr. Pawle as if in speculation about his evident optimism.
"You think we shall hear something worth hearing?" he asked.
"I should say we probably shall," replied Mr. Pawle. "Put things together. Ashton goes away--as soon as he's got settled down in Markendale Square--on a somewhat mysterious journey. Now we hear that he had a secret. Perhaps something relating to that secret is mixed up with his visit to Marketstoke. Depend upon it, an old woman of over seventy--especially a landlady of a country-town inn, whose wits are presumably pretty sharp--wouldn't send for me unless she'd something to tell. Before midnight, my dear sir, we may have learnt a good deal."
Viner picked up his hat.
"I'll be ready for you at half-past five," he said. Then, halfway to the door, he turned with a question: "By the by," he added, "you wouldn't like me to tell the two ladies that we've found out where Ashton went when he was away?"
"I think not until we've found out why he went away," answered the old lawyer with a significant smile. "We may draw the covert blank, you know, after all. When we've some definite news--"
Viner nodded, went out, into the afternoon calm of Bedford Row. As he walked up it, staring mechanically at the old-fashioned red brick fronts, he wondered how many curious secrets had been talked over and perhaps unravelled in the numerous legal sanctuaries approached through those open doorways. Were there often as strange ones as that upon which he had so unexpectedly stumbled? And when they first came into the arena of thought and speculation did they arouse as much perplexity and mental exercise as was now being set up in him? Did every secret, too, possibly endanger a man's life as his old schoolfellow's was being endangered? He had no particular affection or friendship for Langton Hyde, of whom, indeed, he had known very little at school, but he had an absolute conviction that he was innocent of murder, and that conviction had already aroused in him a passionate determination to outwit the police. He had been quick to see through Drillford's plans. There was a case, a strong prima facie case against Hyde, and the police would work it up for all they were worth. Failing proofs in other directions, failing the discovery of the real murderer, how was that case going to be upset? And was it likely that he and Pawle were going to find any really important evidence in an obscure Buckinghamshire market-town?
He jumped into a cab at the top of Bedford Row and hastened back to Markendale Square to pack a bag and prepare for his journey. Miss Penkridge called to him from the drawing-room as he was running upstairs; he turned into the room to find her in company with two ladies--dismal, pathetic figures in very plain and obviously countrified garments, both in tears and evident great distress, who, as Viner walked in, rose from their chairs and gazed at him sadly and wistfully. They reminded him at once of the type of spinster found in quiet, unpretentious cottages in out-of-the-way villages--the neither young nor old women, who live on circumscribed means and are painfully shy of the rude world outside. And before either he or Miss Penkridge could speak, the elder of the two broke into an eager exclamation.
"Oh, Mr. Viner, we are Langton's sisters! And we are so grateful to you--and oh, do you think you can save him?"
Viner was quick to seize the situation. He said a soothing word or two, begged his visitors to sit down again, and whispered to Miss Penkridge to ring for tea.
"You have come to town today?" he asked.
"We left home very, very early this morning," replied the elder sister. "We learned this dreadful news last night in the evening paper. We came away at four o'clock this morning--we live in Durham, Mr. Viner,--and we have been to Mr. Felpham's office this afternoon. He told us how kind you had been in engaging his services for our unfortunate brother, and we came to thank you. But oh, do you think there is any chance for him?"
"Every chance!" declared Viner, pretending more conviction than he felt. "Don't let yourselves be cast down. We'll move heaven and earth to prove that he's wrongly accused. I gather--if you don't mind my asking--that your brother has been out of touch with you for some time?"
The two sisters exchanged mournful glances.
"We had not heard anything of Langton for some years," replied the elder. "He is much--much younger than ourselves, and perhaps we are too staid and old-fashioned for him. But if we had known that he was in want! Oh, dear me, we are not at all well-to-do, Mr. Viner, but we would have sacrificed anything. Mr. Felpham says that we shall be allowed to visit him--he is going to arrange for us to do so. And of course we must remain in London until this terrible business is over--we came prepared for that."
"Prepared for that!" repeated the other sister, who seemed to be a fainter replica of the elder. "Yes, prepared, of course, Mr. Viner."
"Now that we have found Langton, though in such painful circumstances," said the first speaker, "we must stand by him. We must find some quiet lodging, and settle down to help. We cannot let all the burden fall on you, Mr. Viner."
Viner glanced at Miss Penkridge. They were quick to understand each other, these two, and he knew at once that Miss Penkridge saw what was in his mind.
"You must stay with us," he said, turning to the two mournful figures. "We have any amount of room in this house, and we shall be only too glad--"
"Oh, but that is too--" began both ladies.
"I insist," said Viner, with a smile.
"We both insist!" echoed Miss Penkridge. "We are both given to having our own way, too; so say no more about it. We are all in the same boat just now, and its name is Mystery, and we must pull together until we're in harbour."
"Listen!" said Viner. "I have to go away tonight, on a matter closely connected with this affair. Let me leave you in my aunt's charge, and tomorrow I may be able to give you some cheering news. You'll be much more comfortable here than in any lodgings or hotel and--and I should like to do something for Hyde; we're old schoolfellows, you know."
Then he escaped from the room and made ready for his journey; and at half-past five came Mr. Pawle in his private car and carried him off into the dark. And hour and a half later the car rolled smoothly into the main street of a quiet, wholly Arcadian little town, and pulled up before an old-fashioned many-gabled house over the door of which was set up one of those ancient signs which, in such places, display the coat of arms of the lord of the manor. Viner had just time to glance around him, and in a clear, starlit evening, to see the high tower of a church, the timbered fronts of old houses, and many a tall, venerable tree, before following Mr. Pawle into a stone hall filled with dark oak cabinets and bright with old brass and pewter, on the open hearth of which burnt a fine and cheery fire of logs.
"Excellent!" muttered the old lawyer as he began to take off his multitudinous wraps. "A real bit of the real old England! Viner, if the dinner is as good as this promises, I shall be glad we've come, whatever the occasion."
"Here's the landlady, I suppose," said Viner as a door opened.
A tall, silver-haired old woman, surprisingly active and vivacious in spite of her evident age, came forward with a polite, old-fashioned bow. She wore a silk gown and a silk apron and a smart cap, and her still bright eyes took in the two visitors at a glance.
"Your servant, gentlemen," she said. "Your rooms are ready, and dinner will be ready, too, when you are. This way, if you please."
"A very fine old house this, ma'am," observed Mr. Pawle as they followed her up a curious staircase, all nooks and corners. "And you have, no doubt, been long in it?"
"Born in it, sir," said the landlady, with a laugh. "Our family--on one side--has been here two hundred years. This is your room, sir--this is your friend's." She paused, and with a significant look, pointed to another door. "That," she said, "is the room which Mr. Ashton had when he was here."
"Ah! We are very anxious to know what you can tell us about him, ma'am," said Mr. Pawle.
Mrs. Summers paused, and again glanced significantly at her visitors.
"I wish I knew the meaning of what I shall tell you," she answered.