The Middle of Things by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter IX. Looking Backward
On the principle that business should never be discussed when one is dining, Mr. Pawle made no reference during dinner to the matter which had brought Viner and himself to the Ellingham Arms. He devoted all his attention and energies to the pleasures of the table; he praised the grilled soles and roast mutton and grew enthusiastic over some old Burgundy which Mrs. Summers strongly recommended. But when dinner was over and he had drunk a glass or two of old port, his eyes began to turn toward the door of the quaint little parlour in which he and Viner had been installed, and to which the landlady had promised to come.
"I confess I'm unusually curious about what we're going to hear, Viner," he said, as he drew out a well-filled cigar-case. "There's an atmosphere of mystery about our presence and our surroundings that's like an aperitif to an already hungry man. Ashton, poor fellow, comes over to this quiet, out-of-the-way place; why, we don't know; what he does here we don't know, yet--but all the circumstances, up to now, seem to point to secrecy, if not to absolute romance and adventure."
"Is it going, after all, to clear up the mystery of his death?" asked Viner. "That's what concerns me--I'm afraid I'm a bit indifferent to the rest of it. What particular romance, do you think, could be attached to the mere fact that Ashton paid a three days' visit to Marketstoke?"
Mr. Pawle drew out a well-filled cigar-case.
"In my profession," he answered, "we hear a great deal more of romance than most folk could imagine. Now, here's a man who returns to this country from a long residence in Australia. The first thing he does, after getting settled down in London, is to visit Marketstoke. Why Marketstoke? Marketstoke is an obscure place--there are at least five or six towns in this very county that are better known. Again, I say--why Marketstoke? And why this, the very first place in England? For what reason? Now, as a lawyer, a reason does suggest itself to me; I've been thinking about it ever since that rosy-cheeked lass called at my office this afternoon. What does the man who's been away from his native land for the best part of his life do, as a rule, when at last he sets foot on it again--eh?"
"I'm not greatly experienced," replied Viner, smiling at the old solicitor's professional enthusiasm. "What does he do--usually?"
"Makes his way as soon as possible to his native place!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle, with an expressive flourish of his cigar. "That, usually, is the first thing he thinks of. You're not old enough to remember the circumstances, my boy, but I have, of course, a very distinct recollection of the Tichborne affair in the early seventies. Now, if you ever read the evidence in that cause celebre, you'll remember that the claimant, Orton, on arriving in England, posing as the missing heir, Sir Roger Tichborne, did a certain thing, the evidence of which, I can assure you, was not lost on the jury before whom he eventually came. Instead of going direct to Tichborne, where you'd naturally have thought all his affection and interests rested, where did he go? To Whitechapel! Why? Because the Ortons were Whitechapel folk! The native place called him, do you see? The first thought he had on setting foot on English soil was--Whitechapel!"
"Are you suggesting that Ashton was probably a native of Marketstoke?" asked Viner.
"I mean to find out--no matter what we hear from the landlady--if that name is to be found in the parish register here, anyway," answered Mr. Pawle. "You can be sure of this--Ashton came to this obscure country town for some special purpose. What was it? And--had it anything to do with, did it lead up to, his murder? That--"
A light tap at the door heralded the approach of Mrs. Summers.
"That," repeated Mr. Pawle, as he jumped up from his chair and politely threw the door open, "is what I mean to endeavour--endeavour, at any rate--to discover. Come in, ma'am," he continued, gallantly motioning the old landlady to the easiest chair in the room. "We are very eager, indeed, to hear what you can tell us. Our cigars, now--"
"Pray, don't mention them, sir," responded Mrs. Summers. "I hope you are quite comfortable, and that you are having everything you wish?"
"Nothing ma'am, could be more pleasant and gratifying, as far as material comfort goes," answered Mr. Pawle with conviction. "The dinner was excellent; your wine is sound; this old room is a veritable haven! I wish we were visiting you under less sad conditions. And now about your recollections of this poor gentleman, ma'am?"
The landlady laid a large book on the table, and opening it at a page where at she had placed a marker, pointed to a signature.
"That is the writing of the Mr. John Ashton who came here," she said. "He registered his name and address the day he came--there it is: 'John Ashton, 7 Markendale Square, London, W.' You gentlemen will recognise it, perhaps?"
Mr. Pawle put up his glasses, glanced once at the open book, and turned to Viner with a confirmatory nod.
"That's Ashton's writing, without a doubt," he said. "It's a signature not to be forgotten when you've once seen it. Well, that establishes the fact that he undoubtedly came here on that date. Now, ma'am, what can you tell about him?"
Mrs. Summers took the chair which Viner drew forward to the hearth and folded her hands over her silk apron.
"Well sir," she answered, "a good deal. Mr. Ashton came here one Monday afternoon, in a motorcar, with his luggage, and asked if I could give him rooms and accommodation for a few days. Of course I could--he had this room and the room I pointed out upstairs, and he stayed here until the Thursday, when he left soon after lunch--the same car came for him. And he hadn't been in the house an hour, gentlemen, before I wondered if he hadn't been here before."
"Interesting--very!" said Mr. Pawle. "Now, why, ma'am did you wonder that?"
"Well, sir," replied Mrs. Summers, "because, after he'd looked round the house, and seen his room upstairs, he went out to the front door, and then I followed him, to ask if he had any particular wishes about his dinner that evening. Our front door, as you will see in the morning, fronts the market square, and from it you can see about all there is to see of the town. He was standing at the door, under the porch, looking all round him, and I overheard him talking to himself as I went up behind him.
"'Aye!' he was saying, as he looked this way and that, 'there's the old church, and the old moot-hall, and the old market-place, and the old gabled and thatched houses, and even the old town pump--they haven't changed a bit, I reckon, in all these years!' Then he caught sight of me, and he smiled. 'Not many changes in this old place, landlady, in your time?' he said pleasantly. 'No, sir,' I answered. 'We don't change much in even a hundred years in Marketstoke.' 'No!' he said, and shook his head. 'No--the change is in men, in men!' And then he suddenly set straight off across the square to the churchyard. 'You've known Marketstoke before,' I said to myself."
"You didn't ask him that?" inquired Mr. Pawle, eagerly.
"I didn't, sir," replied Mrs. Summers. "I never asked him a question all the time he was here. I thought that if I was correct in what I fancied, I should hear him say something. But he never did say anything of that sort--all the same, I felt more and more certain that he did know the place. And during the time he was here, he went about in it in a fashion that convinced me that my ideas were right. He was in and around the church a great deal--the vicar and the parish clerk can tell you more about his visits there than I can--and he was at the old moot-hall several times, looking over certain old things they keep there, and he visited Ellingham Park twice, and was shown over the house. And before he'd been here two days I came to a certain conclusion about him, and I've had it ever since, though he never said one word, or did one thing that could positively confirm me in it."
"Yes!" exclaimed Mr. Pawle. "And that, ma'am, was--"
"That he was somebody who disappeared from Marketstoke thirty-five years ago," answered the landlady, "disappeared completely, and has never been heard of from that day to this!"
Mr. Pawle turned slowly and looked at Viner. He nodded his head several times, then turned to Mrs. Summers and regarded her fixedly.
"And that somebody?" he asked in hushed accents. "Who was he?"
The landlady smoothed her silk apron and shook her head.
"It's a long story, sir," she answered. "I think you must have heard something of it--though to be sure, it was not talked of much at the time, and didn't become public until legal proceedings became necessary, some years ago. You're aware, of course, that just outside the town here is Ellingham Park, the seat of the Earl of Ellingham. Well, what I have to tell you has to do with them, and I shall have to go back a good way. Thirty-five years ago the head of the family was the seventh Earl, who was then getting on in life. He was a very overbearing, harsh old gentleman, not at all liked--the people here in Marketstoke, nearly all of them his tenants, used to be perpetually at variance with him about something or other; he was the sort of man who wanted to have his own way about everything. And he had trouble at home, at any rate with his elder son,--he only had two sons and no daughter,--and about the time I'm talking of it came to a head. Nobody ever knew exactly what it was all about, but it was well known that Lord Marketstoke--that was the elder son's name--and his father, the Earl, were at cross purposes, if not actually at daggers drawn, about something or other. And when Lord Marketstoke was about twenty five or twenty-six there was a great quarrel between them; it broke out one night, after dinner; the servants heard angry words between them. That night, gentlemen, Lord Marketstoke left the house and set off to London, and from that day to this he has never been heard of or seen again--hereabouts, at any rate."
Mr. Pawle, who was listening with the deepest interest and attention, glanced at Viner as if to entreat the same care on his part.
"I do remember something of this, now I come to think of it," he said. "There were some legal proceedings in connection with this disappearance, I believe, some years ago."
"Yes, sir--they were in the newspapers," asserted the old landlady. "But of course, those of us about here knew of how things stood long before that. Lord Marketstoke went away, as I have said. It was known that he had money of his own, that had come to him from his mother, who had died years before all this. But it wasn't known where he went. Some said he'd gone to the Colonies; some said to America. And at one time there was a rumour that he'd taken another name and joined some foreign army, and been killed in its service. Anyway, nobody ever heard a word of him--Mr. Marcherson, who was steward at Ellingham Park for over forty years (he died last year, a very old man) assured me that from the day on which Lord Marketstoke left his father's house not one word of him, not a breath, ever reached any of those he'd left behind him. There was absolute silence--he couldn't have disappeared more completely if they'd laid him in the family vault in Marketstoke church."
"And evident intention to disappear!" observed Mr. Pawle. "You'll mark that, Viner--it's important. Well, ma'am," he added, turning again to Mrs. Summers. "And--what happened next?"
"Well sir, there was nothing much happened," continued the landlady. "Matters went on in pretty much the usual way. The old Earl got older, of course, and his temper got worse. Mr. Marcherson assured me that he was never known to mention his missing son--to anybody. And in the end, perhaps about fifteen years after Lord Marketstoke had gone away, he died. And then there was no end of trouble and bother. The Earl had left no will; at any rate, no will could be found, and no lawyer could be heard of who had ever made one. And of course, nobody knew where the new Earl was, nor even if he was alive or dead. There were advertisements sent out all over the world--Mr. Marcherson told me that they were translated into I don't know how many foreign languages and published in every quarter of the globe--asking for news of him and stating that his father was dead. That was done for some time."
"With no result?" asked Mr. Pawle.
"No result whatever, sir--I understand that the family solicitors never had one single reply," answered Mrs. Summers. "I understand, too, that for some time before the old Earl's death they'd been trying to trace Lord Marketstoke from his last known movements. But that had failed too. He had chambers in London, and he kept a manservant there; the manservant could only say that on the night on which his young master left Ellingham Park he returned to his chambers, went to bed--and had gone when he, the manservant, rose in the morning. No, sir; all the efforts and advertisements were no good whatever, and after some time--some considerable time--the younger brother, the Honourable Charles Cave-Gray--"
"Cave-Gray? Is that the family name?" interrupted Mr. Pawle.
"That's the family name, sir--Cave-Gray," replied Mrs. Summers. "One of the oldest families in these parts, sir--the earldom dates from Queen Anne. Well, the Honourable Charles Cave-Gray, and his solicitors, of course, came to the conclusion that Lord Marketstoke was dead, and so--I don't understand the legal niceties, gentlemen, but they went to the courts to get something done which presumed his death and let Mr. Charles come into the title and estates. And in the end that had been done, and Mr. Charles became the eighth Earl of Ellingham."
"I remember it now," muttered Mr. Pawle. "Yes--curious case. But it was proved to the court, I recollect, that everything possible had been done to find the missing heir--and without result."
"Just so, sir, and so Mr. Charles succeeded," asserted Mrs. Summers. "He was a very nice, pleasant man, not a bit like his father--a very good and considerate landlord, and much respected. But he's gone now--died three years ago; and his son, a young man of twenty-two or three, succeeded him--that's the present Earl, gentlemen. And of him we see very little; he scarcely ever stayed at Ellingham Park, except for a bit of shooting, since he came to the title. And now," she concluded, with a shrewd glance at the old lawyer, "I wonder if you see, sir, what it was that came into my mind when this Mr. John Ashton came here a few weeks ago, especially after I heard him say what he did, and after I saw how he was spending his time here?"
"I've no inkling, ma'am; I've no inkling!" said Mr. Pawle. "You wondered--"
"I wondered," murmured Mrs. Summers, bending closer to her listeners, "if the man who called himself John Ashton wasn't in reality the long-lost Lord Marketstoke."