The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XXIII. Dawn
The hall-porter was only too ready for further chat. It was the dull season, and this visitor was one of a variety always popular in the quieter hotels; he was never above a pleasant word with the servants. Yet the porter stared at Langholm as he approached. His face was flushed, and his eyes so bright that there would have been but one diagnosis by the average observer. But the porter knew that Langholm had come in sober, and that for the last twenty minutes he had sat absorbed in the hotel register.
"I see," said Langholm--and even his voice was altered, which made the other stare the harder--"I see that a friend of mine stayed here just upon a year ago. I wonder if you remember him?"
"If it was the off-season, sir, I dare say I shall."
"It was in September, and his name was Steel."
"How long did he stay?"
"Only one night, I gather--an elderly gentleman with very white hair."
The porter's face lighted up.
"I remember him, sir! I should think I did! A very rich gentleman, I should say; yes, he only stayed the one night, but he gave me a sovereign when he went away next day."
"He is very rich," said Langholm, repressing by main force a desire to ask a string of questions. He fancied that the porter was not one who needed questioning, and his patience had its immediate reward.
"I remember when he arrived," the man went on. "It was late at night, and he hadn't ordered his room. He came in first to see whether we could give him one. I paid the cab myself and brought in his bag."
"He had just arrived from the country, I presume?"
The porter nodded.
"At King's Cross, by the 10.45, I believe; but it must have been a good bit late, for I was just coming off duty, and the night-porter was just coming on."
"Then you didn't see any more of Mr. Steel that night?"
"I saw him go out again," said the porter, dryly, "after he had something to eat, for we are short-handed in the off-season, and I stopped up myself to see he got it. I didn't see him come in the second time."
Langholm could hardly believe his ears. To cover his excitement he burst out laughing.
"The old dog!" he cried. "Do you know if he ever came in at all?"
"Between two and three, I believe," said the porter in the same tone.
Langholm laughed again, but asked no more questions, and in a little he was pacing his bedroom floor, with fevered face and tremulous stride, as he was to continue pacing it for the greater part of that August night.
Yet it was not a night spent in thought, but rather in intercepting and in casting out the kind of thoughts that chased each other through the novelist's brain. His imagination had him by the forelock once more, but this time he was resisting with all his might. It meant resistance to the strongest attribute that he possessed. The man's mind was now a picture-gallery and now a stage. He thought in pictures and he saw in scenes. It was no fault of Langholm's, any more than it was a merit. Imagination was the predominant force of his intellect, as in others is the power of reasoning, or the gift of languages, or the mastery of figures. Langholm could no more help it than he could change the color of his eyes, but to-night he did his best. He had mistaken invention for discovery once already. He was grimly determined not to let it happen twice.
To suspect Steel because he chanced to have been in the neighborhood of Chelsea on the night of the murder, and absent from his hotel about the hour of its committal, was not less absurd than his first suspicion of the man who could be proved to have been lying between life and death at the time. There had been something to connect the dead man with Severino. There was nothing within Langholm's knowledge to connect him with Steel. Yet Steel was the most mysterious person that he had ever met with outside the pages of his own novels. No one knew where he had made his money. He might well have made it in Australia; they might have known each other out there. Langholm suddenly remembered the Australian swagman whom he had seen "knocking down his check" at a wayside inn within a few miles of Normanthorpe, and Steel's gratuitously explicit statement that neither he nor his wife had ever been in Australia in their lives. There was one lie at least, then why not two? Yet, the proven lie might have been told by Steel simply to anticipate and allay any possible suspicion of his wife's identity. That was at least conceivable. And this time Langholm sought the conceivable explanation more sedulously than the suspicious circumstance.
He had been far too precipitate in all that he had done hitherto, from the Monday morning up to this Wednesday night. His departure on the Monday had been in itself premature. He had come away without seeing the Steels again, whereas he should have had an exhaustive interview with one or both of them before embarking upon his task. But Steel's half-hostile and half-scornful attitude was more than Langholm could trust his temper to endure, and he had despaired of seeing Mrs. Steel alone. There were innumerable points upon which she could have supplied him with valuable information. He had hoped to obtain what he wanted from the fuller reports of the trial; but that investigation had been conducted upon the supposition that his wife, and no other, had caused the death of Alexander Minchin. No business friend of the deceased had been included among the witnesses, and the very least had been made of his financial difficulties, which had formed no part of the case for the Crown.
Langholm, however, his wits immensely quickened by the tonic of his new discovery, began to see possibilities in this aspect of the matter, and, as soon as the telegraph offices were open, he despatched a rather long message to Mrs. Steel, reply paid. It was simply to request the business address of her late husband, with the name and address of any partner or other business man who had seen much of him in the City. If the telegram were not intercepted, Langholm calculated that he should have his reply in a couple of hours, and one came early in the forenoon:--
Langholm looked first at the end, and was thankful to see that the reply was from Rachel herself. But the penultimate clause introduced a complication. It must have some meaning. It would scarcely be a wholly irrelevant expression of dislike. Langholm, at all events, read a warning in the words--a warning to himself not to call on Mr. Crofts as a friend of the dead man's wife. And this increased the complication, ultimately suggesting a bolder step than the man of letters quite relished, yet one which he took without hesitation in Rachel's cause. He had in his pocket the card of the detective officer who had shown him over the Black Museum; luckily it was still quite clean; and Langholm only wished he looked the part a little more as he finally sallied forth.
Mr. Crofts was in, his small clerk said, and the sham detective followed the real one's card into the inner chamber of the poky offices upon the third floor. Mr. Crofts sat aghast in his office chair, the puzzled picture of a man who feels his hour has come, but who wonders which of his many delinquencies has come to light. He was large and florid, with a bald head and a dyed mustache, but his coloring was an unwholesome purple as the false pretender was ushered in.
"I am sorry to intrude upon you, Mr. Crofts," began Langholm, "but I have come to make a few inquiries about the late Alexander Minchin, who, I believe, once--"
"Quite right! Quite right!" cried Crofts, as the purple turned a normal red in his sanguine countenance. "Alexander Minchin--poor fellow--to be sure! Take a seat, Inspector, take a seat. Happy to afford you any information in my power."
If Mr. Crofts looked relieved, however, as many a decent citizen might under similar visitation, it was a very real relief to Langholm not to have been found out at a glance. He took the proffered seat with the greater readiness on noting how near it was to the door.
"The death of Mr. Minchin is, as you know, still a mystery--"
"I didn't know it," interrupted Crofts, who had quite recovered his spirits. "I thought the only mystery was how twelve sane men could have acquitted his wife."
"That," said Langholm, "was the opinion of many at the time; but it is one which we are obliged to disregard, whether we agree with it or not. The case still engages our attention, and must do so until we have explored every possible channel of investigation. What I want from you, Mr. Crofts, is any information that you can give me concerning Mr. Minchin's financial position at the time of his death."
"It was bad," said Mr. Crofts, promptly; "about as bad as it could be. He had one lucky flutter, and it would have been the ruin of him if he had lived. He backed his luck for more than it was worth, and his luck deserted him on the spot. Yes, poor old devil!" sighed the sympathetic Crofts: "he thought he was going to make his pile out of hand, but in another week he would have been a bankrupt."
"Had you known him long, Mr. Crofts?"
"Not six months; it was down at Brighton we met, quite by chance, and got on talking about Westralians. It was I put him on to his one good spec. His wife was with him at the time--couldn't stand the woman! She was much too good for me and my missus, to say nothing of her own husband. I remember one night on the pier--"
"I won't trouble you about Brighton, Mr. Crofts," Langholm interrupted, as politely as he could. "Mr. Minchin was not afterwards a partner of yours, was he?"
"Never; though I won't say he mightn't have been if things had panned out differently, and he had gone back to Westralia with some capital. Meanwhile he had the run of my office, and that was all."
"And not even the benefit of your advice?"
"He wouldn't take it, once he was bitten with the game."
Thus far Langholm had simply satisfied his own curiosity upon one or two points concerning a dead man who had been little more than a name to him hitherto. His one discovery of the least potential value was that Minchin had evidently died in difficulties. He now consulted some notes jotted down on an envelope upon his way to the City.
"Mr. Minchin, as you are aware," resumed Langholm, "was, like his wife, an Australian by birth. Had he many Australian friends here in London?"
"None at all," replied Mr. Crofts, "that I am aware of."
"Nor anywhere else in the country, think you?"
"Not that I remember."
"Not in the north of England, for example?"
Thus led, Mr. Crofts frowned at his desk until an enlightened look broke over his florid face.
"By Jove, yes!" said he. "Now you speak of it, there was somebody up north--a rich man, too--but he only heard of him by chance a day or so before his death."
"A rich man, you say, and an Australian?"
"I don't know about that, but it was out there they had known each other, and Minchin had no idea he was in England till he saw it in the paper a day or two before his death."
"Do you remember the name?"
"No, I don't, for he never told it to me; fact is, we were not on the best of terms just at the last," explained Mr. Crofts. "Money matters--money matters--they divide the best of friends--and to tell you the truth he owed me more than I could afford to lose. But the day before the last day of his life he came in and said it was all right, he'd square up before the week was out, and if that wasn't good enough for me I could go to the devil. Of course I asked him where the money was coming from, and he said from a man he'd not heard of for years until that morning, but he didn't say how he'd heard of him then, only that he must be a millionaire. So then I asked why a man he hadn't seen for so long should pay his debts, but Minchin only laughed and swore that he'd make him. And that was the last I ever heard of it; he sat down at that desk over yonder and wrote to his millionaire there and then, and took it out himself to post. It was the last time I saw him alive, for he said he wasn't coming back till he got his answer, and it was the last letter he ever wrote in the place."
"On that desk, eh?" Langholm glanced at the spare piece of office furniture in the corner. "Didn't he keep any papers here?" he added.
"He did, but you fellows impounded them."
"Of course we did," said Langholm, hastily. "Then you have nothing of his left?"
"Only his pen, and a diary in which he hadn't written a word. I slipped them into a drawer with his papers, and there they are still."
Langholm felt disappointed. He had learnt so much, it was tantalizing not to learn a little more. If he could only make sure of that millionaire friend of Minchin! In his own mind he was all but sure, but his own mind was too elastic by half.
Crofts was drumming on the blotting-pad in front of him; all of a sudden Langholm noticed that it had a diary attached.
"Minchin's diary wasn't one like yours, was it?" he exclaimed.
"The same thing," said Mr. Crofts.
"Then I should like to see it."
"There's not a word written in it; one of you chaps overhauled it at the time."
"Well, then, it's in the top long drawer of the desk he used to use--if my clerk has not appropriated it to his own use."
Langholm held his breath as he went to the drawer in question. In another instant his breath escaped him in a sigh of thankfulness. The "Universal Diary" (for the year before) was there, sure enough. And it was attached to a pink blotter precisely similar to that upon which Mr. Crofts still drummed with idle fingers.
"Anything more I can show you?" inquired that worthy, humorously.
Langholm was gazing intently, not at the diary, but at the pink blotting-paper. Suddenly he looked up.
"You say that was the last letter he ever wrote in your office?"
"The very last."
"Then--yes--you can show me a looking-glass if you have one!"
Crofts had a small one on his chimney-piece.
"By the Lord Harry," said he, handing it, "but you tip-top 'tecs are a leery lot!"