The Middle of Things - Joseph Smith Fletcher - ebook

The Middle of Things ebook

Joseph Smith Fletcher



Viner stumbles upon the body of a murdered man whilst just following through his ordinary day routines. Little does he know that this find would make him a key figure in solving a big mystery. Well its soon discovered that the murdered man’s name was Ashton and some important documents were stolen from him, but the true purpose for killing him and his real identity and that of his charge, make for a rather excitingly interesting murder-mystery... Nevertheless, Mr. Fletcher accomplishes it in a story that keeps the reader in suspense until the very last word. This talented author has no rival to-day in ingenuity.

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On that particular November evening, Viner, a young gentleman of means and leisure, who lived in a comfortable old house in Markendale Square, Bayswater, in company with his maiden aunt Miss Bethia Penkridge, had spent his after-dinner hours in a fashion which had become a habit. Miss Penkridge, a model housekeeper and an essentially worthy woman, whose whole day was given to supervising somebody or something, had an insatiable appetite for fiction, and loved nothing so much as that her nephew should read a novel to her after the two glasses of port which she allowed herself every night had been thoughtfully consumed and he and she had adjourned from the dining-room to the hearthrug in the library. Her tastes, however, in Viner’s opinion were somewhat, if not decidedly, limited. Brought up in her youth on Miss Braddon, Wilkie Collins and Mrs. Henry Wood, Miss Penkridge had become a confirmed slave to the sensational. She had no taste for the psychological, and nothing but scorn for the erotic. What she loved was a story which began with crime and ended with a detection–a story which kept you wondering who did it, how it was done, and when the doing was going to be laid bare to the light of day. Nothing pleased her better than to go to bed with a brain titivated with the mysteries of the last three chapters; nothing gave her such infinite delight as to find, when the final pages were turned, that all her own theories were wrong, and that the real criminal was somebody quite other than the person she had fancied. For a novelist who was so little master of his trade as to let you see when and how things were going, Miss Penkridge had little but good-natured pity; for one who led you by all sorts of devious tracks to a startling and surprising sensation she cherished a whole-souled love; but for the creator of a plot who could keep his secret alive and burning to his last few sentences she felt the deepest thing that she could give to any human being–respect. Such a master was entered permanently on her mental library list.

At precisely ten o’clock that evening Viner read the last page of a novel which had proved to be exactly suited to his aunt’s tastes. A dead silence fell on the room, broken only by the crackling of the logs in the grate. Miss Penkridge dropped her knitting on her silk-gowned knees and stared at the leaping flames; her nephew, with an odd glance at her, rose from his easy-chair, picked up a pipe and began to fill it from a tobacco-jar on the mantelpiece. The clock had ticked several times before Miss Penkridge spoke.

“Well!” she said, with the accompanying sigh which denotes complete content. “So he did it! Now, I should never have thought it! The last person of the whole lot! Clever–very clever! Richard, you’ll get all the books that that man has written!”

Viner lighted his pipe, thrust his hands in the pockets of his trousers and leaned back against the mantelpiece.

“My dear aunt!” he said half-teasingly, half-seriously. “You’re worse than a drug-taker. Whatever makes a highly-respectable, shrewd old lady like you cherish such an insensate fancy for this sort of stuff?”

“Stuff?” demanded Miss Penkridge, who had resumed her knitting. “Pooh! It’s not stuff–it’s life! Real life–in the form of fiction!”

Viner shook his head, pityingly. He never read fiction for his own amusement; his tastes in reading lay elsewhere, in solid directions. Moreover, in those directions he was a good deal of a student, and he knew more of his own library than of the world outside it. So he shook his head again.

“Life!” he said. “You don’t mean to say that you think those things”–he pointed a half-scornful finger to a pile of novels which had come in from Mudie’s that day–“really represent life?”

“What else?” demanded Miss Penkridge.

“Oh–I don’t know,” replied Viner vaguely. “Fancy, I suppose, and imagination, and all that sort of thing–invention, you know, and so on. But–life! Do you really think such things happen in real life, as those we’ve been reading about?”

“I don’t think anything about it,” retorted Miss Penkridge sturdily. “I’m sure of it. I never had a novel yet, nor heard one read to me, that was half as strong as it might have been!”

“Queer thing, one never hears or sees of these things, then!” exclaimed Viner. “I never have!–and I’ve been on this planet thirty years.”

“That sort of thing hasn’t come your way, Richard,” remarked Miss Penkridge sententiously. “And you don’t read the popular Sunday newspapers. I do! They’re full of crime of all sorts. So’s the world. And as to mysteries–well, I’ve known of two or three in my time that were much more extraordinary than any I’ve ever read of in novels. I should think so!”

Viner dropped into his easy-chair and stretched his legs.

“Such as–what?” he asked.

“Well,” answered Miss Penkridge, regarding her knitting with appraising eyes, “there was a case that excited great interest when your poor mother and I were mere girls. It was in our town–young Quainton, the banker. He was about your age, married to a very pretty girl, and they’d a fine baby. He was immensely rich, a strong healthy young fellow, fond of life, popular, without a care in the world, so far as any one knew. One morning, after breakfasting with his wife, he walked away from his house, on the outskirts of the town–only a very small town, mind you–to go to the bank, as usual. He never reached the bank–in fact, he was never seen again, never heard of again. He’d only half a mile to walk, along a fairly frequented road, but–complete, absolute, final disappearance! And–never cleared up!”

“Odd!” agreed Viner. “Very odd, indeed. Well–any more?”

“Plenty!” said Miss Penkridge, with a click of her needles. “There was the case of poor young Lady Marshflower–as sweet a young thing as man could wish to see! Your mother and I saw her married–she was a Ravenstone, and only nineteen. She married Sir Thomas Marshflower, a man of forty. They’d only just come home from the honeymoon when it–happened. One morning Sir Thomas rode into the market-town to preside at the petty sessions–he hadn’t been long gone when a fine, distinguished-looking man called, and asked to see Lady Marshflower. He was shown into the morning-room–she went to him. Five minutes later a shot was heard. The servants rushed in–to find their young mistress shot through the heart, dead. But the murderer? Disappeared as completely as last year’s snow! That was never solved, never!”

“Do you mean to tell me the man was never caught?” exclaimed Viner.

“I tell you that not only was the man never caught, but that although Sir Thomas spent a fortune and nearly lost his senses in trying to find out who he was, what he wanted and what he had to do with Lady Marshflower, he never discovered one single fact!” affirmed Miss Penkridge. “There!”

“That’s queerer than the other,” observed Viner. “A veritable mystery!”

“Veritable mysteries!” said Miss Penkridge, with a sniff. “The world’s full of ‘em! How many murders go undetected–how many burglaries are never traced–how many forgeries are done and never found out? Piles of ‘em–as the police could tell you. And talking about forgeries, what about old Barrett, who was the great man at Pumpney, when your mother and I were girls there? That was a fine case of crime going on for years and years and years, undetected–aye, and not even suspected!”

“What was it?” asked Viner, who had begun by being amused and was now becoming interested. “Who was Barrett?”

“If you’d known Pumpney when we lived there,” replied Miss Penkridge, “you wouldn’t have had to ask twice who Mr. Samuel Barrett was. He was everybody. He was everything–except honest. But nobody knew that–until it was too late. He was a solicitor by profession, but that was a mere nothing–in comparison. He was chief spirit in the place. I don’t know how many times he wasn’t mayor of Pumpney. He held all sorts of offices. He was a big man at the parish church–vicar’s warden, and all that. And he was trustee for half the moneyed people in the town–everybody wanted Samuel Barrett, for trustee or executor; he was such a solid, respectable, square-toed man, the personification of integrity. And he died, suddenly, and then it was found that he’d led a double life, and had an establishment here in London, and was a gambler and a speculator, and Heaven knows what, and all the money that had been intrusted to him was nowhere, and he’d systematically forged, and cooked accounts, and embezzled corporation money–and he’d no doubt have gone on doing it for many a year longer if he hadn’t had a stroke of apoplexy. And that wasn’t in a novel!” concluded Miss Penkridge triumphantly. “Novels–Improbability–pooh! Judged by what some people can tell of life, the novel that’s improbable hasn’t yet been written!”

“Well!” remarked Viner after a pause, “I dare say you’re right, Aunt Bethia. Only, you see, I haven’t come across the things in life that you read about in novels.”

“You may yet,” replied Miss Penkridge. “But when anybody says to me of a novel that it’s impossible and far-fetched and so on, I’m always inclined to remind him of the old adage. For you can take it from me, Richard, that truth is stranger than fiction, and that life’s full of queer things. Only, as you say, we don’t all come across the strange things.”

The silvery chime of the clock on the mantelpiece caused Miss Penkridge, at this point, to bring her work and her words to a summary conclusion. Hurrying her knitting into the hand-bag which she carried at her belt, she rose, kissed her nephew and departed bedward; while Viner, after refilling his pipe, proceeded to carry out another nightly proceeding which had become a habit. Every night, throughout the year, he always went for a walk before going to bed. And now, getting into an overcoat and pulling a soft cap over his head, he let himself out of the house, and crossing the square, turned down a side-street and marched slowly in the direction of the Bayswater Road.

November though it was the night was fine and clear, and there was a half-moon in the heavens; also there was rather more than a suspicion of frost in the air, and the stars, accordingly, wore a more brilliant appearance. To one who loved night strolling, as Viner did, this was indeed an ideal night for the time of year; and on this occasion, therefore, he went further than usual going along Bayswater Road as far as Notting Hill Gate, and thence returning through the various streets and terraces which lay between Pembridge Gardens and Markendale Square. And while he strolled along, smoking his pipe, watching the twinkling lights of passing vehicles and enjoying the touch of frost, he was thinking, in a half-cynical, half-amused way, of his Aunt Bethia’s taste for the sensational fiction and of her evidently sincere conviction that there were much stranger things in real life than could be found between the covers of any novel.

“Those were certainly two very odd instances which she gave me,” he mused, “those of the prosperous banker and the pretty bride. In the first, how on earth did the man contrive to get away unobserved from a town in which, presumably, every soul knew him? Why did he go? Did he go? Is his body lying at the bottom of some hole by some roadside? Was he murdered in broad daylight on a public road? Did he lose his reason or his memory, and wander away and away? I think, as my aunt sagely remarked, that nobody is ever going to find anything about that affair! Then my Lady Marshflower–there’s a fine mystery! Who was the man? What did she know about him? Where had they met? Had they ever met? Why did he shoot her? How on earth did he contrive to disappear without leaving some trace? How–”

At this point Viner’s musings and questionings were suddenly and rudely interrupted. Unconsciously he had walked back close to his own Square, but on the opposite side to that by which he had left it, approaching it by one of the numerous long terraces which run out of the main road in the Westbourne Grove district–when his musings were rudely interrupted. Between this terrace and Markendale Square was a narrow passage, little frequented save by residents, or by such folk familiar enough with the neighbourhood to know that it afforded a shortcut. Viner was about to turn into this passage, a dark affair set between high walls, when a young man darted hurriedly out of it, half collided with him, uttered a hasty word of apology, ran across the road and disappeared round the nearest corner. But just there stood a street-lamp, and in its glare Viner caught sight of the hurrying young man’s face. And when the retreating footsteps had grown faint, Viner still stood staring in the direction in which they had gone.

“That’s strange!” he muttered. “I’ve seen that chap somewhere–I know him. Now, who is he? And what made him in such a deuce of a hurry?”

It was very quiet at that point. There seemed to be nobody about. Behind him, far down the long, wide terrace, he heard slow, measured steps–that, of course, was a policeman on his beat. But beyond the subdued murmur of the traffic in the Bayswater Road in one direction and in Bishop’s Road, Viner heard nothing but those measured steps. And after listening to them for a minute, he turned into the passage out of which the young man had just rushed so unceremoniously.

There was just one lamp in that passage–an old-fashioned affair, fixed against the wall, halfway down. It threw but little light on its surroundings. Those surroundings were ordinary enough. The passage itself was about thirty yards in length. It was inclosed on each-side by old brick walls, so old that the brick had grown black with age and smoke. These walls were some fifteen feet in height; here and there they were pierced by doors–the doors of the yards at the rear of the big houses on either side. The doors were set flush with the walls–Viner, who often walked through that passage at night, and who had something of a whimsical fancy, had thought more than once that after nightfall the doors looked as if they had never been opened, never shut. There was an air of queer, cloistral or prisonlike security in their very look. They were all shut now, as he paced down the passage, as lonely a place at that hour as you could find in all London. It was queer, he reflected, that he scarcely ever remembered meeting anybody in that passage.

And then he suddenly paused, pulling himself up with a strange consciousness that at last he was to meet something. Beneath the feeble light of the one lamp Viner saw a man. Not a man walking, or standing still, or leaning against the wall, but lying full length across the flagged pavement, motionless–so motionless that at the end of the first moment of surprise, Viner felt sure that he was in the presence of death. And then he stole nearer, listening, and looked down, and drawing his match-box from his pocket added the flash of a match to the poor rays from above. Then he saw white linen, and a bloodstain slowly spreading over its glossy surface.



Before the sputter of the match had died out, Viner had recognized the man who lay dead at his feet. He was a man about whom he had recently felt some curiosity, a man who, a few weeks before, had come to live in a house close to his own, in company with an elderly lady and a pretty girl; Viner and Miss Penkridge had often seen all three in and about Markendale Square, and had wondered who they were. The man looked as if he had seen things in life–a big, burly, bearded man of apparently sixty years of age, hard, bronzed; something about him suggested sun and wind as they are met with in the far-off places. Usually he was seen in loose, comfortable, semi-nautical suits of blue serge; there was a roll in his walk that suggested the sea. But here, as he lay before Viner, he was in evening dress, with a light overcoat thrown over it; the overcoat was unbuttoned and the shirt-front exposed. And on it that sickening crimson stain widened and widened as Viner watched.

Here, without doubt, was murder, and Viner’s thoughts immediately turned to two things–one the hurrying young man whose face he thought he had remembered in some vague fashion; the other the fact that a policeman was slowly pacing up the terrace close by. He turned and ran swiftly up the still deserted passage. And there was the policeman, twenty yards away, coming along with the leisureliness of one who knows that he has a certain area to patrol. He pulled himself to an attitude of watchful attention as Viner ran up to him; then suddenly recognizing Viner as a well-known inhabitant of the Square, touched the rim of his helmet.

“I say!” said Viner in the hushed voice of one who imparts strange and confidential tidings. “There’s a man lying dead in the passage round here. And without doubt murdered! There’s blood all over his shirt-front.”

The policeman stood stock still for the fraction of a second. Then he pulled out his whistle and blew loudly and insistently. Before the shrill call had died away, he was striding towards the passage, with Viner at his side.

“Did you find him, Mr. Viner?” he asked.

“I found him,” asserted Viner. “Just now–halfway down the passage!”

“Sure he’s dead, sir?”

“Dead–yes! And murdered, too! And–”

He was about to mention the hurrying young man, but they had just then arrived at the mouth of the passage, and the policeman once more drew out his whistle and blew more insistently than before.

“There’s my sergeant and inspector not far off,” he remarked. “Some of ‘em’ll be on the spot in a minute or two. Now then, sir.”

He marched down the passage to the dead man, glanced at the lamp, and turning on his own lantern, directed its light on the body.

“God bless me!” he muttered. “Mr. Ashton!”

“You know him?” said Viner.

“Gent that came to live at number seven in your square a while back, Mr. Viner,” answered the policeman. “Australian or New Zealander, I fancy. He’s gone right enough, sir! And–knifed! You didn’t see anybody about, sir?”

“Yes,” replied Viner, “that’s just it. As I turned into the passage, I met a young fellow running out of it in a great hurry–he ran into me, and then, shot off across the road, Westbourne Grove way. Then I came along and found–this!”

The policeman bent lower and suddenly put a knowing finger on certain of the dead man’s pockets.

“Robbed!” he said. “No watch there, anyway, and nothing where you’d expect to find his purse. Robbery and murder–murder for the sake of robbery–that’s what it is, Mr. Viner! Westbourne Grove way, you say this fellow went? And five minutes’ start!”

“Is it any good getting a doctor?” asked Viner.

“A thousand doctors’ll do him no good,” replied the policeman grimly. “But–there’s Dr. Cortelyon somewhere about here–number seven in the terrace. One of these back doors is his. We might call him.”

He turned the light of his lantern on the line of doors in the right-hand wall, and finding the number he wanted, pulled the bell. As its tinkle sounded somewhere up the yard behind, he thrust his whistle into Viner’s hand.

“Mr. Viner,” he said, “go up to the end of the passage and blow on that as loud as you can, three times. I’ll stand by here till you come back. If you don’t hear or see any of our people coming from either direction, blow again.”

Viner heard steps coming down the yard behind the door as he walked away. And he heard more steps, hurrying steps, as he reached the end of the passage. He turned it to find an inspector and a sergeant approaching from one part of the terrace, a constable from another.

“You’re wanted down here,” said Viner as they all converged on him. “There’s been murder! One of your men’s there–he gave me this whistle to summon further help. This way!”

The police followed him in silence down the passage. Another figure had come on the scene. Bending over the body and closely scrutinizing it in the light of the policeman’s lantern was a man whom Viner knew well enough by sight–a tall, handsome man, whose olive-tinted complexion, large lustrous eyes and Vandyke beard gave him the appearance of a foreigner. Yet though he had often seen him, Viner did not know his name; the police-inspector, however, evidently knew it well enough.

“What is it, Dr. Cortelyon?” he asked as he pushed himself to the front. “Is the man dead?”

Dr. Cortelyon drew himself up from his stooping position to his full height–a striking figure in his dress jacket and immaculate linen. He glanced round at the expectant faces.

“The man’s been murdered!” he said in calm, professional accents. “He’s been stabbed clean through the heart. Dead? Yes, for several minutes.”

“Who found him here?” demanded the inspector.

“I found him,” answered Viner. He gave a hurried account of the whole circumstances as he knew them, the police watching him keenly. “I should know the man again if I saw him,” he concluded. “I saw his face clearly enough as he passed me.”

The inspector bent down and hastily felt the dead man’s pockets.

“Nothing at all here,” he said as he straightened himself. “No watch or chain or purse or anything. Looks like robbery as well as murder. Does anybody know him?”

“I know who this gentlemen is, sir,” answered the policeman to whom Viner had first gone. “He’s a Mr. Ashton, who came to live not so long since at number seven in Markendale Square, close by Mr. Viner there. I’ve heard that he came from the Colonies.”

“Do you know him,” asked the inspector, turning to Viner.

“Only by sight,” answered Viner. “I’ve seen him often, but I didn’t know his name. I believe he has a wife and daughter–”

“No sir,” interrupted the policeman. “He was a single gentleman. The young lady at number seven is his ward, and the older lady looked after her–sort of a companion.”

The Inspector looked round. Other policemen, attracted by the whistle, were coming into the passage at each end, and he turned to his sergeant.

“Put a man at the top and another at the bottom of this passage,” he said. “Keep everybody out. Send for the divisional surgeon. Dr. Cortelyon, will you see him when he comes along? I want him to see the body before its removal. Now, then, about these ladies–they’ll have to be told.” He turned to Viner. “I understand you live close by them?” he asked. “Perhaps you’ll go there with me?”

Viner nodded; and the inspector, after giving a few more words of instruction to the sergeant, motioned him to follow; together they went down the passage into Markendale Square.

“Been resident here long, Mr. Viner?” asked the Inspector as they emerged. “I noticed that some of my men knew you. I’ve only recently come into this part myself.”

“Fifteen years,” answered Viner.

“Do you know anything of this dead man?”

“Nothing–not so much as your constable knows.”

“Policemen pick things up. These ladies, now? It’s a most unpleasant thing to have to go and break news like this. You know nothing about them, sir?”

“Not even as much as your man knew. I’ve seen them often–with him, the dead man. There’s an elderly lady and a younger one, a mere girl. I took them for his wife and daughter. But you heard what your man said.”

“Well, whatever they are, they’ve got to be told. I’d be obliged if you’d come with me. And then–that fellow you saw running away! You’ll have to give us as near a description of him as you can. What number did my man say it was–seven?”

Viner suddenly laid a hand on his companion’s sleeve. A smart car, of the sort let out on hire from the more pretentious automobile establishments, had just come round the corner and was being pulled up at the door of a house in whose porticoed front hung a brilliant lamp.

“That’s number seven,” said Viner. “And–those are the two ladies.”

The Inspector stopped and watched. The door of the house opened, letting a further flood of light on the broad step beneath the portico and on the pavement beyond; the door of the car opened too, and a girl stepped out, and for a second or two stood in the full glare of the lamps. She was a slender, lissome young creature, gowned in white, and muffled to the throat in an opera cloak out of which a fresh, girlish face, bright in colour, sparkling of eye, crowned by a mass of hair of the tint of dead gold, showed clearly ere she rapidly crossed to the open door. After her came an elderly, well-preserved woman in an elaborate evening toilette, the personification of the precise and conventional chaperon. The door closed; the car drove away; the Inspector turned to Viner with a shake of his head.

“Just home from the theatre!” he said. “And–to hear this! Well, it’s got to be done, Mr. Viner, anyhow.”

Viner, who had often observed the girl whom they had just seen with an interest for which he had never troubled to account, found himself wishing that Miss Penkridge was there in his place. He did not know what part he was to play, what he was to do or say; worse than that, he did not know if the girl in whose presence he would certainly find himself within a minute or two was very fond of the man whom he had just found done to death. In that case–but here his musings were cut short by the fact that the Inspector had touched the bell in the portico of number seven, and that the door had opened, to reveal a smart and wondering parlour-maid, who glanced with surprise at the inspector’s uniform.

“Hush! This is Mr. Ashton’s?” said the Inspector. “Yes–well, now, what is the name of the lady–the elderly lady–I saw come in just now? Keep quiet, there’s a good girl,–the fact is, Mr. Ashton’s had an accident, and I want to see that lady.”

“Mrs. Killenhall,” answered the parlour-maid.

“And the young lady–her name?” asked the Inspector.

“Miss Wickham.”

The Inspector walked inside the house.

“Just ask Mrs. Killenhall and Miss Wickham if they’ll be good enough to see Inspector Drillford for a few minutes,” he said. Then, as the girl closed the door and turned away up the inner hall, he whispered to Viner. “Better see both and be done with it. It’s no use keeping bad news too long; they may as well know–both.”

The parlour-maid reappeared at the door of a room along the hall; and the two men, advancing in answer to her summons, entered what was evidently the dining-room of the house. The two ladies had thrown off their wraps; the younger one sat near a big, cheery fire, holding her slender fingers to the blaze; the elder stood facing the door in evident expectancy. The room itself was luxuriously furnished in a somewhat old-fashioned, heavy style; everything about it betokened wealth and comfort. And that its owner was expected home every minute was made evident to the two men by the fact that a spirit-case was set on the centre table, with glasses and mineral waters and cigars; Viner remembered, as his eyes encountered these things, that a half-burned cigar lay close to the dead man’s hand in that dark passage so close by.

“Mrs. Killenhall? Miss Wickham?” began Drillford, looking sharply from one to the other. “Sorry to break in on you like this, ladies, but the fact is, there has been an accident to Mr. Ashton, and I’m obliged to come and tell you about it.”

Viner, who had remained a little in the background, was watching the faces of the two to whom this initial breaking of news was made. And he saw at once that there was going to be no scene. The girl by the fire looked for an instant at the inspector with an expression of surprise, but it was not the surprise of great personal concern. As for the elder woman, after one quick glance from Drillford to Viner, whom she evidently recognized, she showed absolute self-possession.

“A bad accident?” she asked.

Drillford again looked from the elder to the younger lady.

“You’ll excuse me if I ask what relation you ladies are to Mr. Ashton?” he said with a significant glance at Mrs. Killenhall.

“None!” replied Mrs. Killenhall. “Miss Wickham is Mr. Ashton’s ward. I am Miss Wickham’s chaperon–and companion.”

“Well, ma’am,” said Drillford, “then I may tell you that my news is–just about as serious as it possibly could be, you understand.”

In the silence that followed, the girl turned toward the visitors, and Viner saw her colour change a little. And it was she who first spoke.

“Don’t be afraid to tell us,” she said. “Is Mr. Ashton dead?”

Drillford inclined his head, and spoke as he was bidden.

“I’m sorry to say he is,” he replied. “And still more to be obliged to tell you that he came to his death by violence. The truth is–”

He paused, looking from one to the other, as if to gauge the effect of his words. And again it was the girl who spoke.

“What is the truth?” she asked.

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