The Middle of Things

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Distributed Proofreading Team.

THE MIDDLE OF THINGS

BY J.S. FLETCHER

1922

CONTENTS

CHAPTER

I FACED WITH REALITY

II NUMBER SEVEN IN THE SQUARE
III WHO WAS ASHTON?
IV THE RING AND THE KNIFE
V LOOK FOR THAT MAN!
VI SPECULATIONS
VII WHAT WAS THE SECRET?
VIII NEWS FROM ARCADIA
IX LOOKING BACKWARD
X THE PARISH REGISTER
XI WHAT HAPPENED IN PARIS
XII THE GREY MARE INN
XIII THE JAPANESE CABINET
XIV THE ELLINGHAM MOTTO
XV THE PRESENT HOLDER
XVI THE OUTHOUSE
XVII THE CLAIMANT
XVIII LET HIM APPEAR!
XIX UNDER EXAMINATION
XX SURPRISING READINESS
XXI THE MARSEILLES MEETING
XXII ON REMAND
XXIII IS THIS MAN RIGHT?
XXIV THE BROKEN LETTER
XXV THROUGH THE TELEPHONE
XXVI THE DISMAL STREET
XXVII THE BACK WAY
XXVIII THE TRUTH
XXIX WHO IS TO TELL HER?

CHAPTER I

FACED WITH REALITY

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

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