The Middle Temple Murder/Chapter 16

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Spargo, changing his clothes, washing away the dust of his journey, in that old-fashioned lavender-scented bedroom, busied his mind in further speculations on his plan of campaign in Market Milcaster. He had no particularly clear plan. The one thing he was certain of was that in the old leather box which the man whom he knew as John Marbury had deposited with the London and Universal Safe Deposit Company, he and Rathbury had discovered one of the old silver tickets of Market Milcaster racecourse, and that he, Spargo, had come to Market Milcaster, with the full approval of his editor, in an endeavour to trace it. How was he going to set about this difficult task?

"The first thing," said Spargo to himself as he tied a new tie, "is to have a look round. That'll be no long job."

For he had already seen as he approached the town, and as he drove from the station to the "Yellow Dragon" Hotel, that Market Milcaster was a very small place. It chiefly consisted of one long, wide thoroughfare—the High Street—with smaller streets leading from it on either side. In the High Street seemed to be everything that the town could show—the ancient parish church, the town hall, the market cross, the principal houses and shops, the bridge, beneath which ran the river whereon ships had once come up to the town before its mouth, four miles away, became impassably silted up. It was a bright, clean, little town, but there were few signs of trade in it, and Spargo had been quick to notice that in the "Yellow Dragon," a big, rambling old hostelry, reminiscent of the old coaching days, there seemed to be little doing. He had eaten a bit of lunch in the coffee-room immediately on his arrival; the coffee-room was big enough to accommodate a hundred and fifty people, but beyond himself, an old gentleman and his daughter, evidently tourists, two young men talking golf, a man who looked like an artist, and an unmistakable honeymooning couple, there was no one in it. There was little traffic in the wide street beneath Spargo's windows; little passage of people to and fro on the sidewalks; here a countryman drove a lazy cow as lazily along; there a farmer in his light cart sat idly chatting with an aproned tradesman, who had come out of his shop to talk to him. Over everything lay the quiet of the sunlight of the summer afternoon, and through the open windows stole a faint, sweet scent of the new-mown hay lying in the meadows outside the old houses.

"A veritable Sleepy Hollow," mused Spargo. "Let's go down and see if there's anybody to talk to. Great Scott!—to think that I was in the poisonous atmosphere of the Octoneumenoi only sixteen hours ago!"

Spargo, after losing himself in various corridors and passages, finally landed in the wide, stone-paved hall of the old hotel, and with a sure instinct turned into the bar-parlour which he had noticed when he entered the place. This was a roomy, comfortable, bow-windowed apartment, looking out upon the High Street, and was furnished and ornamented with the usual appurtenances of country-town hotels. There were old chairs and tables and sideboards and cupboards, which had certainly been made a century before, and seemed likely to endure for a century or two longer; there were old prints of the road and the chase, and an old oil-painting or two of red-faced gentlemen in pink coats; there were foxes' masks on the wall, and a monster pike in a glass case on a side-table; there were ancient candlesticks on the mantelpiece and an antique snuff-box set between them. Also there was a small, old-fashioned bar in a corner of the room, and a new-fashioned young woman seated behind it, who was yawning over a piece of fancy needle-work, and looked at Spargo when he entered as Andromeda may have looked at Perseus when he made arrival at her rock. And Spargo, treating himself to a suitable drink and choosing a cigar to accompany it, noted the look, and dropped into the nearest chair.

"This," he remarked, eyeing the damsel with enquiry, "appears to me to be a very quiet place."

"Quiet!" exclaimed the lady. "Quiet?"

"That," continued Spargo, "is precisely what I observed. Quiet. I see that you agree with me. You expressed your agreement with two shades of emphasis, the surprised and the scornful. We may conclude, thus far, that the place is undoubtedly quiet."

The damsel looked at Spargo as if she considered him in the light of a new specimen, and picking up her needlework she quitted the bar and coming out into the room took a chair near his own.

"It makes you thankful to see a funeral go by here," she remarked. "It's about all that one ever does see."

"Are there many?" asked Spargo. "Do the inhabitants die much of inanition?"

The damsel gave Spargo another critical inspection.

"Oh, you're joking!" she said. "It's well you can. Nothing ever happens here. This place is a back number."

"Even the back numbers make pleasant reading at times," murmured Spargo. "And the backwaters of life are refreshing. Nothing doing in this town, then?" he added in a louder voice.

"Nothing!" replied his companion. "It's fast asleep. I came here from Birmingham, and I didn't know what I was coming to. In Birmingham you see as many people in ten minutes as you see here in ten months."

"Ah!" said Spargo. "What you are suffering from is dulness. You must have an antidote."

"Dulness!" exclaimed the damsel. "That's the right word for Market Milcaster. There's just a few regular old customers drop in here of a morning, between eleven and one. A stray caller looks in—perhaps—during the afternoon. Then, at night, a lot of old fogies sit round that end of the room and talk about old times. Old times, indeed!—what they want in Market Milcaster is new times."

Spargo pricked up his ears.

"Well, but it's rather interesting to hear old fogies talk about old times," he said. "I love it!"

"Then you can get as much of it as ever you want here," remarked the barmaid. "Look in tonight any time after eight o'clock, and if you don't know more about the history of Market Milcaster by ten than you did when you sat down, you must be deaf. There are some old gentlemen drop in here every night, regular as clockwork, who seem to feel that they couldn't go to bed unless they've told each other stories about old days which I should think they've heard a thousand times already!"

"Very old men?" asked Spargo.

"Methuselahs," replied the lady. "There's old Mr. Quarterpage, across the way there, the auctioneer, though he doesn't do any business now—they say he's ninety, though I'm sure you wouldn't take him for more than seventy. And there's Mr. Lummis, further down the street—he's eighty-one. And Mr. Skene, and Mr. Kaye—they're regular patriarchs. I've sat here and listened to them till I believe I could write a history of Market Milcaster since the year One."

"I can conceive of that as a pleasant and profitable occupation," said Spargo.

He chatted a while longer in a fashion calculated to cheer the barmaid's spirits, after which he went out and strolled around the town until seven o'clock, the "Dragon's" hour for dinner. There were no more people in the big coffee-room than there had been at lunch and Spargo was glad, when his solitary meal was over, to escape to the bar-parlour, where he took his coffee in a corner near to that sacred part in which the old townsmen had been reported to him to sit.

"And mind you don't sit in one of their chairs," said the barmaid, warningly. "They all have their own special chairs and their special pipes there on that rack, and I suppose the ceiling would fall in if anybody touched pipe or chair. But you're all right there, and you'll hear all they've got to say."

To Spargo, who had never seen anything of the sort before, and who, twenty-four hours previously, would have believed the thing impossible, the proceedings of that evening in the bar-parlour of the "Yellow Dragon" at Market Milcaster were like a sudden transference to the eighteenth century. Precisely as the clock struck eight and a bell began to toll somewhere in the recesses of the High Street, an old gentleman walked in, and the barmaid, catching Spargo's eye, gave him a glance which showed that the play was about to begin.

"Good evening, Mr. Kaye," said the barmaid. "You're first tonight. "

"Evening," said Mr. Kaye and took a seat, scowled around him, and became silent. He was a tall, lank old gentleman, clad in rusty black clothes, with a pointed collar sticking up on both sides of his fringe of grey whisker and a voluminous black neckcloth folded several times round his neck, and by the expression of his countenance was inclined to look on life severely. "Nobody been in yet?" asked Mr. Kaye.

"No, but here's Mr. Lummis and Mr. Skene," replied the barmaid.

Two more old gentlemen entered the bar-parlour. Of these, one was a little, dapper-figured man, clad in clothes of an eminently sporting cut, and of very loud pattern; he sported a bright blue necktie, a flower in his lapel, and a tall white hat, which he wore at a rakish angle. The other was a big, portly, bearded man with a Falstaffian swagger and a rakish eye, who chaffed the barmaid as he entered, and gave her a good-humoured chuck under the chin as he passed her. These two also sank into chairs which seemed to have been specially designed to meet them, and the stout man slapped the arms of his as familiarly as he had greeted the barmaid. He looked at his two cronies.

"Well?" he said. "Here's three of us. And there's a symposium."

"Wait a bit, wait a bit," said the dapper little man. "Grandpa'll be here in a minute. We'll start fair."

The barmaid glanced out of the window.

"There's Mr. Quarterpage coming across the street now," she announced. "Shall I put the things on the table?"

"Aye, put them on, my dear, put them on!" commanded the fat man. "Have all in readiness."

The barmaid thereupon placed a round table before the sacred chairs, set out upon it a fine old punch-bowl and the various ingredients for making punch, a box of cigars, and an old leaden tobacco-box, and she had just completed this interesting prelude to the evening's discourse when the door opened again and in walked one of the most remarkable old men Spargo had ever seen. And by this time, knowing that this was the venerable Mr. Benjamin Quarterpage, of whom Crowfoot had told him, he took good stock of the newcomer as he took his place amongst his friends, who on their part received him with ebullitions of delight which were positively boyish.

Mr. Quarterpage was a youthful buck of ninety—a middle-sized, sturdily-built man, straight as a dart, still active of limb, clear-eyed, and strong of voice. His clean-shaven old countenance was ruddy as a sunwarmed pippin; his hair was still only silvered; his hand was steady as a rock. His clothes of buff-coloured whipcord were smart and jaunty, his neckerchief as gay as if he had been going to a fair. It seemed to Spargo that Mr. Quarterpage had a pretty long lease of life before him even at his age.

Spargo, in his corner, sat fascinated while the old gentlemen began their symposium. Another, making five, came in and joined them—the five had the end of the bar-parlour to themselves. Mr. Quarterpage made the punch with all due solemnity and ceremony; when it was ladled out each man lighted his pipe or took a cigar, and the tongues began to wag. Other folk came and went; the old gentlemen were oblivious of anything but their own talk. Now and then a young gentleman of the town dropped in to take his modest half-pint of bitter beer and to dally in the presence of the barmaid; such looked with awe at the patriarchs: as for the patriarchs themselves they were lost in the past.

Spargo began to understand what the damsel behind the bar meant when she said that she believed she could write a history of Market Milcaster since the year One. After discussing the weather, the local events of the day, and various personal matters, the old fellows got to reminiscences of the past, telling tale after tale, recalling incident upon incident of long years before. At last they turned to memories of racing days at Market Milcaster. And at that Spargo determined on a bold stroke. Now was the time to get some information. Taking the silver ticket from his purse, he laid it, the heraldic device uppermost, on the palm of his hand, and approaching the group with a polite bow, said quietly:

"Gentlemen, can any of you tell me anything about that?"