The Middle Temple Murder/Chapter 23
Next day, a little before noon, Sparge found himself in one of those pretentious yet dismal Bayswater squares, which are almost entirely given up to the trade, calling, or occupation of the lodging and boarding-house keeper. They are very pretentious, those squares, with their many-storied houses, their stuccoed frontages, and their pilastered and balconied doorways; innocent country folk, coming into them from the neighbouring station of Paddington, take them to be the residences of the dukes and earls who, of course, live nowhere else but in London. They are further encouraged in this belief by the fact that young male persons in evening dress are often seen at the doorways in more or less elegant attitudes. These, of course, are taken by the country folk to be young lords enjoying the air of Bayswater, but others, more knowing, are aware that they are Swiss or German waiters whose linen might be cleaner.
Spargo gauged the character of the house at which he called as soon as the door was opened to him. There was the usual smell of eggs and bacon, of fish and chops; the usual mixed and ancient collection of overcoats, wraps, and sticks in the hall; the usual sort of parlourmaid to answer the bell. And presently, in answer to his enquiries, there was the usual type of landlady confronting him, a more than middle-aged person who desired to look younger, and made attempts in the way of false hair, teeth, and a little rouge, and who wore that somewhat air and smile which in its wearer—under these circumstances—always means that she is considering whether you will be able to cheat her or whether she will be able to see you.
"You wish to see Miss Baylis?" said this person, examining Spargo closely. "Miss Baylis does not often see anybody."
"I hope," said Spargo politely, "that Miss Baylis is not an invalid?"
"No, she's not an invalid," replied the landlady; "but she's not as young as she was, and she's an objection to strangers. Is it anything I can tell her?"
"No," said Spargo. "But you can, if you please, take her a message from me. Will you kindly give her my card, and tell her that I wish to ask her a question about John Maitland of Market Milcaster, and that I should be much obliged if she would give me a few minutes."
"Perhaps you will sit down," said the landlady. She led Spargo into a room which opened out upon a garden; in it two or three old ladies, evidently inmates, were sitting. The landlady left Spargo to sit with them and to amuse himself by watching them knit or sew or read the papers, and he wondered if they always did these things every day, and if they would go on doing them until a day would come when they would do them no more, and he was beginning to feel very dreary when the door opened and a woman entered whom Spargo, after one sharp glance at her, decided to be a person who was undoubtedly out of the common. And as she slowly walked across the room towards him he let his first glance lengthen into a look of steady inspection.
The woman whom Spargo thus narrowly inspected was of very remarkable appearance. She was almost masculine; she stood nearly six feet in height; she was of a masculine gait and tread, and spare, muscular, and athletic. What at once struck Spargo about her face was the strange contrast between her dark eyes and her white hair; the hair, worn in abundant coils round a well-shaped head, was of the most snowy whiteness; the eyes of a real coal-blackness, as were also the eyebrows above them. The features were well-cut and of a striking firmness; the jaw square and determined. And Spargo's first thought on taking all this in was that Miss Baylis seemed to have been fitted by Nature to be a prison wardress, or the matron of a hospital, or the governess of an unruly girl, and he began to wonder if he would ever manage to extract anything out of those firmly-locked lips.
Miss Baylis, on her part, looked Spargo over as if she was half-minded to order him to instant execution. And Spargo was so impressed by her that he made a profound bow and found a difficulty in finding his tongue.
"Mr. Spargo?" she said in a deep voice which seemed peculiarly suited to her. "Of, I see, the Watchman? You wish to speak to me?"
Spargo again bowed in silence. She signed him to the window near which they were standing.
"Open the casement, if you please," she commanded him. "We will walk in the garden. This is not private."
Spargo obediently obeyed her orders; she swept through the opened window and he followed her. It was not until they had reached the bottom of the garden that she spoke again.
"I understand that you desire to ask me some question about John Maitland, of Market Milcaster?" she said. "Before you put it, I must ask you a question. Do you wish any reply I may give you for publication?"
"Not without your permission," replied Spargo. "I should not think of publishing anything you may tell me except with your express permission. "
She looked at him gloomily, seemed to gather an impression of his good faith, and nodded her head.
"In that case," she said, "what do you want to ask?"
"I have lately had reason for making certain enquiries about John Maitland," answered Spargo. "I suppose you read the newspapers and possibly the Watchman, Miss Baylis?"
But Miss Baylis shook her head.
"I read no newspapers," she said. "I have no interest in the affairs of the world. I have work which occupies all my time: I give my whole devotion to it."
"Then you have not recently heard of what is known as the Marbury case—a case of a man who was found murdered?" asked Spargo.
"I have not," she answered. "I am not likely to hear such things."
Spargo suddenly realized that the power of the Press is not quite as great nor as far-reaching as very young journalists hold it to be, and that there actually are, even in London, people who can live quite cheerfully without a newspaper. He concealed his astonishment and went on.
"Well," he said, "I believe that the murdered man, known to the police as John Marbury, was, in reality, your brother-in-law, John Maitland. In fact. Miss Baylis, I'm absolutely certain of it!"
He made this declaration with some emphasis, and looked at his stern companion to see how she was impressed. But Miss Baylis showed no sign of being impressed.
"I can quite believe that, Mr. Spargo," she said coldly. "It is no surprise to me that John Maitland should come to such an end. He was a thoroughly bad and unprincipled man, who brought the most terrible disgrace on those who were, unfortunately, connected with him. He was likely to die a bad man's death."
"I may ask you a few questions about him?" suggested Spargo in his most insinuating manner.
"You may, so long as you do not drag my name into the papers," she replied. "But pray, how do you know that I have the sad shame of being John Maitland's sister-in-law?"
"I found that out at Market Milcaster," said Spargo. "The photographer told me—Cooper."
"Ah!" she exclaimed.
"The questions I want to ask are very simple," said Spargo. "But your answers may materially help me. You remember Maitland going to prison, of course?"
Miss Baylis laughed—a laugh of scorn.
"Could I ever forget it?" she exclaimed.
"Did you ever visit him in prison?" asked Spargo.
"Visit him in prison!" she said indignantly. "Visits in prison are to be paid to those who deserve them, who are repentant; not to scoundrels who are hardened in their sin!"
"All right. Did you ever see him after he left prison?"
"I saw him, for he forced himself upon me—I could not help myself. He was in my presence before I was aware that he had even been released."
"What did he come for?" asked Spargo.
"To ask for his son—who had been in my charge," she replied.
"That's a thing I want to know about," said Spargo. "Do you know what a certain lot of people in Market Milcaster say to this day. Miss Baylis?—they say that you were in at the game with Maitland; that you had a lot of the money placed in your charge; that when Maitland went to prison, you took the child away, first to Brighton, then abroad—disappeared with him—and that you made a home ready for Maitland when he came out. That's what's said by some people in Market Milcaster."
Miss Baylis's stern lips curled.
"People in Market Milcaster!" she exclaimed. "All the people I ever knew in Market Milcaster had about as many brains between them as that cat on the wall there. As for making a home for John Maitland, I would have seen him die in the gutter, of absolute want, before I would have given him a crust of dry bread!"
"You appear to have a terrible dislike of this man," observed Spargo, astonished at her vehemence.
"I had—and I have," she answered. "He tricked my sister into a marriage with him when he knew that she would rather have married an honest man who worshipped her; he treated her with quiet, infernal cruelty; he robbed her and me of the small fortunes our father left us."
"Ah!" said Spargo. "Well, so you say Maitland came to you, when he came out of prison, to ask for his boy. Did he take the boy?"
"No—the boy was dead."
"Dead, eh? Then I suppose Maitland did not stop long with you?"
Miss Baylis laughed her scornful laugh.
"I showed him the door!" she said.
"Well, did he tell you that he was going to Australia?" enquired Spargo.
"I should not have listened to anything that he told me, Mr. Spargo," she answered.
"Then, in short," said Spargo, "you never heard of him again?"
"I never heard of him again," she declared passionately, "and I only hope that what you tell me is true, and that Marbury really was Maitland!"