The Middle Temple Murder/Chapter 25
Spargo turned on his disreputable and dissolute companion with all his journalistic energies and instincts roused. He had not been sure, since entering the "King of Madagascar," that he was going to hear anything material to the Middle Temple Murder; he had more than once feared that this old gin-drinking harridan was deceiving him, for the purpose of extracting drink and money from him. But now, at the mere prospect of getting important information from her, he forgot all about Mother Gutch's unfortunate propensities, evil eyes, and sodden face; he only saw in her somebody who could tell him something. He turned on her eagerly.
"You say that John Maitland's son didn't die!" he exclaimed.
"The boy did not die," replied Mother Gutch.
"And that you know where he is?" asked Spargo.
Mother Gutch shook her head.
"I didn't say that I know where he is, young man," she replied. "I said I knew what she did with him."
"What, then?" demanded Spargo.
Mother Gutch drew herself up in a vast assumption of dignity, and favoured Spargo with a look.
"That's the secret, young man," she said. "I'm willing to sell that secret, but not for two half-sovereigns and two or three drops of cold gin. If Maitland left all that money you told Jane Baylis of, when I was listening to you from behind the hedge, my secret's worth something."
Spargo suddenly remembered his bit of bluff to Miss Baylis. Here was an unexpected result of it.
"Nobody but me can help you to trace Maitland's boy," continued Mother Gutch, "and I shall expect to be paid accordingly. That's plain language, young man."
Spargo considered the situation in silence for a minute or two. Could this wretched, bibulous old woman really be in possession of a secret which would lead to the solving of the mystery of the Middle Temple Murder? Well, it would be a fine thing for the Watchman if the clearing up of everything came through one of its men. And the Watchman was noted for being generous even to extravagance in laying out money on all sorts of objects: it had spent money like water on much less serious matters than this.
"How much do you want for your secret?" he suddenly asked, turning to his companion.
Mother Gutch began to smooth out a pleat in her gown. It was really wonderful to Spargo to find how very sober and normal this old harridan had become; he did not understand that her nerves had been all a-quiver and on edge when he first met her, and that a resort to her favourite form of alcohol in liberal quantity had calmed and quickened them; secretly he was regarding her with astonishment as the most extraordinary old person he had ever met, and he was almost afraid of her as he waited for her decision. At last Mother Gutch spoke.
"Well, young man," she said, "having considered matters, and having a right to look well to myself, I think that what I should prefer to have would be one of those annuities. A nice, comfortable annuity, paid weekly—none of your monthlies or quarterlies, but regular and punctual, every Saturday morning. Or Monday morning, as was convenient to the parties concerned—but punctual and regular. I know a good many ladies in my sphere of life as enjoys annuities, and it's a great comfort to have 'em paid weekly."
It occurred to Spargo that Mrs. Gutch would probably get rid of her weekly dole on the day it was paid, whether that day happened to be Monday or Saturday, but that, after all, was no concern of his, so he came back to first principles.
"Even now you haven't said how much," he remarked.
"Three pound a week," replied Mother Gutch. "And cheap, too!"
Spargo thought hard for two minutes. The secret might—might!—lead to something big. This wretched old woman would probably drink herself to death within a year or two. Anyhow, a few hundreds of pounds was nothing to the Watchman. He glanced at his watch. At that hour—for the next hour—the great man of the Watchman would be at the office. He jumped to his feet, suddenly resolved and alert.
"Here, I'll take you to see my principals," he said. "We'll run along in a taxi-cab."
"With all the pleasure in the world, young man," replied Mother Gutch; "when you've given me that other half-sovereign. As for principals, I'd far rather talk business with masters than with men—though I mean no disrespect to you."
Spargo, feeling that he was in for it, handed over the second half-sovereign, and busied himself in ordering a taxi-cab. But when that came round he had to wait while Mrs. Gutch consumed a third glass of gin and purchased a flask of the same beverage to put in her pocket. At last he got her off, and in due course to the Watchman office, where the hall-porter and the messenger boys stared at her in amazement, well used as they were to seeing strange. folk, and he got her to his own room, and locked her in, and then he sought the presence of the mighty.
What Spargo said to his editor and to the great man who controlled the fortunes and workings of the Watchman he never knew. It was probably fortunate for him that they were both thoroughly conversant with the facts of the Middle Temple Murder, and saw that there might be an advantage in securing the revelations of which Spargo had got the conditional promise. At any rate, they accompanied Spargo to his room, intent on seeing, hearing and bargaining with the lady he had locked up there.
Spargo's room smelt heavily of unsweetened gin, but Mother Gutch was soberer than ever. She insisted upon being introduced to proprietor and editor in due and proper form, and in discussing terms with them before going into any further particulars. The editor was all for temporizing with her until something could be done to find out what likelihood of truth there was in her, but the proprietor, after sizing her up in his own shrewd fashion, took his two companions out of the room.
"We'll hear what the old woman has to say on her own terms," he said. "She may have something to tell that is really of the greatest importance in this case: she certainly has something to tell. And, as Spargo says, she'll probably drink herself to death in about as short a time as possible. Come back—let's hear her story." So they returned to the gin-scented atmosphere, and a formal document was drawn out by which the proprietor of the Watchman bound himself to pay Mrs. Gutch the sum of three pounds a week for life (Mrs. Gutch insisting on the insertion of the words "every Saturday morning, punctual and regular") and then Mrs. Gutch was invited to tell her tale. And Mrs. Gutch settled herself to do so, and Spargo prepared to take it down, word for word.
"Which the story, as that young man called it, is not so long as a monkey's tail nor so short as a Manx cat's, gentlemen," said Mrs. Gutch; "but full of meat as an egg. Now, you see, when that Maitland affair at Market Milcaster came off, I was housekeeper to Miss Jane Baylis at Brighton. She kept a boarding-house there, in Kemp Town, and close to the sea-front, and a very good thing she made out of it, and had saved a nice bit, and having, like her sister, Mrs. Maitland, had a little fortune left her by her father, as was at one time a publican here in London, she had a good lump of money. And all that money was in this here Maitland's hands, every penny. I very well remember the day when the news came about that affair of Maitland robbing the bank. Miss Baylis, she was like a mad thing when she saw it in the paper, and before she'd seen it an hour she was off to Market Milcaster. I went up to the station with her, and she told me then before she got in the train that Maitland had all her fortune and her savings, and her sister's, his wife's, too, and that she feared all would be lost."
"Mrs. Maitland was then dead," observed Spargo without looking up from his writing-block.
"She was, young man, and a good thing, too," continued Mrs. Gutch. "Well, away went Miss Baylis, and no more did I hear or see for nearly a week, and then back she comes, and brings a little boy with her—which was Maitland's. And she told me that night that she'd lost every penny she had in the world, and that her sister's money, what ought to have been the child's, was gone, too, and she said her say about Maitland. However, she saw well to that child; nobody could have seen better. And very soon after, when Maitland was sent to prison for ten years, her and me talked about things. 'What's the use,' says I to her, 'of your letting yourself get so fond of that child, and looking after it as you do, and educating it, and so on?' I says. 'Why not?' says she. ''Tisn't yours,' I says, 'you haven't no right to it,' I says. 'As soon as ever its father comes out,' says I, 'he'll come and claim it, and you can't do nothing to stop him.' Well, gentlemen, if you'll believe me, never did I see a woman look as she did when I says all that. And she up and swore that Maitland should never see or touch the child again—not under no circumstances whatever."
Mrs. Gutch paused to take a little refreshment from her pocket-flask, with an apologetic remark as to the state of her heart. She resumed, presently, apparently refreshed.
"Well, gentlemen, that notion, about Maitland's taking the child away from her seemed to get on her mind, and she used to talk to me at times about it, always saying the same thing—that Maitland should never have him. And one day she told me she was going to London to see lawyers about it, and she went, and she came back, seeming more satisfied, and a day or two afterwards, there came a gentleman who looked like a lawyer, and he stopped a day or two, and he came again and again, until one day she came to me, and she says, 'You don't know who that gentleman is that's come so much lately?' she says. 'Not I,' I says, 'unless he's after you.' 'After me!' she says, tossing her head: 'That's the gentleman that ought to have married my poor sister if that scoundrel Maitland hadn't tricked her into throwing him over!' 'You don't say so!' I says. 'Then by rights he ought to have been the child's pa!' 'He's going to be a father to the boy,' she says. 'He's going to take him and educate him in the highest fashion, and make a gentleman of him,' she says, 'for his mother's sake.' 'Mercy on us!' says I. 'What'll Maitland say when he comes for him?' 'Maitland'll never come for him,' she says, 'for I'm going to leave here, and the boy'll be gone before then. This is all being done,' she says, 'so that the child'll never know his father's shame—he'll never know who his father was.' And true enough, the boy was taken away, but Maitland came before she'd gone, and she told him the child was dead, and I never see a man so cut up. However, it wasn't no concern of mine. And so there's so much of the secret, gentlemen, and I would like to know if I ain't giving good value."
"Very good," said the proprietor. "Go on." But Spargo intervened.
"Did you ever hear the name of the gentleman who took the boy away?" he asked.
"Yes, I did," replied Mrs. Gutch. "Of course I did. Which it was Elphick."