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Dead Men's Money(Chapter26)

2006-08-28 23:39

  Chapter XXVI. Mrs. Ralston of Craig

  Mr. Lindsey made no remark on this answer, and for a minute or two he and Mr. Portlethorpe sat looking at each other. Then Mr. Portlethorpe bent forward a little, his hands on his knees, and gave Mr. Lindsey a sort of quizzical but earnest glance.

  "Now, why do you ask that last question?" he said quietly. "You've some object?"

  "It's like this," answered Mr. Lindsey. "Here's a man comes into these parts to take up a title and estates, who certainly had been out of them for thirty years. His recent conduct is something more than suspicious——no one can deny that he left my clerk there to drown, without possibility of help! That's intended murder! And so I ask, What do you, his solicitor, know of him——his character, his doings during the thirty years he was away? And you answer——nothing!"

  "Just so!" assented Mr. Portlethorpe. "And nobody does hereabouts. Except that he is Sir Gilbert Carstairs, nobody in these parts knows anything about him——how should they? We, I suppose, know more than anybody——and we know just a few bare facts."

  "I think you'll have to let me know what these bare facts are," remarked Mr. Lindsey. "And Moneylaws, too. Moneylaws has a definite charge to bring against this man——and he'll bring it, if I've anything to do with it! He shall press it!——if he can find Carstairs. And I think you'd better tell us what you know, Portlethorpe. Things have got to come out."

  "I've no objection to telling you and Mr. Moneylaws what we know," answered Mr. Portlethorpe. "After all, it is, in a way, common knowledge——to some people, at any rate. And to begin with, you are probably aware that the recent history of this Carstairs family is a queer one. You know that old Sir Alexander had two sons and one daughter——the daughter being very much younger than her brothers. When the two sons, Michael and Gilbert, were about from twenty-one to twenty-three, both quarrelled with their father, and cleared out of this neighbourhood altogether; it's always believed that Sir Alexander gave Michael a fair lot of money to go and do for himself, each hating the other's society, and that Michael went off to America. As to Gilbert, he got money at that time, too, and went south, and was understood to be first a medical student and then a doctor, in London and abroad. There is no doubt at all that both sons did get money——considerable amounts,——because from the time they went away, no allowance was ever paid to them, nor did Sir Alexander ever have any relations with them. What the cause of the quarrel was, nobody knows; but the quarrel itself, and the ensuing separation, were final——father and sons never resumed relations. And when the daughter, now Mrs. Ralston of Craig, near here, grew up and married, old Sir Alexander pursued a similar money policy towards her——he presented her with thirty thousand pounds the day she was married, and told her she'd never have another penny from him. I tell you, he was a queer man."

  "Queer lot altogether!" muttered Mr. Lindsey. "And interesting!"

  "Oh, it's interesting enough!" agreed Mr. Portlethorpe, with a chuckle. "Deeply so. Well, that's how things were until about a year before old Sir Alexander died——which, as you know, is fourteen months since. As I say, about six years before his death, formal notice came of the death of Michael Carstairs, who, of course, was next in succession to the title. It came from a solicitor in Havana, where Michael had died——there were all the formal proofs. He had died unmarried and intestate, and his estate amounted to about a thousand pounds. Sir Alexander put the affair in our hands; and of course, as he was next-of-kin to his eldest son, what there was came to him. And we then pointed out to him that now that Mr. Michael Carstairs was dead, Mr. Gilbert came next——he would get the title, in any case——and we earnestly pressed Sir Alexander to make a will. And he was always going to, and he never did——and he died intestate, as you know. And at that, of course, Sir Gilbert Carstairs came forward, and——"

  "A moment," interrupted Mr. Lindsey. "Did anybody know where he was at the time of his father's death?"

  "Nobody hereabouts, at any rate," replied Mr. Portlethorpe. "Neither his father, nor his sister, nor ourselves had heard of him for many a long year. But he called on us within twenty-four hours of his father's death."

  "With proof, of course, that he was the man he represented himself to be?" asked Mr. Lindsey.

  "Oh, of course——full proof!" answered Mr. Portlethorpe. "Papers, letters, all that sort of thing——all in order. He had been living in London for a year or two at that time; but, according to his own account, he had gone pretty well all over the world during the thirty years' absence. He'd been a ship's surgeon——he'd been attached to the medical staff of more than one foreign army, and had seen service——he'd been on one or two voyages of discovery——he'd lived in every continent——in fact, he'd had a very adventurous life, and lately he'd married a rich American heiress."

  "Oh, Lady Carstairs is an American, is she?" remarked Mr. Lindsey.

  "Just so——haven't you met her?" asked Mr. Portlethorpe.

  "Never set eyes on her that I know of," replied Mr. Lindsey. "But go on."

  "Well, of course, there was no doubt of Sir Gilbert's identity," continued Mr. Portlethorpe; "and as there was also no doubt that Sir Alexander had died intestate, we at once began to put matters right. Sir Gilbert, of course, came into the whole of the real estate, and he and Mrs. Ralston shared the personalty——which, by-the-by, was considerable: they both got nearly a hundred thousand each, in cash. And——there you are!"

  "That all?" asked Mr. Lindsey.

  Mr. Portlethorpe hesitated a moment——then he glanced at me.

  "Moneylaws is safe at a secret," said Mr. Lindsey. "If it is a secret."

  "Well, then," answered Mr. Portlethorpe, "it's not quite all. There is a circumstance which has——I can't exactly say bothered——but has somewhat disturbed me. Sir Gilbert Carstairs has now been in possession of his estates for a little over a year, and during that time he has sold nearly every yard of them except Hathercleugh!"

  Mr. Lindsey whistled. It was the first symptom of astonishment that he had manifested, and I glanced quickly at him and saw a look of indescribable intelligence and almost undeniable cunning cross his face. But it went as swiftly as it came, and he merely nodded, as if in surprise.

  "Aye!" he exclaimed. "Quick work, Portlethorpe."

  "Oh, he gave good reasons!" answered Mr. Portlethorpe. "He said, from the first, that he meant to do it——he wanted, and his wife wanted too, to get rid of these small and detached Northern properties, and buy a really fine one in the South of England, keeping Hathercleugh as a sort of holiday seat. He'd no intention of selling that, at any time. But——there's the fact!——he's sold pretty nearly everything else."

  "I never heard of these sales of land," remarked Mr. Lindsey.

  "Oh, they've all been sold by private treaty," replied Mr. Portlethorpe. "The Carstairs property was in parcels, here and there——the last two baronets before this one had bought considerably in other parts. It was all valuable——there was no difficulty in selling to adjacent owners."

  "Then, if he's been selling to that extent, Sir Gilbert must have large sums of money at command——unless he's bought that new estate you're talking of," said Mr. Lindsey.

  "He has not bought anything——that I know of," answered Mr. Portlethorpe. "And he must have a considerable——a very large——sum of money at his bankers'. All of which," he continued, looking keenly at Mr. Lindsey, "makes me absolutely amazed to hear what you've just told me. It's very serious, this charge you're implying against him, Lindsey! Why should he want to take men's lives in this fashion! A man of his position, his great wealth——"

  "Portlethorpe!" broke in Mr. Lindsey, "didn't you tell me just now that this man, according to his own account, has lived a most adventurous life, in all parts of the world? What more likely than that in the course of such a life he made acquaintance with queer characters, and——possibly——did some queer things himself? Isn't it a significant thing that, within a year of his coming into the title and estates, two highly mysterious individuals turn up here, and that all this foul play ensues? It's impossible, now, to doubt that Gilverthwaite and Phillips came into these parts because this man was already here! If you've read all the stuff that's been in the papers, and add to it just what we've told you about this last adventure with the yacht, you can't doubt it, either."

  "It's very, very strange——all of it," agreed Mr. Portlethorpe. "Have you no theory, Lindsey?"

  "I've a sort of one," answered Mr. Lindsey. "I think Gilverthwaite and Phillips probably were in possession of some secret about Sir Gilbert Carstairs, and that Crone may have somehow got an inkling of it. Now, as we know, Gilverthwaite died, suddenly——and it's possible that Carstairs killed both Phillips and Crone, as he certainly meant to kill this lad. And what does it all look like?"

  Before Mr. Portlethorpe could reply to that last question, and while he was shaking his head over it, one of our junior clerks brought in Mrs. Ralston of Craig, at the mention of whose name Mr. Lindsey immediately bustled forward. She was a shrewd, clever-looking woman, well under middle age, who had been a widow for the last four or five years, and was celebrated in our parts for being a very managing and interfering sort of body who chiefly occupied herself with works of charity and philanthropy and was prominent on committees and boards. And she looked over the two solicitors as if they were candidates for examination, and she the examiner.

  "I have been to the police, to find out what all this talk is about Sir Gilbert Carstairs," she began at once. "They tell me you know more than they do, Mr. Lindsey. Well, what have you to say? And what have you to say, Mr. Portlethorpe? You ought to know more than anybody. What does it all amount to!"

  Mr. Portlethorpe, whose face had become very dismal at the sight of Mrs. Ralston, turned, as if seeking help, to Mr. Lindsey. He was obviously taken aback by Mrs. Ralston's questions, and a little afraid of her; but Mr. Lindsey was never afraid of anybody, and he at once turned on his visitor.

  "Before we answer your questions, Mrs. Ralston," he said, "there's one I'll take leave to ask you. When Sir Gilbert came back at your father's death, did you recognize him?"

  Mrs. Ralston tossed her head with obvious impatience.

  "Now, what ridiculous nonsense, Mr. Lindsey!" she exclaimed. "How on earth do you suppose that I could recognize a man whom I hadn't seen since I was a child of seven——and certainly not for at least thirty years? Of course I didn't!——impossible!"

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