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CHAPTER FOURTEEN
THE SILVER TICKET

With a sudden instinct of protection, Spargo quickly drew the girl aside from the struggling crowd, and within a moment had led her into a quiet by-street. He looked down at her as she stood recovering her breath.

"Yes?" he said quietly.

Jessie Aylmore looked up at him, smiling faintly.

"I want to speak to you," she said. "I must speak to you."

"Yes," said Spargo. "But—the others? Your sisters—Breton?"

"I left them on purpose to speak to you," she answered. "They knew I did. I am well accustomed to looking after myself."

Spargo moved down the by-street, motioning his companion to move with him.

"Tea," he said, "is what you want. I know a queer, old-fashioned place close by here where you can get the best China tea in London. Come and have some."

Jessie Aylmore smiled and followed her guide obediently. And Spargo said nothing, marching stolidly along with his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, his fingers playing soundless tunes outside, until he had installed himself and his companion in a quiet nook in the old tea-house he had told her of, and had given an order for tea and hot tea-cakes to a waitress who evidently knew him. Then he turned to her.

"You want," he said, "to talk to me about your father."

"Yes," she answered. "I do."

"Why?" asked Spargo.

The girl gave him a searching look.

"Ronald Breton says you're the man who's written all those special articles in the Watchman about the Marbury case," she answered. "Are you?"

"I am," said Spargo.

"Then you're a man of great influence," she went on. "You can stir the public mind. Mr. Spargo—what are you going to write about my father and to-day's proceedings?"

Spargo signed to her to pour out the tea which had just arrived. He seized, without ceremony, upon a piece of the hot buttered tea-cake, and bit a great lump out of it.

"Frankly," he mumbled, speaking with his mouth full, "frankly, I don't know. I don't know—yet. But I'll tell you this—it's best to be candid—I shouldn't allow myself to be prejudiced or biassed in making up my conclusions by anything that you may say to me. Understand?"

Jessie Aylmore took a sudden liking to Spargo because of the unconventionality and brusqueness of his manners.

"I'm not wanting to prejudice or bias you," she said. "All I want is that you should be very sure before you say—anything."

"I'll be sure," said Spargo. "Don't bother. Is the tea all right?"

"Beautiful!" she answered, with a smile that made Spargo look at her again. "Delightful! Mr. Spargo, tell me!—what did you think about—about what has just happened?"

Spargo, regardless of the fact that his fingers were liberally ornamented with butter, lifted a hand and rubbed his always untidy hair. Then he ate more tea-cake and gulped more tea.

"Look here!" he said suddenly. "I'm no great hand at talking. I can write pretty decently when I've a good story to tell, but I don't talk an awful lot, because I never can express what I mean unless I've got a pen in my hand. Frankly, I find it hard to tell you what I think. When I write my article this evening, I'll get all these things marshalled in proper form, and I shall write clearly about 'em. But I'll tell you one thing I do think—I wish your father had made a clean breast of things to me at first, when he gave me that interview, or had told everything when he first went into that box."

"Why?" she asked.

"Because he's now set up an atmosphere of doubt and suspicion around himself. People'll think—Heaven knows what they'll think! They already know that he knows more about Marbury than he'll tell, that——"

"But does he?" she interrupted quickly. "Do you think he does?"

"Yes!" replied Spargo, with emphasis. "I do. A lot more! If he had only been explicit at first—however, he wasn't. Now it's done. As things stand—look here, does it strike you that your father is in a very serious position?"

"Serious?" she exclaimed.

"Dangerous! Here's the fact—he's admitted that he took Marbury to his rooms in the Temple that midnight. Well, next morning Marbury's found robbed and murdered in an entry, not fifty yards off!"

"Does anybody suppose that my father would murder him for the sake of robbing him of whatever he had on him?" she laughed scornfully. "My father is a very wealthy man, Mr. Spargo."

"May be," answered Spargo. "But millionaires have been known to murder men who held secrets."

"Secrets!" she exclaimed.

"Have some more tea," said Spargo, nodding at the teapot. "Look here—this way it is. The theory that people—some people—will build up (I won't say that it hasn't suggested itself to me) is this:—There's some mystery about the relationship, acquaintanceship, connection, call it what you like, of your father and Marbury twenty odd years ago. Must be. There's some mystery about your father's life, twenty odd years ago. Must be— or else he'd have answered those questions, Very well. 'Ha, ha!' says the general public. 'Now we have it!' 'Marbury,' says the general public, 'was a man who had a hold on Aylmore. He turned up. Aylmore trapped him into the Temple, killed him to preserve his own secret, and robbed him of all he had on him as a blind.' Eh?"

"You think—people will say that?" she exclaimed.

"Cock-sure! They're saying it. Heard half a dozen of 'em say it, in more or less elegant fashion as I came out of that court. Of course, they'll say it. Why, what else could they say?"

For a moment Jessie Aylmore sat looking silently into her tea-cup. Then she turned her eyes on Spargo, who immediately manifested a new interest in what remained of the tea-cakes.

"Is that what you're going to say in your article to-night?" she asked, quietly.

"No!" replied Spargo, promptly. "It isn't. I'm going to sit on the fence tonight. Besides, the case is sub judice. All I'm going to do is to tell, in my way, what took place at the inquest."

The girl impulsively put her hand across the table and laid it on Spargo's big fist.

"Is it what you think?" she asked in a low voice.

"Honour bright, no!" exclaimed Spargo. "It isn't—it isn't! I don't think it. I think there's a most extraordinary mystery at the bottom of Marbury's death, and I think your father knows an enormous lot about Marbury that he won't tell, but I'm certain sure that he neither killed Marbury nor knows anything whatever about his death. And as I'm out to clear this mystery up, and mean to do it, nothing'll make me more glad than to clear your father. I say, do have some more tea-cake? We'll have fresh ones—and fresh tea."

"No, thank you," she said smiling. "And thank you for what you've just said. I'm going now, Mr. Spargo. You've done me good."

"Oh, rot!" exclaimed Spargo. "Nothing—nothing! I've just told you what I'm thinking. You must go?..."

He saw her into a taxi-cab presently, and when she had gone stood vacantly staring after the cab until a hand clapped him smartly on the shoulder. Turning, he found Rathbury grinning at him.

"All right, Mr. Spargo, I saw you!" he said. "Well, it's a pleasant change to squire young ladies after being all day in that court. Look here, are you going to start your writing just now?"

"I'm not going to start my writing as you call it, until after I've dined at seven o'clock and given myself time to digest my modest dinner," answered Spargo. "What is it?"

"Come back with me and have another look at that blessed leather box," said Rathbury. "I've got it in my room, and I'd like to examine it for myself. Come on!"

"The thing's empty," said Spargo.

"There might be a false bottom in it," remarked Rathbury. "One never knows. Here, jump into this!" He pushed Spargo into a passing taxi-cab, and following, bade the driver go straight to the Yard. Arrived there, he locked Spargo and himself into the drab-visaged room in which the journalist had seen him before.

"What d'ye think of today's doings, Spargo?" he asked, as he proceeded to unlock a cupboard.

"I think," said Spargo, "that some of you fellows must have had your ears set to tingling."

"That's so," assented Rathbury. "Of course, the next thing'll be to find out all about the Mr. Aylmore of twenty years since. When a man won't tell you where he lived twenty years ago, what he was exactly doing, what his precise relationship with another man was—why, then, you've just got to find out, eh? Oh, some of our fellows are at work on the life history of Stephen Aylmore, Esq., M.P., already—you bet! Well, now, Spargo, here's the famous box."

The detective brought the old leather case out of the cupboard in which he had been searching, and placed it on his desk. Spargo threw back the lid and looked inside, measuring the inner capacity against the exterior lines.

"No false bottom in that, Rathbury," he said. "There's just the outer leather case, and the inner lining, of this old bed-hanging stuff, and that's all. There's no room for any false bottom or anything of that sort, d'you see?"

Rathbury also sized up the box's capacity.

"Looks like it," he said disappointedly. "Well, what about the lid, then? I remember there was an old box like this in my grandmother's farmhouse, where I was reared—there was a pocket in the lid. Let's see if there's anything of the sort here?"

He threw the lid back and began to poke about the lining of it with the tips of his fingers, and presently he turned to his companion with a sharp exclamation.

"By George, Spargo!" he said. "I don't know about any pocket, but there's something under this lining. Feels like—here, you feel. There—and there."

Spargo put a finger on the places indicated.

"Yes, that's so," he agreed. "Feels like two cards—a large and a small one. And the small one's harder than the other. Better cut that lining out, Rathbury."

"That," remarked Rathbury, producing a pen-knife, "is just what I'm going to do. We'll cut along this seam."

He ripped the lining carefully open along the upper part of the lining of the lid, and looking into the pocket thus made, drew out two objects which he dropped on his blotting pad.

"A child's photograph," he said, glancing at one of them. "But what on earth is that?"

The object to which he pointed was a small, oblong piece of thin, much-worn silver, about the size of a railway ticket. On one side of it was what seemed to be a heraldic device or coat-of-arms, almost obliterated by rubbing; on the other, similarly worn down by friction, was the figure of a horse.

"That's a curious object," remarked Spargo, picking it up. "I never saw anything like that before. What can it be?"

"Don't know—I never saw anything of the sort either," said Rathbury. "Some old token, I should say. Now this photo. Ah—you see, the photographer's name and address have been torn away or broken off—there's nothing left but just two letters of what's apparently been the name of the town—see. Er—that's all there is. Portrait of a baby, eh?"

Spargo gave, what might have been called in anybody else but him, a casual glance at the baby's portrait. He picked up the silver ticket again and turned it over and over.

"Look here, Rathbury," he said. "Let me take this silver thing. I know where I can find out what it is. At least, I think I do."

"All right," agreed the detective, "but take the greatest care of it, and don't tell a soul that we found it in this box, you know. No connection with the Marbury case, Spargo, remember."

"Oh, all right," said Spargo. "Trust me."

He put the silver ticket in his pocket, and went back to the office, wondering about this singular find. And when he had written his article that evening, and seen a proof of it, Spargo went into Fleet Street intent on seeking peculiar information.