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14: Tracks

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Author Topic: 14: Tracks  (Read 25 times)
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« on: May 20, 2023, 05:34:38 am »

WOMERSLEY walked in upon Holaday as the American sat at breakfast in a quiet corner of the hotel coffee-room: Holaday, with a cheery nod, held up the slip of paper.

“Got it!” he said. “That’s step number two! Worth while going to see the chemist man, wasn’t it, now?”

Womersley dropped into a chair and glanced at the address.

“What do you expect to make of this?” he asked, half cynically, half jokingly. “It’s merely the address of the woman with whom the girl lodged. That’s eleven years ago! The woman’s probably dead, or she’s left---it’s big odds against your finding her. And if you do find her, what do you imagine she’ll know of this girl, whom, no doubt, she hasn’t seen, nor heard of, for many a year? London landladies don’t take much interest in lodgers who come and go.”

Holaday helped himself to another cup of coffee and sipped it with an air of reflection. But it seemed to Womersley that he was not reflecting on Womersley’s remarks.

“This St. Mary’s Square, now,” he said presently. “Where is it?---and how long will it take to get there?”

“It’s in the Paddington district,” replied Womersley, “and it would take a few minutes on the Underground.”

“Well, isn’t it worth a few minutes to go there and inquire if this Mrs. Shepstall still lives at this address, and if she does, to ask her if she knows anything about Miss Millie Clover?” said Holaday. “I guess it is! We’re not economising on time to that extent.”

“Oh, well, if you’re bent on it, I’ll go with you,” agreed Womersley. “But I’d like to know what it is that makes you so keen on this Millie Clover business? What’s your notion?”

“My notion is that Alfred Jakyn himself was keen about getting news of Millie Clover,” replied Holaday. “Why did he inquire about her at Bradmore’s if he wasn’t? He didn’t inquire about anybody else. There must have been lots of old friends he could have inquired about. But he didn’t! He just asked for news of Millie Clover. Well, I want to know why!”

Womersley shook his head. He was beginning to think that Holaday, in spite of a shrewdness already made manifest, had something womanish about him, that he trusted to intuition.

“Can’t see it even now,” he said, with a sceptical smile. “I attached no importance to his having asked for news of Millie Clover, when I first heard that he had. I put the thing this way---there he was, back in the old spot, and naturally he asked after people associated with it. His father was dead; Bradmore was there before him; this Millie Clover was the only other person he remembered. And---perhaps he was a bit sweet on her in the old days.”

Holaday threw back his head and laughed, joyously.

“I thought you’d get round to it in the end!” he said. “Now that, of course, is just the notion that’s been in my mind all along! That’s precisely why he did ask for news of her. I reckon that he wanted to find her. And as I said last night, we don’t know that he didn’t contrive to get some news of her that evening he called at Bradmore’s. Now I propose to get on the track of Millie Clover, and if I find her---and I will, if she’s alive and in this country!---to ask her what she knows about Alfred Jakyn, last as well as first. And I hope you’ll go right along with me to see this Mrs. Shepstall.”

“Oh, I’ll go with you!” answered Womersley. “As you say, a few minutes is neither here nor there: I can spare them. By the bye, I’ve had no further news as regards the three disappearances I mentioned to you yesterday. The barmaid affair puzzles me most---nothing has been heard of her.”

“I think they all run into one another,” said Holaday. “And they all centre in, or spring from, the incident of the Cat and Bagpipe, the woman incident. Now, look here---has it occurred to you that the woman who went with Alfred Jakyn into that saloon, and sat there talking with him for half an hour, may have been this very Millie Clover that I’m so keen on tracing?”

“Good Lord, no!” exclaimed Womersley. “I’d certainly never thought that! Seems a far-fetched notion, but----”

“Well, it’s what I call a highly probable thing,” said Holaday, “and it won’t surprise me any if it turns out that the woman was Millie Clover. And if it was so, then I think you’ll find that there’s probably been a pretty weighty reason for these disappearances. Well---I’m through with this breakfast, and if you’ll show the way to this St. Mary’s Square----”

The small houses on the north side of St. Mary’s Square looked dull, drab, and dismal enough in the foggy November morning. Holaday shivered, involuntarily, at the sight of them.

“Lodging-houses, I reckon?” he said. “And I suppose this Mrs. Shepstall, if she’s still alive, and still here, will be what they call in the books a typical London landlady, though I haven’t the ghost of an idea what the type’s like! Sort of women who’ve seen better days, I guess?”

“Most of ’em say so,” answered Womersley. “Not much difference between them and any other woman, I think. For my purposes---and I’ve had to interview a good many of ’em in my time---they’re divided into two classes; the women who’ll talk and the women who won’t. Some of ’em take you into their best parlours at once, and pour out a flood: some, metaphorically, keep their door on the chain, and show you no more than a nose-end. But here’s the place. Now, if this woman’s existent, will you do the talking, or shall I?”

“Say, I think you’d better tackle that,” replied Holaday. “You know your customer better than I do. I’ll listen---and observe.”

“Well, I’ll lay you two drinks to nothing that we don’t find Mrs. Shepstall,” said Womersley, as he tapped the knocker. “She’ll be gone! Eleven years in London is as good as a century elsewhere.”

But Mrs. Shepstall was there. She opened the door herself; an elderly, quiet-mannered little woman, who sized up the quality and probable business of her visitors as soon as she saw them, and without question or hesitation led them into a sitting-room just within the narrow hall. Womersley handed her his professional card.

“You see who I am, Mrs. Shepstall,” he said. “This gentleman is an inquiry agent---Mr. Holaday---from New York. We’re investigating a case which has many difficulties, and we believe you may be able to give us some information. Now, can you tell us anything of a Miss Millie Clover, who, we’re given to understand, lodged with you in this house, some eleven or twelve years ago?”

Mrs. Shepstall immediately nodded, and motioned her visitors to sit down.

“Oh, yes!” she answered. “I can tell you something about her. Miss Clover lodged here for some fifteen months or so---she had this very parlour as a sitting-room---about the time you mention. She was in business----”

“Yes, at Daniel Jakyn’s, chemist, in Holborn,” said Womersley. “That’s where we got your address.”

“Yes, it was at Jakyn’s,” assented Mrs. Shepstall. “She was a clerk and typist there. A very nice, pretty, well-conducted young lady, very superior in every way: I was sorry when she left me. She went suddenly, too---very suddenly. To get married.”

“Oh, to get married, ma’am?” said Womersley. “Then I suppose you know who the gentleman was?”

But Mrs. Shepstall shook her head.

“No,” she answered, “I don’t!---never did; it all came on me as a surprise. I knew nothing about it; hadn’t the faintest idea that she was going to be married. She called me in here one morning after breakfast, and told me she was getting married that day, and shouldn’t be coming back. She’d a small suit-case already packed; two trunks that she had, in her bedroom, she asked me to take care of until she sent for them. And then, after settling my bill, and giving me something for my maid, she was off---all before I’d time to ask her who she was marrying, and where the wedding was to be, as I certainly should have done if she hadn’t been in such a hurry.”

“Then I suppose she left Jakyn’s in the same hurry?” suggested Womersley. “You don’t know about that, of course, ma’am?”

“I don’t know for a certainty,” replied Mrs. Shepstall. “But it was on a Monday morning that she left me, and, of course, she might have finished at Jakyn’s on the Saturday. It was a complete surprise to me, the whole thing, for I didn’t know she was engaged. Nobody---I mean any young gentlemen---ever came here to see her, and I never knew her have anybody bring her home. She was certainly out a good deal of an evening, but I never knew that she had any young men friends---she didn’t seem that sort.”

Womersley nodded, and then turned to Holaday with a look which seemed to imply that for the moment he could think of nothing else to ask. But the American, who during this colloquy had been silently nursing his queer umbrella and watching Mrs. Shepstall attentively, let out two words.

“The trunks?”

Mrs. Shepstall looked at him with an understanding smile.

“Oh, yes!” she said. “Of course, there were the trunks. I thought she’d come and fetch them---I knew she’d got a lot of good clothes in them---she was rather a dressy young lady. But she didn’t come and didn’t come---for years. Indeed, she never did come!”

“Then you have them?” asked Holaday.

“No!” replied Mrs. Shepstall. “I haven’t. It would be about seven, perhaps eight years after she’d left that I got a letter from her asking me if I’d send the trunks to the address from which the letter was written, and of course I did. I can show you the letter, if you like.”

“We should like, ma’am,” said Womersley. “There’s nothing we should like more. It may be most useful.”

The landlady left the room, and the two men glanced at each other.

“Well,” said Holaday, in his driest manner, “I reckon we’re not wasting our time!”

“I wonder who she married?” remarked Womersley, musingly. “Odd!---that Mrs. Shepstall never knew she’d a young man.”

“The young man may have been as sudden an event as the departure,” suggested Holaday. “And it mayn’t have been a young man, either.”

“Well, a man, then,” agreed Womersley. “Of course, the marriage could be traced.”

“Easily?” inquired Holaday.

“Oh, fairly---the records are available. But we may get some information from this letter that the landlady’s fetching. Seems a bit queer, you know,” continued Womersley, “that she should have left these trunks here so long. It means that she must have bought a complete rig-out when she married, or have gone somewhere right away in a hurry. And why did she want her trunks after all that time---seven or eight years? The things in ’em would all be out of fashion.”

“Might have come into fashion again,” suggested Holaday. “But the thing is---she did want them, and she did send for them, and gave an address, and that address, if we get it, will be another step forward.”

The landlady came back with an envelope, from which she drew out a letter. She laid this on the table before the two men, and they bent eagerly over it.

“Three Shires Hotel,


“Dear Mrs. Shepstall,----

“You will be surprised that I have never been to see you, nor written to you all this time, but I never really had a chance. Will you please send on to me at the above address, carriage forward, the two trunks I left with you. Trusting that you are quite well, and with kind regards.

“Yours sincerely,

“M. Colebrooke.”

“Colebrooke, eh?” said Womersley. “Her married name, I suppose. Um!—there’s no date on the letter.”

“No, but there is on the envelope,” replied Mrs. Shepstall. “There it is, you see---just about three years ago—eight years after she’d left here. I thought it strange that she should have let her trunks remain unasked for all that time, and then to have written for them in such---well---in such abrupt fashion. I sent them off, of course, at once.”

“Heard anything of her since, ma’am?” inquired Womersley.

“No!---she never even acknowledged the receipt of the trunks,” said Mrs. Shepstall. “Not even by a postcard!”

The two men left presently, and outside the house Holaday turned on his companion with a sharp inquiry.

“Where’s this Cheltenham?” he asked. “Far or near?”

“Pretty far, in this country---would be close at hand, I suppose, in yours,” replied Womersley with a laugh. “It’s in Gloucestershire. Famous inland watering-place---fashionable resort.”

“How long would it take to get there?” demanded Holaday.

“Oh, I don’t know, exactly---three hours, maybe,” said Womersley. “Perhaps a bit more---or might be a bit less---I’ve never been that way.”

“Well, you’d better come, then,” said Holaday dryly. “I’m going there---just now!”

Womersley came to a halt and stared at his companion.

“You don’t let much grass grow under your feet!” he exclaimed. “Do you mean that? Straight off?”

“Sure! If you’ll tell me what railway to take, and where the station is,” answered Holaday. “I’d be a fool if I didn’t! We’ve found out where Mrs. Colebrooke, once Miss Clover, was heard of last---now I’m going to see if she’s still there, and if she isn’t, to trace her a bit farther. I reckon we’ve made what I’d call considerable progress this morning.”

“Well, perhaps!” agreed Womersley. He drew a pocket time-table from his coat, and began to turn it over. “We could get an express to Cheltenham in half an hour, from Paddington,” he continued. “And Paddington’s only just behind those houses—that would give us time to get a mouthful to eat and a drink before starting. And I suppose----”

“Oh, come on!” exclaimed Holaday. “The next thing is this Three Shires Hotel, Cheltenham!”

And into the Three Shires Hotel, in the course of that afternoon, he led Womersley, whom by that time he had infected with some of his own enthusiasm, and who was beginning to believe, against his will, that they were really doing more good in tracing Miss Millie Clover, or, as they now believed her to be, Mrs. Colebrooke. The hotel was a pretentious one; its manager, not easily procurable, a consequential gentleman who required some assurance and guarantee of his visitors’ bona fides before he was willing to talk. Womersley had to tell him a good deal before he consented to open any store of knowledge that he possessed. But when he had satisfied himself that one of his visitors was a genuine Scotland Yard man, and the other a respectable person from New York, he unbent, and having unbent, showed himself disposed to be generously communicative.

“I knew the lady you’re inquiring for well enough,” he said. “But you’re wrong in describing her as Mrs. Colebrooke. She was Miss Colebrooke---and she was my book-keeper for some little time until about a year ago, when she left to make a rare good marriage!”

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