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17: Mr. Quarterpage Harks Back

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Author Topic: 17: Mr. Quarterpage Harks Back  (Read 13 times)
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« on: January 19, 2023, 11:45:49 am »

IF SPARGO had upset the old gentlemen’s bowl of punch—the second of the evening—or had dropped an infernal machine in their midst, he could scarcely have produced a more startling effect than that wrought upon them by his sudden production of the silver ticket. Their babble of conversation died out; one of them dropped his pipe; another took his cigar out of his mouth as if he had suddenly discovered that he was sucking a stick of poison; all lifted astonished faces to the interrupter, staring from him to the shining object exhibited in his outstretched palm, from it back to him. And at last Mr. Quarterpage, to whom Spargo had more particularly addressed himself, spoke, pointing with great empressement to the ticket.

“Young gentleman!” he said, in accents that seemed to Spargo to tremble a little, “young gentleman, where did you get that?”

“You know what it is, then?” asked Spargo, willing to dally a little with the matter. “You recognize it?”

“Know it! Recognize it!” exclaimed Mr. Quarterpage. “Yes, and so does every gentleman present. And it is just because I see you are a stranger to this town that I ask you where you got it. Not, I think, young gentleman, in this town.”

“No,” replied Spargo. “Certainly not in this town. How should I get it in this town if I’m a stranger?”

“Quite true, quite true!” murmured Mr. Quarterpage. “I cannot conceive how any person in the town who is in possession of one of those—what shall we call them—heirlooms?—yes, heirlooms of antiquity, could possibly be base enough to part with it. Therefore, I ask again—Where did you get that, young gentleman?”

“Before I tell you that,” answered Spargo, who, in answer to a silent sign from the fat man had drawn a chair amongst them, “perhaps you will tell me exactly what this is? I see it to be a bit of old, polished, much worn silver, having on the obverse the arms or heraldic bearings of somebody or something; on the reverse the figure of a running horse. But—what is it?”

The five old men all glanced at each other and made simultaneous grunts. Then Mr. Quarterpage spoke.

“It is one of the original fifty burgess tickets of Market Milcaster, young sir, which gave its holder special and greatly valued privileges in respect to attendance at our once famous race-meeting, now unfortunately a thing of the past,” he added. “Fifty—aye, forty!—years ago, to be in possession of one of those tickets was—was—”

“A grand thing!” said one of the old gentlemen.

“Mr. Lummis is right,” said Mr. Quarterpage. “It was a grand thing—a very grand thing. Those tickets, sir, were treasured—are treasured. And yet you, a stranger, show us one! You got it, sir—”

Spargo saw that it was now necessary to cut matters short.

“I found this ticket—under mysterious circumstances—in London,” he answered. “I want to trace it. I want to know who its original owner was. That is why I have come to Market Milcaster.”

Mr. Quarterpage slowly looked round the circle of faces.

“Wonderful!” he said. “Wonderful! He found this ticket—one of our famous fifty—in London, and under mysterious circumstances. He wants to trace it—he wants to know to whom it belonged! That is why he has come to Market Milcaster. Most extraordinary! Gentlemen, I appeal to you if this is not the most extraordinary event that has happened in Market Milcaster for—I don’t know how many years?”

There was a general murmur of assent, and Spargo found everybody looking at him as if he had just announced that he had come to buy the whole town.

“But—why?” he asked, showing great surprise. “Why?”

“Why?” exclaimed Mr. Quarterpage. “Why? He asks—why? Because, young gentleman, it is the greatest surprise to me, and to these friends of mine, too, every man jack of ’em, to hear that any one of our fifty tickets ever passed out of the possession of any of the fifty families to whom they belonged! And unless I am vastly, greatly, most unexplainably mistaken, young sir, you are not a member of any Market Milcaster family.”

“No, I’m not,” admitted Spargo. And he was going to add that until the previous evening he had never even heard of Market Milcaster, but he wisely refrained. “No, I’m certainly not,” he added.

Mr. Quarterpage waved his long pipe.

“I believe,” he said, “I believe that if the evening were not drawing to a close—it is already within a few minutes of our departure, young gentleman—I believe, I say, that if I had time, I could, from memory, give the names of the fifty families who held those tickets when the race-meeting came to an end. I believe I could!”

“I’m sure you could!” asserted the little man in the loud suit. “Never was such a memory as yours, never!”

“Especially for anything relating to the old racing matters,” said the fat man. “Mr. Quarterpage is a walking encyclopaedia.”

“My memory is good,” said Mr. Quarterpage. “It’s the greatest blessing I have in my declining years. Yes, I am sure I could do that, with a little thought. And what’s more, nearly every one of those fifty families is still in the town, or if not in the town, close by it, or if not close by it, I know where they are. Therefore, I cannot make out how this young gentleman—from London, did you say, sir?”

“From London,” answered Spargo.

“This young gentleman from London comes to be in possession of one of our tickets,” continued Mr. Quarterpage. “It is—wonderful! But I tell you what, young gentleman from London, if you will do me the honour to breakfast with me in the morning, sir, I will show you my racing books and papers and we will speedily discover who the original holder of that ticket was. My name, sir, is Quarterpage—Benjamin Quarterpage—and I reside at the ivy-covered house exactly opposite this inn, and my breakfast hour is nine o’clock sharp, and I shall bid you heartily welcome!”

Spargo made his best bow.

“Sir,” he said, “I am greatly obliged by your kind invitation, and I shall consider it an honour to wait upon you to the moment.”

Accordingly, at five minutes to nine next morning, Spargo found himself in an old-fashioned parlour, looking out upon a delightful garden, gay with summer flowers, and being introduced by Mr. Quarterpage, Senior, to Mr. Quarterpage, Junior—a pleasant gentleman of sixty, always referred to by his father as something quite juvenile—and to Miss Quarterpage, a young-old lady of something a little less elderly than her brother, and to a breakfast table bounteously spread with all the choice fare of the season. Mr. Quarterpage, Senior, was as fresh and rosy as a cherub; it was a revelation to Spargo to encounter so old a man who was still in possession of such life and spirits, and of such a vigorous and healthy appetite.

Naturally, the talk over the breakfast table ran on Spargo’s possession of the old silver ticket, upon which subject it was evident Mr. Quarterpage was still exercising his intellect. And Spargo, who had judged it well to enlighten his host as to who he was, and had exhibited a letter with which the editor of the Watchman had furnished him, told how in the exercise of his journalistic duties he had discovered the ticket in the lining of an old box. But he made no mention of the Marbury matter, being anxious to see first whither Mr. Quarterpage’s revelations would lead him.

“You have no idea, Mr. Spargo,” said the old gentleman, when, breakfast over, he and Spargo were closeted together in a little library in which were abundant evidences of the host’s taste in sporting matters; “you have no idea of the value which was attached to the possession of one of those silver tickets. There is mine, as you see, securely framed and just as securely fastened to the wall. Those fifty silver tickets, my dear sir, were made when our old race-meeting was initiated, in the year 1781. They were made in the town by a local silversmith, whose great-great-grandson still carries on the business. The fifty were distributed amongst the fifty leading burgesses of the town to be kept in their families for ever—nobody ever anticipated in those days that our race-meeting would ever be discontinued. The ticket carried great privileges. It made its holder, and all members of his family, male and female, free of the stands, rings, and paddocks. It gave the holder himself and his eldest son, if of age, the right to a seat at our grand race banquet—at which, I may tell you, Mr. Spargo, Royalty itself has been present in the good old days. Consequently, as you see, to be the holder of a silver ticket was to be somebody.”

“And when the race-meeting fell through?” asked Spargo. “What then?”

“Then, of course, the families who held the tickets looked upon them as heirlooms, to be taken great care of,” replied Mr. Quarterpage. “They were dealt with as I dealt with mine—framed on velvet, and hung up—or locked away: I am sure that anybody who had one took the greatest care of it. Now, I said last night, over there at the ‘Dragon,’ that I could repeat the names of all the families who held these tickets. So I can. But here”—the old gentleman drew out a drawer and produced from it a parchment-bound book which he handled with great reverence—“here is a little volume of my own handwriting—memoranda relating to Market Milcaster Races—in which is a list of the original holders, together with another list showing who held the tickets when the races were given up. I make bold to say, Mr. Spargo, that by going through the second list, I could trace every ticket—except the one you have in your purse.”

“Every one?” said Spargo, in some surprise.

“Every one! For as I told you,” continued Mr. Quarterpage, “the families are either in the town (we’re a conservative people here in Market Milcaster and we don’t move far afield) or they’re just outside the town, or they’re not far away. I can’t conceive how the ticket you have—and it’s genuine enough—could ever get out of possession of one of these families, and—”

“Perhaps,” suggested Spargo, “it never has been out of possession. I told you it was found in the lining of a box—that box belonged to a dead man.”

“A dead man!” exclaimed Mr. Quarterpage. “A dead man! Who could—ah! Perhaps—perhaps I have an idea. Yes!—an idea. I remember something now that I had never thought of.”

The old gentleman unfastened the clasp of his parchment-bound book, and turned over its pages until he came to one whereon was a list of names. He pointed this out to Spargo.

“There is the list of holders of the silver tickets at the time the race-meetings came to an end,” he said. “If you were acquainted with this town you would know that those are the names of our best-known inhabitants—all, of course, burgesses. There’s mine, you see—Quarterpage. There’s Lummis, there’s Kaye, there’s Skene, there’s Templeby—the gentlemen you saw last night. All good old town names. They all are—on this list. I know every family mentioned. The holders of that time are many of them dead; but their successors have the tickets. Yes—and now that I think of it, there’s only one man who held a ticket when this list was made about whom I don’t know anything—at least, anything recent. The ticket, Mr. Spargo, which you’ve found must have been his. But I thought—I thought somebody else had it!”

“And this man, sir? Who was he?” asked Spargo, intuitively conscious that he was coming to news. “Is his name there?”

The old man ran the tip of his finger down the list of names.

“There it is!” he said. “John Maitland.”

Spargo bent over the fine writing.

“Yes, John Maitland,” he observed. “And who was John Maitland?”

Mr. Quarterpage shook his head. He turned to another of the many drawers in an ancient bureau, and began to search amongst a mass of old newspapers, carefully sorted into small bundles and tied up.

“If you had lived in Market Milcaster one-and-twenty years ago, Mr. Spargo,” he said, “you would have known who John Maitland was. For some time, sir, he was the best-known man in the place—aye, and in this corner of the world. But—aye, here it is—the newspaper of October 5th, 1891. Now, Mr. Spargo, you’ll find in this old newspaper who John Maitland was, and all about him. Now, I’ll tell you what to do. I’ve just got to go into my office for an hour to talk the day’s business over with my son—you take this newspaper out into the garden there with one of these cigars, and read what’ll you find in it, and when you’ve read that we’ll have some more talk.”

Spargo carried the old newspaper into the sunlit garden.

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