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The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11404

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Field stood in the office of the Inland Revenue at Wandsworth with a feeling that he had got on the right track at last. And yet this discovery, which he had no reason to doubt, opened up the strangest possibilities before him. He was face to face with a theory that staggered him so greatly that he could not speak for a moment. And yet he wondered why the idea had not occurred to him before.

"I suppose that you have not made any mistake?" he suggested.

The clerk was properly indignant. He was not there for the purpose of making mistakes, besides, he had all the particulars entered in his books.

"So that you can see for yourself," he said. "Look here, if you doubt me. The entries tally absolutely with the figures you have on that slip of paper. If there is anything wrong--"

"There is something very wrong indeed," Field admitted, "but that has nothing to do with you. Do you do a large business in that kind of stamped paper?"

"Well, rather, though not so large as we did. You see, those stamped deeds are exclusively used by solicitors; practically, every legal document is a stamped paper. But, nowadays, a good many lawyers get their deeds engrossed on plain paper and send them to me to be forwarded to Somerset House for the stamping."

"I see," Field said, thoughtfully. "In that case, you would have less difficulty in recognizing anybody who purchased a parchment that was already stamped? I wonder if you recognized the man who bought the one we are talking about?"

"Oh, yes," came the ready reply. "The man's name is Acton. He is a law stationer who does odd jobs for the different firms here. He is quite broken down and shabby now, but I should say that at one time he was a gentleman. You will see his business card hanging in a shop window at the corner of Preston Street-a little news-shop on the right."

"I am greatly obliged to you," Field said. "I see the stamp is a two pound ten one. Was it paid for in cash or in the form of a note?"

"A note-a £5 Bank of England note. I recollect getting Acton to endorse it."

Field smiled to himself. Everything seemed to be going in his favour now. He tendered five sovereigns across the counter and asked the favour of the £5 note in exchange, which was granted. The note had a blue stamp on it to the effect that it had been issued by the Wandsworth Branch of the National and Counties Bank, and to that establishment Field wended his way.

There a further piece of information awaited him. The note had been paid out the day before to a messenger who had come from No. 100, Audley Place, with a cheque drawn in favour of "self" by Mr. Carl Sartoris. Field could not repress a chuckle. Everything was going on as smoothly as he could expect.

"And now for Mr. Acton," he said to himself. "I wonder if I dare build my hopes upon the theory that Sir Charles is-but that is out of the question. Still, there is that doctor fellow with his marvellous knowledge of Eastern mysteries. Hang me if I don't start from that hypothesis when I've got this thing through."

It was an easy matter to trace Acton. Field found him in a dingy bed-sitting-room, smoking vile tobacco and eagerly reading a sporting paper. The occupant of the room turned colour when he caught sight of his visitor. The recognition was mutual, but Field did not commit himself beyond a faint smile.

"I-I hope there is nothing wrong," the occupant of the room stammered.

"That entirely depends upon you," Field replied. "So long as you tell the truth--"

"I'll tell you nothing else," Acton said. He had risen now and was standing with his back to the fire, a tall man with a pale face and mournful eyes. "Look here, Field, there is no use playing with the fact that you and I have met before. I was in a very different position then. Now I am a broken man with no ambition beyond a wish to live honestly and to keep out of sight of my friends. I write a good hand, as you know. I have served my time for forgery. But since that I have never done anything that is in the least wrong."

The speaker's words carried conviction with them.

"I am quite prepared to believe it, Mr. Acton," Field said. "All I want is a little information. Tell me, have you done more than one piece of work lately?"

"No. Only one. And that was just after ten o'clock to-day. A gentleman came to me and said he was a lawyer who was just setting up here."

"What sort of man was he?" Field asked.

"Young and fair, with an easy assurance and manner. He had taken a house in Park Road-name of Walters. There is a kind of annex to the house that at one time had been used for a billiard-room, and this was to be his office. I called upon the gentleman there by appointment. I didn't go into the house proper, but I saw that the blinds and curtains were up. The gentleman gave me a £5 note and asked me to go to the Inland Revenue Office here and get a £2 10s. stamp on a skin of parchment. When I got back he dictated a deed to me which I copied down for him."

"Do you recollect what it was about?" Field asked.

"Well, sir, I don't, except that it was some kind of assignment. The names I quite forget. You see, one gets to be rather like a machine doing that kind of work. The gentleman paid me seven shillings for my trouble and asked me to call upon him again."

"And is that all you have to tell me?" Field asked.

"Everything, Mr. Field," Acton said. "I hope that you will not think there is anything--"

"Not so far as you are concerned, certainly," Field hastened to say. "I have only one more question to ask. Try and polish up your memory. Was there any date inserted in that deed?"

"I can answer that question without

the slightest hesitation. There was no date inserted in the deed."

"'Um. The thing was so unusual that you were quite struck by the fact?"

"Not at all. Dates are never inserted in engrossed deeds. They are left blank as to the day and the year. You see, there is so much delay in the law. Sometimes the deeds are not executed for months after they are signed. If the date was filled in and a delay of two months took place, a new stamp would have to be purchased, and that means dead loss. Whereas if the date is not put in till the deed is signed, that expense is saved."

Field nodded his head in the manner of a man who is getting satisfaction for his trouble.

"Then the date was no doing of yours," he said. "I fancy I'll run around and see the young lawyer friend of yours. After that I may have to ask you to accompany me to town. There is nothing for you to do besides identifying your own handwriting. Don't go out till I come back."

Field hurried off to Park Road where at length he found the house that he wanted. The curtains and blinds were up in the windows, but no amount of knocking seemed to arouse anybody inside. Not that Field was disappointed, for he had expected something like this. A few inquiries elicited the fact that the house was in the hands of Messrs. Porden & Co., down the street, and thither the inspector repaired. Nobody had taken the house, he gathered, though a few people had been after it.

"Have you had anybody to-day?" Field asked. "I mean early to-day? A tall, fair man with pleasant manners who gave the name of Walters?"

"Well, yes," the house-agent admitted. "He came and asked for the keys; he left a card on my table, and here it is. It was early when he came, and the boy was the only one in charge of the office, so that the gentleman had to go over the house by himself."

"He found that it did not suit him?" Field suggested drily.

"No, he said it was too big for his requirements. He brought the keys back two hours later."

"And didn't ask for any more, though you offered him the choice of many houses?" Field smiled. "But what about the blinds and curtains in the windows?"

"Oh, they belonged to the previous tenant. You see, we had to put in an execution there for rent. The landlord desired the fittings to remain."

Field went away rather impressed by the cunningness of the dodge. The whole thing was theatrical and a little overdone, but it was clever, all the same. A short time later, and Field was on his way to London with Acton for his companion.

Mr. Fleming was in the office disengaged and would see Inspector Field at once. He glanced at the latter's companion but said nothing.

"I have been very successful," Field said without preamble. "I have made some important discoveries. For instance, I have found the gentleman who engrossed that deed. It was engrossed early this morning at a house in Park Road, Wandsworth, by my companion. If you will show him the deed he will be able to identify it at once."

But Mr. Fleming did not do business in that way. He took two deeds and folded them so that a portion of each could be seen. Then he laid them both on the table and asked Acton to pick out the one that he had done. All law stationers' writing is very much alike, but Acton had not the slightest difficulty in picking out his.

"That is the one, sir," he said. "That is the one that I wrote to-day."

Fleming admitted that the choice was a correct one. He spread out the deed now and proceeded to examine it gravely through his glasses. "Did you put in the date?" he asked.

"No, sir," Acton replied. "There was no date. That is a forgery. It is not badly done, but you can see that it does not quite tally with the body of the deed. Besides, the ink is slightly darker. Look at that 'e,' too, in the word 'nine.' I never write that kind of 'e'-you will not find one like it in the body of the deed."

Fleming was bound to admit that such was the case. Field thanked Acton for the trouble he had taken, and dismissed him. Then he came back to the office.

"Well, sir, are you quite satisfied now?" he asked. "Is there any reasonable doubt that--"

"No doubt that the deed purporting to have been signed so long ago was only written to-day. So far as that is concerned, you have proved your case up to the hilt, Field. Nobody is going to gain anything by the publication of that deed. But there is one thing that sticks, and I cannot get it down at all-the genuineness of that signature."

"It does look like a real signature," Field admitted. "But you want to suggest that Sir Charles came back from the grave to-day to write it? I wonder if there is something new in the way of forgery-some means whereby a genuine signature could be transformed from one paper to another without injuring the ink in the slightest. They say they can take all the paint off a picture and place it on a new canvas without so much as injuring a brush mark. That being the case, why couldn't it be done with a man's signature?"

Fleming bit the end of his pen thoughtfully.

"It may be possible that some cunning rascal has invented an entirely new process," he said. "But anyway, I'm prepared to swear to the genuineness of this signature. There is only one other way to account for the whole business, and as a sane man who has long come to years of discretion, I am almost afraid to mention it to a business man like yourself."

Field looked up quickly.

"I have a little hesitation also," he said, "because you may have laughed at me. Is it possible, sir, that you and I have hit upon the same theory?"

The two men looked at each other, and there was a long silence between them.

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