Half way along the north side of the main street of Highmarket an ancient stone gateway, imposing enough to suggest that it was originally the entrance to some castellated mansion or manor house, gave access to a square yard, flanked about by equally ancient buildings...
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Copyright © 2016 by J.S. Fletcher
Published by Jovian Press
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HALF WAY ALONG THE NORTH side of the main street of Highmarket an ancient stone gateway, imposing enough to suggest that it was originally the entrance to some castellated mansion or manor house, gave access to a square yard, flanked about by equally ancient buildings. What those buildings had been used for in other days was not obvious to the casual and careless observer, but to the least observant their present use was obvious enough. Here were piles of timber from Norway; there were stacks of slate from Wales; here was marble from Aberdeen, and there cement from Portland: the old chambers of the grey buildings were filled to overflowing with all the things that go towards making a house—ironwork, zinc, lead, tiles, great coils of piping, stores of domestic appliances. And on a shining brass plate, set into the wall, just within the gateway, were deeply engraven the words: Mallalieu and Cotherstone, Builders and Contractors.
Whoever had walked into Mallalieu & Cotherstone’s yard one October afternoon a few years ago would have seen Mallalieu and Cotherstone in person. The two partners had come out of their office and gone down the yard to inspect half a dozen new carts, just finished, and now drawn up in all the glory of fresh paint. Mallalieu had designed those carts himself, and he was now pointing out their advantages to Cotherstone, who was more concerned with the book-keeping and letter-writing side of the business than with its actual work. He was a big, fleshy man, Mallalieu, midway between fifty and sixty, of a large, solemn, well-satisfied countenance, small, sly eyes, and an expression of steady watchfulness; his attire was always of the eminently respectable sort, his linen fresh and glossy; the thick gold chain across his ample front, and the silk hat which he invariably wore, gave him an unmistakable air of prosperity. He stood now, the silk hat cocked a little to one side, one hand under the tail of his broadcloth coat, a pudgy finger of the other pointing to some new feature of the mechanism of the new carts, and he looked the personification of self-satisfaction and smug content.
“All done in one action, d’ye see, Cotherstone?” he was saying. “One pull at that pin releases the entire load. We’d really ought to have a patent for that idea.”
Cotherstone went nearer the cart which they were examining. He was a good deal of a contrast to his partner—a slightly built, wiry man, nervous and quick of movement; although he was Mallalieu’s junior he looked older, and the thin hair at his temples was already whitening. Mallalieu suggested solidity and almost bovine sleekness; in Cotherstone, activity of speech and gesture was marked well-nigh to an appearance of habitual anxiety. He stepped about the cart with the quick action of an inquisitive bird or animal examining something which it has never seen before.
“Yes, yes, yes!” he answered. “Yes, that’s a good idea. But if it’s to be patented, you know, we ought to see to it at once, before these carts go into use.”
“Why, there’s nobody in Highmarket like to rob us,” observed Mallalieu, good-humouredly. “You might consider about getting—what do they call it?—provisional protection?—for it.”
“I’ll look it up,” responded Cotherstone. “It’s worth that, anyhow.”
“Do,” said Mallalieu. He pulled out the big gold watch which hung from the end of his cable chain and glanced at its jewelled dial. “Dear me!” he exclaimed. “Four o’clock—I’ve a meeting in the Mayor’s parlour at ten past. But I’ll look in again before going home.”
He hurried away towards the entrance gate, and Cotherstone, after ruminative inspection of the new carts, glanced at some papers in his hand and went over to a consignment of goods which required checking. He was carefully ticking them off on a list when a clerk came down the yard.
“Mr. Kitely called to pay his rent, sir,” he announced. “He asked to see you yourself.”
“Twenty-five—six—seven,” counted Cotherstone. “Take him into the private office, Stoner,” he answered. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
He continued his checking until it was finished, entered the figures on his list, and went briskly back to the counting-house near the gateway. There he bustled into a room kept sacred to himself and Mallalieu, with a cheery greeting to his visitor—an elderly man who had recently rented from him a small house on the outskirts of the town.
“Afternoon, Mr. Kitely,” he said. “Glad to see you, sir—always glad to see anybody with a bit of money, eh? Take a chair, sir—I hope you’re satisfied with the little place, Mr. Kitely?”
The visitor took the offered elbow-chair, folded his hands on the top of his old-fashioned walking-cane, and glanced at his landlord with a half-humorous, half-quizzical expression. He was an elderly, clean-shaven, grey-haired man, spare of figure, dressed in rusty black; a wisp of white neckcloth at his throat gave him something of a clerical appearance: Cotherstone, who knew next to nothing about him, except that he was able to pay his rent and taxes, had already set him down as a retired verger of some cathedral.
“I should think you and Mr. Mallalieu are in no need of a bit of money, Mr. Cotherstone,” he said quietly. “Business seems to be good with you, sir.”
“Oh, so-so,” replied Cotherstone, off-handedly. “Naught to complain of, of course. I’ll give you a receipt, Mr. Kitely,” he went on, seating himself at his desk and taking up a book of forms. “Let’s see—twenty-five pounds a year is six pound five a quarter—there you are, sir. Will you have a drop of whisky?”
Kitely laid a handful of gold and silver on the desk, took the receipt, and nodded his head, still watching Cotherstone with the same half-humorous expression.
“Thank you,” he said. “I shouldn’t mind.”
He watched Cotherstone produce a decanter and glasses, watched him fetch fresh water from a filter in the corner of the room, watched him mix the drinks, and took his own with no more than a polite nod of thanks. And Cotherstone, murmuring an expression of good wishes, took a drink himself, and sat down with his desk-chair turned towards his visitor.
“Aught you’d like doing at the house, Mr. Kitely?” he asked.
“No,” answered Kitely, “no, I can’t say that there is.”
There was something odd, almost taciturn, in his manner, and Cotherstone glanced at him a little wonderingly.
“And how do you like Highmarket, now you’ve had a spell of it?” he inquired. “Got settled down, I suppose, now?”
“It’s all that I expected,” replied Kitely. “Quiet—peaceful. How do you like it?”
“Me!” exclaimed Cotherstone, surprised. “Me?—why, I’ve had—yes, five-and-twenty years of it!”
Kitely took another sip from his glass and set it down. He gave Cotherstone a sharp look.
“Yes,” he said, “yes—five-and-twenty years. You and your partner, both. Yes—it’ll be just about thirty years since I first saw you. But—you’ve forgotten.”
Cotherstone, who had been lounging forward, warming his hands at the fire, suddenly sat straight up in his chair. His face, always sharp seemed to grow sharper as he turned to his visitor with a questioning look.
“Since—what?” he demanded.
“Since I first saw you—and Mr. Mallalieu,” replied Kitely. “As I say, you’ve forgotten. But—I haven’t.”
Cotherstone sat staring at his tenant for a full minute of speechlessness. Then he slowly rose, walked over to the door, looked at it to see that it was closed, and returning to the hearth, fixed his eyes on Kitely.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Just what I say,” answered Kitely, with a dry laugh. “It’s thirty years since I first saw you and Mallalieu. That’s all.”
“Where?” demanded Cotherstone.
Kitely motioned his landlord to sit down. And Cotherstone sat down—trembling. His arm shook when Kitely laid a hand on it.
“Do you want to know where?” he asked, bending close to Cotherstone. “I’ll tell you. In the dock—at Wilchester Assizes. Eh?”
Cotherstone made no answer. He had put the tips of his fingers together, and now he was tapping the nails of one hand against the nails of the other. And he stared and stared at the face so close to his own—as if it had been the face of a man resurrected from the grave. Within him there was a feeling of extraordinary physical sickness; it was quickly followed by one of inertia, just as extraordinary. He felt as if he had been mesmerized; as if he could neither move nor speak. And Kitely sat there, a hand on his victim’s arm, his face sinister and purposeful, close to his.
“Fact!” he murmured. “Absolute fact! I remember everything. It’s come on me bit by bit, though. I thought I knew you when I first came here—then I had a feeling that I knew Mallalieu. And—in time—I remembered—everything! Of course, when I saw you both—where I did see you—you weren’t Mallalieu & Cotherstone. You were——”
Cotherstone suddenly made an effort, and shook off the thin fingers which lay on his sleeve. His pale face grew crimson, and the veins swelled on his forehead.
“Confound you!” he said in a low, concentrated voice. “Who are you?”
Kitely shook his head and smiled quietly.
“No need to grow warm,” he answered. “Of course, it’s excusable in you. Who am I? Well, if you really want to know, I’ve been employed in the police line for thirty-five years—until lately.”
“A detective!” exclaimed Cotherstone.
“Not when I was present at Wilchester—that time,” replied Kitely. “But afterwards—in due course. Ah!—do you know, I often was curious as to what became of you both! But I never dreamed of meeting you—here. Of course, you came up North after you’d done your time? Changed your names, started a new life—and here you are! Clever!”
Cotherstone was recovering his wits. He had got out of his chair by that time, and had taken up a position on the hearthrug, his back to the fire, his hands in his pockets, his eyes on his visitor. He was thinking—and for the moment he let Kitely talk.
“Yes—clever!” continued Kitely in the same level, subdued tones, “very clever indeed! I suppose you’d carefully planted some of that money you—got hold of? Must have done, of course—you’d want money to start this business. Well, you’ve done all this on the straight, anyhow. And you’ve done well, too. Odd, isn’t it, that I should come to live down here, right away in the far North of England, and find you in such good circumstances, too! Mr. Mallalieu, Mayor of Highmarket—his second term of office! Mr. Cotherstone, Borough Treasurer of Highmarket—now in his sixth year of that important post! I say again—you’ve both done uncommonly well—uncommonly!”
“Have you got any more to say?” asked Cotherstone.
But Kitely evidently intended to say what he had to say in his own fashion. He took no notice of Cotherstone’s question, and presently, as if he were amusing himself with reminiscences of a long dead past, he spoke again, quietly and slowly.
“Yes,” he murmured, “uncommonly well! And of course you’d have capital. Put safely away, of course, while you were doing your time. Let’s see—it was a Building Society that you defrauded, wasn’t it? Mallalieu was treasurer, and you were secretary. Yes—I remember now. The amount was two thous——”
Cotherstone made a sudden exclamation and a sharp movement—both checked by an equally sudden change of attitude and expression on the part of the ex-detective. For Kitely sat straight up and looked the junior partner squarely in the face.
“Better not, Mr. Cotherstone!” he said, with a grin that showed his yellow teeth. “You can’t very well choke the life out of me in your own office, can you? You couldn’t hide my old carcase as easily as you and Mallalieu hid those Building Society funds, you know. So—be calm! I’m a reasonable man—and getting an old man.”
He accompanied the last words with a meaning smile, and Cotherstone took a turn or two about the room, trying to steady himself. And Kitely presently went on again, in the same monotonous tones:
“Think it all out—by all means,” he said. “I don’t suppose there’s a soul in all England but myself knows your secret—and Mallalieu’s. It was sheer accident, of course, that I ever discovered it. But—I know! Just consider what I do know. Consider, too, what you stand to lose. There’s Mallalieu, so much respected that he’s Mayor of this ancient borough for the second time. There’s you—so much trusted that you’ve been Borough Treasurer for years. You can’t afford to let me tell the Highmarket folk that you two are ex-convicts! Besides, in your case there’s another thing—there’s your daughter.”
Cotherstone groaned—a deep, unmistakable groan of sheer torture. But Kitely went on remorselessly.
“Your daughter’s just about to marry the most promising young man in the place,” he said. “A young fellow with a career before him. Do you think he’d marry her if he knew that her father—even if it is thirty years ago—had been convicted of——”
“Look you here!” interrupted Cotherstone, through set teeth. “I’ve had enough! I’ve asked you once before if you’d any more to say—now I’ll put it in another fashion. For I see what you’re after—and it’s blackmail! How much do you want? Come on—give it a name!”
“Name nothing, till you’ve told Mallalieu,” answered Kitely. “There’s no hurry. You two can’t, and I shan’t, run away. Time enough—I’ve the whip hand. Tell your partner, the Mayor, all I’ve told you—then you can put your heads together, and see what you’re inclined to do. An annuity, now?—that would suit me.”
“You haven’t mentioned this to a soul?” asked Cotherstone anxiously.
“Bah!” sneered Kitely. “D’ye think I’m a fool? Not likely. Well—now you know. I’ll come in here again tomorrow afternoon. And—you’ll both be here, and ready with a proposal.”
He picked up his glass, leisurely drank off its remaining contents, and without a word of farewell opened the door and went quietly away.
FOR SOME MOMENTS AFTER KITELY had left him, Cotherstone stood vacantly staring at the chair in which the blackmailer had sat. As yet he could not realize things. He was only filled with a queer, vague amazement about Kitely himself. He began to look back on his relations with Kitely. They were recent—very recent, only of yesterday, as you might say. Kitely had come to him, one day about three months previously, told him that he had come to these parts for a bit of a holiday, taken a fancy to a cottage which he, Cotherstone, had to let, and inquired its rent. He had mentioned, casually, that he had just retired from business, and wanted a quiet place wherein to spend the rest of his days. He had taken the cottage, and given his landlord satisfactory references as to his ability to pay the rent—and Cotherstone, always a busy man, had thought no more about him. Certainly he had never anticipated such an announcement as that which Kitely had just made to him—never dreamed that Kitely had recognized him and Mallalieu as men he had known thirty years ago.
It had been Cotherstone’s life-long endeavour to forget all about the event of thirty years ago, and to a large extent he had succeeded in dulling his memory. But Kitely had brought it all back—and now everything was fresh to him. His brows knitted and his face grew dark as he thought of one thing in his past of which Kitely had spoken so easily and glibly—the dock. He saw himself in that dock again—and Mallalieu standing by him. They were not called Mallalieu and Cotherstone then, of course. He remembered what their real names were—he remembered, too, that, until a few minutes before, he had certainly not repeated them, even to himself, for many a long year. Oh, yes—he remembered everything—he saw it all again. The case had excited plenty of attention in Wilchester at the time—Wilchester, that for thirty years had been so far away in thought and in actual distance that it might have been some place in the Antipodes. It was not a nice case—even now, looking back upon it from his present standpoint, it made him blush to think of. Two better-class young working-men, charged with embezzling the funds of a building society to which they had acted as treasurer and secretary!—a bad case. The Court had thought it a bad case, and the culprits had been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. And now Cotherstone only remembered that imprisonment as one remembers a particularly bad dream. Yes—it had been real.
His eyes, moody and brooding, suddenly shifted their gaze from the easy chair to his own hands—they were shaking. Mechanically he took up the whisky decanter from his desk, and poured some of its contents into his glass—the rim of the glass tinkled against the neck of the decanter. Yes—that had been a shock, right enough, he muttered to himself, and not all the whisky in the world would drive it out of him. But a drink—neat and stiff—would pull his nerves up to pitch, and so he drank, once, twice, and sat down with the glass in his hand—to think still more.
That old Kitely was shrewd—shrewd! He had at once hit on a fact which those Wilchester folk of thirty years ago had never suspected. It had been said at the time that the two offenders had lost the building society’s money in gambling and speculation, and there had been grounds for such a belief. But that was not so. Most of the money had been skilfully and carefully put where the two conspirators could lay hands on it as soon as it was wanted, and when the term of imprisonment was over they had nothing to do but take possession of it for their own purposes. They had engineered everything very well—Cotherstone’s essentially constructive mind, regarding their doings from the vantage ground of thirty years’ difference, acknowledged that they had been cute, crafty, and cautious to an admirable degree of perfection. Quietly and unobtrusively they had completely disappeared from their own district in the extreme South of England, when their punishment was over. They had let it get abroad that they were going to another continent, to retrieve the past and start a new life; it was even known that they repaired to Liverpool, to take ship for America. But in Liverpool they had shuffled off everything of the past—names, relations, antecedents. There was no reason why any one should watch them out of the country, but they had adopted precautions against such watching. They separated, disappeared, met again in the far North, in a sparsely-populated, lonely country of hill and dale, led there by an advertisement which they had seen in a local newspaper, met with by sheer chance in a Liverpool hotel. There was an old-established business to sell as a going concern, in the dale town of Highmarket: the two ex-convicts bought it. From that time they were Anthony Mallalieu and Milford Cotherstone, and the past was dead.
During the thirty years in which that past had been dead, Cotherstone had often heard men remark that this world of ours is a very small one, and he had secretly laughed at them. To him and to his partner the world had been wide and big enough. They were now four hundred miles away from the scene of their crime. There was nothing whatever to bring Wilchester people into that northern country, nothing to take Highmarket folk anywhere near Wilchester. Neither he nor Mallalieu ever went far afield—London they avoided with particular care, lest they should meet any one there who had known them in the old days. They had stopped at home, and minded their business, year in and year out. Naturally, they had prospered. They had speedily become known as hard-working young men; then as good employers of labour; finally as men of considerable standing in a town of which there were only some five thousand inhabitants. They had been invited to join in public matters—Mallalieu had gone into the Town Council first; Cotherstone had followed him later. They had been as successful in administering the affairs of the little town as in conducting their own, and in time both had attained high honours: Mallalieu was now wearing the mayoral chain for the second time; Cotherstone, as Borough Treasurer, had governed the financial matters of Highmarket for several years. And as he sat there, staring at the red embers of the office fire, he remembered that there were no two men in the whole town who were more trusted and respected than he and his partner—his partner in success ... and in crime.
But that was not all. Both men had married within a few years of their coming to Highmarket. They had married young women of good standing in the neighbourhood; it was perhaps well, reflected Cotherstone, that their wives were dead, and that Mallalieu had never been blessed with children. But Cotherstone had a daughter, of whom he was as fond as he was proud; for her he had toiled and contrived, always intending her to be a rich woman. He had seen to it that she was well educated; he had even allowed himself to be deprived of her company for two years while she went to an expensive school, far away; since she had grown up, he had surrounded her with every comfort. And now, as Kitely had reminded him, she was engaged to be married to the most promising young man in Highmarket, Windle Bent, a rich manufacturer, who had succeeded to and greatly developed a fine business, who had already made his mark on the Town Council, and was known to cherish Parliamentary ambitions. Everybody knew that Bent had a big career before him; he had all the necessary gifts; all the proper stuff in him for such a career. He would succeed; he would probably win a title for himself—a baronetcy, perhaps a peerage. This was just the marriage which Cotherstone desired for Lettie; he would die more than happy if he could once hear her called Your Ladyship. And now here was—this!
Cotherstone sat there a long time, thinking, reflecting, reckoning up things. The dusk had come; the darkness followed; he made no movement towards the gas bracket. Nothing mattered but his trouble. That must be dealt with. At all costs, Kitely’s silence must be purchased—aye, even if it cost him and Mallalieu one-half of what they had. And, of course, Mallalieu must be told—at once.
A tap of somebody’s knuckles on the door of the private room roused him at last, and he sprang up and seized a box of matches as he bade the person without to enter. The clerk came in, carrying a sheaf of papers, and Cotherstone bustled to the gas.
“Dear me!” he exclaimed. “I’ve dropped off into a nod over this warm fire, Stoner. What’s that—letters?”
“There’s all these letters to sign, Mr. Cotherstone, and these three contracts to go through,” answered the clerk. “And there are those specifications to examine, as well.”
“Mr. Mallalieu’ll have to see those,” said Cotherstone. He lighted the gas above his desk, put the decanter and the glasses aside, and took the letters. “I’ll sign these, anyhow,” he said, “and then you can post ‘em as you go home. The other papers’ll do tomorrow morning.”
The clerk stood slightly behind his master as Cotherstone signed one letter after the other, glancing quickly through each. He was a young man of twenty-two or three, with quick, observant manners, a keen eye, and a not handsome face, and as he stood there the face was bent on Cotherstone with a surmising look. Stoner had noticed his employer’s thoughtful attitude, the gloom in which Cotherstone sat, the decanter on the table, the glass in Cotherstone’s hand, and he knew that Cotherstone was telling a fib when he said he had been asleep. He noticed, too, the six sovereigns and the two or three silver coins lying on the desk, and he wondered what had made his master so abstracted that he had forgotten to pocket them. For he knew Cotherstone well, and Cotherstone was so particular about money that he never allowed even a penny to lie out of place.
“There!” said Cotherstone, handing back the batch of letters. “You’ll be going now, I suppose. Put those in the post. I’m not going just yet, so I’ll lock up the office. Leave the outer door open—Mr. Mallalieu’s coming back.”
He pulled down the blinds of the private room when Stoner had gone, and that done he fell to walking up and down, awaiting his partner. And presently Mallalieu came, smoking a cigar, and evidently in as good humour as usual.
“Oh, you’re still here?” he said as he entered. “I—what’s up?”
He had come to a sudden halt close to his partner, and he now stood staring at him. And Cotherstone, glancing past Mallalieu’s broad shoulder at a mirror, saw that he himself had become startlingly pale and haggard. He looked twenty years older than he had looked when he shaved himself that morning.
“Aren’t you well?” demanded Mallalieu. “What is it?”
Cotherstone made no answer. He walked past Mallalieu and looked into the outer office. The clerk had gone, and the place was only half-lighted. But Cotherstone closed the door with great care, and when he went back to Mallalieu he sank his voice to a whisper.
“Bad news!” he said. “Bad—bad news!”
“What about?” asked Mallalieu. “Private? Business?”
Cotherstone put his lips almost close to Mallalieu’s ear.
“That man Kitely—my new tenant,” he whispered. “He’s met us—you and me—before!”
Mallalieu’s rosy cheeks paled, and he turned sharply on his companion.
“Met—us!” he exclaimed. “Him! Where?—when?”
Cotherstone got his lips still closer.
“Wilchester!” he answered. “Thirty years ago. He—knows!”
Mallalieu dropped into the nearest chair: dropped as if he had been shot. His face, full of colour from the keen air outside, became as pale as his partner’s; his jaw fell, his mouth opened; a strained look came into his small eyes.
“Gad!” he muttered hoarsely. “You—you don’t say so!”
“It’s a fact,” answered Cotherstone. “He knows everything. He’s an ex-detective. He was there—that day.”
“Tracked us down?” asked Mallalieu. “That it?”
“No,” said Cotherstone. “Sheer chance—pure accident. Recognized us—after he came here. Aye—after all these years! Thirty years!”
Mallalieu’s eyes, roving about the room, fell on the decanter. He pulled himself out of his chair, found a clean glass, and took a stiff drink. And his partner, watching him, saw that his hands, too, were shaking.
“That’s a facer!” said Mallalieu. His voice had grown stronger, and the colour came back to his cheeks. “A real facer! As you say—after thirty years! It’s hard—it’s blessed hard! And—what does he want? What’s he going to do?”
“Wants to blackmail us, of course,” replied Cotherstone, with a mirthless laugh. “What else should he do? What could he do? Why, he could tell all Highmarket who we are, and——”
“Aye, aye!—but the thing is here,” interrupted Mallalieu.
“Supposing we do square him?—is there any reliance to be placed on him then? It ‘ud only be the old game—he’d only want more.”
“He said an annuity,” remarked Cotherstone, thoughtfully. “And he added significantly, that he was getting an old man.”
“How old?” demanded Mallalieu.
“Between sixty and seventy,” said Cotherstone. “I’m under the impression that he could be squared, could be satisfied. He’ll have to be! We can’t let it get out—I can’t, any way. There’s my daughter to think of.”
“D’ye think I’d let it get out?” asked Mallalieu. “No!—all I’m thinking of is if we really can silence him. I’ve heard of cases where a man’s paid blackmail for years and years, and been no better for it in the end.”
“Well—he’s coming here tomorrow afternoon some time,” said Cotherstone. “We’d better see him—together. After all, a hundred a year—a couple of hundred a year—’ud be better than—exposure.”
Mallalieu drank off his whisky and pushed the glass aside.
“I’ll consider it,” he remarked. “What’s certain sure is that he’ll have to be quietened. I must go—I’ve an appointment. Are you coming out?”
“Not yet,” replied Cotherstone. “I’ve all these papers to go through. Well, think it well over. He’s a man to be feared.”
Mallalieu made no answer. He, like Kitely, went off without a word of farewell, and Cotherstone was once more left alone.
WHEN MALLALIEU HAD GONE, COTHERSTONE gathered up the papers which his clerk had brought in, and sitting down at his desk tried to give his attention to them. The effort was not altogether a success. He had hoped that the sharing of the bad news with his partner would bring some relief to him, but his anxieties were still there. He was always seeing that queer, sinister look in Kitely’s knowing eyes: it suggested that as long as Kitely lived there would be no safety. Even if Kitely kept his word, kept any compact made with him, he would always have the two partners under his thumb. And for thirty years Cotherstone had been under no man’s thumb, and the fear of having a master was hateful to him. He heartily wished that Kitely was dead—dead and buried, and his secret with him; he wished that it had been anywise possible to have crushed the life out of him where he sat in that easy chair as soon as he had shown himself the reptile that he was. A man might kill any poisonous insect, any noxious reptile at pleasure—why not a human blood-sucker like that?
He sat there a long time, striving to give his attention to his papers, and making a poor show of it. The figures danced about before him; he could make neither head nor tail of the technicalities in the specifications and estimates; every now and then fits of abstraction came over him, and he sat drumming the tips of his fingers on his blotting-pad, staring vacantly at the shadows in the far depths of the room, and always thinking—thinking of the terrible danger of revelation. And always, as an under-current, he was saying that for himself he cared naught—Kitely could do what he liked, or would have done what he liked, had there only been himself to think for. But—Lettie! All his life was now centred in her, and in her happiness, and Lettie’s happiness, he knew, was centred in the man she was going to marry. And Cotherstone, though he believed that he knew men pretty well, was not sure that he knew Windle Bent sufficiently to feel sure that he would endure a stiff test. Bent was ambitious—he was resolved on a career. Was he the sort of man to stand the knowledge which Kitely might give him? For there was always the risk that whatever he and Mallalieu might do, Kitely, while there was breath in him, might split.
A sudden ringing at the bell of the telephone in the outer office made Cotherstone jump in his chair as if the arresting hand of justice had suddenly been laid on him. In spite of himself he rose trembling, and there were beads of perspiration on his forehead as he walked across the room.
“Nerves!” he muttered to himself. “I must be in a queer way to be taken like that. It won’t do!—especially at this turn. What is it?” he demanded, going to the telephone. “Who is that?”
His daughter’s voice, surprised and admonitory, came to him along the wire.
“Is that you, father?” she exclaimed. “What are you doing? Don’t you remember you asked Windle, and his friend Mr. Brereton, to supper at eight o’clock. It’s a quarter to eight now. Do come home!”
Cotherstone let out an exclamation which signified annoyance. The event of the late afternoon had completely driven it out of his recollection that Windle Bent had an old school-friend, a young barrister from London, staying with him, and that both had been asked to supper that evening at Cotherstone’s house. But Cotherstone’s annoyance was not because of his own forgetfulness, but because his present abstraction made him dislike the notion of company.
“I’d forgotten—for the moment,” he called. “I’ve been very busy. All right, Lettie—I’m coming on at once. Shan’t be long.”
But when he had left the telephone he made no haste. He lingered by his desk; he was slow in turning out the gas; slow in quitting and locking up his office; he went slowly away through the town. Nothing could have been further from his wishes than a desire to entertain company that night—and especially a stranger. His footsteps dragged as he passed through the market-place and turned into the outskirts beyond.
Some years previously to this, when they had both married and made money, the two partners had built new houses for themselves. Outside Highmarket, on its western boundary, rose a long, low hill called Highmarket Shawl; the slope which overhung the town was thickly covered with fir and pine, amidst which great masses of limestone crag jutted out here and there. At the foot of this hill, certain plots of building land had been sold, and Mallalieu had bought one and Cotherstone another, and on these they had erected two solid stone houses, fitted up with all the latest improvements known to the building trade. Each was proud of his house; each delighted in welcoming friends and acquaintances there—this was the first night Cotherstone could remember on which it was hateful to him to cross his own threshold. The lighted windows, the smell of good things cooked for supper, brought him no sense of satisfaction; he had to make a distinct effort to enter and to present a face of welcome to his two guests, who were already there, awaiting him.
“Couldn’t get in earlier,” he said, replying to Lettie’s half-anxious, half-playful scoldings. “There was some awkward business turned up this evening—and as it is, I shall have to run away for an hour after supper—can’t be helped. How do you do, sir?” he went on, giving his hand to the stranger. “Glad to see you in these parts—you’ll find this a cold climate after London, I’m afraid.”
He took a careful look at Bent’s friend as they all sat down to supper—out of sheer habit of inspecting any man who was new to him. And after a glance or two he said to himself that this young limb of the law was a sharp chap—a keen-eyed, alert, noticeable fellow, whose every action and tone denoted great mental activity. He was sharper than Bent, said Cotherstone, and in his opinion, that was saying a good deal. Bent’s ability was on the surface; he was an excellent specimen of the business man of action, who had ideas out of the common but was not so much given to deep and quiet thinking as to prompt doing of things quickly decided on. He glanced from one to the other, mentally comparing them. Bent was a tall, handsome man, blonde, blue-eyed, ready of word and laugh; Brereton, a medium-sized, compact fellow, dark of hair and eye, with an olive complexion that almost suggested foreign origin: the sort, decided Cotherstone, that thought a lot and said little. And forcing himself to talk he tried to draw the stranger out, watching him, too, to see if he admired Lettie. For it was one of Cotherstone’s greatest joys in life to bring folk to his house and watch the effect which his pretty daughter had on them, and he was rewarded now in seeing that the young man from London evidently applauded his friend’s choice and paid polite tribute to Lettie’s charm.
“And what might you have been doing with Mr. Brereton since he got down yesterday?” asked Cotherstone. “Showing him round, of course?”
“I’ve been tormenting him chiefly with family history,” answered Bent, with a laughing glance at his sweetheart. “You didn’t know I was raking up everything I could get hold of about my forbears, did you? Oh, I’ve been busy at that innocent amusement for a month past—old Kitely put me up to it.”
Cotherstone could barely repress an inclination to start in his chair; he himself was not sure that he did not show undue surprise.
“What!” he exclaimed. “Kitely? My tenant? What does he know about your family? A stranger!”
“Much more than I do,” replied Bent. “The old chap’s nothing to do, you know, and since he took up his abode here he’s been spending all his time digging up local records—he’s a good bit of an antiquary, and that sort of thing. The Town Clerk tells me Kitely’s been through nearly all the old town documents—chests full of them! And Kitely told me one day that if I liked he’d trace our pedigree back to I don’t know when, and as he seemed keen, I told him to go ahead. He’s found out a lot of interesting things in the borough records that I never heard of.”
Cotherstone had kept his eyes on his plate while Bent was talking; he spoke now without looking up.
“Oh?” he said, trying to speak unconcernedly. “Ah!—then you’ll have been seeing a good deal of Kitely lately?”
“Not so much,” replied Bent. “He’s brought me the result of his work now and then—things he’s copied out of old registers, and so on.”
“And what good might it all amount to?” asked Cotherstone, more for the sake of talking than for any interest he felt. “Will it come to aught?”
“Bent wants to trace his family history back to the Conquest,” observed Brereton, slyly. “He thinks the original Bent came over with the Conqueror. But his old man hasn’t got beyond the Tudor period yet.”
“Never mind!” said Bent. “There were Bents in Highmarket in Henry the Seventh’s time, anyhow. And if one has a pedigree, why not have it properly searched out? He’s a keen old hand at that sort of thing, Kitely. The Town Clerk says he can read some of our borough charters of six hundred years ago as if they were newspaper articles.”
Cotherstone made no remark on that. He was thinking. So Kitely was in close communication with Bent, was he?—constantly seeing him, being employed by him? Well, that cut two ways. It showed that up to now he had taken no advantage of his secret knowledge and might therefore be considered as likely to play straight if he were squared by the two partners. But it also proved that Bent would probably believe anything that Kitely might tell him. Certainly Kitely must be dealt with at once. He knew too much, and was obviously too clever, to be allowed to go about unfettered. Cost what it might, he must be attached to the Mallalieu-Cotherstone interest. And what Cotherstone was concentrating on just then, as he ate and drank, was—how to make that attachment in such a fashion that Kitely would have no option but to keep silence. If only he and Mallalieu could get a hold on Kitely, such as that which he had on them——
“Well,” he said as supper came to an end, “I’m sorry, but I’m forced to leave you gentlemen for an hour, at any rate—can’t be helped. Lettie, you must try to amuse ‘em until I come back. Sing Mr. Brereton some of your new songs. Bent—you know where the whisky and the cigars are—help yourselves—make yourselves at home.”
“You won’t be more than an hour, father?” asked Lettie.
“An hour’ll finish what I’ve got to do,” replied Cotherstone, “maybe less—I’ll be as quick as I can, anyway, my lass.”
He hurried off without further ceremony; a moment later and he had exchanged the warmth and brightness of his comfortable dining-room for the chill night and the darkness. And as he turned out of his garden he was thinking still further and harder. So Windle Bent was one of those chaps who have what folk call family pride, was he? Actually proud of the fact that he had a pedigree, and could say who his grandfather and grandmother were?—things on which most people were as hazy as they were indifferent. In that case, if he was really family-proud, all the more reason why Kitely should be made to keep his tongue still. For if Windle Bent was going on the game of making out that he was a man of family, he certainly would not relish the prospect of uniting his ancient blood with that of a man who had seen the inside of a prison. Kitely!—promptly and definitely—and for good!—that was the ticket.
Cotherstone went off into the shadows of the night—and a good hour had passed when he returned to his house. It was then ten o’clock; he afterwards remembered that he glanced at the old grandfather clock in his hall when he let himself in. All was very quiet in there; he opened the drawing-room door to find the two young men and Lettie sitting over a bright fire, and Brereton evidently telling the other two some story, which he was just bringing to a conclusion.
“ ... for it’s a fact, in criminal practice,” Brereton was saying, “that there are no end of undiscovered crimes—there are any amount of guilty men going about free as the air, and——”
“Hope you’ve been enjoying yourselves,” said Cotherstone, going forward to the group. “I’ve been as quick as I could.”
“Mr. Brereton has been telling us most interesting stories about criminals,” said Lettie. “Facts—much stranger than fiction!”
“Then I’m sure it’s time he’d something to refresh himself with,” said Cotherstone hospitably. “Come away, gentlemen, and we’ll see if we can’t find a drop to drink and a cigar to smoke.”
He led the way to the dining-room and busied himself in bringing out some boxes of cigars from a cupboard while Lettie produced decanters and glasses from the sideboard.
“So you’re interested in criminal matters, sir?” observed Cotherstone as he offered Brereton a cigar. “Going in for that line, eh?”
“What practice I’ve had has been in that line,” answered Brereton, with a quiet laugh. “One sort of gets pitchforked into these things, you know, so——”
“What’s that?” exclaimed Lettie, who was just then handing the young barrister a tumbler of whisky and soda which Bent had mixed for him. “Somebody running hurriedly up the drive—as if something had happened! Surely you’re not going to be fetched out again, father?”
A loud ringing of the bell prefaced the entrance of some visitor, whose voice was heard in eager conversation with a parlourmaid in the hall.
“That’s your neighbour—Mr. Garthwaite,” said Bent.
Cotherstone set down the cigars and opened the dining-room door. A youngish, fresh-coloured man, who looked upset and startled, came out of the hall, glancing round him inquiringly.
“Sorry to intrude, Mr. Cotherstone,” he said. “I say!—that old gentleman you let the cottage to—Kitely, you know.”
“What of him?” demanded Cotherstone sharply.
“He’s lying there in the coppice above your house—I stumbled over him coming through there just now,” replied Garthwaite. “He—don’t be frightened, Miss Cotherstone—he’s—well, there’s no doubt of it—he’s dead! And——”
“And—what?” asked Cotherstone. “What, man? Out with it!”
“And I should say, murdered!” said Garthwaite. “I—yes, I just saw enough to say that. Murdered—without a doubt!”
THE PINE WOOD
BRERETON, STANDING BACK IN THE
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