Part 4 out of 5
THE DIRECT CHARGE
While Byner was pursuing his investigations in the neighbourhood of the
_Green Man_, Collingwood was out at Normandale Grange, discussing
certain matters with Nesta Mallathorpe. He had not only thought long and
deeply over his conversation with Cobcroft the previous evening, but had
begun to think about the crucial point of the clerk's story as soon as
he spoke in the morning, and the result of his meditations was that he
rose early, intercepted Cobcroft before he started for Mallathorpe's
Mill and asked his permission to re-tell the story to Miss Mallathorpe.
Cobcroft raised no objection, and when Collingwood had been to his
chambers and seen his letters, he chartered a car and rode out to
Normandale where he told Nesta of what he had learned and of his own
conclusions. And Nesta, having listened carefully to all he had to tell,
put a direct question to him.
"You think this document which Pratt told me he holds is my late uncle's
will?" she said. "What do you suppose its terms to be?"
"Frankly--these, or something like these," replied Collingwood. "And I
get at my conclusions in this way. Your uncle died intestate--consequently,
everything in the shape of real estate came to your brother and everything
in personal property to your brother and yourself. Now, supposing that
the document which Pratt boasts of holding is the will, one fact is very
certain--the property, real or personal, is not disposed of in the way
in which it became disposed of because of John Mallathorpe's intestacy.
He probably disposed of it in quite another fashion. Why do I think that?
Because the probability is that Pratt said to your mother, 'I have got
John Mallathorpe's will! It doesn't leave his property to your son and
daughter. Therefore, I have all of you at my mercy. Make it worth my
while, or I will bring the will forward.' Do you see that situation?"
"Then," replied Nesta, after a moment's reflection, "you do think that
my mother was very anxious to get that document--a will--from Pratt?"
Collingwood knew what she was thinking of--her mind was still uneasy
about Pratt's account of the affair of the foot-bridge. But--the matter
had to be faced.
"I think your mother would naturally be very anxious to secure such a
document," he said. "You must remember that according to Pratt's story
to you, she tried to buy it from him--just as you did yourself, though
you, of course, had no idea of what it was you wanted to buy."
"What I wanted to buy," she answered readily, "was necessity from
further interference! But--is there no way of compelling Pratt to give
up that document--whatever it is? Can't he be made to give it up?"
"A way is may be being made, just now--through another affair," replied
Collingwood. "At present matters are vague. One couldn't go to Pratt and
demand something at which one is, after all, only guessing. Your mother,
of course, would deny that she knows what it is that Pratt holds.
But--there is the possibility of the duplicate to which Cobcroft
referred. Now, I want to put the question straight to you--supposing
that duplicate will can be found--and supposing--to put it plainly---its
terms dispossess you of all your considerable property--what then?"
"Do you want the exact truth?" she asked. "Well, then, I should just
welcome anything that cleared up all this mystery! What is it at
present, this situation, but intolerable? I know that my
mother is in Pratt's power, and likely to remain so as long as ever this
goes on--probably for life. She will not give me her confidence. What is
more, I am certain that she is giving it to Esther Mawson--who is most
likely hand-in-glove with Pratt. Esther Mawson is always with her. I am
almost sure that she communicates with Pratt through Esther Mawson. It
is all what I say--intolerable! I had rather lose every penny that has
come into my hands than have this go on."
"Answer me a plain question," said Collingwood. "Is your mother fond of
money, position--all that sort of thing?"
"She is fond of power!" replied Nesta. "It pleased her greatly when we
came into all this wealth to know that she was the virtual
administrator. Even if she could only do it by collusion with Pratt, she
would make a fight for all that she--and I--hold. It's useless to deny
that. Don't forget," she added, looking appealingly at Collingwood,
"don't forget that she has known what it was to be poor--and if one does
come into money--I suppose one doesn't want to lose it again."
"Oh, it's natural enough!" agreed Collingwood. "But--if things are as I
think, Pratt would be an incubus, a mill-stone, for ever. Anyway, I came
out to tell you what I've learned, and what I have an idea may be the
truth, and above all, to get your definite opinion. You want the Pratt
influence out of the way--at any cost?"
"At any cost!" she affirmed. "Even if I have to go back to earning my
own living! Whatever pleasure in life could there be for me, knowing
that at the back of all this there is that--what?"
"Pratt!" answered Collingwood. "Pratt! He's the shadow--with his deep
schemes. However, as I said--there may be--developing at this
moment--another way of getting at Pratt. Gentlemen like Pratt, born
schemers, invariably forget one very important factor in life--the
unexpected! Even the cleverest and most subtle schemer may have his
delicate machinery broken to pieces by a chance bit of mere dust getting
into it at an unexpected turn of the wheels. And to turn to plainer
language--I'm going back to Barford now to hear what another man has to
say concerning certain of Pratt's recent movements."
Eldrick was already waiting when Collingwood reached his chambers: Byner
came there a few moments later. Within half an hour the barrister had
told his story of Cobcroft, and the inquiry agent his of his visit to
the _Green Man_ and the quarries. And the solicitor listened quietly and
attentively to both, and in the end turned to Collingwood.
"I'll withdraw my opinion about the nature of the document which Pratt
got hold of," he said. "What he's got is what you think--John
"If I may venture an opinion," remarked Byner, "that's dead certain!"
"And now," continued Eldrick, "we're faced with a nice situation! Don't
either of you forget this fact. Not. out of willingness on her part, but
because she's got to do it, Mrs. Mallathorpe and Pratt are partners in
that affair. He's got the will--but she knows its contents. She'll pay
any price to Pratt to keep them from ever becoming known or operative.
But, as I say, don't you forget something!"
"What?" asked Collingwood.
Eldrick tapped the edge of the table, emphasizing his words as he spoke
"They can destroy that will whenever they like!" he said. "And once
destroyed, nothing can absolutely prove that it ever existed!"
"The duplicate?" suggested Collingwood.
"Nothing to give us the faintest idea as to its existence!" said
"We might advertise," said Collingwood.
"Lots of advertising was done when John Mallathorpe died," replied the
solicitor. "No!--if any person had had it in possession, it would have
turned up then. It may be--probably is--possibly must be--somewhere--and
may yet come to light. But--there's another way of getting at Pratt.
Through this Parrawhite affair. Pratt most likely had not the least
notion that he would ever hear of Parrawhite again. He is going to hear
of Parrawhite again! I am convinced now that Parrawhite knew something
about this, and that Pratt squared him and got him away. Aren't you?" he
asked, turning to Byner.
But Byner smiled quietly and shook his head.
"No!" he answered. "I am not, Mr. Eldrick."
"You're not?" exclaimed Eldrick, surprised and wondering that anybody
could fail to agree with him.
"Why not, then?"
"Because," replied Byner. "I am certain that Pratt murdered Parrawhite
on the night of November twenty-third last. That's why. He didn't square
him. He didn't get him away. He killed him!"
The effect of this straightforward pronouncement of opinion on the two
men who heard it was strikingly different. Collingwood's face at once
became cold and inscrutable; his lips fixed themselves sternly; his eyes
looked hard into a problematic future. But Eldrick flushed as if a
direct accusation had been levelled at himself, and he turned on the
inquiry agent almost impatiently.
"Murder!" he exclaimed. "Oh, come! I--really, that's rather a stiff
order! I dare say Pratt's been up to all sorts of trickery, and even
deviltry--but murder is quite another thing. You're pretty ready to
Byner moved his head in Collingwood's direction--and Eldrick turned and
looked anxiously at Collingwood, who, finding the eyes of both men on
him, opened his hitherto tight-shut lips.
"I think it quite likely!" he said.
Byner laughed softly and looked at the solicitor.
"Just listen to me a minute or two, Mr. Eldrick," he said. "I'll sum up
my own ideas on this matter, got from the various details that have been
supplied to me since I came to Barford. Just consider my points one by
one. Let's take them separately--and see how they fit in.
"1. Mr. Bartle is seen by his shop-boy to take a certain paper from a
book which came from the late John Mallathorpe's office at Mallathorpe
Mill. He puts that paper in his pocket.
"2. Immediately afterwards Mr. Bartle goes to your office. Nobody is
there but Pratt--as far as Pratt knows.
"3. Bartle dies suddenly--after telling Pratt that the paper is John
Mallathorpe's will. Pratt steals the will. And the probability is that
Parrawhite, unknown to Pratt, was in that office, and saw him steal it.
Why is that probable? Because--
"4. Next night Parrawhite, who is being pressed for money by Pickard,
tells Pickard that he can get it out of Pratt, over whom he has a hold.
What hold? We can imagine what hold. Anyway--
"5. Parrawhite leaves Pickard to meet Pratt. He did meet Pratt--in
Stubbs' Lane. He was seen to go with Pratt into the disused quarry. And
there, in my opinion, Pratt killed him--and disposed of his body.
"6. What does Pratt do next? He goes to your office first thing next
morning, and removes certain moneys which you say you carelessly left in
your desk the night before, and tears out certain cheque forms from your
book. When Parrawhite never turns up that morning, you--and
Pratt--conclude that he's the thief, and that he's run away.
"7. If you want some proof of the correctness of this last suggestion,
you'll find it in the fact that no use has ever been made of those blank
cheques, and that--in all probability--the stolen bank-notes have never
reached the Bank of England. On that last point I'm making inquiry--but
my feeling is that Pratt destroyed both cheques and bank-notes when he
"8. This man Parrawhite out of the way, Pratt has a clear field. He's
got the will. He's already acquainted Mrs. Mallathorpe with that fact,
and with the terms of the will--whatever they may be. We may be sure,
however, that they are of such a nature as to make her willing to agree
to his demands upon her--and, accidentally, to go to any lengths--upon
which we needn't touch, at present--towards getting possession of the
will from him.
"9. And the present situation--from Pratt's standpoint of yesterday--is
this. He's so sure of his own safety that he doesn't mind revealing to
the daughter that the mother's in his power. Why? Because Pratt, like
most men of his sort, cannot believe that self-interest isn't paramount
with everybody--it's beyond him to conceive it possible that Miss
Mallathorpe would do anything that might lose her several thousands a
year. He argued--'So long as I hold that will, nobody and nothing can
make me give it up nor divulge its contents. But I can bind one person
who benefits by it--Miss Mallathorpe, and for the mother's sake I can
keep the daughter quiet!' Well--he hasn't kept the daughter quiet!
"10. And last--in all such schemes as Pratt's, the schemer invariably
forgets something. Pratt forgot that there might arise what actually has
arisen--inquiry for Parrawhite. The search for Parrawhite is afoot--and
if you want to get at Pratt, it will have to be through what I firmly
believe to be a fact--his murder of Parrawhite and his disposal of
"That's all, Mr. Eldrick," concluded Byner who had spoken with much
emphasis throughout. "It all seems very clear to me, and," he added,
with a glance at Collingwood, "I think Mr. Collingwood is inclined to
agree with most of what I've said."
"Pretty nearly all--if not all," assented Collingwood. "I think you've
put into clear language precisely what I feel. I don't believe there's a
shadow of doubt that Pratt killed Parrawhite! And we can--and must--get
at him in that way. What do you suggest?" he continued, turning to
Byner. "You have some idea, of course?"
"First of all," answered Byner, "we mustn't arouse any suspicion on
Pratt's part. Let us work behind the screen. But I have an idea as to
how he disposed of Parrawhite, and I'm going to follow it up this very
day--my first duty, you know, is towards the people who want Parrawhite,
or proof of his death. I propose to----"
Just then Collingwood's clerk came in with a telegram.
"Sent on from the _Central Hotel_, sir," he answered. "They said Mr.
Black would be found here."
"That's mine," said the inquiry agent. "I left word at the hotel that
they were to send to your chambers if any wire came for me. Allow me."
He opened the telegram, looked it over, and waiting until the clerk had
gone, turned to his companions. "Here's a message from my partner, Mr.
Halstead," he continued. "Listen to what he wires:
"'Wire just received from Murgatroyd, shipping agent, Peel Row,
Barford. He says Parrawhite left that town for America on
November 24th last and offers further information. Let me know
what to reply!'"
Byner laid the message before Eldrick and Collingwood without further
On the evening of the day whereon Nesta Mallathorpe had paid him the
visit which had resulted in so much plain speech on both sides, Pratt
employed his leisure in a calm review of the situation. He was by no
means dissatisfied, it seemed to him that everything was going very well
for his purposes. He was not at all sorry that Nesta had been to see
him--far from it. He regretted nothing that he had said to her. In his
desperate opinion, his own position was much stronger when she left
him than it was when he opened his office door to her. She now knew,
said Pratt, with what a strong and resourceful man she had to deal: she
would respect him, and have a better idea of him, now that she was aware
of his impregnable position.
Herein Pratt's innate vanity and his ignorance showed themselves. He had
little knowledge of modern young women, and few ideas about them; and
such ideas as he possessed were usually mistaken ones. But one was that
it is always necessary to keep a firm hand on women--let them see and
feel your power, said Pratt. He had been secretly delighted to acquaint
Nesta Mallathorpe with his power, to drive it into her that he had the
whip hand of her mother, and through her mother, of Nesta herself. He
had seen that Nesta was much upset and alarmed by what he told her. And
though she certainly seemed to recover her spirits at the end of the
interview, and even refused to shake hands with him, he cherished the
notion that in the war of words he had come off a decided victor. He did
not believe that Nesta would utter to any other soul one word of what
had passed between them: she would be too much afraid of calling down
his vengeance on her mother. What he did believe was that as time went
by, and all progressed smoothly, Nesta would come to face and accept
facts: she would find him honest and hardworking in his dealings with
Mrs. Mallathorpe (as he fully intended to be, from purely personal and
selfish motives) and she herself would begin to tolerate and then to
trust him, and eventually--well, who knew what might or might not
happen? What said the great Talleyrand?--WITH TIME AND PATIENCE, THE
MULBERRY LEAF IS TURNED INTO SATIN.
But Pratt's self-complacency received a shock next morning. If he had
been a reader of London newspapers, it would have received a shock the
day before. Pratt, however, was essentially parochial in his newspaper
tastes--he never read anything but the Barford papers. And when he
picked up the Barford morning journal and saw Eldrick's advertisement
for Parrawhite in a prominent place, he literally started from sheer
surprise--not unmingled with alarm. It was as if he were the occupant of
a strong position, only fortified, who suddenly finds a shell dropped
into his outworks from a totally unexpected quarter.
Parrawhite! Advertised for by Eldrick! Why? For what reason? For what
purpose? With what idea? Parrawhite!--of all men in the
world--Parrawhite, of whom he had never wanted to hear again! And what
on earth could Eldrick want with him, or with news of him? It would
be--or might be--an uncommonly awkward thing for him, Pratt, if a really
exhaustive search were made for Parrawhite. For nobody knew better than
himself that one little thing leads to another, and--but he forbore to
follow out what might have been his train of thought. Once he was
tempted to make an excuse for going round to Eldrick & Pascoe's with the
idea of fishing for information--but he refrained. Let things
develop--that was a safer plan. Still, he was anxious and disturbed all
day. Then, towards the end of the afternoon, he bought one of the
Barford evening papers--and saw, in staring letters, the advertisement
which Byner had caused to be inserted only a few hours previously. And
at that, Pratt became afraid.
Parrawhite wanted!--news of Parrawhite wanted!--and in two separate
quarters. Wanted by Eldrick--wanted by some London people! What in the
name of the devil did it mean? At any rate, he must see to himself. One
thing was certain--no search for Parrawhite must be permitted in
That evening, instead of going home to dinner, Pratt remained in town,
and dined at a quiet restaurant. When he dined, he thought, and planned,
and schemed--and after treating himself very well in the matter of food
and drink, he lighted a cigar, returned to his new offices, opened a
safe which he had just set up, and took from a drawer in it a hundred
pounds in bank-notes. With these in his pocket-book he went off to a
quiet part of the town--the part in which James Parrawhite had lodged
during his stay in Barford.
Pratt turned into a somewhat mean and shabby street--a street of small,
poor-class shops. He went forward amongst them until he came to one
which, if anything, was meaner and shabbier than the others and bore
over its window the name Reuben Murgatroyd--Watchmaker and Jeweller.
There were few signs of jewellery in Reuben Murgatroyd's window--some
cheap clocks, some foreign-made watches of the five-shilling and
seven-and-six variety, a selection of flashy rings and chains were
spread on the shelves, equally cheap and flashy bangles, bracelets, and
brooches lay in dust-covered trays on the sloping bench beneath them. At
these things Pratt cast no more than a contemptuous glance. But he
looked with interest at the upper part of the window, in which were
displayed numerous gaily-coloured handbills and small posters relating
to shipping--chiefly in the way of assisted passages to various parts of
the globe. These set out that you could get an assisted passage to
Canada for so much; to Australia for not much more--and if the bills and
posters themselves did not tell you all you wanted to know, certain big
letters at the foot of each invited you to apply for further information
to Mr. R. Murgatroyd, agent, within. And Pratt pushed open the shop-door
and walked inside.
An untidily dressed, careworn, anxious-looking man came forward from a
parlour at the rear of his shop. At sight of Pratt--who in the course of
business had once served him with a writ--his pale face flushed, and
then whitened, and Pratt hastened to assure him of his peaceful errand.
"All right, Mr. Murgatroyd," he said. "Nothing to be alarmed about--I'm
out of that line, now--no papers of that sort tonight. I've a bit of
business I can put in your hands--profitable business. Look here!--have
you got a quarter of an hour to spare?"
Murgatroyd, who looked greatly relieved to find that his visitor had
neither writ nor summons for him, glanced at his parlour door.
"I was just going to put the shutters up, and sit down to a bite of
supper, Mr. Pratt," he answered. "Will you come in, sir?"
"No--you come out with me," said Pratt. "Come round to the _Coach and
Horses_, and have a drink and we can talk. You'll have a better appetite
for your supper when you come back," he added, with a wink. I've a
profitable job for you."
"Glad to hear it, sir," replied Murgatroyd. "I can do with aught of that
sort, I assure you!" He went into the parlour, said a word or two to
some person within, and came out again. "Not much business doing at
present, Mr. Pratt," he said, as he and his visitor turned into the
street. "Gets slacker than ever."
"Then you'll do with a slice of good luck," remarked Pratt. "It just
happens that I can put a bit in your way."
He led Murgatroyd to the end of the street, where stood a corner tavern,
into a side-door of which Pratt turned as if he were well acquainted
with the geography of the place. Walking down a narrow passage he
conducted his companion into a small parlour, at that moment untenanted,
pointed him to a seat in the corner, and rang the bell. Five minutes
later, having provided Murgatroyd with rum and water and a cigar, he
turned on him with a direct question.
"Look here!" he said in a low voice. "Would a hundred pounds be any use
Murgatroyd's cheeks flushed.
"It 'ud be a fortune!" he answered with fervour. "A hundred pound! Lor'
bless you, Mr. Pratt, it's many a year since I saw a hundred pound--of
my own--all in one lump!"
Pratt pulled out his roll of bank-notes, fluttered it in his companion's
face, laid it on the table, and set an ashtray on it.
"There's a hundred pounds there!" he said, "It's yours to pick up--if
you'll do a little job for me. Easy job, too!--you'll never earn a
hundred pounds so easy in your life!"
Murgatroyd pricked up his ears. According to his ideas, money easily
come by was seldom honestly earned. He stirred uncomfortably in his
"So long as it's a straight job," he muttered. "I don't want----"
"Straight enough--as straight as it's easy," answered Pratt. "It may
seem a bit mysterious, but there's reasons for that. I give you my word
it's all right--all a mere bit of diplomacy--and that nobody'll ever
know you're in it--that is, beyond a certain stage--and that there's no
danger to you."
"What is it?" asked Murgatroyd, still uneasy and doubtful.
Pratt pulled the evening paper out of his pocket and showed Murgatroyd
the advertisement signed Halstead & Byner.
"You see that?" he said. "Information wanted about Parrawhite. Do you
remember Parrawhite? He once served you with some papers in that affair
in which we were against you."
"I remember him," answered Murgatroyd. "I've seen him in here now and
again. So he's wanted, is he? I didn't know he'd left the town."
"Left last November," said Pratt. "And--there are folks--influential
folks, as you can guess, seeing that they can throw a hundred pounds
away!--who don't want any inquiries made for him in Barford. They don't
mind--those folks--how many inquiries and searches are made for him
anywhere else, but--not here!"
"Well?" asked Murgatroyd anxiously.
"This is it," replied Pratt. "You do a bit now and then as agent for
some of these shipping lines. You book passages for emigrants--and for
other people, going to New Zealand or Canada or Timbuctoo--never mind
where. Now then--couldn't you remember--I'm sure you could--that you
booked a passage for Parrawhite to America last November? Come! It's an
easy matter to remember is that--for a hundred pounds."
Murgatroyd's thin fingers trembled a little as he picked up his glass.
"What do you want me to do--exactly?" he asked.
"This!" said Pratt. "I want you, tomorrow morning, early, to send a
telegram to these people, Halstead & Byner, St. Martin's Chambers,
London, just saying that James Parrawhite left Barford for America on
November 24th last, and that you can give further information if
"And what if it is necessary?" inquired Murgatroyd.
"Then--in answer to any letter or telegram of inquiry--you'll just say
that you knew Parrawhite by sight as a clerk at Eldrick & Pascoe's in
this town, that on November 23rd he told you that he was going to
emigrate to America, that next day you booked him his passage, for which
he paid you whatever it was, and that he thereupon set off for
"It's all lies, you know," muttered Murgatroyd.
"Nobody can find 'em out, anyway," replied Pratt. "That's the one
important thing to consider. You're safe! And if you're cursed with a
conscience and it's tender--well, that'll make a good plaister for it!"
He pointed to the little wad of bank-notes--and the man sitting at his
side followed the pointing finger with hungry eyes. Murgatroyd wanted
money badly. His business, always poor, was becoming worse: his shipping
agency rarely produced any result: his rent was in arrears: he owed
money to his neighbour-tradesmen: he had a wife and young children. To
such a man, a hundred pounds meant relief, comfort, the lifting of
"You're sure there's naught wrong in it, Mr. Pratt," he asked abruptly
and assiduously. "It 'ud be a bad job for my family if anything happened
to me, you know."
"There's naught that will happen," answered Pratt confidently. "Who on
earth can contradict you? Who knows what people you sell passages
"There's the folks themselves," replied Murgatroyd. "Suppose Parrawhite
"He won't!" exclaimed Pratt.
"You know where he is?" suggested Murgatroyd.
"Not exactly," said Pratt, "But--he's left this country for
another--further off than America. That's certain! And--the folks I
referred to don't want any inquiry about him here."
"If I am asked questions--later--am I to say he booked in his own name?"
"No--name of Parsons," responded Pratt. "Here, I'll write down for you
exactly what I want you to say in the telegram to Halstead & Byner, and
I'll make a few memoranda for you--to post you up in case they write for
"I haven't said that I'll do it," remarked Murgatroyd. "I don't like the
looks of it. It's all a pack of lies."
Pratt paid no heed to this moral reflection. He found some loose paper
in his pocket and scribbled on it for a while. Then, as if accidentally,
he moved the ash-tray, and the bank-notes beneath it, all new, gave
forth a crisp, rustling sound.
"Here you are!" said Pratt, pushing notes and memoranda towards his
companion. "Take the brass, man!--you don't get a job like that every
And Murgatroyd put the money in his pocket, and presently went home,
persuading himself that everything would be all right.
SMOOTH FACE AND ANXIOUS BRAIN
Byner watched Eldrick and Collingwood inquisitively as they bent over
Halstead's telegram. He was not surprised when Collingwood merely nodded
in silence--nor when Eldrick turned excitedly in his own direction.
"There!--what did I tell you?" he exclaimed. "There's been no murder!
The man left the town. Probably, Pratt helped him off. Couldn't have
better proof than that wire!"
"What do you take that wire to prove, then, Mr. Eldrick?" asked Byner.
"Take it to prove!" answered Eldrick. "Why, that Parrawhite booked a
passage to America with this man Murgatroyd, last November. Clear
"What do you take it to prove, Mr. Collingwood?" continued the inquiry
agent, as he turned to the barrister with a smile.
"Before I take it for anything," replied Collingwood, "I want to know
who Murgatroyd is."
Byner looked at Eldrick and laughed.
"Precisely!" he said. "Who is Murgatroyd? Perhaps Mr. Eldrick knows."
"I do just know that he's a man who carries on a small watch and clock
business in a poorish part of the town, and that he has some sort of a
shipping agency," answered Eldrick. "But--do you mean to imply that
whatever message it is that he's sent to your partner in London this
morning has not been sent in good faith?"
"I don't imply anything," answered Byner. "All I say is--before I attach
any value to his message I, like Collingwood, want to know something
about the sender. He may have been put up to sending it. He may be in
collusion with somebody. Now, Mr. Eldrick, you can come in
here--strongly! I don't want to be seen in this affair--yet. Will you go
and see Murgatroyd? Tell him his wire to Halstead & Byner in London has
been communicated to you here. Ask him for further particulars--and then
drop in on me at my hotel and tell me what you've learnt. I'll be found
in the smoking-room there any time after two-thirty onward."
Eldrick's intense curiosity in what was rapidly becoming a fascinating
mystery to him, led him to accept this embassy. And a little before
three o'clock he walked into the smoking-room at the _Central Hotel_ and
discovered Byner in a comfortable corner.
"I've seen Murgatroyd," he whispered, as he took an adjacent chair.
"Decent honest enough man--very poor, I should say. He tells a plain
enough story. Parrawhite, whom he knew as one of our clerks, told him,
last November 23rd----"
"He was exact about dates, then, was he?" interrupted Byner.
"He mentioned them readily enough," replied the solicitor. "But to go
on--Parrawhite mentioned to him, November 23rd last, that he wanted to
go to America at once, Murgatroyd told him about bookings. Parrawhite
called very early next morning, paid for his passage under the name of
Parsons, and went off--en route for Liverpool, of course. So--there you
"That's all Murgatroyd could tell?" inquired Byner,
"That's all he knows," answered Eldrick.
"You say Murgatroyd knew Parrawhite as one of your clerks?" asked Byner
after a moment's thought.
"We had some process in hand against this man last autumn," replied
Eldrick. "I dare say Parrawhite served him with papers."
"Would he--Murgatroyd--be likely to know Pratt?" continued Byner.
"He might--in the same connection," admitted Eldrick.
Byner smoked in silence for a while.
"Do you know what I think, Mr. Eldrick?" he said at last. "I think Pratt
put up Murgatroyd to sending that telegram to us in London this
"You do!" exclaimed Eldrick.
"Surely! And now," continued the inquiry agent, "if you will, you can do
more--much more--without appearing to do anything. Pratt's office is
only a few minutes away. Can you drop in there, making some excuse, and
while there, mention, more or less casually, that Parrawhite, or
information about him, is wanted; that you and a certain Halstead &
Byner are advertising for him; that you've just seen Murgatroyd in
respect of a communication which he wired to Halstead's this morning,
and that--most important of all--a fortune of twenty thousand pounds is
awaiting Parrawhite! Don't forget the last bit of news."
"Why that particularly?" asked Eldrick.
"Because," answered Byner solemnly, "I want Pratt to know that the
search for Parrawhite is going to be a thorough one!"
Eldrick went off on his second mission, promising to return in due
course. Within a few minutes he was in Pratt's office, talking over some
unimportant matter of business which he had invented as he went along.
It was not until he was on the point of departure that he referred to
the real reason of his visit.
"Did you notice that Parrawhite is being advertised for?" he asked,
suddenly turning on his old clerk.
Pratt was ready for this--had been ready ever since Eldrick walked in.
He affected a fine surprise.
"Parrawhite!" he exclaimed. "Why--who's advertising for him?"
"Don't you see the newspapers?" asked Eldrick, pointing to some which
lay about the room. "It's in there--there's an advertisement of mine,
and one of Halstead & Byner's, of London,"
Pratt picked up a Barford paper and looked at the advertisements with a
clever affectation of having never seen them before.
"I haven't had much time for newspaper reading this last day or two," he
remarked. "Advertisements for him--from two quarters!"
"Acting together--acting together, you know!" replied Eldrick. "It's
those people who really want him--Halstead & Byner, inquiry agents,
working for a firm of City solicitors. I'm only local agent--as it
"Had any response, Mr. Eldrick?" asked Pratt, throwing aside the paper.
"Any one come forward?"
"Yes," answered Eldrick, watching Pratt narrowly without seeming to do
so. "This morning, a man named Murgatroyd, in Peel Row, who does a bit
of shipping agency, wired to Halstead & Byner to say that he booked
Parrawhite to New York last November. Of course, they at once
communicated with me, and I've just been to see Murgatroyd. He's that
man--watchmaker--we had some proceedings against last year."
"Oh, that man!" said Pratt. "Thought the name was familiar. I remember
him. And what does he say?"
"Just about as much as--and little more than--he said in his wire to
London," replied Eldrick. "Booked Parrawhite to America November 24th
last, and believes he left for Liverpool there and then."
"Ah!" remarked Pratt, "That explains it, then?"
"Explains--what?" asked Eldrick.
Pratt gave his old employer a look--confidential and significant.
"Explains why he took that money out of your desk," he said. "You
remember--forty odd pounds. He'd use some of that for his passage-money.
America eh? Now--I suppose he's vanished for good, then--it's not very
likely he'll ever be heard of from across there."
Eldrick laughed--meaningly, of set purpose.
"We don't know that he's gone there," he observed. "He mightn't get
beyond Liverpool, you know. Anyhow, we're going to make a very good
search for him here in Barford, first. We've nothing but Murgatroyd's
word for his having set out for Liverpool."
"What's he wanted for?" asked Pratt as unconcernedly as possible. "Been
up to something?"
"No," answered Eldrick, as he turned on his heel. "A relation has left
him twenty thousand pounds. That's what he's wanted for--and why he must
be found--or his death proved."
He gave Pratt another quick glance and went off--to return to the hotel
and Byner, to whom he at once gave a faithful account of what had just
"And he didn't turn a hair," he remarked. "Cool as a cucumber, all
through! If your theory is correct, Pratt's a cleverer hand than I ever
took him for--and I've always said he was clever."
"Didn't show anything when you mentioned Murgatroyd?" asked Byner.
"Not a shred of a thing!" replied Eldrick.
"Nor when you spoke of the twenty thousand pounds?"
"No more than what you might call polite and interested surprise!"
Byner laughed, threw away the end of a cigar, and rose out of his
"Now, Mr. Eldrick," he said, leaning close to the solicitor, "between
ourselves, do you know what I'm going to do--next--which means at once?"
"No," replied Eldrick.
"The police!" whispered Byner. "That's my next move. Just now! Within a
few minutes. So--will you give me a couple of notes--one to the
principal man here--chief constable, or police superintendent, or
whatever he is; and another to the best detective there is here--in your
opinion. They'll save me a lot of trouble."
"Of course--if you wish it," answered Eldrick. "But you don't mean to
say you're going to have Pratt arrested--on what you know up to now?"
"Not at all!" replied Byner. "Much too soon! All I want is--detective
help of the strictly professional kind. No--we'll give Mr. Pratt a
little more rope yet--for another four-and-twenty-hours, say. But--it'll
come! Now, who is the best local detective--a quiet, steady fellow who
knows how to do his work unobtrusively?"
"Prydale's the man!" said Eldrick "Detective-Sergeant Prydale--I've had
reason to employ him, more than once. I'll give you a note to him, and
one to Superintendent Waterson."
He went over to a writing-table and scribbled a few lines on half-sheets
of notepaper which he enclosed in envelopes and handed to Byner.
"I don't know what line you're taking," he said, "nor where it's going
to end--exactly. But I do know this--Pratt never turned a hair when I
let out all that to him."
But if Eldrick went away from his old clerk's fine new offices thinking
that Pratt was quite unperturbed and unmoved by the news he had just
acquired, he was utterly mistaken. Pratt was very much perturbed, deeply
moved, not a little frightened. He had so schooled himself to keep a
straight and ever blank expression of countenance in any sudden change
of events that he had shown nothing to Eldrick--but he was none the less
upset by the solicitor's last announcement. Twenty thousand pounds was
lying to be picked up by Parrawhite--or by Parrawhite's next-of-kin!
What an unhappy turn of fortune! For the next-of-kin would never rest
until either Parrawhite came to light, or it was satisfactorily
established that he was dead--and if search begun to be made in Barford,
where might not that search end? Unmoved?--cool?--if Eldrick had turned
back, he would have found that Pratt had suddenly given way to a fit of
But that soon passed, and Pratt began to think. He left his office
early, and betook himself to his favourite gymnasium. Exercise did him
good--he thought a lot while he was exercising. And once more, instead
of going home to dinner, he dined in town, and he sat late over his
dinner in a snug corner of the restaurant, and he thought and planned
and schemed--and after twilight had fallen on Barford, he went out and
made his way to Peel Row. He must see Murgatroyd again--at once.
Half-way along Peel Row, Pratt stopped, suddenly--and with sudden fear.
Out of a side street emerged a man, a quiet ordinary-looking man whom he
knew very well indeed--Detective-Sergeant Prydale. He was accompanied by
a smart-looking, much younger man, whom Pratt remembered to have seen in
Beck Street that afternoon--a stranger to him and to Barford. And as he
watched, these two covered the narrow roadway, and walked into
THE BETTER HALF
Under the warming influence of two glasses of rum and water, and lulled
by Pratt's assurance that all would be well, Murgatroyd had carried home
his hundred pounds with pretty much the same feeling which permeates a
man who, having been within measurable distance of drowning, suddenly
finds a substantial piece of timber drifting his way, and takes a firm
grip on it. After all, a hundred pounds was a hundred pounds. He would
be able to pay his rent, and his rates, and give something to the grocer
and the butcher and the baker and the milkman; the children should have
some much-needed new clothes and boots--when all this was done, there
would be a nice balance left over. And it was Pratt's affair, when all
was said and done, and if any trouble arose, why, Pratt would have to
settle it. So he ate his supper with the better appetite which Pratt had
prophesied, and he slept more satisfactorily than usual, and next
morning he went to the nearest telegraph office and sent off the
stipulated telegram to Halstead & Byner in London, and hoped that there
was the end of the matter as far as he was concerned. And then, shortly
after noon, in walked Mr. Eldrick, one of the tribe which Murgatroyd
dreaded, having had various dealings with solicitors, in the way of
writs and summonses, and began to ask questions.
Murgatroyd emerged from that ordeal very satisfactorily. Eldrick's
questions were few, elementary, and easily answered. There were no signs
of suspicion about him, and Murgatroyd breathed more freely when he was
gone. It seemed to him that the solicitor's visit would certainly wind
things up--for him. Eldrick asked all that could be asked, as far as he
could see, and he had replied: now, he would probably be bothered no
more. His spirits had assumed quite a cheerful tone by evening--but they
received a rude shock when, summoned from his little workshop to the
front premises, he found himself confronting one man whom he certainly
knew to be a detective, and another who might be one. Do what he would
he could not conceal some agitation, and Detective-Sergeant Prydale, a
shrewdly observant man, noticed it--and affected not to.
"Evening, Mr. Murgatroyd," he said cheerily. "We've come to see if you
can give us a bit of information. You've had Mr. Eldrick, the lawyer,
here today on the same business. You know--this affair of an old clerk
"I told Mr. Eldrick all I know," muttered Murgatroyd.
"Very likely," replied Prydale, "but there's a few questions this
gentleman and myself would like to ask. Can we come in?"
Murgatroyd fetched his wife to mind the shop, and took the callers into
the parlour which she had unwillingly vacated. He knew Prydale by sight
and reputation; about Byner he wondered. Finally he set him down as a
detective from London--and was all the more afraid of him.
"What do you want to know?" he asked, when the three men were alone. "I
don't think there's anything that I didn't tell Mr. Eldrick."
"Oh, there's a great deal that Mr. Eldrick didn't ask," said Prydale.
"Mr. Eldrick sort of just skirted round things, like. We want to know a
bit more. This Parrawhite's got to be found, d'ye see, Mr. Murgatroyd,
and as you seem to be the last man who had aught to do with him in
Barford, why, naturally, we come to you. Now, to start with, you say he
came to you about getting a passage to America? Just so--now, when would
"Day before he did get it," answered Murgatroyd, rapidly thinking over
the memoranda which Pratt had jotted down for his benefit.
"That," said Prydale, "would be on the 23rd?"
"Yes," replied Murgatroyd, "23rd November, of course."
"What time, now, on the 23rd?" asked the detective.
"Time?" said Murgatroyd. "Oh--in the evening."
"Bit vague," remarked Prydale. "What time in the evening?"
"As near as I can recollect," replied Murgatroyd, "it 'ud be just about
half-past eight. I was thinking of closing."
"Ah!" said Prydale, with a glance at Byner, who had already told him of
Parrawhite's presence at the _Green Man_ on the other side of the town,
a good two miles away, at the hour which Murgatroyd mentioned. "Ah!--he
was here in your shop at half-past eight on the evening of November 23rd
last? Asking about a ticket to America?"
"New York," muttered Murgatroyd.
"And he came next morning and bought one?" asked the detective.
"I told Mr. Eldrick that," said Murgatroyd, a little sullenly.
"How much did it cost?" inquired Byner.
"Eight pound ten," replied Murgatroyd. "Usual price."
"What did he pay for it in?" continued Prydale.
"He gave me a ten-pound note and I gave him thirty shillings change,"
"Just so," assented Prydale. "Now what line might that be by?"
Murgatroyd was becoming uneasy under all these questions, and his
uneasiness was deepened by the way in which both his visitors watched
him. He was a man who would have been a bad witness in any
case--nervous, ill at ease, suspicious, inclined to boggle--and in this
instance he was being forced to invent answers.
"It was--oh, the Royal Atlantic!" he answered at last. "I've an agency
"So I noticed from the bills and placards in your window," observed the
detective. "And of course you issue these tickets on their paper--I've
seen 'em before. You fill up particulars on a form and a counterfoil,
don't you? And you send a copy of those particulars to the Royal
Atlantic offices at Liverpool?"
Murgatroyd nodded silently--this was much more than he bargained for,
and he did not know how much further it was going. And Prydale gave him
a sudden searching look.
"Can you show us the counterfoil in this instance?" he asked.
Murgatroyd flushed. But he managed to get out a fairly quick reply. "No,
I can't," he answered, "I sent that book back at the end of the year."
"Oh, well--they'll have it at Liverpool," observed Prydale. "We can get
at it there. Of course, they'll have your record of the entire
transaction. He'd be down on their passenger list--under the name of
Parsons, I think, Mr. Murgatroyd?"
"He gave me that name," said Murgatroyd.
Prydale gave Byner a look and both rose.
"I think that's about all," said the detective. "Of course, our next
inquiry will be at Liverpool---at the Royal Atlantic. Thank you, Mr.
Before the watchmaker could collect himself sufficiently to say or ask
more, Prydale and his companion had walked out of the shop and gone
away. And then Murgatroyd realized that he was in for--but he did not
know what he was in for. What he did know was that if Prydale went or
sent over to Liverpool the whole thing would burst like a bubble. For
the Royal Atlantic people would tell the detectives at once that no
passenger named Parsons had sailed under their auspices on November 24th
last, and that he, Murgatroyd, had been telling a pack of lies.
Mrs. Murgatroyd, a sharp-featured woman whose wits had been sharpened by
a ten years' daily acquaintance with poverty, came out of the shop into
the parlour and looked searchingly at her husband.
"What did them fellows want?" she demanded. "I knew one of 'em--Prydale,
the detective. Now what's up, Reuben? More trouble?"
Murgatroyd hesitated a moment. Then he told his wife the whole story
"If they go to the Royal Atlantic, it'll all come out," he groaned. "I
couldn't make any excuse or explanation--anyhow! What's to be done?"
"You should ha' had naught to do wi' that Pratt!" exclaimed Mrs.
Murgatroyd. "A scoundrelly fellow, to come and tempt poor folk to do his
dirty work! Where's the money?"
"Locked up!" answered Murgatroyd. "I haven't touched a penny of it. I
thought I'd wait a bit and see if aught happened. But he assured me it
was all right, and you know as well as I do that a hundred pound doesn't
come our way every day. We want money!"
"Not at that price!" said his wife. "You can pay too much for money, my
lad! I wish you 'd told me what that Pratt was after--he should have
heard a bit o' my tongue! If I'd only known----"
Just then the shop door opened, and Pratt walked in. He at once saw
Murgatroyd and his wife standing between shop and parlour, and realized
at a glance that his secret in this instance was his no longer.
"Well?" he said, walking up to the watchmaker. "You've had Prydale
here--and you'd Eldrick this morning. Of course, you knew what to say to
"I wish we'd never had you here last night, young man!" exclaimed Mrs.
Murgatroyd fiercely. "What right have you to come here, making trouble
for folk that's got plenty already? But at any rate, ours was honest
trouble. Yours is like to land my husband in dishonesty--if it hasn't
done so already! And if my husband had only spoken to me----"
"Just let your husband speak a bit now," interrupted Pratt, almost
insolently. "It's you that's making all the trouble or noise, anyhow!
There's naught to fuss about, missis. What's upset you, Murgatroyd?"
"They're going to the Royal Atlantic people," muttered the watchmaker.
"Of course, it'll all come out, then. They know that I never booked any
Parsons--nor anybody else for that matter--last November. You should ha'
thought o' that!"
Pratt realized that the man was right. He had never thought of
that--never anticipated that inquiry would go beyond Murgatroyd. But his
keen wits at once set to work.
"What's the system ?" he asked quickly. "Tell me--what's done when you
book anybody like that? Come on!--explain, quick!"
Murgatroyd turned to a drawer and pulled out a book and some papers.
"It's simple enough," he said. "I've this book of forms, d'ye see? I
fill up this form--sort of ticket or pass for the passenger, and hand it
to him--it's a receipt as well, to him. Then I enter the same
particulars on that counterfoil. Then I fill up one of these papers,
giving just the same particulars, and post it at once to the Company
with the passage money, less my commission. When one of these books is
finished, I return the counterfoils to Liverpool--they check 'em.
Prydale's up to all that. He asked to see the counterfoil in this case.
I had to say I hadn't got it--I'd sent it to the Company. Of course,
he'll find out that I didn't."
"Lies!" said Mrs. Murgatroyd, vindictively. "And they didn't start wi'
"Who was that other man with Prydale?" asked Pratt.
"London detective, I should say," answered the watchmaker. "And judging
by the way he watched me, a sharp 'un, too!"
"What impression did you get--altogether?" demanded Pratt.
"Why!--that they're going to sift this affair--whatever it is--right
down to the bottom!" exclaimed Murgatroyd. "They're either going to find
Parrawhite or get to know what became of him. That's my impression. And
what am I going to do, now! This'll lose me what bit of business I've
done with yon shipping firm."
"Nothing of the sort!" answered Pratt scornfully. "Don't be a fool!
You're all right. You listen to me. You write--straight off--to the
Royal Atlantic. Tell 'em you had some inquiry made about a man named
Parsons, who booked a passage with you for New York last November. Say
that on looking up your books you found that you unaccountably forgot to
send them the forms for him and his passage money. Make out a form for
that date, and crumple it up--as if it had been left lying in a drawer.
Enclose the money in it--here, I'll give you ten pounds to cover it," he
went on, drawing a bank-note from his purse. "Get it off at once--you've
time now--plenty--to catch the night-mail at the General. And then, d'ye
see, you're all right. It's only a case then--as far as you're
concerned--of forgetfulness. What's that?--we all forget something in
business, now and then. They'll overlook that--when they get the money."
"Aye, but you're forgetting something now!" remarked Murgatroyd. "You're
forgetting this--no such passenger ever went! They'll know that by their
"What the devil has that to do with it?" snarled Pratt impatiently.
"What the devil do we care whether any such passenger went or not? All
that you're concerned about is to prove that you issued a ticket to
Parrawhite, under the name of Parsons. What's it matter to you where
Parrawhite, _alias_ Parsons, went, when he'd once left your shop? You
naturally thought he'd go straight to the Lancashire and Yorkshire
Station, on his way to Liverpool and New York! But, for aught you know,
he may have fallen down a drain pipe in the next street! Don't you see,
man? There's nothing, there's nobody, not all the detectives in London
and Barford, can prove that you didn't issue a ticket to Parrawhite on
that date? It isn't up to you to prove that you did!--it's up to them to
prove that you didn't! And--they can't. It's impossible. You get that
letter off--at once--to Liverpool, with that money inside it, and you're
as safe as houses--and your hundred pounds as well. Get it done! And if
those chaps come asking any more questions, tell 'em you're not going to
answer a single one! Mind you!--do what I tell you, and you're safe!"
With that Pratt walked out of the shop and went off towards the centre
of the town, inwardly raging and disturbed. It was very evident that
these people meant to find Parrawhite, alive or dead; evident, too, that
they had called in the aid of the Barford police. And in spite of all
his assurances to the watchmaker and his suggestion for the next move,
Pratt was far from easy about the whole matter. He would have been
easier if he had known who Prydale's companion was--probably he was, as
Murgatroyd had suggested, a London detective who might have been making
inquiries in the town for some time and knew much more than he, Pratt,
could surmise. That was the devil of the whole thing!--in Pratt's
opinion. Adept himself in working underground, he feared people who
adopted the same tactics. What was this stranger chap after? What did he
know? What was he doing? Had he let Eldrick know anything? Was there a
web of detectives already being spun around himself? Was that silly,
unfortunate affair with Parrawhite being slowly brought to light--to
wreck him on the very beginning of what he meant to be a brilliant
career? He cursed Parrawhite again and again as he left Peel Row behind
The events of the day had made Pratt cautious as well as anxious. He
decided to keep away from his lodgings that night, and when he reached
the centre of the town he took a room at a quiet hotel. He was up early
next morning; he had breakfasted by eight o'clock; by half-past eight he
was at his office. And in his letter-box he found one letter--a thickish
package which had not come by post, but had been dropped in by hand, and
was merely addressed to Mr. Pratt.
Pratt tore that package open with a conviction of imminent disaster. He
pulled out a sheet of cheap note-paper--and a wad of bank-notes. His
face worked curiously as he read a few lines, scrawled in illiterate,
"MR PRATT,--My husband and me don't want any more to do with
either you or your money which it is enclosed. Been honest up to
now though poor, and intending to remain so our purpose is to
make a clean breast of everything to the police first thing
tomorrow morning for which you have nobody but yourself to blame
for wickedness in tempting poor people to do wrong.
"Yours, MRS. MURGATROYD."
Pratt wasted no time in cursing Mrs. Murgatroyd. There would be plenty
of opportunity for such relief to his feelings later on. Just then he
had other matters to occupy him--fully. He tore the indignant letter to
shreds; he hastily thrust the bank-notes into one pocket and drew his
keys from another. Within five minutes he had taken from his safe a
sealed packet, which he placed in an inside pocket of his coat, and had
left his office--for the last time, as he knew very well. That part of
the game was up--and it was necessary to be smart in entering on another
phase of it.
Since Eldrick's visit of the previous day, Pratt had been prepared for
all eventuality. He had made ready for flight. And he was not going
empty-handed. He had a considerable amount of Mrs. Mallathorpe's money
in his possession; by obtaining her signature to one or two documents he
could easily obtain much more in London, at an hour's notice. Those
documents were all ready, and in the sealed packet which he had just
taken from the safe; in it, too, were some other documents--John
Mallathorpe's will; the letter which Mrs. Mallathorpe had written to him
on the evening previous to her son's fatal accident; and the power of
attorney which Pratt had obtained from her at his first interview after
that occurrence. All was ready--and now there was nothing to do but to
get to Normandale Grange, see Mrs. Mallathorpe, and--vanish. He had
planned it all out, carefully, when he perceived the first danger
signals, and knew that his other plans and schemes were doomed to
failure. Half an hour at Normandale Grange--a journey to London--a
couple of hours in the City--and then the next train to the Continent,
on his way to regions much further off. Here, things had turned out
badly, unexpectedly badly--but he would carry away considerable, easily
transported wealth, to a new career in a new country.
Pratt began his flight in methodical fashion. He locked up his office,
and left the building by a back entrance which took him into a network
of courts and alleys at the rear of the business part of Barford. He
made his way in and out of these places until he reached a
bicycle-dealer's shop in an obscure street, whereat he had left a
machine of his own on the previous evening under the excuse of having it
thoroughly cleaned and oiled. It was all ready for him on his arrival,
and he presently mounted it and rode away through the outskirts of the
town, carefully choosing the less frequented streets and roads. He rode
on until he was clear of Barford: until, in fact, he was some miles from
it, and had reached a village which was certainly not on the way to
Normandale. And then, at the post-office he dismounted, and going
inside, wrote out and dispatched a telegram. It was a brief message
containing but three words--"One as usual"--and it was addressed Esther
Mawson, The Grange, Normandale. This done, he remounted his bicycle,
rode out of the village, and turned across country in quite a different
direction. It was not yet ten o'clock--he had three hours to spare
before the time came for keeping the appointment which he had just made.
At an early stage of his operations, Pratt had found that even the
cleverest of schemers cannot work unaided. It had been absolutely
necessary to have some tool close at hand to Normandale Grange and its
inhabitants; to have some person there upon whom he could depend for
news. He had found that person, that tool, in Esther Mawson, who, as
Mrs. Mallathorpe's maid, had opportunities which he at once recognized
as being likely to be of the greatest value to him. The circumstances of
Harper Mallathorpe's death had thrown Pratt and the maid together, and
he had quickly discovered that she was to be bought, and would do
anything for money. He had soon come to an understanding with her; soon
bargained with her, and made her a willing accomplice in certain of his
schemes, without letting her know their full meaning and extent: all,
indeed, that she had learned from Pratt was that he had some
considerable hold on her mistress.
But it is dangerous work to play with edged tools, and if Pratt had only
known it, he was running great risks in using Esther Mawson as a
semi-accomplice. Esther Mawson was in constant touch with her mistress,
and Mrs. Mallathorpe, afraid of her daughter, and not greatly in
sympathy with her, badly needed a confidante. Little by little the
mistress began to confide in the maid, and before long Esther Mawson
knew the secret--and thenceforward she played a double game. Pratt found
her useful in arranging meetings with Mrs. Mallathorpe unknown to Nesta,
and he believed her to be devoted to him. But the truth was that Esther
Mawson had only one object of devotion--herself--and she was waiting and
watching for an opportunity to benefit that object--at Pratt's expense.
Pratt knew nothing of this as he slowly made his way to Normandale that
morning. Having plenty of time he went by devious and lonely roads and
by-lanes. Eventually he came to the boundary of Normandale Park at a
point far away from the Grange. There he dismounted, hid his bicycle in
a coppice wherein he had often left it before, and went on towards the
house through the woods and plantations. He knew every yard of the
ground he traversed, and was skilled in taking cover if he saw any sign
of woodman or gamekeeper. And in the end, just as one o'clock chimed
from the clock over the stables, he came to a quiet spot in the
shrubberies behind the Grange, and found Esther Mawson waiting for him
in an old summer-house in which they had met on previous and similar
Esther Mawson immediately realized that something unusual was in the
air. Clever as Pratt was at concealing his feelings, she was cleverer in
seeing small signs, and she saw that this was no ordinary visit.
"Anything wrong?" she asked at once.
"Bit of bother--nothing much--it'll blow over," answered Pratt, who knew
that a certain amount of candour was necessary in dealing with this
woman. "But--I shall have to be away for a bit--week or two, perhaps."
"You want to see her?" inquired Esther.
"Of course! I've some papers for her to sign," replied Pratt. "How do
things stand? Coast clear?"
"Miss Mallathorpe's going into Barford after lunch," answered Esther.
"She'll be driving in about half-past two. I can manage it then. How
long shall you want to be with her?"
"Oh, a quarter of an hour'll do," said Pratt. "Ten minutes, if it comes
"And after that?" asked Esther.
"Then I want to get a train at Scaleby," replied Pratt, mentioning a
railway junction which lay ten miles across country in another
direction. "So make it as soon after two-thirty as you can."
"You can see her as soon as Miss Mallathorpe's gone," said Esther.
"You'd better come into the house--I've got the key of the turret door,
and all's clear--the servants are all at dinner."
"I could do with something myself," observed Pratt, who, in his anxiety,
had only made a light breakfast that morning. "Can it be managed?"
"I'll manage it," she answered. "Come on--now."
Behind the summer-house in which they had met a narrow path led through
the shrubberies to an old part of the Grange which was never used, and
was, in fact, partly ruinous. Esther Mawson led the way along this until
she and Pratt came to a turret in the grey walls, in the lower story of
which a massive oaken door, heavily clamped with iron, gave entrance to
a winding stair, locked it from inside when she and Pratt had entered,
and preceded her companion up the stair, and across one or two empty and
dust-covered chambers to a small room in which a few pieces of ancient
furniture were slowly dropping to decay. Pratt had taken refuge in this
room before, and he sat down in one of the old chairs and mopped his
"I want something to drink, above everything," he remarked. "What can
"Nothing but wine," answered Esther Mawson. "As much as you like of
that, because I've a stock that's kept up in Mrs. Mallathorpe's room. I
couldn't get any ale without going to the butler. I can get wine and
sandwiches without anybody knowing."
"That'll do," said Pratt. "What sort of wine?"
"Port, sherry, claret," she replied. "Whichever you like."
"Sherry, then," answered Pratt. "Bring a bottle if you can get it--I
want a good drink."
The woman went away--through the disused part of the old house into the
modern portion. She went straight to a certain store closet and took
from it a bottle of old dry sherry which had been brought there from a
bin in the cellars--it was part of a quantity of fine wine laid down by
John Mallathorpe, years before, and its original owner would have been
disgusted to think that it should ever be used for the mere purpose of
quenching thirst. But Esther Mawson had another purpose in view, with
respect to that bottle. Carrying it to her own sitting-room, she
carefully cut off the thick mass of sealing-wax at its neck, drew the
cork, and poured a little of the wine away. And that done, she unlocked
a small box which stood on a corner of her dressing table, and took from
it a glass phial, half full of a colourless liquid. With steady hands
and sure fingers, she dropped some of that liquid into the wine,
carefully counting the drops. Then she restored the phial to its
hiding-place and re-locked the box--after which, taking up a spoon which
lay on her table, she poured out a little of the sherry and smelled and
tasted it. No smell--other than that which ought to be there; no
taste--other than was proper. Pratt would suspect nothing even if he
drunk the whole bottle.
Esther Mawson had anticipated Pratt's desires in the way of refreshment,
and she now went to a cupboard and took from it a plate of sandwiches,
carefully swathed in a napkin. Carrying these in one hand, and the
bottle of sherry and a glass in the other, she stole quietly back to the
disused part of the house, and set her provender before its expectant
consumer. Pratt poured out a glassful of the sherry, and drank it
"Good stuff that!" he remarked, smacking his lips. "Some of old John
"It was here when we came, anyhow," replied Esther. "Well--I shall have
to go. You'll be all right until I come back."
"What time do you think it'll be?" asked Pratt. "Make it as soon as the
coast's clear--I want to be off."
"As soon as ever she's gone," agreed Esther. "I heard her order the
carriage for half-past two."
"And no fear of anybody else being about?" asked Pratt. "That butler
man, for instance? Or servants?"
"I'll see to it," replied Esther reassuringly. "I'll lock this door and
take the key until I come back--make yourself comfortable."
She locked Pratt in the old room and went off, and the willing prisoner
ate his sandwiches and drank his sherry, and looked out of a mullioned
window on the wide stretches of park and coppice and the breezy
moorlands beyond. He indulged in some reflections--not wholly devoid of
sentiment. He had cherished dreams of becoming the virtual owner of
Normandale. Always confident in his own powers, he had believed that
with time and patience he could have persuaded Nesta Mallathorpe to
marry him--why not? Now--all owing to that cursed and unfortunate
contretemps with Parrawhite, that seemed utterly impossible--all he
could do now was to save himself--and to take as much as he could get.
More than once that morning, as he made his way across country, he had
remembered Parrawhite's advice to take cash and be done with
it--perhaps, he reflected, it might have been better. Still--when he
presently began his final retreat, he would carry away with him a lot of
the Mallathorpe money.
But before long Pratt indulged in no more reflections--sentiment or
practical. He had eaten all his sandwiches; he had drunk three-quarters
of the bottle of sherry. And suddenly he felt unusually drowsy, and he
laid his head back in his big chair, and fell soundly asleep.
THE TELEPHONE MESSAGE
If Pratt had only known what was going on in the old quarries at
Whitcliffe, about the very time that he was riding slowly out to Barford
on his bicycle, he would not only have accelerated his pace, but would
have taken good care to have chosen another route: he would also have
made haste to exchange bicycle for railway train as quickly as possible,
and to have got himself far away before anybody could begin looking for
him in his usual haunts, or at places wherein there was a possibility of
his being found. But Pratt knew nothing of what Byner had done. He was
conscious of Byner's visit to the _Green Man_. He did not know what
Pickard had been told by Bill Thomson. He was unaware of anything which
Pickard had told to Byner. If he had known that Byner, guided by
Pickard, had been to the old quarries, had fixed his inquiring eye on
the shaft which was filled to its brim with water, and had got certain
ideas from the mere sight of it, Pratt would have hastened to put
hundreds of miles between himself and Barford as quickly as possible.
But all that Pratt knew was that there was a possibility of
suspicion--which might materialize eventually, but not immediately.
On the previous evening, Pratt--had he but known it--made a great
mistake. Instead of going into Murgatroyd's shop after he had watched
Byner and Prydale away from it--he should have followed those two astute
and crafty persons, and have ascertained something of their movements.
Had he done so, he would certainly not have troubled to return to Peel
Row, nor to remain in Barford an hour longer than was absolutely
necessary. For Pratt was sharp-witted enough when it came to a question
of putting one and two together, and if he had tracked Prydale and the
unknown man who was with him to a certain house whereto they repaired as
soon as they quitted Murgatroyd's shop, he would have drawn an inference
from the mere fact of their visit which would have thrown him into a
cold sweat of fear. But Pratt, after all, was only one man, one brain,
one body, and could not be in two places, nor go in two ways, at the
same time. He took his own way--ignorant of his destruction.
Byner also took a way of his own. As soon as he and Prydale left
Murgatroyd's shop, they chartered the first cab they met with, and
ordered its driver to go to Whitcliffe Moor.
"It's the quickest thing to do--if my theory's correct," observed Byner,
as they drove along, "Of course, it is all theory--mere theory! But I've
grounds for it. The place--the time--mere lonely situation--that scrap
iron lying about, which would be so useful in weighting a dead body!--I
tell you, I shall be surprised if we don't find Parrawhite at the bottom
of that water!"
"I shouldn't wonder," agreed Prydale. "One thing's very certain, as we
shall prove before we're through with it--Pratt's put that poor devil
Murgatroyd up to this passage-to-America business. And a bit clumsily,
too--fancy Murgatroyd being no better posted up than to tell me that
Parrawhite called on him at a certain hour that night!"
"But you've got to remember that Pratt didn't know of Parrawhite's
affairs with Pickard, nor that he was at the _Green Man_ at that hour,"
rejoined Byner. "My belief is that Pratt thinks himself safe--that he
fancies he's provided for all contingencies. If things turn out as I
think they will, I believe we shall find Pratt calmly seated at his desk
"Well--if things do turn out as you expect, we'll lose no time in
seeking him there!" observed Prydale dryly. "We'd better arrange to get
the job done first thing."
"This Mr. Shepherd'll make no objection, I suppose?" asked Byner,
"Objection! Lor' bless you--he'll love it!" exclaimed Prydale. "It'll be
a bit of welcome diversion to a man like him that's naught to do. He'll
object none, not be!"
Shepherd, a retired quarry-owner, who lived in a picturesque old stone
house in the middle of Whitcliffe Moor, with nothing to occupy his
attention but the growing of roses and vegetables, and an occasional
glance at the local newspapers, listened to Prydale's request with
gradually rising curiosity. Byner had at once seen that this call was
welcome to this bluff and hearty Yorkshireman, who, without any question
as to their business, had immediately welcomed them to his hearth and
pressed liquor and cigars on them: he sized up Shepherd as a man to whom
any sort of break in the placid course of retired life was a delightful
"A dead man i' that old shaft i' one o' my worked out quarries!" he
exclaimed. "Ye don't mean to say so! An' how long d'yer think he might
ha' been there, now, Prydale?"
"Some months, Mr. Shepherd," replied the detective.
"Why, then it's high time he were taken out," said Shepherd. "When might
you be thinkin' o' doin' t' job, like?"
"As soon as possible," said Prydale. "Tomorrow morning, early, if that's
convenient to you."
"I'll tell you what I'll do," observed the retired quarry-owner. "You
leave t' job to me. I'll get two or three men first thing tomorrow
morning, and we'll do it reight. You be up there by half-past eight
o'clock, and we'll soon satisfy you as to whether there's owt i' t'
shape of a dead man or not i' t' pit. You hev' grounds for believin' 'at
"Strong grounds!" replied the detective, "and equally strong ones for
believing the man came there by foul play, too."
"Say no more!" said Shepherd. "T' mystery shall be cleared up. Deary me!
An' to think 'at I've walked past yon theer pit many a dozen times
within this last few o' months, and nivver dreamed 'at theer wor owt in
it but watter! Howivver, gentlemen, ye can put yer minds at ease--we'll
investigate the circumstances, as the sayin' goes, before noon
"One other matter," remarked Prydale. "We want things kept quiet. We
don't want all the folk of the neighbourhood round about, you know."
"Leave it to me," answered Shepherd. "There'll be me, and these men, and
yourselves--and a pair of grapplin' irons. We'll do it quiet and
comfortable--and we'll do it reight."
"Odd character!" remarked Byner, when he and Prydale went away.
"Useful man--for a job of that sort," said the detective laconically.
"Now then--are we going to let anybody else know what we're after--Mr.
Eldrick or Mr. Collingwood, for instance? Do you want them, or either of
them, to be present?"
"No!" answered Byner, after a moment's reflection. "Let us see what
results. We can let them know, soon enough, if we've anything to tell.
But--what about Pratt?"
"Keeping an eye on him--you mean?" said Prydale. "You said just now that
in your opinion we should find him at his desk."
"Just so--but that's no reason why he shouldn't be looked after tomorrow
morning," answered Byner.
"All right--I'll put a man on to shadow him, from the time he leaves his
lodgings until--until we want him," said the detective. "That is--if we
do want him."
"It will be one of the biggest surprises I ever had in my life if we
don't!" asserted Byner. "I never felt more certain of anything than I do
of finding Parrawhite's body in that pit!"
It was this certainty which made Byner appear extraordinarily cool and
collected, when next day, about noon, he walked into Eldrick's private
room, where Collingwood was at that moment asking the solicitor what was
being done. The certainty was now established, and it seemed to Byner
that it would have been a queer thing if he had not always had it. He
closed the door and gave the two men an informing glance.
"Parrawhite's body has been found," he said quietly.
Eldrick started in his chair, and Collingwood looked a sharp inquiry.
"Little doubt about his having been murdered, just as I conjectured,"
continued Byner. "And his murderer had pretty cleverly weighted his body
with scrap iron, before dropping it into a pit full of water, where it
might have remained for a long time undiscovered. However--that's
Eldrick got out the first question.
"Prydale's after him," answered Byner. "I expect we shall hear something
in a few minutes--if he's in town. But I confess I'm a bit doubtful and
anxious now, on that score. Because, when Prydale and I got down from
Whitcliffe half an hour ago--where the body's now lying, at the _Green
Man_, awaiting the inquest--we found Murgatroyd hanging about the police
station. He'd come to make a clean breast of it--about Pratt. And it
unfortunately turns out that Pratt saw Prydale and me go to Murgatroyd's
shop last night, and afterwards went in there himself, and of course
pumped Murgatroyd dry as to why we'd been."
"Why unfortunately?" asked Collingwood.
"Because that would warn Pratt that something was afoot," said Byner.
"And--he may have disappeared during the night. He----"
But just then Prydale came in, shaking his head.
"I'm afraid he's off!" he announced. "I'd a man watching for him outside
his lodgings from an early hour this morning, but he never came out, and
finally my man made an excuse and asked for him there, and then he heard
that he'd never been home last night, And his office is closed."
"What steps are you taking?" asked Byner.
"I've got men all over the place already," replied Prydale. "But--if he
got off in the night, as I'm afraid he did, we shan't find him in
Barford. It's a most unlucky thing that he saw us go to Murgatroyd's
last evening! That, of course, would set him off: he'd know things were
reaching a crisis."
Eldrick and Collingwood had arranged to lunch together that day, and
they presently went off, asking the detective to keep them informed of
events. But up to half-past three o 'clock they heard no more--then, as
they were returning along the street Byner came running up to them.
"Prydale's just had a telephone message from the butler at Normandale!"
he exclaimed. "Pratt is there!--and something extraordinary is going on:
the butler wants the police. We're off at once--there's Prydale in a
motor, waiting for me. Will you follow?"
He darted away again, and Eldrick looking round for a car, suddenly
recognized the Mallathorpe livery.
"Great Scott!" he said. "There's Miss Mallathorpe--just driving in.
Better tell her!"
A moment later, he and Collingwood had joined Nesta in her carriage, and
the horses' heads were turned in the direction towards which Byner and
Prydale were already hastening.
RESTORED TO ENERGY
Esther Mawson, leaving Pratt to enjoy his sherry and sandwiches at his
leisure, went away through the house, out into the gardens, and across
the shrubbery to the stables. The coachman and grooms were at
dinner--with the exception of one man who lived in a cottage at the
entrance to the stable-yard. This was the very man she wanted to see,
and she found him in the saddle-room, and beckoned him to its door.
"Mrs. Mallathorpe wants me to go over to Scaleby on an errand for her
this afternoon," she said. "Can you have the dog-cart ready, at the
South Garden gate at three o'clock sharp? And--without saying anything
to the coachman? It's a private errand."
Of late this particular groom had received several commissions of this
sort, and being a sharp fellow he had observed that they were generally
given to him when Miss Mallathorpe was out.
"All right," he answered. "The young missis is going out in the carriage
at half-past two. South Garden gate--three sharp. Anybody but you?"
"Only me," replied Esther. "Don't say anything to anybody about where
we're going. Get the dog-cart ready after the carriage has gone."
The groom nodded in comprehension, and Esther went back to the house and
to her own room. She ought at that time of day to have been eating her
dinner with the rest of the upper servants, but she had work to do which
was of much more importance than the consumption of food and drink.
There was going to be a flight that afternoon--but it would not be Pratt
who would undertake it. Esther Mawson had carefully calculated all her
chances as soon as Pratt told her that he was going to be away for a
while. She knew that Pratt would not have left Barford for any
indefinite period unless something had gone seriously wrong. But she
knew more--by inference and intuition. If Pratt was going away--rather,
since he was going away, he would have on his person things of
value--documents, money. She meant to gain possession of everything that
he had; she meant to have a brief interview with Mrs. Mallathorpe; then
she meant to drive to Scaleby--and to leave that part of the country
just as thoroughly and completely as Pratt had meant to leave it. And
now in her own room she was completing her preparations. There was
little to do. She knew that if her venture came off successfully, she
could easily afford to leave her personal possessions behind her, and
that she would be all the more free and unrestricted in her movements if
she departed without as much as a change of clothes and linen. And so by
two o'clock she had arrayed herself in a neat and unobtrusive
tailor-made travelling costume, had put on an equally neat and plain
hat, had rolled her umbrella, and laid it, her gloves, and a cloak where
they could be readily picked up, and had attached to her slim waist a
hand-bag--by means of a steel chain which she secured by a small padlock
as soon as she had arranged it to her satisfaction. She was not the sort
of woman to leave a hand-bag lying about in a railway carriage at any
time, but in this particular instance she was not going to run any risk
of even a moment's forgetfulness.
Everything was in readiness by twenty minutes past two, and she took up
her position in a window from which she could see the front door of the
house. At half-past two the carriage and its two fine bay horses came
round from the stables; a minute or two later Nesta Mallathorpe emerged
from the hall; yet another minute and the carriage was whirling down the
park in the direction of Barford. And then Esther moved from the window,
picked up the umbrella, the cloak, the gloves, and went off in the
direction of the room wherein she had left Pratt.
No one ever went near those old rooms except on some special errand or
business, and there was a dead silence all around her as she turned the
key in the lock and slipped inside the door--to lock it again as soon as
she had entered. There was an equally deep silence within the room--and
for a moment she glanced a little fearfully at the recumbent figure in
the old, deep-backed chair. Pratt had stretched himself fully in his
easy quarters---his legs lay extended across the moth-eaten hearth-rug;
his head and shoulders were thrown far back against the faded tapestry,
and he was so still that he might have been supposed to be dead. But
Esther Mawson had tried the effect of that particular drug on a good
many people, and she knew that the victim in this instance was merely
plunged in a sleep from which nothing whatever could wake him yet
awhile. And after one searching glance at him, and one lifting of an
eyelid by a practised finger, she went rapidly and thoroughly through
Pratt's pockets, and within a few minutes of entering the room had
cleared them of everything they contained. The sealed packet which he
had taken from his safe that morning; the bank-notes which Mrs.
Murgatroyd had returned in her indignant letter; another roll of notes,
of considerable value, in a note-case; a purse containing notes and gold
to a large amount--all those she laid one by one on a dust-covered
table. And finally--and as calmly as if she were sorting linen--she
swept bank-notes, gold, and purse into her steel-chained bag, and tore
open the sealed envelope.
There were five documents in that envelope--Esther examined each with
meticulous care. The first was an authority to Linford Pratt to sell
certain shares standing in the name of Ann Mallathorpe. The second was a
similar document relating to other shares: each was complete, save for
Ann Mallathorpe's signature. The third document was the power of
attorney which Ann Mallathorpe had given to Linford Pratt: the fourth,
the letter which she had written to him on the evening before the fatal
accident to Harper. And the fifth was John Mallathorpe's will.
At last she held in her hand the half-sheet of foolscap paper of which
Mrs. Mallathorpe, driven to distraction, and knowing that she would get
no sympathy from her own daughter, had told her. She was a woman of a
quick and an understanding mind, and she had read the will through and
grasped its significance as swiftly as her eyes ran over it. And those
eyes turned to the unconscious Pratt with a flash of contempt--she, at
any rate, would not follow his foolish example, and play for too high a
stake--no, she would make hay while the sun shone its hottest! She was
of the Parrawhite persuasion--better, far better one good bird in the
hand than a score of possible birds in the bush.
She presently restored the five documents to the stout envelope, picked
up her other belongings, and without so much as a glance at Pratt, left
the room. She turned the key in the door and took it away with her. And
now she went straight to a certain sitting-room which Mrs. Mallathorpe
had tenanted by day ever since her illness. The final and most important
stage of Esther's venture was at hand.
Mrs. Mallathorpe sat at an open window, wearily gazing out on the park.
Ever since her son's death she had remained in a more or less torpid
condition, rarely talking to any person except Esther Mawson: it had
been manifest from the first that her daughter's presence distressed and
irritated her, and by the doctor's advice Nesta had gone to her as
little as possible, while taking every care to guard her and see to her
comfort. All day long she sat brooding--and only Esther Mawson, now for
some time in her full confidence, knew that her brooding was rapidly
developing into a monomania. Mrs. Mallathorpe, indeed, had but one
thought in her mind--the eventual circumventing of Pratt, and the
destruction of John Mallathorpe's will.
She turned slowly as the maid came in and carefully closed the door
behind her, and her voice was irritable and querulous as she at once
began to complain.
"You've never been near me for two hours!" she said. "Your dinner time
was over long since! I might have been wanting all sorts of things for
aught you cared!"
"I've had something else to do--for you!" retorted Esther, coming close
to her mistress. "Listen, now!--I've got it!"
Mrs. Mallathorpe's attitude and manner suddenly changed. She caught
sight of the packet of papers in the woman's hand, and at once sprang to
her feet, white and trembling. Instinctively she held out her own hands
and moved a little nearer to the maid. And Esther quickly put the table
between them, and shook her head.
"No--no!" she exclaimed. "No handling of anything--yet! You keep your
hands off! You were ready enough to bargain with Pratt--now you'll have
to bargain with me. But I'm not such a fool as he was--I'll take cash
down, and be done with it."
Mrs. Mallathorpe rested her trembling hands on the table and bent
forward across it.
"Is it--is it--really--the will?" she whispered hoarsely.
Instead of replying in words, Esther, taking care to keep at a safe
distance behind the table, and with the door only a yard or two in her
rear, drew out the documents one by one and held them up.
"The will!" she said. "Your letter to Pratt. The power of attorney. Two
papers that he brought for you to sign. That's the lot! And now, as I
said, we'll bargain."
"Where is--he?" asked Mrs. Mallathorpe. "How--how did you get them? Does
he know--did he give them up?"
"If you want to know, he's safe and sound asleep in one of the rooms in
the old part of the house," answered Esther. "I drugged him. There's
something afoot--something gone wrong with his schemes--at Barford, and
he came here on his way--elsewhere. And so--I took the chance. Now
then--what are you going to give me?"
Mrs. Mallathorpe, whose nervous agitation was becoming more and more
marked, wrung her hands.
"I've nothing to give!" she cried. "You know very well he's had the
management of everything--I don't know how things are----"
"Stuff!" exclaimed Esther. "I know better than that. You've a lot of
ready money in that desk there--you know you drew a lot out of the bank
some time ago, and it's there now. You kept it for a contingency--the
contingency's here. And--you've your rings--the diamond and ruby
rings--I know what they're worth! Come on, now--I mean to have the whole
lot, so it's no use hesitating."
Mrs. Mallathorpe looked at the maid's bold and resolute eyes--and then
at the papers. And she glanced from eyes and papers to a bright fire
which burned in the grate close by.
"You'll give everything up?" she asked nervously.
"Put those bank-notes that you've got in your desk, and those rings that
are in your jewel-case, on the table between us," answered Esther, "and
I'll hand over these papers on the instant! I'm not going to be such a
fool as to keep them--not I! Come on, now!--isn't this the chance you've
Mrs. Mallathorpe drew a small bunch of keys from her gown, and went over
to the desk which Esther had pointed to. Within a minute she was back
again at the table, a roll of bank notes in one hand, half a dozen
magnificent rings in the other. She put both hands halfway across and
unclasped them. And Esther Mawson, with a light laugh, threw the papers
over the table, and hastily swept their price into her handbag.
Mrs. Mallathorpe's nerves suddenly became steady. With a deep sigh she
caught up the various documents and looked them quickly and thoroughly
over. Then she tore them into fragments and flung the fragments in the
fire--and as they blazed up, she turned and looked at Esther Mawson in a
way which made Esther shrink a little. But she was already at the
door--and she opened it and walked out and down the stair.
She was half-way across the hall beneath, where the butler and one of
the footmen were idly talking, when a sharp cry from above made her then
look up. Mrs. Mallathorpe, suddenly restored to life and energy, was
leaning over the balustrade.
"Stop that woman, you men!" she said. "Seize her! Fasten her up!--lock
the door wherever you put her! She's stolen my rings, and a lot of money
out of my desk! And telephone instantly to Barford, and tell them to
send the police here--at once!"
THE WOMAN IN BLACK
Nesta Mallathorpe, who had just arrived in Barford when Eldrick caught
sight of her, was seriously startled as he and Collingwood came running
up to her carriage. The solicitor entered it without ceremony or
explanation, and turning to the coachman bade him drive back to
Normandale as fast as he could make his horses go. Meanwhile Collingwood
turned to Nesta. "Don't be alarmed!" he said. "Something is happening at
the Grange--your mother has just telephoned to the police here to go
there at once--there they are--in front of us, in that car!"
"Did my mother say if she was in danger?" demanded Nesta.
"She can't be!" exclaimed Eldrick, turning from the coachman, as the
horses were whipped round and the carriage moved off. "She evidently
gave orders for the message. No--Pratt's there! And--but of course, you
don't know--the police want Pratt. They've been searching for him since
noon. He's wanted for murder!"
"Don't frighten Miss Mallathorpe," said Collingwood. "The murder has
nothing to do with present events," he went on reassuringly. "It's
something that happened some time ago. Don't be afraid about your
mother--there are plenty of people round her, you know."
"I can't help feeling anxious if Pratt is there," she answered. "How did
he come to be there? It's not an hour since I left home. This is all
some of Esther Mawson's work! And we shall have to wait nearly an hour
before we know what is going on!--it's all uphill work to Normandale,
and the horses can't do it in the time."
"Eldrick!" said Collingwood, as the carriage came abreast of the Central
Station and a long line of motorcars. "Stop the coachman! Let's get one
of those cars--we shall get to Normandale twice as quickly. The main
thing is to relieve Miss Mallathorpe of anxiety. Now!" he went on, as
they hastily left the carriage and transferred themselves to a car
quickly scented by Eldrick as the most promising of the lot. "Tell the
driver to go as fast as he can--the other car's not very far in
front--tell him to catch it up."
Eldrick leaned over and gave his orders.
"I've told him not only to catch him up, but to get in front of 'em," he
said, settling down again in his seat. "This is a better car than
theirs, and we shall be there first. Now, Miss Mallathorpe, don't you
bother--this is probably going to be the clearing-up point of
everything. One feels certain, at any rate--Pratt has reached the end of
"If I seem to bother," replied Nesta, "it's because I know that he and
Esther Mawson are at Normandale--working mischief."
"We shall be there in half an hour," said Collingwood, as their own car
ran past that in which the detectives and Byner were seated. "They can't
do much mischief in that time."
None of the three spoke again until the car pulled up suddenly at the
gates of Normandale Park. The lodge-keeper, an old man, coming out to
open them, approached the door of the car on seeing Nesta within.
"There's a young woman just gone up to the house that wants to see you
very particular, miss," he said. "I tell'd her that you'd gone to
Barford, but she said she'd come a long way, and she'd wait till you
come back. She's going across the park there--crossin' yon path."
He pointed over the level sward to the slight figure of a woman in
black, who was obviously taking a near cut up to the Grange. Nesta
looked wonderingly across the park as the car cleared the gate and went
on up the drive.
"Who can she be?" she said musingly. "A woman from a long way--to see
"She'll get to the house soon after we reach it," said Eldrick. "Let's
attend to this more pressing business first. We should know what's afoot
here in a minute or two."
But it was somewhat difficult to make out or to discover what really was
afoot. The car stopped at the hall door: the second car came close
behind it; Nesta, Collingwood, Eldrick, Byner, and the detectives poured
into the hall--encountered a much mystified-looking butler, a couple of
footmen, and the groom whose services Esther Mawson had requisitioned,
and who, weary of waiting for her, had come up to the house.
"What's all this?" asked Eldrick, taking the situation into his own
hands. "What's the matter? Why did you send for the police?"
"Mrs. Mallathorpe's orders, sir," answered the butler, with an
apologetic glance at his young mistress. "Really, sir, I don't
know--exactly--what is the matter! We are all so confused! What happened
was, that not very long after Miss Mallathorpe had left for town in the
carriage, Esther Mawson, the maid, came downstairs from Mrs.
Mallathorpe's room, and was crossing the lower part of the hall, when
Mrs, Mallathorpe suddenly appeared up there and called to me and James
to stop her and lock her up, as she'd stolen money and jewels! We were
to lock her up and telephone for the police, sir, and to add that Mr.
Pratt was here."
"Well?" demanded Eldrick.
"We did lock her up, sir! She's in my pantry," continued the butler,
ruefully. "We've got her in there because there are bars to the
windows--she can't get out of that. A terrible time we had, too,
sir--she fought us like--like a maniac, protesting all the time that
Mrs. Mallathorpe had given her what she had on her. Of course, sir, we
don't know what she may have on her--we simply obeyed Mrs. Mallathorpe."
"Where is Mrs. Mallathorpe?" asked Collingwood. "Is she safe?"
"Oh, quite safe, sir!" replied the butler. "She returned to her room
after giving those orders. Mrs. Mallathorpe appeared to be--quite calm,
Prydale pushed himself forward--unceremoniously and insistently.
"Keep that woman locked up!" he said. "First of all--where's Pratt?"
"Mrs. Mallathorpe said he would be found in a room in the old part of
the house," answered the butler, shaking his head as if he were
thoroughly mystified. "She said you would find him fast asleep--Mawson
had drugged him!"
Prydale looked at Byner and at his fellow-detectives. Then he turned to
"Come on!" he said brusquely. "Take us there at once!" He glanced at
Eldrick. "I'm beginning to see through it, Mr. Eldrick!" he whispered.
"This maid's caught Pratt for us. Let's hope he's still----"
But before he could say more, and just as the butler opened a door which
led into a corridor at the rear of the hall, a sharp crack which was
unmistakably that of a revolver, rang through the house, waking equally
sharp echoes in the silent room. And at that, Nesta hurried up the
stairway to her mother's apartment, and the men, after a hurried glance
at each other, ran along the corridor after the butler and the footmen.
Pratt came out of his stupor much sooner than Esther Mawson had reckoned
on. According to her previous experiments with the particular drug which
she had administered to him, he ought to have remained in a profound and
an undisturbed slumber until at least five o'clock. But he woke at
four--woke suddenly, sharply, only conscious at first of a terrible pain
in his head, which kept him groaning and moaning in his chair for a
minute or two before he fairly realized where he was and what had
happened. As the pain became milder and gave way to a dull throbbing and
a general sense of discomfort, he looked round out of aching eyes and
saw the bottle of sherry. And so dull were his wits that his only
thought at first was that the wine had been far stronger than he had
known, and that he had drunk far too much of it, and that it had sent
him to sleep--and just then his wandering glance fell on some papers
which Esther Mawson had taken from one of his pockets and thrown aside
as of no value.
He leapt to his feet, trembling and sweating. His hands, shaking as if
smitten with a sudden palsy, went to his pockets--he tore off his coat
and turned his pockets out, as if touch and feeling were not to be
believed, and his eyes must see that there was really nothing there.
Then he snatched up the papers on the floor and found nothing but
letters, and odd scraps of unimportant memoranda. He stamped his feet on
those things, and began to swear and curse, and finally to sob and
whine. The shock of his discovery had driven all his stupefaction away
by that time, and he knew what had happened. And his whining and sobbing
was not that of despair, but the far worse and fiercer sobbing and
whining of rage and terrible anger. If the woman who had tricked him had
been there he would have torn her limb from limb, and have glutted
himself with revenge. But--he was alone.
And presently, after moving around his prison more like a wild beast
than a human being, his senses having deserted him for a while, he
regained some composure, and glanced about him for means of escape. He
went to the door and tried it. But the old, substantial oak stood firm
and fast--nothing but a crow-bar would break that door. And so he turned
to the mullioned window, set in a deep recess.
He knew that it was thirty or forty feet above the level of the
ground--but there was much thick ivy growing on the walls of Normandale
Grange, and it might be possible to climb down by its aid. With a great
effort he forced open one of the dirt-encrusted sashes and looked
out--and in the same instant he drew in his head with a harsh groan. The
window commanded a full view of the hall door--and he had seen Prydale,
and two other detectives, and the stranger from London whom he believed
to be a detective, hurrying from their motorcar into the house.
There was but one thing for it, now. Esther Mawson had robbed him of
everything that was on him in the way of papers and money. But in his
hip-pocket she had left a revolver which Pratt had carried, always
loaded, for some time. And now, without the least hesitation, he drew it
out and sent one of its bullets through his brain.
* * * * *
Eldrick and Collingwood, returning to the hall from the room in which
they and the detectives had found Pratt's dead body, stood a little
later in earnest conversation with Prydale, who had just come there from
an interview with Esther Mawson. Nesta Mallathorpe suddenly called to