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The Talleyrand Maxim by J. S. Fletcher

Part 5 out of 5

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them from the stairs, at the same time beckoning them to go up to her.

"Will you come with me and speak to my mother?" she said. "She knows you
are here, and she wants to say something about what has
happened--something about that document which Pratt said he possessed."

Eldrick and Collingwood exchanged glances without speaking. They
followed Nesta into her mother's sitting-room. And instead of the
semi-invalid whom they had expected to find there, they saw a woman who
had evidently regained not only her vivacity and her spirits but her
sense of authority and her inclination to exercise it.

"I am sorry that you gentlemen should have been drawn into all this
wretched business!" she exclaimed, as she pointed the two men to chairs.
"Everything must seem very strange, and indeed have seemed so for some
time. But I have been the victim of as bad a scoundrel as ever
lived--I'm not going to be so hypocritical as to pretend that I'm sorry
he's dead--I'm not! I only wish he'd met his proper fate--on the
scaffold. I don't know what you may have heard, or gathered--my daughter
herself, from what she tells me, has only the vaguest notions--but I
wanted to tell you, Mr. Eldrick, and you, Mr. Collingwood--seeing that
you're one a solicitor and the other a barrister, that Pratt invented a
most abominable plot against me, which, of course, hasn't a word of
truth in it, yet was so clever that----"

Eldrick suddenly raised his hand.

"Mrs. Mallathorpe!" he said quietly. "I think you had better let me
speak before you go any further. Perhaps we--Mr. Collingwood and I--know
more than you think. Don't trifle, Mrs. Mallathorpe, for your own and
your daughter's sake! Tell the truth--and answer a plain question, which
I assure you, is asked in your own interest. What have you done with
John Mallathorpe's will?"

Collingwood, anxious for Nesta, was watching her closely, and now he saw
her turn a startled and inquiring look on her mother, who, in her turn,
dashed a surprised glance at Eldrick. But if Mrs. Mallathorpe was
surprised, she was also indignant, or she simulated indignation, and she
replied to the solicitor's question with a sharp retort.

"What do you mean?--John Mallathorpe's will!" she exclaimed. "What do I
know of John Mallathorpe's will? There never was----"

"Mrs. Mallathorpe!" interrupted Eldrick. "Don't! I'm speaking in your
interest, I tell you! There was a will! It was made on the morning of
John Mallathorpe's death. It was found by Mr. Collingwood's late
grandfather, Antony Bartle: when he died suddenly in my office, it fell
into Pratt's hands. That is the document which Pratt held over you--and
not an hour ago, Esther Mawson took it from Pratt, and she gave it to
you. Again I ask you--what have you done with it?"

Mrs. Mallathorpe hesitated a moment. Then she suddenly faced Eldrick
with a defiant look. "Let them--let everybody--do what they like!" she
exclaimed. "It's burnt! I threw it in that fire as soon as I got it! And

Nesta interrupted her mother.

"Does any one know the terms of that will?" she asked, looking at
Eldrick. "Tell me!--if you know. Hush!" she went on, as Mrs. Mallathorpe
tried to speak again. "I will know!"

"Yes!" answered Eldrick. "Esther Mawson knows them. She read the will
carefully. She told Prydale just now what they were. With the exception
of three legacies of ten thousand pounds each to your mother, your
brother, and yourself, John Mallathorpe left everything he possessed to
the town of Barford for an educational trust."

"Then," asked Nesta quietly, as she made a peremptory sign to her mother
to be silent, "we--never had any right to be here--at all?"

"I'm afraid not," replied Eldrick.

"Then of course we shall go," said Nesta. "That's certain! Do you hear
that, mother? That's my decision. It's final!"

"You can do what you like," retorted Mrs. Mallathorpe sullenly. "I am
not going to be frightened by anything that Esther Mawson says. Nor by
what you say!" she continued, turning on Eldrick. "All that has got to
be proved. Who can prove it? What can prove it? Do you think I am going
to give up my rights without fighting for them? I shall swear that every
word of Esther Mawson's is a lie! No one can bring forward a will that
doesn't exist. And what concern is it of yours, Mr. Eldrick? What right
have you?"

"You are quite right, Mrs. Mallathorpe," said Eldrick. "It is no concern
of mine. And so----"

He turned to the door--and as he turned the door opened, to admit the
old butler who looked apologetically but earnestly at Nesta as he
stepped forward.

"A Mrs. Gaukrodger wishes to see you on very particular business," he
murmured. "She's been waiting some little time--something, she says,
about some papers she has just found--belonging to the late Mr. John

Collingwood, who was standing close to Nesta, caught all the butler

"Gaukrodger!" he exclaimed, with a quick glance at Eldrick. "That was
the name of the manager--a witness. See the woman at once," he whispered
to Nesta.

"Bring Mrs. Gaukrodger in, Dickenson," said Nesta. "Stay--I'll come with
you, and bring her in myself."

She returned a moment later with a slightly built, rather careworn woman
dressed in deep mourning--the woman in black whom they had seen crossing
the park--who looked nervously round her as she entered.

"What is it you have for me, Mrs. Gaukrodger?" asked Nesta. "Papers
belonging to the late Mr. John Mallathorpe? How--where did you get

Mrs. Gaukrodger drew a large envelope from under her cloak. "This,
miss," she answered. "One paper--I only found it this morning. In this
way," she went on, addressing herself to Nesta. "When my husband was
killed, along with Mr. John Mallathorpe, they, of course, brought home
the clothes he was wearing. There were a lot of papers in the pockets of
the coat--two pockets full of them. And I hadn't heart or courage to
look at them at that time, miss!--I couldn't, and I locked them up in a
box. I never looked at them until this very day--but this morning I
happened to open that box, and I saw them, and I thought I'd see what
they were. And this was one--you see, it's in a plain envelope--it was
sealed, but there's no writing on it. I cut the envelope open, and drew
the paper out, and I saw at once it was Mr. John Mallathorpe's will--so
I came straight to you with it."

She handed the envelope over to Nesta, who at once gave it to Eldrick.
The solicitor hastily drew out the enclosure, glanced it over, and
turned sharply to Collingwood with a muttered exclamation.

"Good gracious!" he said. "That man Cobcroft was right! There _was_ a
duplicate! And here it is!"

Mrs. Mallathorpe had come nearer. The sight of the half sheet of
foolscap in Eldrick's hands seemed to fascinate her. And the expression
of her face as she came close to his side was so curious that the
solicitor involuntarily folded up the will and hastily put it behind his
back--he had not only seen that expression but had caught sight of Mrs.
Mallathorpe's twitching fingers.

"Is--that--that--another will?" she whispered. "John Mallathorpe's?"

"Precisely the same--another copy--duly signed and witnessed!" answered
Eldrick firmly. "What you foolishly did was done for nothing. And--it's
the most fortunate thing in the world, Mrs. Mallathorpe, that this has
turned up!--most fortunate for you!"

Mrs. Mallathorpe steadied herself on the edge of the table and looked at
him fixedly. "Everything'll have to be given up?" she asked.

"The terms of this will will be carried out," answered Eldrick.

"Will--will they make me give up--what we've--saved?" she whispered.

"Mother!" said Nesta appealingly. "Don't! Come away somewhere and let me
talk to you--come!"

But Mrs. Mallathorpe shook off her daughter's hand and turned again to

"Will they?" she demanded. "Answer!"

"I don't think you'll find the trustees at all hard when it comes to a
question of account," answered Eldrick. "They'll probably take matters
over from now and ignore anything that's happened during the past two

Again Nesta tried to lead her mother away, and again Mrs. Mallathorpe
pushed the appealing hand from her. All her attention was fixed on
Eldrick. "And--and will the police give me--now--what they found on that
woman?" she whispered.

"I have no doubt they will," replied Eldrick. "It's--yours."

Mrs. Mallathorpe drew a sigh of relief. She looked at the solicitor
steadily for a moment--then without another word she turned and went
away--to find Prydale.

Eldrick turned to Nesta.

"Don't forget," he said in a low voice, "it's a terrible blow to her,
and she's been thinking of your interests! Leave her alone for a
while--she'll get used to the altered circumstances. I'm sorry for
her--and for you!"

But Nesta made a sign of dissent.

"There's no need to be sorry for me, Mr. Eldrick," she answered. "It's a
greater relief than you can realize." She turned from him and went over
to Mrs. Gaukrodger who had watched this scene without fully
comprehending it. "Come with me," she said. "You look very tired and you
must have some tea and rest awhile--come now."

Eldrick and Collingwood, left alone, looked at each, other in silence
for a moment. Then the solicitor shook his head expressively.

"Well, that's over!" he exclaimed. "I must go back and hand this will
over to the two trustees. But you, Collingwood--stay here a bit--if ever
that girl needs company and help, it's now!"

"I'm stopping," said Collingwood.

He remained for a time where Eldrick left him; at last he went down to
the hail and out into the gardens. And presently Nesta came to him
there, and as if with a mutual understanding they walked away into the
nearer stretches of the park. Normandale had never looked more beautiful
than it did that afternoon, and in the midst of a silence which up to
then neither of them had cared to break, Collingwood suddenly turned to
the girl who had just lost it.

"Are you sure that you won't miss all this--greatly?" he asked. "Just

"I'd rather lose more than this, however fond I'd got of it, than go
through what I've gone through lately," she answered frankly. "Do you
know what I want to do?"

"No--I think not," he said. "What?"

"If it's possible--to forget all about this," she replied. "And--if
that's also possible--to help my mother to forget, too. Don't think too
hardly of her--I don't suppose any of us know how much all this
place--and the money--meant to her."

"I've got no hard thoughts about her," said Collingwood. "I'm sorry for
her. But--is it too soon to talk about the future?"

Nesta looked at him in a way which showed him that she only half
comprehended the question. But there was sufficient comprehension in her
eyes to warrant him in taking her hands in his.

"You know why I didn't go to India?" he said, bending his face to hers.

"I--guessed!" she answered shyly.

Then Collingwood, at this suddenly arrived supreme moment, became
curiously bereft of speech. And after a period of silence, during which,
being in the shadow of a grove of beech-trees which kindly concealed
them from the rest of the world, they held each other's hands, all that
he could find to say was one word.


Nesta laughed.

"Well--what?" she whispered.

Collingwood suddenly laughed too and put his arm round her.

"It's no good!" he said. "I've often thought of what I'd to say to
you--and now I've forgotten all. Shall I say it all at once!"

"Wouldn't it be best?" she murmured with another laugh.

"Then--you're going to marry me?" he asked.

"Am I to answer--all at once?" she said.

"One word will do!" he exclaimed, drawing her to him.

"Ah!" she whispered as she lifted her face to his. "I couldn't say it
all in one word. But--we've lots of time before us!"


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