Chapter X. The Foot-Bridge
 

Collingwood's return to London was made on a Friday evening: next day he began the final preparations for his departure to India on the following Thursday. He was looking forward to his journey and his stay in India with keen expectation. He would have the society of a particularly clever and brilliant man; they were to break their journey in Italy and in Egypt; he would enjoy exceptional facilities for seeing the native life of India; he would gain valuable experience. It was a chance at which any young man would have jumped, and Collingwood had been greatly envied when it was known that Sir John Standridge had offered it to him. And yet he was conscious that if he could have done precisely what he desired, he would have stayed longer at Barford, in order to see more of Nesta Mallathorpe. Already it seemed a long time to the coming spring, when he would be back--and free to go North again.

But Collingwood was fated to go North once more much sooner than he had dreamed of. As he sat at breakfast in his rooms on the Monday morning after his departure from Barford, turning over his newspaper with no particular aim or interest, his attention was suddenly and sharply arrested by a headline. Even that headline might not have led him to read what lay beneath. But in the same instant in which he saw it he also saw a name--Mallathorpe. In the next he knew that heavy trouble had fallen on Normandale Grange, the very day after he had left it.

This is what Collingwood read as he sat, coffee-cup in one hand, newspaper in the other--staring at the lines of unleaded type:

TRAGIC FATE OF YOUNG YORKSHIRE SQUIRE

"A fatal accident, of a particularly sad and disturbing nature, occurred near Barford, Yorkshire, on Saturday. About four o'clock on Saturday afternoon, Mr. Linford Pratt, managing clerk to Messrs. Eldrick & Pascoe, Solicitors, of Barford, who was crossing the grounds of Normandale Grange on his way to a business appointment, discovered the dead body of Mr. H. J. Mallathorpe, the owner of the Normandale Estate, lying in a roadway which at that point is spanned, forty feet above, by a narrow foot-bridge. The latter is an ancient construction of wood, and there is no doubt that it was in extremely bad repair, and had given way when the unfortunate young gentleman, who was out shooting in his park, stepped upon it. Mr. Mallathorpe, who was only twenty-four years of age, succeeded to the Normandale estates, one of the finest properties in the neighbourhood of Barford, about two years ago, under somewhat romantic--and also tragic--circumstances, their previous owner, his uncle, Mr. John Mallathorpe, a well-known Barford manufacturer, meeting a sudden death by the falling of his mill chimney--a catastrophe which also caused the deaths of several of his employees. Mr. John Mallathorpe died intestate, and the estate at Normandale passed to the young gentleman who met such a sad fate on Saturday afternoon. Mr. H.J. Mallathorpe was unmarried, and it is understood that Normandale (which includes the village of that name, the advowson of the living, and about four thousand acres of land) now becomes the property of his sister, Miss Nesta Mallathorpe."

Collingwood set down his cup, and dropped the newspaper. He was but half way through his breakfast, but all his appetite had vanished. All that he was conscious of was that here was trouble and grief for a girl in whom--it was useless to deny it--he had already begun to take a warm interest. And suddenly he started from his chair and snatched up a railway guide. As he turned over its pages, he thought rapidly. The preparations for his journey to India were almost finished--what was not done he could do in a few hours. He had no further appointment with Sir John Standridge until nine o'clock on Thursday morning, when he was to meet him at the train for Dover and Paris. Monday--Tuesday--Wednesday--he had three days--ample time to hurry down to Normandale, to do what he could to help there, and to get back in time to make his own last arrangements. He glanced at his watch--he had forty minutes in which to catch an express from King's Cross to Barford. Without further delay he picked up a suit-case which was already packed and set out for the station.

He was in Barford soon after two o'clock--in Eldrick's office by half-past two. Eldrick shook his head at sight of him.

"I can guess what's brought you down, Collingwood," he said. "Good of you, of course--I don't think they've many friends out there."

"I can scarcely call myself that--yet," answered Collingwood. "But--I thought I might be of some use. I'll drive out there presently. But first--how was it?"

Eldrick shook his head.

"Don't know much more than what the papers say," he answered. "There's an old foot-bridge there that spans a road in the park--road cut through a ravine. They say it was absolutely rotten, and the poor chap's weight was evidently too much for it. And there was a drop of forty feet into a hard road. Extraordinary thing that nobody on the estate seems to have known of the dangerous condition of that bridge!--but they say it was little used--simply a link between one plantation and another. However;--it's done, now. Our clerk--Pratt, you know--found the body. Hadn't been dead five minutes, Pratt says."

"What was Pratt doing there?" asked Collingwood.

"Oh, business of his own," replied Eldrick. "Not ours. There was an advertisement in Saturday's papers which set out that a steward was wanted for the Normandale estate, and Pratt mentioned it to me in the morning that he thought of applying for the job if we'd give him a good testimonial. I suppose he'd gone out there to see about the preliminaries. Anyway, he was walking through the park when he found young Mallathorpe's body. I understand he made himself very useful, too, and I've sent him out there again today, to do anything he can--smart chap, Pratt!"

"Possibly, then, there is nothing I can do," remarked Collingwood.

"I should say you'll do a lot by merely going there," answered Eldrick. "As I said just now, they've few friends, and no relations, and I hear that Mrs. Mallathorpe is absolutely knocked over. Go, by all means--a bit of sympathy goes a long way on these occasions. I say!--what a regular transformation an affair of this sort produces. Do you know, that young fellow, just like his uncle, had not made any will! Fact!--I had it from Robson, their solicitor, this very morning. The whole of the estate comes to the sister, of course--she and the mother will share the personal property. By that lad's death, Nesta Mallathorpe becomes one of the wealthiest young women in Yorkshire!"

Collingwood made no reply to this communication. But as he drove off to Normandale Grange, it was fresh in his mind. And it was not very pleasant to him. One of the wealthiest young women in Yorkshire!--and he was already realizing that he would like to make Nesta Mallathorpe his wife: it was because he felt what he did for her that he had rushed down to do anything he could that would be of help. Supposing--only supposing--that people--anybody--said that he was fortune-hunting! Somewhat unduly sensitive, proud, almost to a fault, he felt his cheek redden at the thought, and for a moment he wished that old John Mallathorpe's wealth had never passed to his niece. But then he sneered at himself for his presumption.

"Ass!" he said. "She's never even thought of me--in that way, most likely! Anyway, I'm a stupid fool for thinking of these things at present."

But he knew, within a few minutes of entering the big, desolate-looking house, that Nesta had been thinking of him. She came to him in the room where they had first met, and quietly gave him her hand.

"I was not surprised when they told me you were here," she said. "I was thinking about you--or, rather, expecting to hear from you."

"I came at once," answered Collingwood, who had kept her hand in his. "I--well, I couldn't stop away. I thought, perhaps, I could do something--be of some use."

"It's a great deal of use to have just--come," she said. "Thank you! But--I suppose you'll have to go?"

"Not for two days, anyway," he replied. "What can I do?"

"I don't know that you can actually do anything," she answered. "Everything is being done, Mr. Eldrick sent his clerk, Mr. Pratt--who found Harper--he's been most kind and useful. He--and our own solicitor--are making all arrangements. There's got to be an inquest. No--I don't know that you can do actual things. But--while you're here--you can look in when you like. My mother is very ill--she has scarcely spoken since Saturday."

"I'll tell you what I will do," said Collingwood determinedly. "I noticed in coming through the village just now that there's quite a decent inn there. I'll go down and arrange to stay there until Wednesday evening--then I shall be close by--if you should need me."

He saw by her look of quick appreciation and relief that this suggestion pleased her. She pressed his hand and withdrew her own. "Thank you again!" she said. "Do you know--I can't quite explain--I should be glad if you were close at hand? Everybody has been very kind--but I do feel that there is nobody I can talk to. If you arrange this, will you come in again this evening?"

"I shall arrange it," answered Collingwood. "I'll see to it now. Tell your people I am to be brought in whenever I call. And--I'll be close by whenever you want me."

It seemed little to say, little to do, but he left her feeling that he was being of some use. And as he went off to make his arrangements at the inn he encountered Pratt, who was talking to the butler in the outer hall.

The clerk looked at Collingwood with an unconcern and a composure which he was able to assume because he had already heard of his presence in the house. Inwardly, he was malignantly angry that the young barrister was there, but his voice was suave, and polite enough when he spoke.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Collingwood," he said quietly. "Very sad occasion on which we meet again, sir. Come to offer your sympathy, Mr. Collingwood, of course--very kind of you."

"I came," answered Collingwood, who was not inclined to bandy phrases with Pratt, "to see if I could be of any practical use."

"Just so, sir," said Pratt. "Mr. Eldrick sent me here for the same purpose. There's really not much to do--beyond the necessary arrangements, which are already pretty forward. Going back to town, sir?" he went on, following Collingwood out to his motor-car, which stood waiting in the drive.

"No!" replied Collingwood. "I'm going to send this man to Barford to fetch my bag to the inn down there in the village, where I'm going to stay for a few days. Did you hear that?" he continued, turning to the driver. "Go back to Barford--get my bag from the Station Hotel there--bring it to the Normandale Arms--I'll meet you there on your return."

The car went off, and Collingwood, with a nod to Pratt, was about to turn down a side path towards the village. But Pratt stopped him.

"Would you care to see the place where the accident happened, Mr. Collingwood?" he said. "It's close by--won't take five minutes."

Collingwood hesitated a moment; then he turned back. It might be well, he reflected, if he made himself acquainted with all the circumstances of this case, simple as they seemed.

"Thank you," he said. "If it's so near."

"This way, sir," responded Pratt. He led his companion along the front of the house, through the shrubberies at the end of a wing, and into a plantation by a path thickly covered with pine needles. Presently they emerged upon a similar track, at right angles to that by which they had come, and leading into a denser part of the woods. And at the end of a hundred yards of it they came to a barricade, evidently of recent construction, over which Pratt stretched a hand. "There!" he said. "That's the bridge, sir." Collingwood looked over the barricade. He saw that he and Pratt were standing at the edge of one thick plantation of fir and pine; the edge of a similar plantation stretched before them some ten yards away. But between the two lay a deep, dark ravine, which, immediately in front of the temporary barricade, was spanned by a narrow rustic bridge--a fragile-looking thing of planks, railed in by boughs of trees. And in the middle was a jagged gap in both floor and side-rails, showing where the rotten wood had given way.

"I'll explain, Mr. Collingwood," said the clerk presently. "I knew this park, sir--I knew it well, before the late Mr. John Mallathorpe bought the property. That path at the other end of the bridge makes a short cut down to the station in the valley--through the woods and the lower part of the park. I came up that path, from the station, on Saturday afternoon, intending to cross this bridge and go on to the house, where I had private business. When I got to the other end of the bridge, there, I saw the gap in the middle. And then I looked down into the cut--there's a road--a paved road--down there, and I saw--him! And so I made shift to scramble down--stiff job it was!--to get to him. But he was dead, Mr. Collingwood--stone dead, sir!--though I'm certain he hadn't been dead five minutes. And----"

"Aye, an' he'd never ha' been dead at all, wouldn't young Squire, if only his ma had listened to what I telled her!" interrupted a voice behind them. "He'd ha' been alive at this minute, he would, if his ma had done what I said owt to be done--now then!"

Collingwood turned sharply--to confront an old man, evidently one of the woodmen on the estate who had come up behind them unheard on the thick carpeting of pine needles. And Pratt turned, too--with a keen look and a direct question.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "What are you talking about?"

"I know what I'm talking about, young gentleman," said the man doggedly. "I ain't worked, lad and man, on this one estate nine-and-forty years--and happen more--wi'out knowin' all about it. I tell'd Mrs. Mallathorpe on Friday noon 'at that there owd brig 'ud fall in afore long if it worn't mended. I met her here, at this very place where we're standin', and I showed her 'at it worn't safe to cross it. I tell'd her 't she owt to have it fastened up theer an' then. It's been rottin' for many a year, has this owd brig--why, I mind when it wor last repaired, and that wor years afore owd Mestur Mallathorpe bowt this estate!"

"When do you say you told Mrs. Mallathorpe all that?" asked Pratt.

"Friday noon it were, sir," answered the woodman. "When I were on my way home--dinner time. 'Cause I met the missis here, and I made bold to tell her what I'd noticed. That there owd brig!--lor' bless yer, gentlemen! it were black rotten i' the middle, theer where poor young maister he fell through it. 'Ye mun hev' that seen to at once, missis,' I says. 'Sartin sure, 'tain't often as it's used,' I says, 'but surely sartin 'at if it ain't mended, or closed altogether,' I says, 'summun 'il be going through and brekkin' their necks,' I says. An' reight, too, gentlemen--forty feet it is down to that road. An' a mortal hard road, an' all, paved wi' granite stone all t' way to t' stable-yard."

"You're sure it was Friday noon?" repeated Pratt.

"As sure as that I see you," answered the woodman. "An' Mrs. Mallathorpe she said she'd hev it seen to. Dear-a-me!--it should ha' been closed!"

The old man shook his head and went off amongst the trees, and Pratt, giving his vanishing figure a queer look, turned silently back along the path, followed by Collingwood. At the point where the other path led to the house, he glanced over his shoulder at the young barrister.

"If you keep straight on, Mr. Collingwood," he said, "you'll get straight down to the village and the inn. I must go this way."

He went off rapidly, and Collingwood walked on through the plantation towards the Normandale Arms--wondering, all the way, why Pratt was so anxious to know exactly when it was that Mrs. Mallathorpe had been warned about the old bridge.