Chapter XII. The Power of Attorney
 

Collingwood had many things to think over as he walked across Normandale Park that morning. He had deliberately given up his Indian appointment for Nesta's sake, so that he might be near her in case the trouble which he feared arose suddenly. But it was too soon yet to let her know that she was the cause of his altered arrangements--in any case, that was not the time to tell her that it was on her account that he had altered them.

He must make some plausible excuse: then he must settle down in Barford, according to Eldrick's suggestion. He would then be near at hand--and if the trouble, whatever it might be, took tangible form, he would be able to help. But he was still utterly in the dark as to what that possible trouble might be--yet, of one thing he felt convinced--it would have some connection with Pratt.

He remembered, as he walked along, that he had formed some queer, uneasy suspicion about Pratt when he first hurried down to Barford on hearing of Antony Bartle's death: that feeling, subsequently allayed to some extent, had been revived. There might be nothing in it, he said to himself, over and over again; everything that seemed strange might be easily explained; the evidence of Pratt at the inquest had appeared absolutely truthful and straightforward, and yet the blunt, rough, downright question of the blacksmith, crudely voiced as it was, found a ready agreement in Collingwood's mind. As he drew near the house he found himself repeating Stringer's broad Yorkshire--"What wor that lawyer-clerk chap fro' Barford--Pratt--doin' about theer? What reight had he to be prowlin' round t' neighbourhood o' that bridge, and at that time? Come, now--theer's a tickler for somebody!" And even as he smiled at the remembrance of the whole rustic conversation of the previous evening, and thought that the blacksmith's question certainly might be a ticklish one--for somebody--he looked up from the frosted grass at his feet, and saw Pratt.

Pratt, a professional-looking bag in his hand, a morning newspaper under the other arm, was standing at the gate of one of the numerous shrubberies which flanked the Grange, talking to a woman who leaned over it. Collingwood recognized her as a person whom he had twice seen in the house during his visits on the day before---a middle-aged, slightly built woman, neatly dressed in black, and wearing a sort of nurse's cap which seemed to denote some degree of domestic servitude. She was a woman who had once been pretty, and who still retained much of her good looks; she was also evidently of considerable shrewdness and intelligence and possessed a pair of remarkably quick eyes--the sort of eyes, thought Collingwood, that see everything that happens within their range of vision. And she had a firm chin and a mouth which expressed determination; he had seen all that as she exchanged some conversation with the old butler in Collingwood's presence--a noticeable woman altogether. She was evidently in close conference with Pratt at that moment--but as Collingwood drew near she turned and went slowly in the direction of the house, while Pratt, always outwardly polite, stepped towards the interrupter of this meeting, and lifted his hat.

"Good morning, Mr. Collingwood," he said. "A fine, sharp morning, sir! I was just asking Mrs. Mallathorpe's maid how her mistress is this morning--she was very ill when I left last night. Better, sir, I'm glad to say--Mrs. Mallathorpe has had a much better night."

"I'm very pleased to hear it," replied Collingwood. He was going towards the front of the Grange, and Pratt walked at his side, evidently in the same direction. "I am afraid she has had a great shock. You are still here, then?" he went on, feeling bound to make some remark, and saying the first obvious thing. "Still busy?"

"Mr. Eldrick has lent me--so to speak--until the funeral's over, tomorrow," answered Pratt. "There are a lot of little things in which I can be useful, you know, Mr. Collingwood. I suppose your arrangements--you said you were sailing for India--won't permit of your being present tomorrow, sir?"

Collingwood was not sure if the clerk was fishing for information. Pratt's manner was always polite, his questions so innocently put, that it was difficult to know what he was actually after. But he was not going to give him any information--either then, or at any time.

"I don't quite know what my arrangements may be," he answered. And just then they came to the front entrance, and Collingwood was taken off in one direction by a footman, while Pratt, who already seemed to be fully acquainted with the house and its arrangements, took himself and his bag away in another.

Nesta came to Collingwood looking less anxious than when he had left her at his last call the night before. He had already told her what his impressions of the inquest were, and he was now wondering whether to tell her of the things he had heard said at the village inn. But remembering that he was now going to stay in the neighbourhood, he decided to say nothing at that time--if there was anything in these vague feelings and suspicions it would come out, and could be dealt with when it arose. At present he had need of a little diplomacy.

"Oh!--I wanted to tell you," he said, after talking to her awhile about Mrs. Mallathorpe. "I--there's a change in my arrangements, I'm not going to India, after all."

He was not prepared for the sudden flush that came over the girl's face. It took him aback. It also told him a good deal that he was glad to know--and it was only by a strong effort of will that he kept himself from taking her hands and telling her the truth. But he affected not to see anything, and he went on talking rapidly. "Complete change in the arrangements at the last minute," he said. "I've just been writing about it. So--as that's off, I think I shall follow Eldrick's advice, and take chambers in Barford for a time, and see how things turn out. I'm going into Barford now, to see Eldrick about all that."

Nesta, who was conscious of her betrayal of more than she cared to show just then, tried to speak calmly.

"But--isn't it an awful disappointment?" she said. "You were looking forward so to going there, weren't you?"

"Can't be helped," replied Collingwood. "All these affairs are--provisional. I thought I'd tell you at once, however--so that you'll know--if you ever want me--that I shall be somewhere round about. In fact, as it's quite comfortable there, I shall stop at the inn until I've got rooms in the town."

Then, not trusting himself to remain longer, he went off to Barford, certain that he was now definitely pledged in his own mind to Nesta Mallathorpe, and not much less that when the right time came she would not be irresponsive to him. And on that, like a cold douche, came the remembrance of her actual circumstances--she was what Eldrick had said, one of the wealthiest young women in Yorkshire. The thought of her riches made Collingwood melancholy for a while--he possessed a curious sort of pride which made him hate and loathe the notion of being taken for a fortune-hunter. But suddenly, and with a laugh, he remembered that he had certain possessions of his own--ability, knowledge, and perseverance. Before he reached Eldrick's office, he had had a vision of the Woolsack.

Eldrick received Collingwood's news with evident gratification. He immediately suggested certain chambers in an adjacent building; he volunteered information as to where the best rooms in the town were to be had. And in proof of his practical interest in Collingwood's career, he there and then engaged his professional services for two cases which were to be heard at a local court within the following week.

"Pratt shall deliver the papers to you at once," he said. "That is, as soon as he's back from Normandale this afternoon. I sent him there again to make himself useful."

"I saw him this morning," remarked Collingwood. "He appears to be a very useful person."

"Clever chap," asserted Eldrick, carelessly. "I don't know what'll be done about that stewardship that he was going to apply for. Everything will be altered now that young Mallathorpe's dead. Of course, I, personally, shouldn't have thought that Pratt would have done for a job like that, but Pratt has enough self-assurance and self-confidence for a dozen men, and he thought he would do, and I couldn't refuse him a testimonial. And as he's made himself very useful out there, it may be that if this steward business goes forward, Pratt will get the appointment. As I say, he's a smart chap."

Collingwood offered no comment. But he was conscious that it would not be at all pleasing to him to know that Linford Pratt held any official position at Normandale. Foolish as it might be, mere inspiration though it probably was, he could not get over his impression that Eldrick's clerk was not precisely trustworthy. And yet, he reflected, he himself could do nothing--it would be utter presumption on his part to offer any gratuitous advice to Nesta Mallathorpe in business matters. He was very certain of what he eventually meant to say to her about his own personal hopes, some time hence, when all the present trouble was over, but in the meantime, as regarded anything else, he could only wait and watch, and be of service to her if she asked him to render any.

Some time went by before Collingwood was asked to render service of any sort. At Normandale Grange, events progressed in apparently ordinary and normal fashion. Harper Mallathorpe was buried; his mother began to make some recovery from the shock of his death; the legal folk were busied in putting Nesta in possession of the estate, and herself and her mother in proprietorship of the mill and the personal property. In Barford, things went on as usual, too. Pratt continued his round of duties at Eldrick & Pascoe's; no more was heard--by outsiders, at any rate--of the stewardship at Normandale. As for Collingwood, he settled down in chambers and lodgings and, as Eldrick had predicted, found plenty of work. And he constantly went out to Normandale Grange, and often met Nesta elsewhere, and their knowledge of each other increased, and as the winter passed away and spring began to show on the Normandale woods and moors, Collingwood felt that the time was coming when he might speak. He was professionally engaged in London for nearly three weeks in the early part of that spring--when he returned, he had made up his mind to tell Nesta the truth, at once. He had faced it for himself--he was by that time so much in love with her that he was not going to let monetary considerations prevent him from telling her so.

But Collingwood found something else than love to talk about when he presented himself at Normandale Grange on the morning after his arrival from his three weeks' absence in town. As soon as he met her, he saw that Nesta was not only upset and troubled, but angry.

"I am glad you have come," she said, when they were alone. "I want some advice. Something has happened--something that bothers--and puzzles--me very, very much! I'm dreadfully bothered."

"Tell me," suggested Collingwood.

Nesta frowned--at some recollection or thought.

"Yesterday afternoon," she answered, "I was obliged to go into Barford, on business. I left my mother fairly well---she has been recovering fast lately, and she only has one nurse now. Unfortunately, she, too, was out for the afternoon. I came back to find my mother ill and much upset---and there's no use denying it--she'd all the symptoms of having been--well, frightened. I can't think of any other term than that--frightened. And then I learned that, in my absence, Mr. Eldrick's clerk, Mr. Pratt--you know him--had been here, and had been with her for quite an hour. I am furiously angry!"

Collingwood had expected this announcement as soon as she began to explain. So--the trouble was beginning!

"How came Pratt to be admitted to your mother?" he asked.

"That makes me angry, too," answered Nesta. "Though I confess I ought to be angry with myself for not giving stricter orders. I left the house about two--he came about three, and asked to see my mother's maid, Esther Mawson. He told her that it was absolutely necessary for him to see my mother on business, and she told my mother he was there. My mother consented to see him--and he was taken up. And as I say, I found her ill--and frightened--and that's not the worst of it!"

"What is the worst of it?" asked Collingwood, anxiously. "Better tell me!--I may be able to do something."

"The worst of it," she said, "is just this--my mother won't tell me what that man came about! She flatly refuses to tell me anything! She will only say that it was business of her own. She won't trust me with it, you see!--her own daughter! What business can that man have with her?--or she with him? Eldrick & Pascoe are not our solicitors! There's some secret and----"

"Will you answer one or two questions?" said Collingwood quietly. He had never seen Nesta angry before, and he now realized that she had certain possibilities of temper and determination which would be formidable when roused. "First of all, is that maid you speak of, Esther Mawson, reliable?"

"I don't know!" answered Nesta. "My mother has had her two years--she's a Barford woman. Sometimes I think she's sly and cunning. But I've given her such strict orders now that she'll never dare to let any one see my mother again without my consent."

"The other question's this," said Collingwood. "Have you any idea, any suspicion of why Pratt wanted to see your mother?"

"Not unless it was about that stewardship," replied Nesta. "But--how could that frighten her? Besides, all that's over. Normandale is mine!--and if I have a steward, or an estate agent, I shall see to the appointment myself. No!--I do not know why he should have come here! But--there's some mystery. The curious thing is----"

"What?" asked Collingwood, as she paused.

"Why," she said, shaking her head wonderingly, "that I'm absolutely certain that my mother never even knew this man Pratt--I don't I think she even knew his name--until quite recently. I know when she got to know him, too. It was just about the time that you first called here--at the time of Mr. Bartle's death. Our butler told me this morning that Pratt came here late one evening--just about that time!--and asked to see my mother, and was with her for some time in the study. Oh! what is it all about?--and why doesn't she tell me?"

Collingwood stood silently staring out of the window. At the time of Antony Bartle's death? An evening visit?--evidently of a secret nature. And why paid to Mrs. Mallathorpe at that particular time? He suddenly turned to Nesta.

"What do you wish me to do?" he asked.

"Will you speak to Mr. Eldrick?" she said. "Tell him that his clerk must not call upon, or attempt to see, my mother. I will not have it!"

Collingwood went off to Barford, and straight to Eldrick's office. He noticed as he passed through the outer rooms that Pratt was not in his accustomed place--as a rule, it was impossible to get at either Eldrick or Pascoe without first seeing Pratt.

"Hullo!" said Eldrick. "Just got in from town? That's lucky--I've got a big case for you."

"I got in last night," replied Collingwood. "But I went out to Normandale first thing this morning: I've just come back from there. I say, Eldrick, here's an unpleasant matter to tell you of"; and he told the solicitor all that Nesta had just told him, and also of Pratt's visit to Mrs. Mallathorpe about the time of Antony Bartle's death. "Whatever it is," he concluded sternly, "it's got to stop! If you've any influence over your clerk----"

Eldrick made a grimace and waved his hand.

"He's our clerk no longer!" he said. "He left us the week after you went up to town, Collingwood. He was only a weekly servant, and he took advantage of that to give me a week's notice. Now, what game is Master Pratt playing? He's smart, and he's deep, too. He----"

Just then an office-boy announced Mr. Robson, the Mallathorpe family solicitor, a bustling, rather rough-and-ready type of man, who came into Eldrick's room looking not only angry but astonished. He nodded to Collingwood, and flung himself into a chair at the side of Eldrick's desk.

"Look here, Eldrick!" he exclaimed. "What on earth has that clerk of yours, Pratt, got to do with Mrs. Mallathorpe? Do you know what Mrs. Mallathorpe has done? Hang it, she must be out of her senses,--or--or there's something I can't fathom. She's given your clerk, Linford Pratt, a power of attorney to deal with all her affairs and all her property! Oh, it's all right, I tell you! Pratt's been to my office, and exhibited it to me as if--as if he were the Lord Chancellor!"

Eldrick turned to Collingwood, and Collingwood to Eldrick--and then both turned to Robson.