Chapter XIII. The First Trick
 

The Mallathorpe family solicitor shook his head impatiently under those questioning glances.

"It's not a bit of use appealing to me to know what it means!" he exclaimed. "I know no more than what I've told you. That chap walked into my office as bold as brass, half an hour ago, and exhibited to me a power of attorney, all duly drawn up and stamped, executed in his favour by Mrs. Mallathorpe yesterday. And as Mrs. Mallathorpe is, as far as I know, in her senses,--why--there you are!"

"What is it?" asked Eldrick. "A general power? Or a special?"

"General!" answered Robson, with an air of disgust. "Authorizes him to act for her in all business matters. It means, of course, that that fellow now has full control over--why, a tremendous amount of money! The estate, of course, is Miss Mallathorpe's--he can't interfere with that. But Mrs. Mallathorpe shares equally with her daughter as regards the personal property of Harper Mallathorpe--his share in the business, and all that he left, and what's more, Mrs. Mallathorpe is administratrix of the personal property. She's simply placed in Pratt's hands an enormous power! And--for what reason? Who on earth is Pratt--what right, title, age, or qualification, has he to be entrusted with such a big affair? I never knew of such a business in the whole course of my professional experiences!"

"Nor I!" agreed Eldrick. "But there's one thing in which you're mistaken, Robson. You ask what qualification Pratt has for a post of that sort? Pratt's a very smart, clever, managing chap!"

"Oh, of course! He's your clerk!" retorted Robson, a little sneeringly. "Naturally, you've a big idea of his abilities. But----"

"He's not our clerk any longer," said Eldrick. "He left us about a week ago, I heard this morning that he's set up an office in Market Street--in the Atlas Building--and I wondered for what purpose."

"Purpose of fleecing Mrs. Mallathorpe, I should say!" grumbled Robson. "Of course, everything of hers must pass through his hands. What on earth can her daughter have been thinking of to allow----"

"Stop a bit!" interrupted Eldrick. "Collingwood came in to tell me about that--he's just come from Normandale Grange. Miss Mallathorpe complains that Pratt called there yesterday in her absence. That's probably when this power of attorney was signed. But Miss Mallathorpe doesn't know anything of it--she insists that Pratt shall not visit her mother."

Robson stirred impatiently in his chair.

"That's all bosh!" he said. "She can't prevent it. I saw Mrs. Mallathorpe myself three days ago--she's recovering very well, and she's in her right senses, and she's capable of doing business. Her daughter can't prevent her from doing anything she likes! And if she did what she liked yesterday when she signed that document--why, everybody's powerless--except Pratt."

"There's the question of how the document was obtained," remarked Collingwood. "There may have been undue influence."

The two solicitors looked at each other. Then Eldrick rose from his chair. "I'll tell you what I'll do," he said. "It's no affair of mine, but we employed Pratt for years, and he'll confide in me. I'll go and see him, and ask him what it's all about. Wait here a while, you two."

He went out of his office and across into Market Street, where the Atlas Building, a modern range of offices and chambers, towered above the older structures at its foot. In the entrance hall a man was gilding the name of a new tenant on the address board--that name was Pratt's, and Eldrick presently found himself ascending in the lift to Pratt's quarters on the fifth floor. Within five minutes of leaving Collingwood and Robson, he was closeted with Pratt in a well-furnished and appointed little office of two rooms, the inner one of which was almost luxurious in its fittings. And Pratt himself looked extremely well satisfied, and confident--and quite at his ease. He wheeled forward an easy chair for his visitor, and pushed a box of cigarettes towards him.

"Glad to see you, Mr. Eldrick," he said, with a cordial politeness which suggested, however, somehow, that he and the solicitor were no longer master and servant. "How do you like my little place of business?"

"You're making a comfortable nest of it, anyhow, Pratt," answered Eldrick, looking round. "And--what sort of business are you going to do, pray?"

"Agency," replied Pratt, promptly. "It struck me some little time ago that a smart man,--like myself, eh?--could do well here in Barford as an agent in a new sort of fashion--attending to things for people who aren't fitted or inclined to do 'em for themselves--or are rich enough to employ somebody to look after their affairs. Of course, that Normandale stewardship dropped out when young Harper died, and I don't suppose the notion 'll be revived now that his sister's come in. But I've got one good job to go on with---Mrs. Mallathorpe's given me her affairs to look after."

Eldrick took one of the cigarettes and lighted it--as a sign of his peaceable and amicable intentions.

"Pratt!" he said. "That's just what I've come to see you about. Unofficially, mind--in quite a friendly way. It's like this"; and he went on to tell Pratt of what had just occurred at his own office. "So--there you are," he concluded. "I'm saying nothing, you know, it's no affair of mine--but if these people begin to say that you've used any undue influence----"

"Mr. Collingwood, and Mr. Robson, and Miss Mallathorpe--and anybody," answered Pratt, slowly and firmly, "had better mind what they are saying, Mr. Eldrick. There's such a thing as slander, as you're well aware. I'm not the man to be slandered, or libelled, or to have my character defamed--without fighting for my rights. There has been no undue influence! I went to see Mrs. Mallathorpe yesterday at her own request. The arrangement between me and her is made with her approval and free will. If her daughter found her a bit upset, it's because she'd such a shock at the time of her son's death. I did nothing to frighten her, not I! The fact is, Miss Mallathorpe doesn't know that her mother and I have had a bit of business together of late. And all that Mrs. Mallathorpe has entrusted to me is the power to look after her affairs for her. And why not? You know that I'm a good man of business, a really good hand at commercial accountancy, and well acquainted with the trade of this town. You know too, Mr. Eldrick, that I'm scrupulously honest--I've had many and many a thousand pounds of yours and your partner's through my hands! Who's got anything to say against me? I'm only trying to earn an honest living."

"Well, well!" said Eldrick, who, being an easy-going and kindly-dispositioned man, was somewhat inclined to side with his old clerk. "I suppose Mr. Robson thinks that if Mrs. Mallathorpe wished to put her affairs in anybody's hands, she should have put them in his. He's their family solicitor, you know, Pratt, while you're a young man with no claim on Mrs. Mallathorpe."

Pratt smiled--a queer, knowing smile--and reached out his hand to some papers which lay on his desk.

"You're wrong there, Mr. Eldrick," he said. "But of course, you don't know. I didn't know myself, nor did Mrs. Mallathorpe, until lately. But I have a claim--and a good one--to get a business lift from Mrs. Mallathorpe. I'm a relation."

"What--of the Mallathorpe family?" exclaimed Eldrick, whose legal mind was at once bitten by notion of kinship and succession, and who knew that Harper Mallathorpe was supposed to have no male relatives at all, of any degree. "You don't mean it?"

"No!--but of hers, Mrs. Mallathorpe," answered Pratt. "My mother was her cousin. I found that out by mere chance, and when I'd found it, I worked out the facts from our parish church register. They're all here--fairly copied--Mrs. Mallathorpe has seen them. So I have some claim--even if it's only that of a poor relation."

Eldrick took the sheets of foolscap which Pratt handed to him, and looked them over with interest and curiosity. He was something of an expert in such matters, and had helped to edit a print more than once of the local parish registers. He soon saw from a hasty examination of the various entries of marriages and births that Pratt was quite right in what he said.

"I call it a poor--and a mean--game," remarked Pratt, while his old master was thus occupied, "a very mean game indeed, of well-to-do folk like Mr. Collingwood and Mr. Robson to want to injure me in a matter which is no business of theirs. I shall do my duty by Mrs. Mallathorpe--you yourself know I'm fully competent to do it--and I shall fully earn the percentage that she'll pay me. What right have these people--what right has her daughter--to come between me and my living?"

"Oh, well, well!" said Eldrick, as he handed back the papers and rose. "It's one of those matters that hasn't been understood. You made a mistake, you know, Pratt, when you went to see Mrs. Mallathorpe yesterday in her daughter's absence. You shouldn't have done that."

Pratt pulled open a drawer and, after turning over some loose papers, picked out a letter.

"Do you know Mrs. Mallathorpe's handwriting?" he asked. "Very well--there it is! Isn't that a request from her that I should call on her yesterday afternoon? Very well then!"

Eldrick looked at the letter with some surprise. He had a good memory, and he remembered that Collingwood had told him that Nesta had said that Pratt had gone to Normandale Grange, seen Esther Mawson, and told her that it was absolutely necessary for him to see Mrs. Mallathorpe. And though Eldrick was naturally unsuspicious, an idea flashed across his mind--had Pratt got Mrs. Mallathorpe to write that letter while he was there--yesterday--and brought it away with him?

"I think there's a good deal of misunderstanding," he said. "Mr. Collingwood says that you went there and told her maid that it was absolutely necessary for you to see her mistress--sort of forced yourself in, you see, Pratt."

"Nothing of the sort!" retorted Pratt. He flourished the letter in his hand. "Doesn't it say there, in Mrs. Mallathorpe's own handwriting, that she particularly desires to see me at three o'clock? It does! Then it was absolutely necessary for me to see her. Come, now! And Mr. Collingwood had best attend to his own business. What's he got to do with all this? After Miss Mallathorpe and her money, I should think!--that's about it!"

Eldrick said another soothing word or two, and went back to his own office. He was considerably mystified by certain things, but inclined to be satisfied about others, and in giving an account of what had just taken place he unconsciously seemed to take Pratt's side--much to Robson's disgust, and to Collingwood's astonishment.

"You can't get over this, you know, Robson," said Eldrick. "Pratt went there yesterday by appointment--went at Mrs. Mallathorpe's own express desire, made in her own handwriting. And it's quite certain that what he says about the relationship is true---I examined the proof myself. It's not unnatural that Mrs. Mallathorpe should desire to do something for her own cousin's son."

"To that extent?" sneered Robson. "Bless me, you talk as if it were no more than presenting him with a twenty pound note, instead of its being what it is--giving him the practical control of many a thousand pounds every year. There'll be more heard of this--yet!"

He went away angrier than when he came, and Eldrick looked at Collingwood and shook his head.

"I don't see what more there is to do," he said. "So far as I can make out, or see, Pratt is within his rights. If Mrs. Mallathorpe liked to entrust her business to him, what is to prevent it? I see nothing at all strange in that. But there is a fact which does seem uncommonly strange to me! It's this--how is it that Mrs. Mallathorpe doesn't consult, hasn't consulted--doesn't inform, hasn't informed--her daughter about all this?"

"That," answered Collingwood, "is precisely what strikes me--and I can't give any explanation. Nor, I believe, can Miss Mallathorpe."

He felt obliged to go back to Normandale, and tell Nesta the result of the afternoon's proceedings. And having seen during his previous visit how angry she could be, he was not surprised to see her become angrier and more determined than ever.

"I will not have Mr. Pratt coming here!" she exclaimed. "He shall not see my mother--under my roof, at any rate. I don't believe she sent for him."

"Mr. Eldrick saw her letter!" interrupted Collingwood quietly.

"Then that man made her write it while he was here!" exclaimed Nesta. "As to the relationship--it may be so. I never heard of it. But I don't care what relation he is to my mother--he is not going to interfere with her affairs!"

"The strange thing," said Collingwood, as pointedly as was consistent with kindness, "is that your mother--just now, at any rate--doesn't seem to be taking you into her confidence."

Nesta looked steadily at him for a moment, without speaking. When she did speak it was with decision.

"Quite so!" she said. "She is keeping something from me! And if she won't tell me things--well, I must find them out for myself."

She would say no more than that, and Collingwood left her. And as he went back to Barford he cursed Linford Pratt soundly for a deep and underhand rogue who was most certainly playing some fine game.

But Pratt himself was quite satisfied--up to that point. He had won his first trick and he had splendid cards still left in his hand. And he was reckoning his chances on them one morning a little later when a ring at his bell summoned him to his office door--whereat stood Nesta Mallathorpe, alone.