Chapter XIV. Cards on the Table
 

Had any third person been present, closely to observe the meeting of these two young people, he would have seen that the one to whom it was unexpected and a surprise was outwardly as calm and self-possessed as if the other had come there to keep an ordinary business appointment.

Nesta Mallathorpe, looking very dignified and almost stately in her mourning, was obviously angry, indignant, and agitated. But Pratt was as cool and as fully at his ease as if he were back in Eldrick's office, receiving the everyday ordinary client. He swept his door open and executed his politest bow--and was clever enough to pretend that he saw nothing of his visitor's agitation. Yet deep within himself he felt more tremors than one, and it needed all his powers of dissimulation to act and speak as if this were the most usual of occurrences.

"Good morning, Miss Mallathorpe!" he said. "You wish to see me? Come into my private office, if you please. I haven't fixed on a clerk yet," he went on, as he led his visitor through the outer room, and to the easy chair by his desk. "I have several applications from promising aspirants, but I have to be careful, you know, Miss Mallathorpe--it's a position of confidence. And now," he concluded, as he closed the door upon Nesta and himself, "how is Mrs. Mallathorpe today? Improving, I hope?"

Nesta made no reply to these remarks, or to the question. And instead of taking the easy chair which Eldrick had found so comfortable, she went to one which stood against the wall opposite Pratt's desk and seated herself in it in as upright a position as the wall behind her.

"I wish to speak to you--plainly!" she said, as Pratt, who now regarded her somewhat doubtfully, realizing that he was in for business of a serious nature, sat down at his desk. "I want to ask you a plain question--and I expect a plain answer. Why are you blackmailing my mother?"

Pratt shook his head--as if he felt more sorrow than anger. He glanced deprecatingly at his visitor.

"I think you'll be sorry--on reflection--that you said that, Miss Mallathorpe," he answered. "You're a little--shall we say--upset? A little--shall we say--angry? If you were calmer, you wouldn't say such things--you wouldn't use such a term as--blackmailing. It's--dear me, I dare say you don't know it!--it's actionable. If I were that sort of man, Miss Mallathorpe, and you said that of me before witnesses--ah! I don't know what mightn't happen. However--I'm not that sort of man. But--don't say it again, if you please!"

"If you don't answer my question--and at once," said Nesta, whose cheeks were pale with angry determination, "I shall say it again in a fashion you won't like--not to you, but to the police!"

Pratt smiled--a quiet, strange smile which made his visitor feel a sudden sense of fear. And again he shook his head, slowly and deprecatingly.

"Oh, no!" he said gently. "That's a bigger mistake than the other, Miss Mallathorpe! The police! Oh, not the police, I think, Miss Mallathorpe. You see--other people than you might go to the police--about something else."

Nesta's anger cooled down under that scarcely veiled threat. The sight of Pratt, of his self-assurance, his comfortable offices, his general atmosphere of almost sleek satisfaction, had roused her temper, already strained to breaking point. But that smile, and the quiet look which accompanied his last words, warned her that anger was mere foolishness, and that she was in the presence of a man who would have to be dealt with calmly if the dealings were to be successful. Yet--she repeated her words, but this time in a different tone.

"I shall certainly go to the police authorities," she said, "unless I get some proper explanation from you. I shall have no option. You are forcing--or have forced--my mother to enter into some strange arrangements with you, and I can't think it is for anything but what I say--blackmail. You've got--or you think you've got--some hold on her. Now what is it? I mean to know, one way or another!"

"Miss Mallathorpe," said Pratt. "You're taking a wrong course--with me. Now who advised you to come here and speak to me like this, as if I were a common criminal? Mr. Collingwood, no doubt? Or perhaps Mr. Robson? Now if either----"

"Neither Mr. Robson nor Mr. Collingwood know anything whatever about my coming here!" retorted Nesta. "No one knows! I am quite competent to manage my own affairs--of this sort. I want to know why my mother has been forced into that arrangement with you--for I am sure you have forced her! If you will not tell me why--then I shall do what I said."

"You'll go to the police authorities?" asked Pratt. "Ah!--but let us consider things a little, Miss Mallathorpe. Now, to start with, who says there has been any forcing? I know one person who won't say so--and that's your mother herself!"

Nesta felt unable to answer that assertion. And Pratt smiled triumphantly and went on.

"She'll tell you--Mrs. Mallathorpe'll tell you--that she's very pleased indeed to have my poor services," he said. "She knows that I shall serve her well. She's glad to do a kind service to a poor relation. And since I am your mother's relation, Miss Mallathorpe, I'm yours, too. I'm some degree of cousin to you. You might think rather better, rather more kindly, of me!"

"Are you going to tell me anything more than that?" asked Nesta steadily. Pratt shrugged his shoulders and waved his hands.

"What more can I tell?" he asked. "The fact is, there's a business arrangement between me and your mother--and you object to it. Well--I'm sorry, but I've my own interests to consider."

"Are you going to tell me what it was that induced my mother to sign that paper you got from her the other day?" asked Nesta.

"Can I say more than that it was--a business arrangement?" pleaded Pratt. "There's nothing unusual in one party in a business arrangement giving a power of attorney to another party. Nothing!"

"Very well!" said Nesta, rising from the straight-backed chair, and looking very rigid herself as she stood up. "You won't tell me anything! So--I am now going to the police. I don't know what they'll do. I don't know what they can do. But--I can tell them what I think, and feel about this, at any rate. For as sure as I am that I see you, there's something wrong! And I'll know what it is."

Pratt recognized that she had passed beyond the stage of mere anger to one of calm determination. And as she marched towards the door he called her back--as the result of a second's swift thought on his part.

"Miss Mallathorpe," he said. "Oblige me by sitting down again. I'm not in the least afraid of your going to the police. But my experience is that if one goes to them on errands of this sort, it sets all sorts of things going--scandal, and suspicion, and I don't know what! You don't want any scandal. Sit down, if you please, and let us think for a moment. And I'll see if I can tell you--what you want to know."

Nesta already had a hand on the door. But after looking at him for a second or two, she turned back, and sat down in her old position. And Pratt, still seated at his desk, plunged his hands in his trousers pockets, tilted back his chair, and for five minutes stared with knitted brows at his blotting pad. A queer silence fell on the room. The windows were double-sashed; no sound came up from the busy street below. But on the mantelpiece a cheap Geneva clock ticked and ticked, and Nesta felt at last that if it went on much longer, without the accompaniment of a human voice, she should suddenly snatch it up, and hurl it--anywhere.

Pratt was in the position of the card-player, who, confronted by a certain turn in the course of a game which he himself feels sure he is bound to win, wonders whether he had better not expedite matters by laying his cards on the table, and asking his opponent if he can possibly beat their values and combination. He had carefully reckoned up his own position more than once during the progress of recent events, and the more carefully he calculated it the more he felt convinced that he had nothing to fear. He had had to alter his ground in consequence of the death of Harper Mallathorpe, and he had known that he would have to fight Nesta. But he had not anticipated that hostilities would come so soon, or begin with such evident determination on her part. How would it be, then, at this first stage to make such a demonstration in force that she would recognize his strength?

He looked up at last and saw Nesta regarding him sternly. But Pratt smiled--the quiet smile which made her uneasy.

"Miss Mallathorpe!" he said. "I was thinking of two things just then--a game at cards--and the science of warfare. In both it's a good thing sometimes to let your adversary see what a strong hand you've got. Now, then, a question, if you please--are you and I adversaries?"

"Yes!" answered Nesta unflinchingly. "You're acting like an enemy--you are an enemy!"

"I've hoped that you and I would be friends--good friends," said Pratt, with something like a sigh. "And if I may say so, I've no feeling of enmity towards you. When I speak of us being adversaries, I mean it in--well, let's say a sort of legal sense. But now I'll show you my hand--that is, as far as I please. Will you listen quietly to me?"

"I've no choice," replied Nesta bluntly. "And I came here to know what you've got to say for yourself. Say it!"

Pratt moved his chair a little nearer to his visitor.

"Now," he said, speaking very quietly and deliberately, "I'll go through what I have to say to you carefully, point by point. I shall ask you to go back a little way. It is now some time since I discovered a secret about your mother, Mrs. Mallathorpe. Ah, you start!--it may be with indignation, but I assure you I'm telling you, and am going to tell you, the absolute truth. I say--a secret! No one knows it but myself--not one living soul! Except, of course, your mother. I shall not reveal it to you--under any consideration, or in any circumstances--but I can tell you this--if that secret were revealed, your mother would be ruined for life--and you yourself would suffer in more ways than one."

Nesta looked at him credulously--and yet she began to feel he was telling some truth. And Pratt shook his head at the incredulous expression.

"It's quite so!" he said. "You'll begin to believe it---from other things. Now, it was in connection with this that I paid a visit to Normandale Grange one evening some months ago. Perhaps you never heard of that? I was alone with your mother for some time in the study."

"I have heard of it," she answered.

"Very good," said Pratt. "But you haven't heard that your mother came to see me at my rooms here in Barford--my lodgings--the very next night! On the same business, of course. But she did--I know how she came, too. Secretly--heavily veiled--naturally, she didn't want anybody to know. Are you beginning to see something in it, Miss Mallathorpe?"

"Go on with your--story," answered Nesta.

"I go on, then, to the day before your brother's death," continued Pratt. "Namely, a certain Friday. Now, if you please, I'll invite you to listen carefully to certain facts--which are indisputable, which I can prove, easily. On that Friday, the day before your brother's death, Mrs. Mallathorpe was in the shrubbery at Normandale Grange which is near the north end of the old foot-bridge. She was approached by Hoskins, an old woodman, who has been on the estate a great many years--you know him well enough. Hoskins told Mrs. Mallathorpe that the foot-bridge between the north and south shrubberies, spanning the cut which was made there a long time since so that a nearer road could be made to the stables, was in an extremely dangerous condition--so dangerous, in fact, that in his opinion, it would collapse under even a moderate weight. I impress this fact upon you strongly."

"Well?" said Nesta.

"Hoskins," Pratt went on, "urged upon Mrs. Mallathorpe the necessity of having the bridge closed at once, or barricaded. He pointed out to her from where they stood certain places in the bridge, and in the railing on one side of it, which already sagged in such a fashion, that he, as a man of experience, knew that planks and railings were literally rotten with damp. Now what did Mrs. Mallathorpe do? She said nothing to Hoskins, except that she'd have the thing seen to. But she immediately went to the estate carpenter's shop, and there she procured two short lengths of chain, and two padlocks, and she herself went back to the foot-bridge and secured its wicket gates at both ends. I beg you will bear that in mind, too, Miss Mallathorpe."

"I am bearing everything in mind," said Nesta resolutely. "Don't be afraid that I shall forget one word that you say."

"I hear that sneer in your voice," answered Pratt, as he turned, unlocked a drawer, and drew out some papers. "But I think you will soon learn that the sneer at what I'm telling you is foolish. Mrs. Mallathorpe had a set purpose in locking up those gates--as you will see presently. You will see it from what I am now going to tell you. Oblige me, if you please, by looking at that letter. Do you recognize your mother's handwriting?"

"Yes!" admitted Nesta, with a sudden feeling of apprehension. "That is her writing."

"Very good," said Pratt. "Then before I read it to you, I'll just tell you what this letter is. It formed, when it was written, an invitation from Mrs. Mallathorpe to me--an invitation to walk, innocently, into what she knew--knew, mind you!--to be a death-trap! She meant me to fall through the bridge!"