Chapter XV. Pratt Offers a Hand
 

For a full moment of tense silence Nesta and Pratt looked at each other across the letter which he held in his outstretched hand--looked steadily and with a certain amount of stern inquiry. And it was Nesta's eyes which first gave way--beaten by the certainty in Pratt's. She looked aside; her cheeks flamed; she felt as if something were rising in her throat--to choke her.

"I can't believe that!" she muttered. "You're--mistaken! Oh--utterly mistaken!"

"No mistake!" said Pratt confidently. "I tell you your mother meant me--me!--to meet my death at that bridge. Here's the proof in this letter! I'll tell you, first, when I received it: then I'll read you what's in it, and if you doubt my reading of it, you shall read it yourself--but it won't go out of my hands! And first as to my getting it, for that's important. It reached me, by registered post, mind you, on the Saturday morning on which your brother met his death. It was handed in at Normandale village post-office for registration late on the Friday afternoon. And--by whom do you think?"

"I--don't know!" replied Nesta faintly. This merciless piling up of details was beginning to frighten her--already she felt as if she herself were some criminal, forced to listen from the dock to the opening address of a prosecuting counsel. "How should I know?--how can I think?"

"It was handed in for registration by your mother's maid, Esther Mawson," said Pratt with a dark look. "I've got her evidence, anyway! And that was all part of a plan--just as a certain something that was enclosed was a part of the same plan--a plot. And now I'll read you the letter--and you'll bear it in mind that I got it by first post that Saturday morning. This is what it--what your mother--says:--

"I particularly wish to see you again, at once, about the matter between us and to have another look at that document. Can you come here, bringing it with you, tomorrow, Saturday afternoon, by the train which leaves soon after two o'clock? As I am most anxious that your visit should be private and unknown to any one here, do not come to the house. Take the path across the park to the shrubberies near the house, so that if you are met people would think you were taking a near cut to the village. I will meet you in the shrubbery on the house side of the little foot-bridge. The gates--'"

Pratt suddenly paused, and before proceeding looked hard at his visitor.

"Now listen to what follows--and bear in mind what your mother knew, and had done, at the time she wrote this letter. This is how the letter goes on---let every word fix itself in your mind, Miss Mallathorpe!"

"'The gates of the foot-bridge are locked, but the enclosed keys will open them. I will meet you amongst the trees on the further side. Be sure to come and to bring that document--I have something to say about it on seeing it again,'"

Pratt turned to the drawer from which he had taken the letter and took out two small keys, evidently belonging to patent padlocks. He held them up before Nesta.

"There they are!" he said triumphantly. "Been in my possession ever since--and will remain there. Now--do you wish to read the letter? I've read it to you word for word. You don't? Very good--back it goes in there, with these keys. And now then," he continued, having replaced letter and keys in his drawer, and turned to her again, "now then, you see what a diabolical scheme it was that was in your mother's mind against me. She meant me to meet with the fate which overtook her own son! She meant me to fall through that bridge. Why? She hoped that I should break my neck--as he did! She wanted to silence me--but she also wanted more--she wanted to take from my dead body, or my unconscious body, the certain something which she was so anxious I should bring with me, which she referred to as that document. She was willing to risk anything--even to murder!--to get hold of that. And now you know why I went to Normandale Grange that Saturday--you know, now, the real reason. I told a deliberate lie at the inquest, for your mother's sake--for your sake, if you know it. I did not go there to hand in my application for the stewardship--I went in response to the letter I've just read. Is all this clear to you?"

Nesta could only move her head in silent acquiescence. She was already convinced, that whether all this was entirely true or not, there was truth of some degree in what Pratt had told her. And she was thinking of her mother--and of the trap which she certainly appeared to have laid--and of her brother's fate--and for the moment she felt sick and beaten. But Pratt went on in that cold, calculating voice, telling his story point by point.

"Now I come to what happened that Saturday afternoon," he said. "I may as well tell you that in my own interest I have carefully collected certain evidence which never came out at the inquest--which, indeed, has nothing to do with the exact matter of the inquest. Now, that Saturday, your mother and you had lunch together--your brother, as we shall see in a moment, being away--at your lunch time--a quarter to two. About twenty minutes past two your mother left the house. She went out into the gardens. She left the gardens for the shubberies. And at twenty-five minutes to three, she was seen by one of your gardeners, Featherstone, in what was, of course, hiding, amongst the trees at the end of the north shrubbery. What was she doing there, Miss Mallathorpe? She was waiting!--waiting until a certain hoped-for accident happened--to me. Then she would come out of her hiding-place in the hope of getting that document from my pocket! Do you see how cleverly she'd laid her plans--murderous plans?"

Nesta was making a great effort to be calm. She knew now that she was face to face with some awful mystery which could only be solved by patience and strenuous endeavour. She knew, too, that she must show no sign of fear before this man!

"Will you finish your story, if you please?" she asked.

"In my own way--in my own time," answered Pratt. "I now come to--your mother. On the Friday noon, the late Mr. Harper Mallathorpe went to Barford to visit a friend--young Stemthwaite, at the Hollies. He was to stay the night there, and was not expected home until Saturday evening. He did stay the night, and remained in Barford until noon on Saturday; but he--unexpectedly--returned to the house at half past two. And almost as soon as he'd got in, he picked up a gun and strolled out--into the gardens and the north shrubbery. And, as you know, he went to the foot-bridge. You see, Miss Mallathorpe, your mother, clever as she was, had forgotten one detail--the gates of that footbridge were merely low, four-barred things, and there was nothing to prevent an active young man from climbing them. She forgot another thing, too--that warning had not been given at the house that the bridge was dangerous. And, of course, she'd never, never calculated that your brother would return sooner than he was expected, or that, on his return, he'd go where he did. And so--but I'll spare you any reference to what happened. Only--you know now how it was that Mrs. Mallathorpe was found by her son's body. She'd been waiting about--for me! But--the fate she'd meant for me was dealt out to--him!"

In spite of herself Nesta gave way to a slight cry.

"I can't bear any more of that!" she said. "Have you finished?"

"There's not much more to say--now at any rate," replied Pratt. "And what I have to say shall be to the point. I'm sorry enough to have been obliged to say all that I have said. But, you know, you forced me to it! You threatened me. The real truth, Miss Mallathorpe, is just this--you don't understand me at all. You come here--excuse my plain speech--hectoring and bullying me with talk about the police, and blackmail, and I don't know what! It's I who ought to go to the police! I could have your mother arrested, and put in the dock, on a charge of attempted murder, this very day! I've got all the proofs."

"I suppose you held that out as a threat to her when you forced her to sign that power of attorney?" observed Nesta.

For the first time since her arrival Pratt looked at his visitor in an unfriendly fashion. His expression changed and his face flushed a little.

"You think that, do you?" he said. "Well, you're wrong. I'm not a fool. I held out no such threat. I didn't even tell your mother what I'd found out. I wasn't going to show her my hand all at once--though I've shown you a good deal of it."

"Not all?" she asked quickly.

"Not all," answered Pratt with a meaning glance. "To use more metaphors--I've several cards up my sleeve, Miss Mallathorpe. But you're utterly wrong about the threats. I'll tell you--I don't mind that--how I got the authority you're speaking about. Your mother had promised me that stewardship--for life. I'd have been a good steward. But we recognized that your brother's death had altered things--that you, being, as she said, a self-willed young woman--you see how plain I am--would insist on looking after your own affairs. So she gave me--another post. I'll discharge its duties honestly."

"Yes," said Nesta, "but you've already told me that you'd a hold on my mother before any of these recent events happened, and that you possess some document which she was anxious to get into her hands. So it comes to this--you've a double hold on her, according to your story."

"Just so," agreed Pratt. "You're right, I have--a double hold."

Nesta looked at him silently for a while: Pratt looked at her.

"Very well," she said at last. "How much do you want--to be bought out?"

Pratt laughed.

"I thought that would be the end of it!" he remarked. "Yes--I thought so!"

"Name your price!" said Nesta.

"Miss Mallathorpe!" answered Pratt, bending forward and speaking with a new earnestness. "Just listen to me. It's no good. I'm not to be bought out. Your mother tried that game with me before. She offered me first five, then ten thousand pounds--cash down--for that document, when she came to see me at my rooms. I dare say she'd have gone to twenty thousand--and found the money there and then. But I said no then--and I say no to you! I'm not to be purchased in that way. I've my own ideas, my own plans, my own ambitions, my own--hopes. It's not any use at all for you to dangle your money before me. But--I'll suggest something else--that you can do."

Nesta made no answer. She continued to look steadily at the man who evidently had her mother in his power, and Pratt, who was watching her intently, went on speaking quietly but with some intensity of tone.

"You can do this," he said. "To start with--and it'll go a long way--just try and think better of me. I told you, you don't understand me. Try to! I'm not a bad lot. I've great abilities. I'm a hard worker. Eldrick & Pascoe could tell you that I'm scrupulously honest in money matters. You'll see that I'll look after your mother's affairs in a fashion that'll commend itself to any firm of auditors and accountants who may look into my accounts every year. I'm only taking the salary from her that I was to have had for the stewardship. So--why not leave it at that? Let things be! Perhaps--in time you'll come to see that--I'm to be trusted."

"How can I trust a man who deliberately tells me that he holds a secret and a document over a woman's head?" demanded Nesta. "You've admitted a previous hold on my mother. You say you're in possession of a secret that would ruin her--quite apart from recent events. Is that honest?"

"It was none of my seeking," retorted Pratt. "I gained the knowledge by accident."

"You're giving yourself away," said Nesta. "Or you've some mental twist or defect which prevents you from seeing things straight. It's not how you got your knowledge, but the use you're making of it that's the important thing! You're using it to force my mother to----"

"Excuse me!" interrupted Pratt with a queer smile. "It's you who don't see things straight. I'm using my knowledge to protect--all of you. Let your mind go back to what was said at first--to what I said at first. I said that I'd discovered a secret which, if revealed, would ruin your mother and injure--you! So it would--more than ever, now. So, you see, in keeping it, I'm taking care, not only of her interests, but of--yours!"

Nesta rose. She realized that there was no more to be said--or done. And Pratt rose, too, and looked at her almost appealingly.

"I wish you'd try to see things as I've put them, Miss Mallathorpe," he said. "I don't bear malice against your mother for that scheme she contrived--I'm willing to put it clear out of my head. Why not accept things as they are? I'll keep that secret for ever--no one shall ever know about it. Why not be friends, now--why not shake hands?"

He held out his hand as he spoke. But Nesta drew back.

"No!" she said. "My opinion is just what it was when I came here."

Before Pratt could move she had turned swiftly to the door and let herself out, and in another minute she was amongst the crowds in the street below. For a few minutes she walked in the direction of Robson's offices, but when she had nearly reached them, she turned, and went deliberately to those of Eldrick & Pascoe.